In late 1996, Polson native Chad Wold finished law school in England. He then returned to the University of Montana to complete conversion courses and prepare for the bar exam. He was 24 years old. His wedding was right around the corner. Life seemed orderly.
But with a single phone call, the tidy order to Wold’s life was thrown into disarray. The call came from Stephen Jones, the lead attorney on the defense team for Timothy McVeigh, who had been accused of bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The blast killed 168 people and injured more than 680.
Wold, a fourth-generation Montanan, had seen Jones speak at a law conference. Inspired by Jones’ message, Wold spoke with him afterwards and handed over his phone number. Apparently, Wold’s enthusiasm made an impression on Jones, who called the young law student only days after their encounter. Jones wanted a bright legal clerk for his McVeigh defense team in Denver and Wold fit the billing.
It was the chance of a lifetime and it turned out to be perhaps the most formative experience of Wold’s career and life, though everything else had to be put on the backburner. This would certainly be news to his fiancé, who was out of town at the time.
“I could not even start to understand the level of frustration she was going to feel when I would have to tell her I would not be here when she got back, I was taking her car and that I would try and deal with the wedding plans from Denver,” Wold recalled in a speech years later.
But his fiancé was understanding and immediately after Wold arrived in Denver, as recalled in the speech, he was introduced to the team’s 16 attorneys, five law clerks, eight support staff and “taken to my big office in the city high rise.”
What transpired over the next year, from pre-trial through trial into post-trial proceedings, was a coming-of-age legal tale fit for Hollywood. And in fact, it’s heading to Hollywood.
It was announced in early March that acclaimed director Barry Levinson will direct a movie tentatively called “O.K.C.” based on Wold’s experience as a legal clerk on the McVeigh defense team. The original script was written by Wold’s brother, Clay, and inspired by speeches Wold gave around the nation.
Levinson has directed movies such as “Rain Man,” “The Natural,” “Bugsy” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” His films have garnered more than 30 Academy Award nominations, including six Oscar winners.
“To have Levinson committed is a pretty major step for the project,” Wold said in an interview last week.
Wold was tight-lipped about the movie’s details, as it’s still in its very early stages. Initial reports in various publications are similarly vague, mostly just confirming Levinson’s involvement, though they also indicate the story may depict Wold’s role in uncovering a conspiracy.
Variety, an entertainment-trade magazine, has a story on in its website stating that the script “follows a young legal clerk on the Timothy McVeigh defense team who risks everything to expose a larger conspiracy in pursuit of the truth.”
Those reports have prompted concern, especially in Oklahoma, that the movie will depict conspiracy theory sensationalism rather than staying true to the tragedy’s sensitive nature. Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, told the Tulsa World that the film could be “an intriguing story of how an American could do this” if done properly.
“But if it focuses on conspiracy theories,” she said, “then I think it’s a waste of time.”
Wold declined to speak specifically about the script but sought to dispel the conspiracy theory notion. He also said he will not play any role in making the movie, which will undergo the standard “Hollywood dramatization.”
“The movie is certainly not a conspiracy theory at all,” he said. “Its aim will be to respectfully identify with the citizens of Oklahoma City and the victims’ families, first and foremost.”
In a 2001 story published in the Missoulian, Wold was quoted as saying he believed more perpetrators were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing. In the article, published the day after McVeigh was executed, Wold cited the testimony of eyewitness Dana Bradley in forming his conclusion.
“Dana Bradley was trapped in there,” Wold told the Missoulian. “Her right leg was amputated while she was conscious. She testified that she saw the Ryder truck pull up and she described an individual that left the truck as a Middle Eastern individual, heavy-set.”
Wold goes on to cite other evidence in the article, including “finding an olive-skinned leg in an Army boot which they (investigators) could never identify with a body.” While others were convicted as accomplices in preparing the attack, the courts found McVeigh to be solely responsible for detonating the explosive-filled truck.
“Based on the evidence and testimony, I don’t think he acted alone,” Wold said in the story.
More than 15 years after the bombing occurred, there has yet to be a major film made on the tragedy. For years, it has been considered off limits for moviemakers due to its sensitivity. Wold said even now he hears that it’s too early, though infrequently. He mentioned how quickly Hollywood took on 9/11. Both Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” and Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” were released in 2006, less than five years after the attacks.
Wold, 38, lives in Whitefish today and works in civil litigation. His career in criminal justice proved to be brief, but intensely influential, defined by one of the most publicized trials in American history. His experience on the McVeigh defense team, he said, was instrumental in shaping his views on the justice system and the world.
“It has been paramount not only in my career but on my outlook on life, both good and bad,” Wold said. “It influenced my views on societal politics and governmental politics.”
McVeigh was convicted of 11 federal offenses and sentenced to death. Wold said his defense team’s work ensured that the defendant had a fair trial and was represented in accordance with the justice system’s requirements.
“We were walking tall knowing we defended someone zealously, someone who could not defend himself,” he said. “The system worked.”
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