Overnight in Terre Haute:
Story and Photos by Grant Rosenberg

First posted: 6-12-01

The following is a journal kept over the course of sixteen hours on the night before Timothy McVeigh was executed. There are and will be many stories and articles about McVeigh, his crime, the death penalty, and the tragedies that befell the 168 people in Oklahoma City. But this piece is not about those subjects; rather, it is simply a record of my own experiences outside the penitentiary gates on the night leading up to the official pronouncement of McVeigh’s death.

Sunday, June 10th, 2001

5:31 pm
I arrived in Terre Haute, Indiana, moments ago. I followed one of the handmade signs directing me to a place to park my car, where one guy, acting no differently than other locals that night, charged the out-of-towners to park on his lawn. I walked up Route 63 to Springhill Road, the entrance to the penitentiary. State and local police were all over the place, outnumbered only by members of the media.

6:13 pm
I’m sitting cross-legged on the grass outside the main gate to the federal prison camp. There are hundreds of cars passing along Route 63 for a glimpse of the signs and the media tents and the entrance and the watchtower in the distance. Several traffic cops control the ebb and flow of vehicles, hurrying them along but mainly allowing the media to cross back and forth safely. They go to the iron gates of the prison and are met by young women in golf carts that will move them closer to, though not inside, the prison.

Most of the media representatives seem younger than McVeigh. It is rather like being on the set of a film: a slew of fast-moving, metropolitan hipsters descend on an unassuming town and bend it to fit their needs. The TV crews are unshaven, wearing T-shirts and shorts, following behind the on-air personality with the requisite power suit and perfect hair.

So far, there are only 4 or 5 protesters. They stand at this intersection, Route 63 and Springhill, which is for all intents and purposes the nexus of the news universe for the next 24 hours. Two men, with scruffy longish hair stand with placards that read, "Anger Begets Anger" and messages of Jesus’ capacity for love and forgiveness. As I write this, two local reporters have approached them for an interview. One of the men begins to sing "Amazing Grace".

6:34 pm
A mobile sign generator at the gate reads: Pro-demonstrator=Vorhees Park, Anti-demonstrator=Fairbank Park. I learn that the protesters will meet up at one of these two locations, sign in, and be bussed over to the fenced-in, separate designated protest areas about 3000 yards from the prison entrance. One cannot enter the protest area unless he or she comes from the only location by the bus.

The rest of the media have press passes issued by the Bureau of Prisons. As I don’t have one, I’m not able to get inside the prison where the other national reporters are, which puts me in the rather ridiculous position of lamenting that I can’t go to jail.

It is all quite odd, how Timothy McVeigh is sitting inside a solitary cell not more that 5000 yards from me, yet nobody is allowed to see him or even enter the building where he is located. This is one of the biggest media stories of the year, if not the decade, and yet there is essentially NOTHING TO SEE. This is why the coming protests will be successful: the media outlets are starved for new footage after a steady diet of stock McVeigh and Oklahoma images. The media wants to put on a show, and the performers are on their way.

Earlier I was approached by a woman named Deborah who is a journalism grad student at a Midwest university. She came not to cover the events for any specific periodical but to see the history here and to explore how local Terre Haute residents are dealing with it all. Specifically, she came to observe how they are discussing death with their children. She is interviewing subjects now, in anticipation of using it for a future project. We discuss the ideas of martyrdom that McVeigh seems to want, complete with his being 33 years old, the age that the Christian Bible reveals Jesus had reached when he died on the cross. She speaks of the cult of personality and how, in a sense, McVeigh has already won because he’s getting the attention, the very national forum for his message that he desired with the bombing in the first place. It isn’t much different from the film Seven.

