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Week One Of The OKC Bomb Plot Trial

Jerry Varnell is facing up to 20 years in federal prison.

24-year-old Jerry Varnell is on trial for attempting to bomb the BancFirst building in downtown Oklahoma City. Attorneys questioned two men involved in the “domestic terrorism investigation” that led to Varnell’s arrest during his first week in federal court.

The trial is taking place one mile from the bank Varnell targeted and across the street from the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Varnell pleaded not guilty to attempted use of an explosive device and a weapon of mass destruction; His defense maintains he was lured into the plot.

In the early hours of August 12, 2017 Varnell parked a van outside BancFirst and tried to detonate an inert bomb. An undercover FBI agent who went by the pseudonym Mark Williams supplied Varnell with materials and instructions and helped him assemble the device at a storage unit in El Reno after picking him up from his home in Sayre. Audio and video recordings played in the courtroom on Friday showed Williams repeatedly reassured Varnell he was no under pressure to carry out the plan, however he initiated each contact with Varnell and urged him to choose a time and place for the attack.

The van was secured by FBI informant Brent Elisens, who, like Varnell, suffers from serious mental illness. The FBI paid Elisens $23,000 over five months to correspond with Varnell. The two met on numerous occasions, bonding over disdain for the government while smoking marijuana. Elisens’ biggest payout came after introducing Varnell to Williams. Elisens claimed money did not motivate him to work with the FBI. Rather, he hoped to revisit what he called "bogus" convictions in Cleveland County and become a permanent employee of the bureau.

Varnell expressed interest in the Three Percenters, a fringe group whose members believe in an armed rebellion against perceived tyranny by the federal government. The group's name comes from the claim that only three percent of American colonists fought the British during the American Revolution. Testimony revealed Varnell wanted to do something that would “give people more freedom," but he insisted on setting off the bomb after business hours to minimize casualties.

Varnell also suffers from schizophrenia according to his family. Four days after his 2017 arrest Varnell’s parents, Melonie and Clifford Varnell, issued a statement saying Varnell has experienced “countless serious full-blown schizophrenic delusional episodes and he has been put in numerous mental hospitals since he was 16 years old.” The Varnells also said their son was been declared incompetent by the state and remains under their legal guardianship. A forensic psychologist is expected to testify about Varnell’s mental health.

Williams will continue testifying Tuesday with questions from the prosecution. The defense has yet to question him. The trial is scheduled to end Feb 22, but the presiding judge warned it may not finish on time if it continues at the current pace.


Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
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