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Profile: Steven G. Burmeister
Steven G. Burmeister was a participant or observer in the following events:
Suspected Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995), currently being held without bond in the El Reno Federal Corrections Center (see April 21, 1995), has his 1977 Mercury Marquis trucked to the FBI warehouse from where he was forced to leave it on the highway (see April 13, 1995 and 9:03 a.m. -- 10:17 a.m. April 19, 1995) and thoroughly searched. A handwritten sign, apparently left under the windshield, is in the car; it reads: “Not abandoned. Please do not tow. Will move by April 23. Needs battery and cable.” The battery and cables are in working order; FBI investigators believe the sign was placed under a windshield wiper when McVeigh left the car in an alley near the Murrah Building to serve as his getaway vehicle (see April 16-17, 1995). They also find a thick manila envelope stuffed with anti-government documents on the front seat. Supervisory Special Agent Steven Burmeister and Agent William Eppright photograph the envelope, then, wearing protective gear, open it. Inside are two stacks of papers folded into thirds and a single note written in McVeigh’s handwriting that reads, “Obey the Constitution of the United States and we won’t shoot you.” Eppright and Burmeister put the envelope in a plastic container and continue processing the car. They then examine the documents in the envelope. They include excerpts from The Turner Diaries (see 1978), with some passages highlighted; a recounting of the Battle of Lexington and Concord from the Revolutionary War that was originally misdated April 29, 1775, and corrected by McVeigh to read April 19, 1775; documents railing against taxation and overzealous government agents; documents urging the weakening of the federal government in favor of states’ rights; and one article claiming the government has “initiate[d] open warfare against the American people.” Many of the articles are about the Branch Davidian siege and its tragic ending (see April 19, 1993 and April 19, 1993 and After), including an article from Soldier of Fortune magazine that claims the government committed “acts of treason, murder, and conspiracy” during the siege. The smallest clipping contains a quote from Revolutionary War leader Samuel Adams, printed in big letters: “When The Government Fears the People, THERE IS LIBERTY. When The People Fear the Government, THERE IS TYRANNY.” Under these words, McVeigh has written, “Maybe now there will be liberty!” Eppright dates and initials the clipping, and replaces the envelope and all its contents in its container. [Serrano, 1998, pp. 217-220]
FBI forensic expert Steven G. Burmeister and chemist Ronald L. Kelly testify in the trial of Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995, August 10, 1995, and April 24, 1997) that the FBI crime lab found residues of explosives on McVeigh’s shirt and jeans, clothing that McVeigh was wearing when he was arrested less than 90 minutes after allegedly detonating a bomb in front of an Oklahoma City federal building (see 9:03 a.m. -- 10:17 a.m. April 19, 1995 and April 21, 1995). However, Burmeister says his experts found no such residues in the car McVeigh was driving when he was arrested. Nor did they find any such residues in a Kansas storage locker that prosecutors say McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols used to store bomb supplies (see September 22, 1994, October 4 - Late October, 1994, October 17, 1994, and November 7, 1994). Prosecutors use Burmeister’s testimony to establish the exact composition of the bomb. Lab experts found residue of three substances on earplugs McVeigh was carrying when he was arrested (see Early May 1995 and After): nitroglycerine; PETN, a crystalline substance found in detonation cord; and EGDN, which is added to dynamite. PETN was also found on the white T-shirt and long-sleeved undershirt McVeigh was wearing when he was stopped by a state trooper, and PETN and nitroglycerine were found in the right pocket of McVeigh’s jeans. McVeigh’s lawyers cross-examine the two about a search they performed in the aftermath of the bombing; the two experts found and bagged items, including two fragments of the Ryder rental truck that prosecutors say carried the bomb (see April 15, 1995). One was a red-and-yellow piece of the truck body, which Burmeister later determined contained crystals of the explosive ammonium nitrate. Prosecutors say the bomb was composed of ammonium nitrate, a substance often used as fertilizer but which can become a powerful explosive when mixed with fuel oil or racing fuel. Burmeister testifies that such a bomb would require a detonator and an explosive such as dynamite to boost the explosion. Kelly admits to picking up and bagging several items, including a truck part, before an FBI photographer could take pictures of them; Kelly says he replaced the items, let the photographer take pictures, and rebagged them. Defense lawyer Christopher L. Tritico indirectly accuses Kelly of planting evidence. “You didn’t find it in the parking lot, yourself, isn’t that right?” Tritico asks, to which Kelly replies, “That is absolutely incorrect.” Defense lawyers hammer away at the two over reports that the FBI crime lab had been criticized by a Justice Department report on its use of substandard procedures (see April 16, 1997), but Burmeister emphasizes that he, Kelly, and the other technicians were extremely