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Profile: Steven Garrett Colbern
Steven Garrett Colbern was a participant or observer in the following events:
Electrical worker Donald E. Pipins, patrolling power lines and electrical towers in Southern California, finds an envelope taped to an electrical tower in the California desert near the Arizona state line. The envelope is about 12 feet off the ground. Inside is a letter signed by “Tim Tuttle” and addressed to “S.C.” Federal investigators will later determine that “Tuttle” is an alias used by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see October 12, 1993 - January 1994). They also believe that “S.C.” is Steven Garrett Colbern, a drifter with a degree in biochemistry and an interest in explosives, though investigators will later clear Colbern of any involvement in the bombing plot (see May 12, 1995). Karen Anderson, the girlfriend of Roger Moore, an Arkansas gun dealer who was robbed by McVeigh’s co-conspirator Terry Nichols (see November 5, 1994), will tell investigators that she tried to arrange for McVeigh to meet Colbern, because both liked hiking in the desert. Colbern was a client of her mail-order ammunition business. The letter begins, “I will try to keep this generic in case it is intercepted.” It expresses McVeigh’s concern that Colbern might be an undercover federal agent, and informs Colbern there would be a “sniper overwatch” when they met. “I’m not looking for talkers,” the letter continues. “I’m looking for fighters,” men who could share “a common, righteous goal.” [New York Times, 12/6/1997] A chronology of McVeigh’s actions completed by his lawyers (see Early 2005) will later say that the letter McVeigh leaves Colbern is written some time in January 1995. According to the chronology, McVeigh worries that Colbern is trying to “set [him] up,” and refuses to meet with Colbern. McVeigh will later say that Moore told Colburn about him, saying that he was looking for men to form a group of “patriots,” anti-government separatists. McVeigh, Moore told Colbern, wanted to “hook up with a group or form one himself” to “copy and dissiminate literature and probably progress further.” Colbern had contacted McVeigh with his own letter, and divulged so much information that McVeigh became suspicious. Colburn also wanted McVeigh to give him a license plate for a Volkswagon. [PBS Frontline, 1/22/1996]
Authorities indict Steven Garrett Colbern on federal weapons charges in Oatman, a small mining town in northwestern Arizona. They describe Colbern as a “drifter” who is wanted on weapons charges in California. Colbern becomes of far more interest to federal authorities when he tells them he knew accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and April 21, 1995). However, authorities say they have no reason to believe Colbern was part of the bomb plot. Colbern attempted to fight off the law enforcement officials who arrested him, even attempting to pull a pistol during the brief melee, and is charged with resisting arrest as well. Investigators search his Oatman trailer and find firearms, ammunition, stolen medical supplies, and a laboratory for making methamphetamine, but no evidence linking Colbern to the bombing. Colbern tells investigators that he knew McVeigh under his alias, “Tim Tuttle” (see October 12, 1993 - January 1994 and February - July 1994), but says he knows nothing about the April 19 bombing. US Attorney Janet Napolitano says she does not want Colbern released on bail just yet. Oatman residents say Colbern came to town about four months ago, and has supported himself as a dishwasher and cook’s helper at a local restaurant. He has a degree in chemistry from UCLA and was a former research associate in DNA studies at Cedars-Sinai Research Institute in Los Angeles. Acquaintances who knew him during his youth in Oxnard, California, say he always had an interest in science and explosives. Dale Reese, who knew Colbern in a school biology club, says of Colbern: “He did talk about explosives. He was just interested in those sorts of things. He just liked making things go boom. He was very strange, very smart, kind of nerdish, kind of lonerish. I didn’t like the guy.” Authorities found a letter in McVeigh’s possession addressed to someone with the initials “S.C.,” and further investigation connected the letter with Colbern. Oatman is only 20 miles southwest of Kingman, Arizona, where McVeigh has frequently lived (see November 1991 - Summer 1992, May-September 1993, February - July 1994, September 13, 1994 and After, October 4 - Late October, 1994, February 1995, February 17, 1995 and After, and March 31 - April 12, 1995). Restaurant owner Daryl Warren tells a reporter that he has heard Colbern express anti-government and pro-Nazi sympathies in the past, and has spoken of the Arizona Patriots, a right-wing paramilitary group (see April 22, 1995). Warren says: “I do recall on two or three occasions politics being brought up, and he would always make references to the Third Reich. I was convinced that he was not too happy with our government.” Warren also says that Colbern was out of town for two or three weeks at the time of the bombing; Lou Mauro, who employs Colbern, says Colbern told him he was going to Los Angeles to visit his ailing mother and did not return until the weekend of April 22. One of Colbern’s roommates, Preston Scott Haney, says he and Colbern were together at the time of the bombing. “They [the FBI] think he is part of the Oklahoma bombing, but he was sitting right next to me when the bomb went off,” Haney says. “And he was here the week before and the week after.” Officials in Washington say they do not believe Colbern is “John Doe No. 2,” the missing man suspected of either being part of the bombing plot or a material witness to the conspiracy (see April 20, 1995). Another of Colbern’s roommates, Dennis Malzac, is also arrested on arson charges, and is suspected of being connected to an explosion behind a house in Kingman last February (see February 1995), along with a second man suspected of being in Connecticut. [New York Times, 5/13/1995] Newsweek will describe Colbern as a “gun-toting fugitive.” [Stickney, 1996, pp. 193] Days later, federal officials will clear Colbern of any involvement in the bombing. They will say that they hope Colbern can shed some light on McVeigh’s activities in the months before the bombing, and may offer him leniency on the charges he faces if he becomes a witness for the government prosecution of McVeigh. Both Colbern and McVeigh frequented gun shows in the northern Arizona area, but no witnesses have come forward to say they ever saw them together. [New York Times, 5/16/1995] Authorities believe McVeigh may have tried to recruit Colbern for his bomb plot (see November 30, 1994).
