After deliberating for half a day, a jury convicted 24 year-old Jerry Varnell of attempting to use of an explosive device and a weapon of mass destruction on Feb. 25. Varnell could spend the rest of this life in prison.
The trial began Feb. 12. Federal prosecutors called five FBI witnesses and used recordings and electronic messages to show how Varnell participated in their undercover plot to try to blow up the BancFirst building in downtown Oklahoma City.
Varnell made it onto the FBI’s radar when a man named Brent Elisens showed agents his online conversations with Varnell, who said he wanted to bomb a bank and assemble a team. Elisens became a paid informant in April 2016. He continued his virtual correspondence with Varnell and the two began meeting in person to smoke marijuana and bond over mutual anti-government sentiments.
Elisens introduced Varnell to undercover FBI agent Mark Williams, who posed as a like-minded former professor with access to explosives. Like Elisens, Williams regularly reached out to Varnell, encouraging him to pick a time and a place to set off a bomb.
During Williams testimony, the jury viewed video of the final stages of the undercover investigation. On Aug. 11, 2017, Williams picked up Varnell from his home in Sayre and drove him to a storage unit in El Reno. Using instructions and supplies from the FBI, the two assembled an inert bomb inside a van, which was also provided by the bureau. Varnell drove the van to Oklahoma City shortly after midnight, parked it behind BancFirst and dialed a number he believed would detonate the device.
After the government rested its case, the presiding judge denied the defense’s motion to dismiss based on “outrageous government conduct.” Citing a 2013 decision from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Timothy Diguisti noted the the government is free to induce a defendant to repeat or continue a crime, suggest illegal activity and provide supplies and expertise. DiGuisti said some of Varnell’s online statements could be considered illegal.
The defense argued Varnell, who suffers from schizophrenia, was entrapped. During cross examinations Varnell’s attorneys argued he never took a leading role in the plot. He rarely initiated contact with Elisens and Williams and failed to follow through on picking a time and place for the attack.
Varnell’s team called two witnesses: his mother, Melonie Varnell and forensic psychologist Shawn Roberson.
Melonie Varnell, took the stand Thursday, Feb. 21. She recounted her son’s history of psychiatric hospitalizations, prompted by delusional thinking, self-harm and depression. Roberson testified the following day. He previously spent over seven hours with Varnell, conducting numerous psychological tests and and reading his records from school, mental hospitals and juvenile detention centers. Roberson confirmed Varnell’s Schizophrenia diagnosis and described him as “imaginative,” but having “low processing speed,” being “deferential” to others and fearing abandonment.
According to the U.S. Attorneys Office, Varnell will be sentenced in approximately ninety days and