Critics Question FBI Tactics in Arrest of Mentally Ill Bomb Plot Suspect

Last week, the FBI announced that it had foiled a plot to blow up the BancFirst building in downtown Oklahoma City. The suspect, Jerry Drake Varnell, reportedly drove what he believed to be a vehicle bomb to an alley behind the bank before dialing a cell phone to a number intended to detonate the bomb.

What Varnell did not realize was that the 1,000 pound "bomb" was fake. It was constructed with inert materials, which were supplied by the FBI itself.

As details come to light in the arrest and "foiled attempt," many are criticizing the FBI's tactics in making the arrest. Varnell's attorney is requesting that all court proceedings related to the arrest be stayed until a mental competency hearing.

Varnell has a long, documented history of mental illness. In fact, according to his attorney's request for a competency hearing, "[In] 2013, Mr. Varnell was declared incompetent by an Oklahoma state court, and his parents were appointed as his guardians."

And herein lies the problem. According to Varnell's parents, the FBI knew from the outset that their son was mentally incompetent. Rather than alerting the parents and allowing them to get help and treatment for their son, however, the FBI "made this happen." They say the agency wrongfully "aided and abetted a paranoid schizophrenic to commit this act."

Varnell first came to the agency's attention when a paid informant gave them a tip that Varnell wanted to blow up the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C. 

During the ensuing investigation, an FBI agent posed as "The Professor," a person with extensive explosives knowledge and access to bomb-making materials including ammonium nitrate, which was used in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Varnell's parents say the FBI encouraged and aided their mentally ill son by supplying him with a cargo van--even though he didn't have a license, by supplying him with the inert bomb-making materials, and by educating him on how to build what he thought would be a 1,000 pound vehicle bomb. 

In short, they say, their son would have been unable to pull off the attempted bombing in the first place had it not been for the FBI encouraging him and giving him the instructions and supplies to do so.

His family issued a statement saying, "We understand the public wants to know how this could possibly happen. We simply ask them to look at the facts of the case and ask why the FBI made this happen. He is our son and he is a brother and loved one no matter what he has done. We have unconditional love for him, we are heartbroken by this event and wish we had been made aware by the FBI, and we would have committed him into a mental institution for help."

Brady Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, says that organization also has significant concerns about the FBI's actions in this case: "Clearly, in this case, we see some things that raise concerns in the family's statement. There's kind of a factual gulf between the FBI and the picture painted by the family."

He furthers, "If you have someone who has mental illness, realize when you can perhaps take action that is far more constructive and far less draining on public resources. This doesn't really produce anything helpful in terms of the threat that individual is posing. Varnell would have seemed to have no capability to carry this out on his own."

The debate here is whether the FBI entrapped Varnell--coercing him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise--or "encouraged" Varnell--nudging him to go ahead and do something he would eventually do anyway. If a mental competency hearing reveals Varnell to be mentally incompetent to stand trial, and if it comes to light that the young man from Sayre would have been incapable of carrying out such a plot without the FBI interference, the agency will have some serious explaining to do regarding its manipulation of a mentally incompetent man. 

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