OKLAHOMA CITY - Court records and family of a man arrested for plotting to bomb a downtown Oklahoma City building say he has a history of mental health issues. Now, in a letter to NewsChannel 4, the man's family is questioning federal agents' tactics.
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.
Of the few court records that detail Varnell's history with the state's justice system, none show any foreshadowing of the alleged bomb plot nor anti-government stance, but does indicate a history of mental illness.
In February 2013, Varnell's then-wife called Southwestern Oklahoma State University Police in Weatherford to report an assault. A probable cause affidavit says when officer got to their apartment, they found Varnell, who was 18-years-old at the time, "in the bathtub passed out."
In speaking to Varnell's wife, she told investigators Varnell "had a schizophrenic episode" and told her "he would die at midnight and needed to impregnate her," according to the affidavit.
The report from SWOSU police goes on to say that when Varnell's wife said she didn't want to have sex, he pushed her on the bed, began choking her and smothering her with a pillow until she passed out. When she awoke the court documents his wife told police he was "raping her."
Police pressed to take her to the hospital to collect evidence but, according to the affidavit, she said she didn't want to go and "did not want any charges filed" against him; only that "she just wanted help for him and she had called 911 to stop him from hurting her and himself."
Varnell was charged with one count of felony domestic assault and battery by strangulation, but pled no contest and received a five-year deferred sentence. Plea documents in the case show Varnell had been diagnosed with schizophrenic affective disorder, a condition characterized by symptoms of hallucination or delusions, at some point in February 2013. It's unclear if the diagnosis occurred before or after he was charged.
A SWOSU official tells NewsChannel 4 Varnell graduated from the Sayre campus in December 2015 with an associate's degree in general business.
Varnell filed for divorce from his wife in April 2016, citing "incompatibility and irreconcilable differences."
Bomb plot foiled by FBI
Varnell, who lives in Sayre, Okla., was arrested early Saturday morning after a van, laden with 1,000 pounds of what he believed to be ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, failed to detonate outside the BancFirst National Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
"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," said Raul Bujanda, the FBI assistant special agent in charge for Oklahoma City.
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.
According to the 17 page criminal complaint filed Sunday in federal court, Varnell was upset with the government and wanted retaliation.
In messages between the source - who was serving a prison sentence for a probation violation - and Varnell, Varnell wrote "I'm out for blood. When militias start getting formed I'm going after government officials when I have a team."
When the two discussed using explosives as part of Varnell's plan, the court documents say Varnell wrote to the source, "I think I'm going to go with what the okc (sic) bomber used. Diesel and anhydrous ammonia," referring to the domestic terrorism plot carried out by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.
Court documents say Varnell admitted to holding a "III% ideology," an anti-government movement, and wanting to start a revolution, saying that "something needs to be done." On Tuesday, a III% United Patriots spokesperson said Varnell was one of its members, for a brief period, but is no longer part of the organization.
Over the course of about seven months, the source and an explosives expert called "The Professor" met and talked with Varnell in Sayre and nearby Elk City about his plans. "The Professor" was actually an undercover FBI agent and told Varnell he could obtain the explosives he wanted.
The undercover agent, "The Professor" and Varnell met in the afternoon on August 11 to build the bomb, scout the target and rehearse the plan.
Court documents say the undercover agent picked Varnell up and drove him to a storage unit in El Reno where Varnell "actively participated" in assembling what he believed to be a functioning 1,000 lb. ammonium nitrate and fuel oil "Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device" or VBIED bomb. Built with inert materials provided by the undercover agent, the bomb was then loaded into a van.
Court documents say after a final rehearsal of the route, Varnell drove the van by himself to the alley and loading dock of the BancFirst building.
"The target himself, Mr. Varnell, would call the bomb through a triggering device in a cell phone that was affixed to the bomb," said Bujanda. He would call the phone and it would ring, and that's what would detonate the bomb."
Instead, when Varnell dialed the number, it rang another phone in the hands of law enforcement.
Suspect's family questions FBI tactics
Varnell lives with his mother and step-father in Sayre, Oklahoma; a city of about 4,300 people a two-hour drive west from Oklahoma City on I-40. Varnell's step-father declined to talk with NewsChannel 4 on camera Monday evening. But the family did send NewsChannel 4 an email late Tuesday night.
"We as a family are extremely distraught about this situation with our son Jerry Drake Varnell, but what the public must understand is that he is a paranoid schizophrenic and is extremely susceptible to different types of ideology that normal people would deem immoral," said Melonie and Clifford Varnell in an emailed statement.
"However, what truly has us flabbergasted is the fact that the FBI knew he was schizophrenic. The State of Oklahoma found him mentally incompetent and we, his parents have legal guardianship over him by the Court."
According to the federal criminal complaint, it says Varnell claimed to live on a property that has a "multipurpose" bunker, a storage container buried on three sides, outfitted with food and supplies. The bunker, according to Melonie and Clifford Varnell is a storm shelter.
"What the public should be looking at is the fact that the FBI gave our son the means to make this happen. He has no job, no money, no vehicle, and no driver’s license, due to the fact that he is schizophrenic and we, his parents, do everything we can possible to keep him safe and functional," the couple said, adding the mental health system has consistently failed their family because a lack of care facilities and health care coverage for their son.
The family says Varnell has suffered countless "full-blown" schizophrenic episodes and has been put in "numerous mental hospitals" since he was 16-years-old.
They also questioned the FBI's use of the confidential source, at one point telling the source "was not allowed back on our property." In the letter, Varnell's parents 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.
"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."