A week before 36-year-old Timothy Wilson decided to blow up a Kansas City-area hospital that was already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, he considered attacking a slew of other targets instead, including several local mosques, a synagogue and an elementary school filled with Black children.
But, according to FBI records, before the avowed white supremacist from Raymore, Missouri, picked his final target in March, Wilson texted an associate with a particular question: “How did McVeigh do it?”
More than 25 years ago, Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people and injured nearly 700 others when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, making him the most ruthless domestic terrorist in U.S. history.
Fortunately this time, Wilson's associate was actually an undercover FBI agent, and Wilson was stopped before he could carry out his bloody assault.
In the past three years, the FBI has arrested a few hundred Americans suspected of ties to domestic terrorism or violent white supremacy. And, as the nation confronts a surge in racially motivated violence, the FBI uncovered references to McVeigh in several of those investigations, according to an ABC News review of court records and government documents.
“That data point – in conjunction with more public displays of far-right extremist beliefs and a rise in hate crimes – suggests we are seeing a dramatic re-emergence of the [same] views that served as the motivation for the Oklahoma City attack,” warned John Cohen, an ABC News contributor who served as the Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism coordinator under the Obama administration.
Whether it was an apparent reverence for the killer himself or his lethal tactics, experts said the recent cases referencing McVeigh underscore how even decades-old forces can help fuel what the FBI has deemed one the most dangerous threats now facing the country.
“A mass casualty event like the Oklahoma City bombing is … meant to provoke further violence," noted Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago historian who has studied the development of modern white supremacy. "It’s meant to incite people, to awaken them to what people in this movement see as a state of emergency confronting the white race.”
The ABC News review of cases invoking McVeigh is part of “Homegrown Hate: The War Among Us,” an hour-long documentary premiering Tuesday on ABC News Live that examines white supremacy’s violent comeback.
A 'huge wake-up moment' in Charlottesville
The FBI has said McVeigh was motivated by a desire to topple the U.S. government, but in a media interview before he was executed in June 2001, McVeigh also described members of the white power movement as his “brothers in arms.”
That era “was kind of the last time” that the nation focused on right-wing extremism, because the 9/11 attacks just a few months later diverted attention overseas, according to Elizabeth Neumann, the recently-departed head of threat prevention and security policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Radical forms of racism then largely remained “masked” for decades – until the presidential campaign of 2016 inflamed divisions inside America and hate crimes began to rise again, added Neumann, who has since spoken out against President Donald Trump since leaving his administration.
“For many of us,” she said, “a huge wakeup moment” came in August 2017, when a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, attracted white supremacists from across the country, who chanted racist slogans and clashed with counter-protesters, leaving one woman dead.
Kelvin Pierce, whose late father, Dr. William Luther Pierce, is considered one of the pioneers of the modern white power movement, believes the Charlottesville rally showed that white supremacy was “becoming mainstream” again and that "the monster has come out of hibernation," as further demonstrated just days later when Trump infamously claimed there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protests.
“I see [it all] as a pretty massive swing of the pendulum in the wrong direction,” Pierce said, insisting that rhetoric coming from Trump has only exacerbated the problem.
In fact, ABC News found that since Trump emerged as a presidential candidate in 2015, at least 25 people charged with hate-fueled assaults or threats cited Trump specifically in connection to their actions. ABC News could not find any such cases similarly tied to former presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush.
“In the minds of those people who may be on the cusp, who may be considering a violent attack, they view the language used by mainstream elected officials as permission," Cohen said.
Trump has repeatedly denied that his rhetoric helps push anyone toward extremism, and after renewed pressure last week to publicly denounce hate groups, Trump said in a Fox News interview, "I condemn all white supremacists."
Nevertheless, as Pierce sees it, the racial divisions now spreading across America are exactly what McVeigh and like-minded extremists – poisoned by a toxic mix of racism and anti-government views – always hoped to inspire.
“[They believed] that their single action is going to be instrumental in starting a race war, or a civil war,” said Pierce, who once adhered to his father's ideologies and now speaks out against such hatred.
