• U.S.

EXPLOSIVE CHARGES

5 minute read
Elizabeth Gleick

To hear Frederic Whitehurst tell it, his goal is to serve his country. That is why he volunteered for combat in Vietnam, where he earned four bronze stars, and that is why in 1982, armed with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Duke, he joined the FBI. Despite appearances to the contrary, patriotism, he says, is behind the one-man crusade he has been waging against the bureau since the 1980s, charging his colleagues with following improper procedures in the FBI laboratory and with bowing to political pressure to solve cases. “America is my family,” says Whitehurst, 48, “and I’m conducting an investigation into what I consider inappropriate behavior.”

The rogue agent has been a willing witness for the defense at some of the country’s most high-profile criminal trials. A forensic chemist specializing in explosives residue, he gave testimony critical of FBI lab work in the World Trade Center bombing trial and was on the defense team’s witness list in the O.J. Simpson trial, where he stood ready to testify about evidence contamination. And now, with hearings under way in the Oklahoma City bombing case–in which late last week in Denver, Judge Richard Matsch ruled that defendants Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols could be tried separately–Whitehurst is again waiting in the wings. “The American people will be shocked by how the forensic evidence was handled,” asserts Whitehurst’s attorney, Steven Kohn, who represents whistle blowers.

Relentless, self-promoting and self-righteous, Whitehurst has been a thorn in the FBI’s side almost from the day he arrived at the lab in 1987. He has alienated colleagues by complaining about working alongside–or under–agents with academic credentials less impressive than his. He has also singled out for criticism two respected agents–Tom Thurman, head of the explosives unit and the man responsible for cracking the mystery of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103; and Roger Martz, head of the chemistry and toxicology unit–both of whom worked on the Oklahoma case.

In addition to lending his expertise to the opposition, over the years Whitehurst has dispatched hundreds of memos to the Justice Department, critiquing his colleagues’ performance and accusing the FBI of a pro-prosecution slant in dozens of investigations. “Science,” he says, “cannot be a whore to a political agenda.” Last fall at Attorney General Janet Reno’s request, Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich assembled an international team of forensic scientists to conduct an exhaustive investigation of Whitehurst’s charges. Though the report is not due until the end of this year, TIME has learned that it is likely to reject the most serious allegations, though it may cite instances of sloppy or hasty lab work.

Agents have been forbidden to respond to Whitehurst’s specific charges, but several claim that although he is a superior scientist, he would become petulant or vindictive when his superiors disagreed with him. “He was an impossible kind of guy to work with,” says an official involved in the World Trade Center case. “If you were doing an investigation in a schoolhouse and there was an alphabet above the board and L and Z were missing, Fred would not venture an opinion that that had been an alphabet.”

There is fear that Whitehurst is driven in part by a craving for danger. “The FBI is like combat,” he says. “Just like sliding down a razor blade forever. This is a kick.” In 1992, trying to prove a point in a child-abuse case, Whitehurst seared several holes in his arm with a Bic lighter and displayed them to the court. (“It was nothing,” says Whitehurst of his self-inflicted wounds.) His supervisors ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and he was found fit for service.

Some outside experts do lend credence to one of Whitehurst’s central beliefs: the agency is in the back pocket of the prosecution. “There is too much pressure on FBI scientists to come up with results,” says a science professor who has worked with the FBI. That pressure–along with the now familiar refrain “a rush to judgment”–will undoubtedly be at the center of the Oklahoma City bombing defense. But colleagues insist Whitehurst is not the only person in search of pure truth in this or any other case. “It is commonly known among prosecutors that if you don’t want the facts, don’t send it to the lab,” says Milt Ahlerich, who retired as lab director earlier this year.

Moreover, Justice Department officials say that Whitehurst, who in 1995 was moved out of explosives-residue analysis, had nothing to do with the Oklahoma investigation, and that the prosecution of McVeigh and Nichols will not hinge on residue analysis. But until the case goes to trial Whitehurst waits, like a ticking time bomb.

–Reported by Sally B. Donnelly and Elaine Shannon/Washington

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