Deborah and I walk over to one of the houses on Route 63, directly across from the prison. The people there are selling burgers, pizza, hot dogs and such from a food truck, which is what they normally do at events such as the Indy 500. Only this time the venue itself is their front yard. We speak with them for quite awhile, friends and relatives of all ages sitting and running around. The old man, Tom Norris, tells me that this sort of traffic is unheard of. He speaks with a drawl that is half rural dialect, half just a man who’s too tired to wrap his mouth tightly around the words. He tells me that most nights, kids can play soccer right there on Route 63, uninterrupted for hours. He says that most of the cars we’re seeing tonight are people from the town with nothing better to do than drive up and down the same stretch of road. There are comments about how convenient this is for business and jokes about preferring to work the foodstands for weekly executions rather than going to the Indy 500 and other festivals.

8-something o’clock
I had to come all the way to a federal penitentiary on the eve of an historical execution of a mass murderer in order to watch my first sunset in over a year. A little while later, I hear that McVeigh watched it as well, and a fine one it was, setting behind the Wabash River.

9:15 pm
Deborah and I drive into the town area to look around. The main drag has the major chain restaurants, and we have dinner at a place called Garfields, which is much like a Chi-Chi's or T.G.I. Friday’s. We sit at the bar and talk to the waitress/bartender about the last month in Terre Haute. She explains that it’s been mellow lately and that few people are talking about the execution. It was different last time, she says, echoing a comment that others have said as well. This time, people just aren't as interested about it either way. The Lakers have just won the third game of the NBA finals. We ask the bartender to switch the TV to CNN, and when the story comes on, the few people left in the restaurant stop talking and listen, watching images of their own town being beamed around the world. It’s the same stuff they’ve been watching for months, but it’s actually going to happen this time, come to an end, which must make the report seem fresh somehow.

10:21 pm
Returning to the strip of Route 63 in front of the prison, Deborah and I are shocked that there are still so few people about. Where are the hundreds of protesters, the religious pilgrims, the political fanatics? I maintain that daybreak will bring them, since a TV camera can’t quite record a vigil or protest very well in low light. It seemed to me that aside from a select few, for many the protest doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and if there is no TV crew, the falling tree in the forest does not make a sound. We’ve heard that midnight will bring in the busloads of protesters, but that remains hearsay. I find a tattered and dog-eared business card in the dirt that reads, "Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty." It has the director’s name and contact information. On the left side of the card are the words in capital letters, "I OPPOSE THE DEATH PENALTY—DON’T KILL FOR ME."

We stand at the Route 63 and Springhill intersection for a while. Media reps go back and forth, in and out of the prison gates, as people drive by and police and security mill about. Deborah speaks to the two men with placards, who have a family near them as well; a young child is doing some kind of workbook activity while sitting with her mother and younger sister on blankets in the field that starts at the corner of the intersection. One of the men is wearing a "What Would Jesus Do?" shirt. The other, now being filmed by a camera crew, begins to sing another verse of "Amazing Grace". With a burnt-out but passionate voice, he concludes with an entire verse, repeating the phrase, "Praise God, Praise God." He continues even after the camera goes off.

Monday, June 11th

12:15 am
Back on the Norris property, more neighbors have gathered. One tells us that McVeigh’s final meal was two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream, which strikes me as funny. Suddenly, this man who is a monster to many is once again a man—a man with a simple, sweet-toothed craving and no concern about the fat content. They probably won't admit it, but I’m sure there are many who felt a twinge of envy at the thought of his liberating sense of self as he ate that fattening ice cream with impunity.

Tom has loaned us his binoculars, which we are using to watch the perimeter of the prison and see the police and Bureau of Prisons officials getting ready for the influx of protesters. A rumor goes around that the police are looking for a red Camaro with Ohio plates, because there are radicals in it. Outside agitators, as the saying goes. This was never defined specifically. A few more locals come by with video cameras, including a guy in his early 30s, with very long black hair and a baseball cap that reads, "White Trash." He and his two daughters are watching the police and don’t seem very interested in being there. The younger one, perhaps six years old, is demanding more ice cream.

