Defense attorney: Accused Oklahoma City bomb plot suspect is competent

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OKLAHOMA CITY – An attorney for a man accused of attempting to detonate a bomb outside an Oklahoma City bank says he is competent and is asking a judge to move forward with a preliminary hearing.

The attorney for Jerry Drake Varnell asked the court Wednesday to withdraw her request for a competency hearing, adding that an independent psychologist has already evaluated Varnell and found him competent.

Varnell, 23, was arrested by the FBI on Aug. 12 after he allegedly attempted to detonate what he believed to be an explosives-laden van in an alley next to the BancFirst National building in downtown Oklahoma City, according to a criminal complaint.

“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 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.

However, he soon changed his mind and decided to target a building in downtown Oklahoma City.

BancFirst located in downtown Oklahoma City

An undercover FBI agent posed as a person who could help him with the bombing.

Court documents say after a final rehearsal of the route, Varnell, 23, 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, law enforcement officers swooped in and took Varnell into custody. He is facing a charge of attempting to use explosives to destroy a building in interstate commerce.

Drake Varnell, Oklahoma Department of Corrections 2015

Last week, Varnell's defense attorney, Terri Coulter, filed a motion, saying Varnell has been hospitalized repeatedly since he was 16 and is not mentally fit to stand trial.  It says Varnell’s parents were named guardians of him after an Oklahoma court declared him incompetent.

In a statement to KFOR last week, his parent's said Varnell is a paranoid schizophrenic and was “aided and abetted” by the FBI.

 “The mental health system has consistently failed us due to the lack of establishments and health care coverage for a person like him. He has attended college and just enrolled in welding school. His medications allow him to be somewhat functional but he will never be completely functional in life. His brain does not work like a normal person and never will due to the nature of his mental illness. He has suffered through countless serious full-blown schizophrenic delusional episodes and he has been put in numerous mental hospitals since he was 16 years old,” a statement from the family read.

In an about face Wednesday, Varnell's attorney filed a motion to withdraw the request for a competency hearing, saying an independent psychologist found Varnell is competent and "no additional psychological testing is warranted."

"When counsel filed the motion, it was unclear whether Mr. Varnell was suffering from a mental disease or defect that rendered him mentally incompetent to the extent that he was unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or assist properly in his defense," the motion reads. "Accordingly, counsel had an examination conducted by an independent psychologist, who found that Mr. Varnell currently is competent and able to assist properly in his defense."

Varnell is currently in custody awaiting a preliminary and detention hearing.

"The defense attorney has a duty to check the mental health history of that person," said legal expert and attorney Garvin Isaacs.

Moving forward, Isaacs says Varnell's history and mental health will likely be looked into further by his attorney to prepare a defense for a pending trial.

"In these cases, a defense attorney who has information, and has discovered information, does not have to reveal that until witnesses are on the witness stand at the trial," Isaacs said.