Lengel: It's Been 29 Years Since the Oklahoma Bombing Took Me to a Farm in Michigan's Thumb

April 19, 2024, 9:27 AM by  Allan Lengel

James Nichols

Twenty nine years ago today I was at Wayne County Circuit Court in downtown Detroit  digging through court records for a story on fraud when the media reported that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Buliding in Oklahoma City had been bombed, resulting in 168 people dead and 500 others wounded.

Covering the federal courts and law enforcement beat for the Detroit News, I made some phone calls to see what I could find out. Someone mentioned, almost half jokingly, that there's always a Michigan connection to crazy events in the country. Some speculated that it could be a foreign terrorist attack.

Two days later, on a Friday, I was in the newsroom when I got a call that agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaccao, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were raiding a farmhouse in Decker, in the Michigan Thumb, about two hours north of Detroit, where brothers James and Terry Nichols and pal Tim McVeigh had hung out. McVeigh listed it as his address when checking into a hotel before the bombing. James still lived there. Terry was living in Kansas.

McVeigh was arrested the day of the bombing for driving without a license plate and carrying a gun. He was soon linked to the bombing. 

Terry Nichols

Terry Nichols was arrested soonafter and James was detained that Friday during the raid as a material witness. He was held for a month before being released without being charged in the bombing.  

I jumped in a Detroit News staff car, along with a fellow reporter John Bebow, and we were off. News photographer Joe DeVera met us up there. The media surrounded the farm. Local gawkers drove by, some in pickup trucks with gun racks. Some yelled disparaging remarks at the media.

There were also undercover agents from ATF  walking around, trying to befriend the locals to get information, particularly about the anti-government militia in the area. One of the agents I knew got invited for dinner and when I went to greet him on the side of the road, he gave me a look, like don't blow my cover.

Tim McVeigh

That night, my co-workers and I went to the Decker Tavern, a dive bar in town. There were some locals there,  but mostly media from Detroit, and all over the world. The place was packed.

I think a can of Budweiser was about $2 or $3 bucks. When Joe DeVera, our photographer who was of Philippine descent, went to the bathroom, an elderly local man hunched over at the bar yelled out a racial Asian slur and asked who let him in the bar.

Yes, America, including Blacks and Asians, had come to this little all-white community that had been insulated from the world.

For the next week, my co-worker John Bebow and I stayed in the area and followed up leads. We checked into a motel in nearby Cass City. The check-in desk was at the bowling alley across the street.

The FBI Detroit office had set up a makeshift office in the area, and we tried to figure out what leads the FBI was following up on. I walked into their temporary office one day and they freaked out and told me I had to leave immediately. At one point, as we sat outside the FBI office, I got a call from the Detroit FBI media spokesman John Anthony telling me to stop following the FBI cars. 

For next few months, until I went on strike at the Detroit News, I went up each week to interview people at the Decker Tavern. I was a generous tipper, which helped. If someone tried to mess with me, the bartender would tell them to back off.

Almost every week I'd visit the farm where James Nichols returned to after being held in prison for a month. For a little while, FBI agents from Detroit were parked all around his farm, on the dirt roads, just sitting there, sometimes reading newspapers, waiting to follow him wherever he went. 

He was usually pretty welcoming when I went to the farm. One day he showed me all these letters he received from the public. Somedays he would get into how much he disliked the federal government. Some farmers harbored disdain for the government, which had foreclosed on some farms that couldn't repay the loans.

The last time I spoke to James Nichols was on the 15th anniversary of the bombing. The conversation was brief. Despite my frequent visits in 1995, he didn't recall who I was. He had become reluctant to talk to the media after he felt that filmmaker Michael Moore had burned him by portraying in an unflattering light in the film "Bowling for Columbine." He sued Moore in federal court in Detroit but lost. 

When I spoke to him, he said, "I’m not commenting unless you’ve got a big checkbook.” I told him I couldn't pay for an interview and that was end. I did speak at the time to his attorney  Stephani Godsey, who said he was doing fine, and Kayla Nolan, who ran Kayla’s Kafe, a diner near his farm. 

“He’s always friendly with everybody,” Nolan told me at the time. “Nobody ever talks about (the bombing). I don’t think anybody thought he had anything to do with it. He’s a good guy.”

James Nichols died in February 2017 at age 62. 

Below is a story, a sad one, I did for AOL News on the 15th anniversary. It had been republished earlier on my other website,, with permission.

15 Years Later: Brother of Oklahoma Bomber Keeps Distance From LimelightFifteen years after the Oklahoma City bombing, James Nichols — whose younger brother Terry was convicted in the case — isn’t really talking, except to say he’s still an organic farmer in Michigan.

“I’m not commenting unless you’ve got a big checkbook,” Nichols told AOL News in a phone interview.

Normally, a 15-year milestone of any event — as opposed to 10 years or 25 years — would pass with little fanfare. But recent events have made this one a little different.

Just a few weeks ago, federal agents busted up a Michigan-based Christian militia known as the Hutaree that was accused of plotting to kill law enforcement officers. The arrests triggered chatter on the Sunday talk shows about militias, the potential dangers some might pose and, perhaps inevitably, the Oklahoma City bombing.