12:45 am
More protesters arrive by bus, and they are all young. Apparently, some have left, after short turnaround times, for reasons unknown. I am told there was an anti-death penalty march from a church all the way down Route 63 while we were eating dinner. The protests themselves are contrived, due to the formalities required at the outset. Which means that Terre Haute has become—in the last few hours—the last place you'd expect to experience a spontaneous outburst of any kind. Tom tells us about the last execution to take place in Terre Haute, around the turn of the 20th century. Before it could be done, a vigilante went into the cell, dragged the rapist out and hanged him from a bridge over the Wabash.

1 am
New York Post writer and former A Current Affair personality Steve Dunleavy is talking to a girl who shrieks when she recognizes him as a celebrity and has someone take their picture. This moment encapsulates a lot of what we are seeing here: the media are the story. They are running out of people to interview. According to many news outlets, 1500 press passes have been issued. It must be 5:1 journalist to non-journalist.

2:23 am
A little community has developed at the Norris property. Tom has opened up his home to those who need to use the restroom or make a phone call or two. About 15 people or so are sitting around in the front yard, looking out at the floodlights that illuminate the prison and the protest area. Cars continue to go by, but the fact remains that there are only a few dozen protesters, nowhere near the hundreds we had expected. Every fifteen minutes or so, a tour bus with a police escort arrives to let protesters off and make their way into an area designated by makeshift barriers of orange plastic fences. From our vantagepoint, it looks rather like an internment or refugee camp. The media is not able to have any contact with the protesters, nor is one side able to converse with the other, as they are a far distance from one another.

Deborah has gone to sleep in her car, and I promise to wake her if anything interesting happens. She manages to sleep through the commotion of a nearby car being sniffed by a K-9 unit, then towed. I begin reading a book and listening to Tom and others talk about it all, with the floodlights of the prison before us.

4:05 am
I take a quick nap on a hard wooden rocking bench. I am awakened by constant conversation. The sun is coming up as one of Tom’s relatives makes some coffee for us and begins to plan the breakfast menu. I wake Deborah up and, walking back to Tom’s, notice how the prison is like an ersatz country club, with golf carts racing around.

6 am
I’ve come to realize that, really, there is no story here—at least, compared to what I had anticipated. Timothy McVeigh has one, and his pending death brings together many evocative issues. But that isn’t the sense here. It feels almost like an exercise. The media needs a big protest, some sort of newsworthiness to justify their cause.

6:10 am
Big drops of rain fall for a few minutes, though there were no clouds. I’m told there was a thunderstorm on May 16th, (the date of his original scheduled execution) that was so strong that it even damaged some of the media’s equipment, and wrecked some trucks. I’ve not had this confirmed.

6:52 am
There are now a great many protesters, but it is a vigil, really, as they observe 168 minutes of silence, one for each victim of the bombing. More cars go by. The sun is starting to shine big. All of us gathered at Tom Norris’s place stand outside his porch, watching the tiny black-and-white TV so that we can see what is happening a quarter mile away. The minutes advance, and soon it is seven, then seven passes, and it is a few minutes after that.

7:14 am
People are shuffling their feet and realize the full weight of all this really happening here in the town. I am surrounded by people of all ages, all walks of life. Stoners, Bikers, Goth, punk, etc. There is very little glee, all told; maybe one or two people half-jokingly reveled in McVeigh’s death. The rest of the people are mild-mannered, almost somber; it brings to mind the moments after New Year’s Eve.

I’ve come all the way down to Terre Haute, to stand in front of the prison and it ends with a bunch of strangers with our backs to it, crowded around a four-inch, black-and-white television like it was a Philco and we were waiting for a Roosevelt Fireside Chat.

7:30 am
It’s all very matter-of-fact. The generator for the food truck and the TV is powered down, and people begin to amble away. I thank my new friends for their hospitality and brief companionship and get in my car as the press conference continues away from us. I follow the rag-tag parade making its way out of town. McVeigh is dead and Terre Haute will try to get on with its life.

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