Man who tried bombing downtown Oklahoma City bank sentenced to 25 years

OKLAHOMA CITY — Jerry Drake Varnell, 26, of Sayre, Oklahoma, was sentenced on March 23 to serve 25 years, followed by a lifetime term of supervised release, for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction at BancFirst in downtown Oklahoma City.  

“The U.S. Government identified Jerry Drake Varnell after learning of his intent to commit this attack,” said U.S. Attorney Timothy Downing.  “This case required thorough investigation and careful coordination among agents and prosecutors in a matter that is our highest priority—terrorism.

Jerry Drake Varnell, of Sayre, Okla., was sentenced on March 23, 2020, to 25 years in prison after being convicted of trying to blow up an Oklahoma City bank with a half-ton (450-kilogram) vehicle bomb. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections)

“The investigation and prosecution stopped an attempt to seemingly replicate the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in our nation’s history,” he added. “The sentence imposed today will hold accountable Varnell for his crime and deter others from engaging in this conduct.  I want to thank the agents, analysts, law enforcement officials, and prosecutors whose dedication is responsible for this case.”

In February 2019, a federal jury deliberated four hours before they returned a unanimous verdict of guilty on one count of attempting to use an explosive device to damage a building used in interstate commerce and one count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property used in interstate commerce.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Downing

“The investigation of Varnell was the result of the tireless efforts of the FBI Oklahoma City Joint Terrorism Task Force and nearly 100 of our partners from federal, state, and local law enforcement,” said Melissa Godbold, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Oklahoma City Field Office. “We cannot thank these departments enough for their work to bring Varnell to justice. I remind the public that combatting terrorism, both domestically and internationally, has been and will continue to be the FBI’s number one priority.”

According to the FBI’s Lone Offender Report, released in 2019, 92 per cent of lone-offender attacks involved at least one bystander indicating a subject’s concerning behavior. This investigation was generated as a direct result of, “See Something, Say Something.”

“Because an individual chose to come forward and report Mr. Varnell’s concerning language and conduct to the FBI, we were able to quickly address the threat and keep our community safe. If you see something and say something…we will do something,” said Godbold.

The FBI arrested Varnell at about 1 a.m. on Aug. 12, 2017, after he attempted to detonate what he believed to be an explosives-laden van he had parked in an alley next to BancFirst, at 101 North Broadway.  The  arrest was the culmination of a long-term domestic terrorism investigation involving an undercover operation, during which Varnell had been monitored closely for months as the bomb plot developed. 

The explosives were inert, and the public was not in danger.  FBI had received information that Varnell initially wanted to blow up the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C., with a device similar to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing because he was upset with the government.

“This case is extremely poignant considering we are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing,” said OCPD Chief Gourley. “This event not only scarred the community of Oklahoma City but had a profound effect on the nation and set about a response known as the Oklahoma Standard.  This Standard was evident in the teamwork and cooperation among agencies in the successful investigation, apprehension, and prosecution of this case.  My thanks go out to all involved for their hard work and commitment to prevent another devastating attack in our community.”

On Oct. 17, 2017, a federal grand jury charged Varnell with attempting to use an explosive device to damage and destroy BancFirst’s corporate offices.  After a psychological evaluation, the court entered an order on Nov. 21, 2017, that found him competent to stand trial.  The grand jury returned a superseding indictment on April 17, 2018, that added one count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

At the trial, the jury heard testimony from an informant who made recordings of his conversations with Varnell.  It also heard from the undercover FBI agent who helped Varnell build what he thought was a bomb, an FBI bomb technician, and others. 

The jury listened to numerous recordings in which Varnell planned the attack and reviewed numerous written electronic communications that corroborated his intent.  It also heard the testimony of a defense expert concerning Varnell’s mental health. 

Through its verdicts, the jury concluded any mental health problems did not prevent Varnell from forming the intent required for conviction.  It also determined the FBI did not entrap him.

This investigation was conducted by the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, including members from the Oklahoma City FBI; Homeland Security Investigations, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; the Oklahoma City Police Department; the Edmond Police Department; the Oklahoma Highway Patrol; and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.  The FBI worked in conjunction with BancFirst during the investigation.  Oklahoma District Attorney Angela Marsee, of District 2, also provided assistance.  The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matt Dillon and Mark R. Stoneman, with assistance from the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Section.

George Brownwell/Alberta Press

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