Charlie Hanger, the retired trooper who arrested Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on a traffic stop in 1995, spoke of that experience Monday night in Shawnee and talked about the “divine intervention” that occurred.
Hanger, now in his second term as Noble County sheriff, spoke at the Shawnee Police Foundation banquet. Before sharing his story, he asked everyone to think about the necessity of traffic stops, divine intervention and citizen involvement.
Wednesday, April 19, 1995, was a cool spring morning. He woke up as usual, put on his state trooper uniform and went to work at 7 a.m. to patrol the rural roads of Noble County. He ended up stopping at turnpike headquarters and learned the Oklahoma Highway Patrol was sending units to Oklahoma City. Then he saw the TV and noticed that one-third of the Murrah building was gone, calling it a “terrible sight.”
“Not once did I think it was a terrorist attack — not in the heartland,” he said.
Hanger was asked to respond, so with lights and sirens, he drove south on Interstate 35. Not too far from Perry, he was told to stay in his area. He turned around and went northbound on I-35 and stopped to assist two women who had car trouble on the highway. One of them was married to an Oklahoma City firefighter and was worried about him helping victims in Oklahoma City. Hanger called a wrecker for them and proceeded northbound on I-35.
“Little did I know then that an old yellow Mercury passed by me being driven by Tim McVeigh,” he said. As he drove northbound, he passed that car near Perry and noticed it didn’t have a tag. He slowed down, changed lanes and got behind it “to start what I thought was a routine traffic stop.”
The driver, later determined to be McVeigh, pulled over. Hanger didn’t approach the car.
“I stood behind my door for cover as I was trained,” Hanger said, and ordered the driver out of the car.
McVeigh sat sideways on the edge of the seat with his feet on the ground for a few seconds and walked towards Hanger. The trooper saw his hands were clear of any weapons, so they met behind his car. Hanger told McVeigh he stopped him for no tag; McVeigh said he had just purchased the car.
Hanger, who thought the car was stolen, asked for proof of insurance or a bill of sale, but McVeigh had none, so Hanger asked for his drivers license. As McVeigh reached into his right rear pocket, Hanger could see a bulge under the man’s windbreaker that looked like a weapon.
He took McVeigh’s license, which had a Michigan address, and told him to use both hands to slowly unzip his jacket and pull it back.
Page 2 of 4 - “He looks me in the eye and says, ‘I have a weapon,’” Hanger said. As events unfolded on the side of highway, Hanger said he grabbed his weapon and stuck it to the back of McVeigh’s head.
As he walked McVeigh to his patrol car, Hanger said McVeigh made a statement that his weapon was loaded. Hanger nudged McVeigh with his pistol and said, “So is mine.”
Upon further inquiry, Hanger learned what McVeigh meant. He had a .45 caliber Glock pistol in a suicide holster. Hanger removed McVeigh’s weapon, along with a knife and magazine he was carrying and tossed them onto the shoulder of the highway. He placed McVeigh in his patrol car.
As Hanger unloaded McVeigh’s weapon, it had a Black Talon round in the barrel — a bullet that causes ultimate damage to the body.
“I believe had I walked up to that vehicle, I’d been a target,” Hanger said.
Because of the crisis in Oklahoma City, only emergency radio traffic was permitted on police radios, so Hanger used a bag cell phone to call headquarters about his traffic stop and to check out McVeigh and his car. He read McVeigh the Miranda warning; McVeigh was calm and compliant, Hanger said.
McVeigh gave permission to search the car. There wasn’t much there other than a legal-size sealed envelope. As Hanger searched, he noticed McVeigh was squirming around in the patrol car, alleging his handcuffs were tight. Hanger loosened them and put McVeigh back into the secure patrol car.
Hanger found a vehicle identification number on the car — it wasn’t reported stolen and registration was found in Arkansas, where McVeigh said he was moving. McVeigh was still going to jail and had a choice of leaving the car on the side of the road or having it towed. He chose to leave it there, including the envelope and other contents inside, so Hanger secured the car.
