IN THE END, the would-be bombers of Wise County went out not in a blast of Oklahoma City infamy, not in a surreal Republic of Texas—style standoff, but quietly, in a series of plea bargains. On the morning of October 8, just five and a half months after their arrest, two Klansmen and a Klanswoman stood in a Fort Worth courtroom before federal judge John McBryde and cratered, just as a fourth Klan member had done earlier. Yes, they’d planned to rob two drug dealers to bankroll the bombing, cover up an armored car heist, finance the race war, and who knows, maybe buy a new Chevy truck or two. But given their politeness in not putting the government to its proof, would His Honor be so good as to shave a few months off the thirty-year sentences they faced?
The feds, always on the lookout for positive PR, rejoiced in their triumph. “It was a crackerjack job,” says Paul Coggins, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas. Indeed, Operation Sour Gas, the FBI’s four-week investigation of a plot by the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to blow up a chemical plant where a lethal substance known as “sour gas” was stored, was impressive in a military-parade sort of way. The operation—upon which the FBI bestowed “major case” status—deployed more than one hundred agents, many of them borrowed from elsewhere in Texas and Oklahoma. They employed bomb-disposal units and airplanes equipped with forward-looking infrared technology, body mikes and tiny cameras, and 24-hour listening posts that produced more than two hundred conversations. “I’ve never seen so much stuff, not even when I was a Texas Ranger,” marvels Wise County sheriff Phil Ryan, who was a member of the North Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force. “The equipment. The people. The planes. We’re used to po’boying it around here.”
Yet the tale of Sour Gas is much less of a law enforcement coup than the feds were eager to let on—and it is infinitely more comic than the straight-faced media coverage led one to believe: The operation netted the goofiest gang of terrorists this side of a Carl Hiaasen novel. “They weren’t the brightest bulbs,” concedes Bob Garrity, an assistant special agent in the FBI’s Dallas field office, though he and other G-men maintain that the four who pleaded—Carl Waskom, Jr., Edward Taylor, Jr., and husband-and-wife anarchists Shawn and Catherine Adams—were still dangerous. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explode a bomb,” says special agent John Fraga, who supervises the North Texas task force.
Regardless, Sour Gas was a success in that it produced something the task force desperately needed: the only criminal case it has brought in which charges have been filed. Comprising twelve local and federal agencies and overseen by the FBI, the task force was created in April 1995, the month that Timothy McVeigh dropped his deadly load of fertilizer and diesel fuel, though it was in the works long before. Like the fifteen other terrorism task forces around the country, the North Texas task force has received a massive boost of money and manpower in the past thirty months, during which time Congress has increased the FBI’s anti-terrorism budget by half a billion dollars since 1995. Unlike its South Texas counterpart based out of Houston, the North Texas group primarily targets domestic terrorists, though for almost two years it couldn’t find any—or at least any who could be charged with a crime.
And then, in March 1997, Fort Worth FBI agent Morgan Bodie got a call from Robert Leslie Spence, Jr., the Imperial Grand Wizard of the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, Bodie wasn’t even assigned to the task force, but the bearded, motorcycle-riding maverick had developed a close relationship with Spence after the two worked together to investigate a sexual misconduct case at the LBJ National Grasslands near Decatur. For months Spence had been telling Bodie that the True Knights were planning something big, though the details were a bit fuzzy; now he was in a position to be specific. Spence’s story, which he related to me over tea at La Madeleine in Arlington (“Someplace with a lot of people,” he stipulated), was that he first learned the particulars of his followers’ plot on the afternoon of March 24 while getting yet another tattoo at Shawn and Catherine Adams’ doublewide trailer in southeastern Wise County. By the next morning, he says, he was sitting in Garrity’s office relating the details.
Why? Spence says he was concerned that innocent lives might be lost. Beyond that, as he himself admits, he has long been a part- to full-time informant for everyone from the FBI to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Charming and eager to please, with a corresponding tendency to exaggerate, he is a classic stoolie: a law enforcement wannabe with more than a passing knowledge of the criminal trade, much of it gained firsthand. The dark-haired, green-eyed 52-year-old told Garrity that the True Knights needed a fifth man for the plot and suggested that the FBI send in an undercover agent. Garrity responded enthusiastically. The next day, he introduced Spence and Bodie to “Biker Bob,” an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent on loan to the task force. Bob was to be the mole.
The operation, however, got off to a bumpy start. “We went to a Bennigan’s there in Dallas,” Spence recalls, whereupon Bob, he says, proceeded to suck down three beers in fifteen minutes before suggesting they repair to a strip club and smoke some weed. Like any good drug-despising Klansman, Spence was offended. “I told him right up front, ‘No way am I going to work with you,’” he recalls. After a quick reshuffle, Spence was tapped to be the mole, and Bodie was transferred to the terrorism task force as his handler. Beginning on March 27, Spence recorded the plotters’ meetings with the aid of a body mike wired to a microcassette recorder in his boot. The