Oklahoma City Bombing: Canadian Link?

There is, first of all, the Worship House - a blue-roofed building that looks as though it could be the dwelling place of forest creatures in a Wagnerian opera.

Oklahoma City Bombing: Canadian Link?

There is, first of all, the Worship House - a blue-roofed building that looks as though it could be the dwelling place of forest creatures in a Wagnerian opera. Inside, the people of a reclusive religious community named Elohim City gather every day just before noon to worship and listen to an unorthodox message preached by their leader, Robert Millar. It is a long way from Kitchener, Ont., where Millar was born 71 years ago, to the Ozark Mountains on the eastern edge of Oklahoma, where Elohim City is to be found at the end of a 10-km dirt road. The route dips and dives before stopping abruptly at a ramshackle collection of buildings that include trailers set on concrete foundations and a few more substantial houses. Despite its grandiose name - it means City of God in Hebrew - Elohim City is not much to look at. But for Millar and his 100 followers, it is special. "This is where I think the Father wants me to be," he says. "And I'm happy to be here."

Millar's brand of worship is certainly unusual. The people of Elohim City believe the year starts at the spring equinox, so on March 20 they held a party to welcome in the new year. Their day starts at noon, and they celebrate Christmas between Sept. 29 and Oct. 3. Millar (pronounced Mill-AR) adheres to Christian Identity - a fundamentalist belief with the central tenet that God's chosen people are not the Jews but the white peoples of northern Europe. Millar's flock even follows the Old Testament dietary laws, avoiding pork and shellfish. For most of the 24 years since Millar moved to the Ozarks, Elohim City was just a curiosity in the hills - one of scores of unorthodox religious communities across America. But since the deadly attack on the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City two years ago, Millar has been fending off pointed inquiries about the links of some of his followers to far-right political groups, and possibly to accused bomber Timothy McVeigh himself. For some who have followed the case closely, Millar is not just an eccentric. He is a sinister force who knows much more than he is telling about what was behind the bombing.

But relaxing in a reclining chair inside a comfortable trailer home at Elohim City, as dusk gathers over the quiet hills, Millar seems far from threatening. His people call him Grandpa - as much for his snowy-haired, Santa-like appearance as for the fact that he is related by blood or marriage to nearly half of them. His story is a personal odyssey on the fringes of religious life, following his upbringing as a Mennonite in Kitchener. In 1947, after preaching across Canada with the Mennonites, he had a "deeper spiritual experience," he recalls - one that started him on his lifelong path. He had visions of riots and of missiles bursting forth from beneath the sea - long before there were nuclear submarines able to launch them. He found himself speaking spontaneously in "classical Arabic." Millar is still convinced that his apocalyptic vision foreshadowed destruction to come. "I think we'll have a breakdown of our infrastructure," he predicts. "I think we'll have race riots and civil war, and armed international intervention in the United States."

Millar left Canada for the United States in 1952, although he still keeps his Canadian citizenship, and since 1958 has preached the gospel of Christian Identity. Its followers - experts estimate their numbers at perhaps 30,000 - quote scripture to bolster their belief that white Europeans are God's chosen people. Millar himself says it is the "Scandinavian, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic peoples" who are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Hebrew prophets. He calls himself a "racialist" and opposes interracial marriage - but he insists that he and true followers of Christian Identity do not teach white supremacy. "If God has chosen a people," he says, sipping on grape juice and nibbling sweet cakes, "they have a greater responsibility to serve all the nations, not to dominate them."

Nonetheless, many adherents of Christian Identity openly condemn Jews and claim they are part of a conspiracy to enslave the world. An Identity group in Colorado run by an outspoken anti-Semite, Pete Peters, labels Jews "impostors" and "Christ's and Christian Israel's principal enemies." Nationally, the sect may be small and obscure, but it has become an important religious underpinning of the right-wing "Patriot" movement that includes armed militias and survivalist groups and considers the U.S. federal government illegitimate. Susan DeCamp, who tracks Christian Identity for the mainstream Montana Association of Churches, says it has picked up support among farmers and ranchers devastated by losing their land to foreclosure - and ready to buy into a theory that links their troubles to a worldwide banking conspiracy led by Jews. The belief, she says, sanctifies violence against higher government authority: "Someone who is deeply into Christian Identity is much more likely to commit an act of violence. Identity theory places them above the law of the land. They're following the laws of God."