En route to the Noble County jail, they chatted and Hanger realized the man was a gun enthusiast. At the courthouse jail, there was a TV in the booking area, Hanger said, with constant coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing.
“I caught McVeigh looking up at the screen a couple times,” but Hanger said he figured the man didn’t realize what happened because he didn’t have a radio in his car.
McVeigh was booked into the jail like anyone else, but at first, wouldn’t answer questions about next of kin. He used the information from his driver license in Michigan, which was the address of Terry Nichols’ brother. Nichols, a co-conspirator, is now serving life in prison.
Hanger went about his day and was sent back to the interstate to look for a brown Chevrolet pickup, possibly occupied by the bombing suspects.
Page 3 of 4 - “Little did we know we have the bomber in custody,” he said.
Two days later, Hanger got a call from OHP asking about him running a particular driver license about 10:20-10:25 a.m. on April 19. It was McVeigh and he was apparently on the FBI’s radar. Hanger told them he arrested him and took him to jail; they wanted to know if he was still there.
McVeigh didn’t get to see a judge for a bond appearance on April 20 because the judge was busy, Hanger said, which he called divine intervention. On April 21, normal court times didn’t happen either because the judge’s son had missed a school bus. Again, divine intervention, Hanger said.
On the afternoon of April 21, McVeigh was in line to see the judge, but was stopped. Hanger talked to FBI agents, who inquired about looking at the man’s car still parked on the side of the interstate near Perry. When Hanger returned to the courthouse, it was surrounded with crime-scene tape as a security measure because of McVeigh, then determined to be the Oklahoma City bombing suspect, being housed at that jail. Media invaded the small community of Perry, he said.
To avoid the crowd, he had a trooper drive him home and avoided any contact with the media. That weekend, Hanger drove to Oklahoma City to meet with then Governor Frank Keating and those who had lost loved ones in the blast. Before leaving, he did a routine search of his patrol car. On the right rear floorboard, he found a business card for a military surplus store in Wisconsin. A note on the back said, “Will need more TNT — $10 a stick,” he said.
“It must have come from McVeigh’s pocket and he stuffed it in the back seat,” he said. Hanger turned that card over to the FBI; Hanger and McVeigh’s fingerprints were on it.
Hanger said the system of justice worked with McVeigh’s trial; he was later executed.
“His partner is better off — he got life,” he said. “Regardless of your views on the death penalty, McVeigh will never hurt anyone again. Neither will Terry Nichols.”
Hanger said this situation shows that routine traffic enforcement works. It helps with traffic safety and gives police probable cause to see what else a driver is doing.
“Alert officers all over our communities and our highways are stopping these criminals by being there,” Hanger said. “I don’t hold the patent on it — I was in the right spot at the right time. The Lord put me there.”
Hanger said law enforcement officers needs residents “to be the eyes and ears,” and not be afraid to pick up the phone and relay information.
“I’d rather check our hundreds of calls that are nothing than miss one that is,” he said.
Page 4 of 4 - Hanger commended the Shawnee Police Foundation for assisting the Shawnee Police Department.
As for the envelope that was sealed up in McVeigh’s car, Hanger said it contained excerpts of “The Turner Diaries,” the blueprint McVeigh used in blowing up the building. He said McVeigh didn’t want to take it to jail because it would have implicated him.
“He wasn’t a martyr for his cause — he was a killer.” Hanger said. “He was a coward. If I would have given him the opportunity, he would have killed me.”
Hanger received a standing ovation.
Susan Morris, chairwoman of the Shawnee Police Foundation, said there’s 54 officers on the department who answered 55,000 calls for service in 2008.
“We thank each of you for putting your lives on the line,” she said.
A silent auction during the event raised about $1,065 and a live auction netted $3,050. Other numbers from ticket sales and donations are still being tallied.
Kim Morava may be reached at 214-3962.