After listening to nearly two weeks of testimony from prosecution witnesses, a federal jury deliberated for half a day Monday before finding Sayre resident Jerry Varnell guilty on two counts in his trial for trying to blow up a downtown Oklahoma City bank.
The charges were attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction (Count 1) and attempting to use an explosive device to damage a building in interstate commerce (Count 2). Varnell, whose family and attorney said he was “entrapped” by the FBI, could be sentenced to life in prison on the first count and to 20 years on the second.
Sentencing is expected in approximately 90 days.
The defendant’s mother, Melonie Varnell, testified late last week for the defense, saying her now 24-year-old son has suffered delusions for years.
Among other things, she told the jurors that he started to believe she was the virgin Mary and he was Jesus. Other examples of his delusions, she said, were his beliefs that he had discovered a cure for cancer and that he could make gold by burying rocks during a certain phase of the moon.
He reportedly did not have a job or a car and lived on the family ranch near Sayre. He was able to drive, though, as jurors heard testimony about him driving from El Reno to downtown Oklahoma City and parking a van near the BancFirst National building about 1 in the morning on Aug. 12, 2017. Supposedly he thought the van contained a bomb he and a co-conspirator had built at El Reno.
The co-conspirator was actually an undercover FBI agent, and testimony was that he had made sure the “bomb” contained inert materials that would not explode. Thus, even though Varnell used his cell phone that night to dial numbers he thought would set off the bomb, he was unable to make it explode.
Lawmen moved in shortly after the third attempt failed and arrested him.
Varnell’s defense attorney, Marna Franklin, claimed “entrapment,” and U.S. District Court Judge Timothy DeGiusti instructed jurors they could consider entrapment as a defense against the charges. However, they chose not to do so.
During the nearly two weeks of testimony by prosecution witnesses the jurors had heard quite a bit about Varnell’s anti-government views and his desire to start a “revolution” after Donald Trump was elected president.
Talk of his anti-government views included comments from a 2017 meeting with FBI agents when he talked favorably of the III Percenters (3 Percenters), an anti-government group with whom the so-called road rage killer who murdered two people on Interstate 40 a year or so ago was aligned.
Two key witnesses in the Varnell trial were men the accused had worked with in the weeks leading up to his arrest. One had been convicted of calling in a bomb threat himself to the Norman Police Department in 2011. He and Varnell met on Craigslist and supposedly shared marijuana at each of their in-person meetings. That man had become an FBI informant before they built the “bomb,” and the other man was an actual undercover FBI agent.
The Oklahoma City bank apparently was not Varnell’s first choice of targets. Supposedly No. 1 had been the Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C.
Nonetheless, his attorney contended he was the victim in this sad affair.
“This was a bomb plot invented by the FBI,” Ms. Franklin told jurors during her closing argument. “They took a 22-year-old schizophrenic who has paranoid tendencies and duped him into following through with their operational plan.”
Franklin also implied that Varnell was not smart enough to carry out such a complicated plot by himself.
Prosecutor Matt Dillon, an assistant U.S. attorney, on the other hand reminded jurors that the accused had spoken online of wanting to overthrow the government and to build bombs long before the FBI ever got involved.
“It is time to bomb some (expletive) banks,” Dillon said he had written in one exchange.
Months before the trial Varnell had been declared competent to assist in his own defense.
Franklin, on the other hand, told jurors his wife had left him for another man, implying that had injured his psyche, and he had been forced to withdraw from college classes due to mental illness.