That is the mindset that, according to prosecutors, may have led McVeigh to attack the Murrah building and the federal employees inside it. But there is a more intricate web of connections between Elohim City and the extreme right. It begins with an earlier scheme to bomb the Murrah building, going back as far as 1983. According to Klanwatch, a group based in Montgomery, Ala., that monitors the extreme right, two white supremacists, Richard Snell and James Ellison, plotted that year to attack the building. Both were members of a Christian Identity group in northern Arkansas called The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord. Snell was later convicted of murdering a black police officer and was executed on the night of April 19, 1995 - the day the Murrah building was blown up. Millar had become Snell's spiritual adviser; he visited him in prison on the day of his death, and took his body back to Elohim City, where it is buried.

Ellison later served time in prison on weapons charges. He eventually married one of Millar's granddaughters, and lives at Elohim City. Millar says he doubts that Ellison ever actively plotted to attack the Murrah building. But, he concedes, "he was asked to design the type of weapons or rockets that could destroy a building. I don't think he ever did it." The timing of the bombing has led some people - including Glenn Wilburn, an Oklahoma City accountant whose two grandsons died in the Murrah building's day-care centre - to speculate that Snell's execution might have been the trigger. "It may have been a going-away present for Richard Snell," says Wilburn, who has conducted his own extensive investigation into the bombing.

Wilburn and McVeigh's defence lawyer, Stephen Jones, are among those who have looked into other ties between Elohim City and the bombing. McVeigh made two phone calls on a charge card issued by the right-wing group Liberty Lobby to the compound in the days before the bombing. He was apparently trying to reach Andreas Strassmeir, a German-born neo-Nazi who lived there for two years. Strassmeir has said that he met McVeigh at a gun show in 1993, and gave him a card from Elohim City. There is no proof that McVeigh ever visited, but Wilburn and journalist J. D. Cash say he was there many times under the pseudonym Tim Tuttle. Millar says he does not remember meeting the lean young ex-soldier, but acknowledges that "he could have come without my knowledge."

The plot - if there is one - thickens. Cash bases some of his assertions on an interview he conducted with a Tulsa, Okla., woman named Carol Howe, who says she met McVeigh at Elohim City several months before the bombing. Howe, as federal authorities acknowledge, spent time at the compound as a paid informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. She says she heard about plans to attack the Murrah building at Elohim City, and passed that on to the ATF. Others who spent time at Elohim City, according to Klanwatch, include Kevin McCarthy, Scott Stedeford and Michael Brescia - all recently charged in connection with an alleged conspiracy by members of the far-right Aryan Republican Army to commit bank robberies.

All that may well be circumstantial, but it is enough to feed a large and growing web of theories tying Elohim City to the bombing. Millar responds that his community just wants to be left alone in the hills - but is being dragged into the controversy. The fact that Howe was an ATF informant, he says, shows that some parts of the government would like to provoke independent-minded people like those at Elohim City to take violent actions and then use that as an excuse to crack down on them. He remembers Howe as holding "strong racist views," and adds: "She was sent here to entice some of our more extreme or unstable elements to do something illegal. That's dangerous - we don't want another Waco." But, he says: "I didn't mind her being an informant. We have nothing to hide." Local law enforcement officials, in fact, say they have had little trouble with Elohim City.

As for the bombing itself, Millar condemns it. "I think it's horrible," he says without hesitation. "Terrorism is always counterproductive. It serves no proper purpose." The question he must face is whether some of the people around him disagreed - and were prepared to do something about it.

Maclean's April 7, 1997