OKLAHOMA CITY - Federal officials said a 23-year-old Oklahoma man has been arrested after allegedly planning to blow up a bomb in downtown Oklahoma City.
According to a criminal complaint, the FBI arrested 23-year-old Jerry Drake Varnell at 1 a.m. on Aug. 12 after he allegedly attempted to detonate what he believed to be an explosives-laden van he had parked in an alley next to BancFirst in downtown Oklahoma City.
According to assistant special agent in charge Raul Bujanda of the FBI, Varnell was upset with the U.S. government and wanted to retaliate.
"He wanted to make the biggest impact wherever he was going to place his bomb and, in his mind, this would have been the biggest impact in Oklahoma," Bujanda said.
The complaint alleges Varnell initially wanted to blow up the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C. with a device that was similar to the one used in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The involved bomb in 1995 was approximately 6,000 pounds, whereas the one Varnell allegedly plotted to use was about 1,000 pounds.
While Bujanda said it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how much damage this would have caused, it would have likely damaged more than half of the nearby buildings.
According to an affidavit, Varnell changed his mind about the plan to blow up the Federal Reserve because he didn't "wanna kill a bunch of people."
An undercover FBI agent posed as a person who could help him with the bombing. According to the complaint, Varnell later identified BancFirst as the target, helped assemble the device, loaded it into a van and drove it to the alley by the bank.
In fact, officials said Varnell even dialed a number on a cell phone he believed would trigger the explosion.
"Mr. Varnell would call the bomb through a triggering device in a cell phone that was fixed to the bomb. He would call the phone, and it would ring and that's what would detonate the bomb," Bujanda said.
However, officials said the device was actually inert and the public was not in any danger.
“There was never a concern that our community’s safety or security was at risk during this investigation,” said Kathryn Peterson, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Oklahoma. “I can assure the public, without hesitation, that we had Varnell’s actions monitored every step of the way.”
While no injuries were reported and the operation was controlled from start to finish, nearby employees NewsChannel 4 spoke to said it's the proximity of what could have happened that concerns them.
"It's scary, and the fact that they can go out and find out that information just as easily as anything else. It's like a grocery list they're using," said Jamie Magnetta.
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma Mark Yancey commended the work of law enforcement leading to the arrest, also adding the public has no reason to worry.
"At this time, we only have information that Mr. Varnell was involved in this plot. Of course, this is an ongoing investigation, but we do not have evidence that anyone else is involved at this time," Yancey said.
If convicted, Varnell would face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.
A preliminary hearing has been set for next Tuesday.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum released the following statement after Varnell's arrest:
"Earlier today, law enforcement officials announced the arrest of a man living in Oklahoma who is charged with attempting to bomb BancFirst in downtown Oklahoma City. This is a haunting reminder of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, that killed 168 people and wounded countless more. Familiar similarities link these two events.
This makes the mission of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum more relevant today as ever. Our job is to remember and to teach an understanding of the senselessness of violence, especially as a means of effecting government change. We strongly convey the imperative to reject violence.
We are disheartened that a young man who calls Oklahoma home would resort to domestic terrorism, knowing the deep sense of loss still felt by people impacted by the Oklahoma City bombing. The response of Oklahoma’s public servants and private citizens reflects the sense of unity, compassion, even heroism, that characterized the rescue and recovery efforts following the bombing. Social media has changed the flow of information and this highlights the importance that if everyday citizens See Something, Say Something."