Neo-Nazi group founder had framed McVeigh photo beside bed: Police
In 1978, Pierce’s father published the racist novel “The Turner Diaries,” which portrayed a violent campaign against the federal government and a race war that wiped out Black Americans.Excerpts of the book were found in McVeigh’s car when authorities arrested him in 1995.Nearly 25 years later, McVeigh’s legacy is the one surfacing in federal investigations of domestic terrorists and violent white supremacists.In particular, the FBI has spent considerable resources investigating a growing neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen – or “atomic weapon” in German.“They vowed to accelerate the collapse of civilization using violence, mass murder [and] hate,” a senior Justice Department official warned in February when the FBI arrested several alleged members of the group on threat-related charges.When authorities raided the Tampa, Florida, home of Atomwaffen founder Brandon Russell three years ago, they found explosives and a framed picture of McVeigh sitting on Russell’s nightstand, according to police records.Russell has since pleaded guilty to federal weapons-related charges, and he was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
In another case nearly two years ago, the FBI searched the home of a 29-year-old Boulder, Colorado, man who allegedly posted information online encouraging attacks on Jews, Muslims, and federal government facilities, and then tried to buy a gun.
In an interview with FBI agents, Wesley David Gilreath said he “wanted the white race to win at life,” and inside his home they found a full-size Nazi flag, a t-shirt bearing McVeigh’s face, and a book titled, “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” according to court documents filed by the Justice Department.
On Gilreath's phone, the documents said, the agents discovered that he had conducted online research related to weapons and bombs, he had searched for nearby mosques and synagogues, and he had entered this into an online search engine: “Timothy McVeigh – YouTube.”
Agents also discovered child pornography on his phone, which brought Gilreath a 15-year prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to possessing that material.
A year ago, in yet another case, the FBI began investigating 18-year-old Richard Tobin of Brooklawn, N.J., who had allegedly joined a "white racially motivated violent extremist group" and directed others around the country to vandalize synagogues in the Midwest with neo-Nazi symbols, according an FBI affidavit filed in the case.
In an interview with FBI agents, Tobin praised suicide bombings, saying “he believed it would be ‘pretty straightforward’ to fill the back of a truck with barrels [of explosives] like Timothy McVeigh did,” the FBI wrote in the affidavit.
According to the affidavit, when agents searched Tobin’s computer, they found “a document detailing how to arrange barrels inside a Ryder truck to be used as a truck bomb” – the same brand of rental truck McVeigh used to deliver his deadly device in 1995.
Tobin has since been charged with a threat-related offense and is awaiting trial. It's unclear if he has entered a plea.
In reviewing government documents and court records, ABC News identified at least two other cases of hate-filled violence invoking McVeigh, including the August 2017 arrest of an Oklahoma man who the FBI said “wanted to go ahead and replicate the Oklahoma City bombing.”
2019 was deadliest year for domestic terrorism since Oklahoma City: Feds
Six months ago, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to law enforcement agencies across the country, highlighting the "persistent and evolving" threat from violent white supremacists and other domestic terrorists.
The bulletin noted that due to McVeigh’s attack, 1995 was the nation’s most lethal year for domestic terrorism attacks. Last year was the nation’s second-most lethal year for domestic terrorism attacks, the bulletin said.
In 2019, domestic terrorists were responsible for at least 31 deaths, 23 of which were linked to white supremacists, according to the bulletin.
"While threats from [domestic terrorists] have continued to evolve since the Oklahoma City bombing, many of their significant drivers have remained constant. These drivers include perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach … and the perception of threats against those advocating for the superiority of the white race,” the bulletin stated.
The bulletin noted that Wilson, the Missouri man who recently plotted to attack a Kansas City-area hospital, was driven by such sentiments.
When FBI agents tried to arrest Wilson in March, he fatally shot himself, according to the FBI.
Asked by ABC News whether he believes the United States will eventually suffer another act of domestic terrorism as horrific and deadly as McVeigh’s, Pierce stated bluntly: “Yeah, I think more lives will be lost.”
But, he added, domestic terrorists and white supremacists fantasizing about an all-white America or the collapse of the federal government are sure to be disappointed.
“I don’t think the ultimate goal will be achieved," he said.
ABC News' Megan Christie, Evan Simon, Alexandra Myers, Tonya Simpson and Emily Ruchalski contributed to this report.