Nichols has no ties to the Hutaree, or to any other militia, for that matter. But 15 years ago he found himself in the thick of something like the Hutaree case — only far, far bigger.

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killed 168 people and sent a shock wave of vulnerability across the nation. Within 90 minutes of the blast, an Oklahoma state trooper stopped a man named Timothy McVeigh for driving his yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis without a license plate, and subsequently arrested him for possession of a 9 mm Glock. McVeigh was quickly linked to the bombing, as was his Army buddy Terry Nichols, who soon surrendered to authorities.

Two days later, an army of FBI and ATF agents raided James Nichols’ farm in Decker, Mich., a small farming community about two hours north of Detroit. Terry Nichols and McVeigh had spent time on the farm, and McVeigh listed it as his home address when he checked into the Dreamland Motel in Junction City, Kan., right before the bombing.

During the raid on the Decker farm, FBI agents arrested James Nichols on a material witness warrant and soon charged him with illegally possessing unregistered explosives on his farm.

James Nichols, who would contend the explosive materials were for farm use, was held in prison for about a month before he was released. The charge was eventually dropped, and authorities — certainly not for lack of trying — failed to find any evidence linking him to the Oklahoma City bombing.

Most of the world knows what became of McVeigh and Terry Nichols since that time. Both men were convicted of the crime; McVeigh was executed in 2001 by lethal injection, while Nichols is serving life in a Colorado federal penitentiary.

But these days, at least outside the town of Decker, few know what has become of James Nichols, who turned 56 this month.

His lawyer says he married a few years back. Residents say he’s gone on with life as usual: farming corn and beans, showing up at occasional farm auctions, stopping for a burger and fries at Kayla’s Kafe, a small roadside diner just down the road from his farm.

“He’s always friendly with everybody,” says Kayla Nolan, owner of Kayla’s Kafe. “Nobody ever talks about (the bombing). I don’t think anybody thought he had anything to do with it. He’s a good guy.”

“It’s sort of all blown over,” Decker resident Phil Rockwell says. But he adds, “Nobody really knows if he had a part in it or not. Everybody has got their own opinion. I don’t have any problems. A person is innocent until proven guilty.”

Even in Decker, it seems, some may still wonder about Oklahoma City, even if they don’t talk about it. But James Nichols himself has nothing to say — at least not to the public at large.

Why? Maybe because the last time he did, it turned into a messy ordeal.

In the fall of 2000, filmmaker Michael Moore asked to interview Nichols for a project he was working on, the anti-gun documentary called “Bowling for Columbine.” Nichols agreed, thinking Moore simply wanted to “learn more about the Oklahoma bombing and his brother Terry Nichols’ pending trial,” according to the lawsuit Nichols would later file.

Soon afterward, Moore showed up at the Decker farm and conducted a three-hour interview, according to Nichols’ lawsuit. And Nichols, then not shy about espousing anti-government views, spoke his mind as the camera rolled.

“Them people, law enforcement, if you want to call them that, were here and they were shaking in their shoes, they were physically shaking, scared to death,” Nichols said in the interview, discussing the raid on his farm after the bombing. “Because they thought this was going to be another Waco, because certain people, namely my ex-wife and other people, said I’m a radical, I’m a wild man, I got a gun under every arm, down every leg and every shoe, every corner of the house — ‘You say anything to me, I’ll shoot you.’

“If people find out how they’ve been ripped off and enslaved in this country by the government, by the powers to be,” Nichols went on, “they will revolt with anger, merciless anger. There’ll be blood running in the street. When the government turns too radical, it is your duty to overthrow it.”

“Bowling for Columbine” debuted on Oct. 28, 2002, in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich., about 65 miles west of Decker. The film would go on to earn international critical acclaim and the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

But Nichols was none too happy with the finished product. In the film, Moore said McVeigh and the Nichols brothers made practice bombs on the farm “but the feds didn’t have the goods on James, so the charges were dropped.”

After the film’s debut, Nichols’ quiet life in the country was under siege. He was deluged with “hate mail and threatening phone calls,” says his attorney, Stephani Godsey. “It was a terrible ordeal to go through.”

On Oct. 27, 2003, Nichols filed a $100-million-plus lawsuit claiming defamation as a result of comments Moore made about him both in the film and on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” In 2005, however, a U.S. district judge in Detroit dismissed the suit, saying Moore’s statements were “factual and substantially true.” Nichols appealed, but to no avail: He lost in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in 2007.

“Michael Moore tried to portray him as the mastermind behind the bombing,” Godsey says, adding that her client was “really upset.” She says Nichols agreed to the interview because he thought Moore wanted to hear his side of the story, “but it was far from the case.”

Since Nichols didn’t have the resources to keep battling in court, they decided to give up the lawsuit. Still, to this day, she says of the film: “It wasn’t based on the truth.”

As for James Nichols, Godsey says, “I haven’t spoken to him very recently. But he’s doing well and getting on with his life.”

Leave a Comment:

Photo Of The Day