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Questions arise about OKC bomb plot suspect’s mental health

OKLAHOMA CITY - Family of the man arrested for plotting to blow up a downtown Oklahoma City building say he suffers from mental illness. Now there are questions about how much the suspect's mental health played a role in his alleged plot.

Jerry Drake Varnell, 23, was arrested in the early morning hours of Aug. 12 after attempting to detonate what he thought was a bomb outside the BancFirst National building. A man, whose family tells NewsChannel 4, is a paranoid schizophrenic and was "aided and abetted" by the FBI.

In a statement to NewsChannel 4 Tuesday night, Varnell's parents says they're "extremely distraught" about the situation, but say their son - who lives with them and is in their custody - is a "paranoid schizophrenic" susceptible to ideas that others reject.

NewsChannel 4 spoke with psychology and law enforcement experts with backgrounds in investigating similar cases.

"Most people who commit crimes commit them for the same reasons, whether they're mentally ill or not," said Dr. Shawn Roberson, a forensic psychologist who has experience in evaluating people in both criminal and civil cases.

"In performing a risk assessment, which is the most difficult kind of valuation we do, it's really tough to predict future violence. But we do know there are certain factors that predict it," Roberson said, like a violent history, substance abuse and mental illness.

"Most people are not driven to crime by their mental illness," he said. "But it's not typically their mental illness that drives the crime. They're aware of what they did, they're aware of the consequences and they can appreciate the wrongfulness of it. Now there are some that don't, certainly."

Investigators were tipped off in December 2016 by a confidential source about Varnell's aspirations to bomb the Eccles Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C., "in a manner similar to the Oklahoma City Bombing", court records show.

In his parent's letter to NewsChannel 4, they say the FBI "aided and abetted a paranoid schizophrenic to commit this act."

"The FBI came and picked him up from our home, they gave him a vehicle, gave him a fake bomb, and every means to make this happen none of which he had access to on his own," the couple said.

NewsChannel 4 reached out to Douglas Samuels, a now-retired, 25-year veteran FBI agent in Oklahoma City about how cases like a bomb plot investigation play out.

"Anything to do with a bombing, even if it doesn't sound credible from the beginning, they're going to flush it out," said Samuels, who worked white-collar and violent crime cases for the bureau, and assisted in the investigation into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

"Anything, especially in Oklahoma relating back to the bombing of 1995, that there would be a domestic terrorism act, relating to violence or bombing, is something that will be looked at."

Varnell is scheduled back in federal court next week for a preliminary and detention hearing.