The New York Times reports that Timothy McVeigh, accused of executing the Oklahoma City bombing (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and April 21, 1995), has claimed responsibility for the bombing. The Times’s sources are two people who have spoken with McVeigh during his continuing incarceration at the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma; they spoke to Times reporter Pam Belluck in return for anonymity. McVeigh, the sources claim, told them he chose the Murrah Federal Building as a target because it housed so many government offices, and because it was more architecturally vulnerable than other federal buildings. The sources say McVeigh said he knew nothing of the day care center in the building, and was surprised to learn that children had died in the bombing. McVeigh told the sources that he was not “directly involved” with armed civilian paramilitary groups (see October 12, 1993 - January 1994, September 12, 1994 and After, November 1994, December 1994, January 1995, and April 5, 1995), though he admitted to having “relationships and acquaintances with a few people who have similar views,” primarily people he met at gun shows, the sources say. They say McVeigh acknowledges responsibility for the bombing, but does not believe he committed a crime. They say that McVeigh told them the planning for the bombing began at least nine months ago (see September 13, 1994, October 21 or 22, 1994, November 5, 1994, November 5, 1994 - Early January 1995, March 1995, March 31 - April 12, 1995, April 13, 1995, April 15, 1995, and 5:00 a.m. April 18, 1995, 8:15 a.m. and After, April 18, 1995), and he had considered targets throughout the Midwest, from Denver to Kansas City to Texas and South Dakota. They say that McVeigh told them he had gone to the bomb site at least once (see October 20, 1994 and April 16-17, 1995) but had not gone inside the building. Federal officials say the Murrah Building was extremely vulnerable to explosive damage because of its large glass windows, its nine floors which could collapse upon one another, and because of the absence of any courtyard or plaza separating the building from the street, where a truck carrying a bomb could be parked. McVeigh’s alleged statements to the two sources suggest that those factors greatly influenced his choice of the building. The sources say that McVeigh was motivated to carry out the bombing in part because of the 1992 killing of white supremacist Randy Weaver’s wife and son during a standoff with federal agents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho (see August 31, 1992), and because of his fury over the Branch Davidian debacle outside Waco, Texas (see April 19, 1993 and April 19, 1993 and After). McVeigh was also driven, they say, by a more general hatred of the government, which may be fueled in part by his failure to land a well-paying job when he left the Army (see November 1991 - Summer 1992). The sources say McVeigh did not single out any one experience that triggered his desire to plan and execute the bombing. McVeigh also noted, they say, that he did not specifically target the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), some of whose agents in Oklahoma City participated in the Davidian siege. Rather, they say, McVeigh wanted to target as many government agencies as possible in one strike. McVeigh talked about the significance of the date of the bombing, April 19; not only was it the date of the Davidian tragedy, but it was the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, where in 1775 the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. The sources provide few details of the bombing plot, and it is unclear if McVeigh divulged any such details. The sources say McVeigh did not speak much of his accused co-conspirator, Terry Nichols (see March 1995, April 16-17, 1995, 5:00 a.m. April 18, 1995, 8:15 a.m. and After, April 18, 1995, 3:15 p.m. and After, April 21-22, 1995, and May 11, 1995), nor did he speak of others who might have been involved in the plot. They say that McVeigh did mention his acquaintance Steven Colbern (see May 12, 1995), and said that Colbern was not involved in the plotting. The sources say that while McVeigh carefully plotted the bombing itself, the escape he planned was less well thought out (see 9:03 a.m. -- 10:17 a.m. April 19, 1995). He forgot to transfer the license plate from a Pontiac he traded (see January 1 - January 8, 1995) onto his getaway car, a Mercury Marquis (see April 13, 1995); the failure to transfer the plate caused him to be pulled over by a highway patrol officer. McVeigh told the sources he had no money with him and no back-up person to help him if he was detained. “I don’t know how to explain that gap in his planning or his organization,” one of the sources says. “The primary objective was obviously the building itself.” One of the sources adds: “He’s very anxious, obviously, because of the position he’s in. He’s anxious to see what the next step is in the process and when this will be resolved.” [New York Times, 5/16/1995]
The defense in the trial of Terry Nichols (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and November 3, 1997) mounts an attack on Nichols’s alleged co-conspirator, convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997 and June 11-13, 1997). Nichols’s lawyers present evidence showing that McVeigh is an anti-government zealot who passed out extremist literature and even wore a T-shirt showing a wanted poster for Abraham Lincoln to a child’s birthday party—the same shirt he wore the day of the bombing. Witnesses testify that McVeigh gave them copies of the same anti-government literature found in the home of Nichols during an FBI search (see 3:15 p.m. and After, April 21-22, 1995). Defense lawyers say that Nichols was just one of many people to whom McVeigh gave such literature, and that McVeigh was a far more committed extremist than Nichols. The defense introduces a letter McVeigh wrote to “S.C.,” a person the FBI believes to be Steven Garrett Colbern, a drifter with a degree in biochemistry and an interest in explosives, though investigators quickly cleared Colbern of any involvement in the bombing plot (see May 12, 1995). The letter was taped to an electrical tower in the California desert, near the Arizona state line, and found by electrical worker Donald E. Pipins (see November 30, 1994). The letter says in part: “I’m not looking for talkers. I’m looking for fighters,” men who could share “a common, righteous goal.” Pipins testifies to his finding the letter. [Washington Post, 11/14/1997; New York Times, 12/6/1997]
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