TERRE HAUTE, IND. — TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - With the clock moving ever closer to his scheduled death by lethal injection this morning, Timothy J. McVeigh spent yesterday participating in the grim rituals of execution. He moved in shackles to the death house at the federal prison here. He ate his last meal. He met with the lawyer who will disperse his cremated remains in a place McVeigh wants kept secret. And he prepared for the moment when he will be asked to deliver his last words.
"He is calm," said lawyer Robert Nigh Jr., one of two attorneys who met with McVeigh yesterday. "Quite frankly, he is ready to die."
Inside the 9-by-14-foot cinderblock holding cell, adjacent to the room in which he will be executed, McVeigh sought solitude yesterday. People close to McVeigh said he has been dealing with the last-minute details of his life in an organized way - making certain his papers will be saved, going over final legal details, writing letters and quietly closing off the outside world.
"He's in a mindset where he's reflective, he's withdrawing," said Lou Michel, a Buffalo News reporter who co-wrote a book about McVeigh, "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City Bombing," and is one of four people chosen by McVeigh to witness the execution. "He wants people to know he's going to experience peace and contentment when he's on the executioner's table."
From all accounts, McVeigh moved through his last day with quiet composure. He ate two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream for the traditional last meal. He also considered his last words, which those close to him have speculated could include a quote from the 1875 poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley: "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."
In letters published in the Buffalo News yesterday, McVeigh offered a defiant apology to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh, 33, has admitted bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 - killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 others in the country's deadliest act of domestic terrorism.
"I am sorry these people had to lose their lives," McVeigh stated in a 10-page letter in which he called the blast "a legit tactic" in his war against a corrupt federal government. "That's the nature of the beast. It's understood going in what the human toll will be."
Oklahoma City still mourns the moment McVeigh exploded a truckload of ammonium nitrate and racing fuel outside the federal building. Many there saw the apology as hollow.
"That doesn't sound like repentance," said the Rev. Don Alexander, pastor of First Christian Church, where victims' relatives gathered for weeks after the blast. "He continues to show a lack of humanity. We need to execute human justice, and that's what we're doing."
McVeigh's execution was delayed almost a month after the FBI revealed that it had withheld more than 4,000 pages of documents on the bombing case - evidence that his lawyers said could have affected McVeigh's sentencing in 1997. Last week, a federal judge and an appeals panel rejected McVeigh's attempt for a stay of execution, ruling those documents did not cast doubt on McVeigh's guilt or implicate others in a broader conspiracy.
Prison officials described McVeigh as "cooperative" when they brought him in a guarded prison van from his cell on death row to the execution building in the dark of night at 4:10 a.m. local time. It was thought to be the last time McVeigh, in shackles, would walk outside.
"He was able to look up in the sky for the first time in a number of years and see the moon directly - that was valuable to him," said Nigh, who will take McVeigh's ashes to an undisclosed location after the execution. McVeigh, a Buffalo-area native, has considered having his ashes spread along the Erie Canal, over the site of the FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, or sent into space.
With McVeigh's execution just hours away, his lawyers marveled at his calm, saying he managed to sleep a couple of hours after being moved to the holding cell. His lawyer, Nathan Chambers, who also met with McVeigh yesterday, said McVeigh planned to sleep last night.
"I would say he is in amazingly good spirits - he is pleasant to talk to, he continues to be affable, he continues to be rational within his discourse, he maintains a sense of humor," Chambers said. "I don't know how a normal person who is less than 24 hours from death is supposed to react, but I would say his attitude and demeanor are very good."
McVeigh spoke to his lawyers, separated from him by a thick glass window, for one hour yesterday. After saying good-bye to his family members by telephone Saturday, McVeigh planned a final meeting - a short conversation with his lawyers shortly after 5 this morning.
By 7:30, McVeigh was to hand over the last of his possessions and be prepared for the death chamber. His witnesses, none of them relatives, were to watch the execution through a window, separated from 10 witnesses for victims and survivors of the bombing.
At 8 a.m., the curtains to the death chamber will open, revealing McVeigh on the brown execution table. He will make a brief statement. The warden will read the judgment against him. If there are no impediments, the warden will order staff to begin administering the lethal combination of substances.
Demonstrators continued to gather around Terre Haute yesterday. Death penalty opponents marched across the city from St. Margaret Mary Catholic church to the federal penitentiary. Last night, a Los Angeles composer, David Woodard, was to perform a 12-minute piece for McVeigh that he has titled "Ave Atque Vale," which Woodard said is Latin for "Onward Valiant Soldier." It is also translated as "Hail and Farewell."
In his Sunday sermon, the Rev. Ron Ashmore, a Roman Catholic priest and death penalty foe who has counseled McVeigh, urged the approximately 80 parishioners assembled not to condemn McVeigh.
"Reach out to the victims, be a healing force from a distance, but also reach out to Tim McVeigh," Ashmore said. "Not one single action defines the totality of who we are."
But on the steps of his church, some city residents saw the execution as necessary justice.
"He didn't seem to care one way or the other about all those people," said Al Ferency, 56, a Terre Haute retiree entering the church to attend a christening. "For what he did, he deserves this."
In Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal yesterday to allow McVeigh's execution to be videotaped. The Justice Department opposed the taping, which was requested in an unrelated case alleging the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.
McVeigh, a decorated Persian Gulf war veteran, was trying to shape his final image yesterday. He has told his lawyers he sees himself as a warrior battling an out-of-control government.
"The way Mr. McVeigh would explain it would be to say that in his mind, it was a military action," Nigh said of the blast. "When a pilot drops a bomb on a group of people from a foreign country and innocent women and children die, he cannot feel good about that, and we wouldn't ask him to. I think Mr. McVeigh sees a parallel between that situation and his own."
McVeigh has a small black-and-white TV with cable access in his cell, and his lawyers said he has been aware of the extensive news coverage. He is also aware of the recent attention generated by his letters to the Buffalo News, in which he took full credit for the bombing.
Dan Herbeck, a Buffalo News reporter who co-wrote the book on McVeigh, said McVeigh has received scores of letters of support in prison. He said McVeigh has received requests from a woman who wants to have his baby and inquiries from people hoping that he would donate his organs, neither of which will happen.
As for an afterlife, McVeigh has told Herbeck that he is an agnostic.
"He doesn't fear death," Herbeck said. "He's almost excited about the next adventure. He's open-minded."
Early today, six people gathered outside the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in the 400 block of E. Madison St. in Baltimore for a candlelight vigil to show opposition to the death penalty. They planned to stay through the night, past McVeigh's execution time, and anticipated that at least 20 more would join them. They listened to the radio, read poems and passages from the Bible.
"This is not for McVeigh," said Michele Naar-Obed of Baltimore. "He's a murderer, but it's murder in both cases. We're here to say that killing people through an act of violence is just as wrong as state-sanctioned killing. The cycle of violence must stop."
Sun staff writers Laura Sullivan and Laura Cadiz contributed to this article.
After 5 a.m.: Timothy J. McVeigh plans a last meeting with his lawyers.
6 a.m.: No more visitors.
7:30 a.m.: McVeigh hands over his possessions and is searched before entering the execution room.
8 a.m.: McVeigh makes his final statement, and the judgment against him is read. The executioners administer the lethal injection. McVeigh's four witnesses watch through a window, separated from 10 witnesses for victims and survivors of the bombing.