careful about their evidence retrieval and testing. McVeigh’s lawyers elicit an admission from Burmeister that no PETN or EGDN was found at the scene of the bombing. Burmeister also admits that the crime lab’s handling of the bombing evidence could have been better, citing the practice of using paper bags to transport McVeigh’s clothing from the Perry jail to the FBI lab. Judge Richard P. Matsch limits the scope of the defense’s attack on the lab’s evidence handling, and repeatedly refuses to allow the jury to hear criticisms of the crime lab’s procedures issued by former lab employee Frederic Whitehurst (see January 27, 1997); nor does he allow the defense to introduce the Justice Department report. The last witness of the day, Linda Jones of the British Ministry of Defense’s Forensic Explosives Laboratory, testifies that “it would be fairly simple” for one person to build such a bomb as was used in Oklahoma City, challenging the defense’s theory that only a large number of conspirators and bomb experts could have built the bomb. [New York Times, 5/20/1997; New York Times, 5/21/1997]
The prosecution in the trial of accused Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and November 3, 1997) submits a piece of wood into evidence that it says links Nichols to the bombing. The piece of wood has ammonium nitrate fertilizer crystals embedded in it, the same type of fertilizer used in the bomb that killed 168 people. The same fertilizer was found at Nichols’s Herington, Kansas, home (see 3:15 p.m. and After, April 21-22, 1995). The wood was found by a search team on April 21, 1995, in a parking lot across the street from the Murrah Federal Building. Prosecutors say the wood came from the side of the rented Ryder truck (see April 15, 1995) that convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997 and June 11-13, 1997) used to deliver the bomb. FBI agent Alton Wilson testifies that “it appears to have come from the box panel from the Ryder truck.” FBI laboratory supervisor Steven G. Burmeister testifies that when he and other FBI agents searched Nichols’s home, they found explosives, including ammonium nitrate pellets. Ammonium nitrate is the fertilizer that was the main ingredient of the bomb. “They were on the steps leading up to the porch area,” Burmeister testifies. He also says the search turned up Primadet blasting caps, which are used to detonate explosives. Defense lawyers claim the wood was mishandled by FBI crime lab analysts; FBI chemist Ronald Kelly admits in testimony that he did not follow the proper steps in recovering and handling the wood. [New York Times, 11/29/1997] In cross-examination testimony, Burmeister says that he photographed the wood in April 1995, documenting the existence of the ammonium nitrate crystals embedded in it. When he examined the wood in November 1996, he realized that the crystals had disappeared from it. Burmeister says he believes the crystals disappeared as a result of testing in other sections of the lab. [New York Times, 12/2/1997]
Experts testify in the trial of Terry Nichols (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995 and November 3, 1997) that the bomb used to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was probably made with ammonium nitrate. Prosecutors have shown that Nichols bought two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and stored it, along with other bomb components, in lockers rented under false names (see November 6, 1997). In aggressive cross-examination, defense lawyer Michael Tigar attempts to cast doubt on the forensic evidence presented by the experts. FBI laboratory supervisor Steven G. Burmeister, who has already defended his findings on ammonium nitrate crystals found in a shard of wood he and other experts believe was from the Ryder truck used to deliver the bomb (see November 28 - December 2, 1997), admits that nitromethane that, according to an FBI report, was found in Nichols’s home might have come from a container of model airplane fuel. Burmeister says that the evidence of nitromethane was found near model airplane parts; nitromethane is used in model airplane fuel. “When you reported out your results, did you report that you had found model airplane fuel and a model airplane?” Tigar asks, and Burmeister replies, “No.” Tigar then emphasizes: “You just reported you had found nitromethane. Right?” Burmeister responds, “The result was nitromethane and methanol.” Tigar continues to press, saying: “But did you take steps to make sure that people were going to understand that this was found right next to some model airplane parts? Did you do that?” Burmeister says he did not. British explosive expert Linda Jones, who testified in the trial of convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997 and June 11-13, 1997), says she believes the bomb weighed 3,000 to 6,000 pounds and contained ammonium nitrate. Its other elements were apparently consumed in the explosion. The prosecution has called Jones as an independent expert because of widespread criticism of the FBI laboratory and its employees (see January 27, 1997 and April 16, 1997). [New York Times, 12/2/1997]
Lawyers for FBI laboratory employees send an urgent letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft alleging that a key prosecution witness in the trial of accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997 and June 11-13, 1997) may have lied during McVeigh’s trial. The accusations center around Steven Burmeister, now the FBI laboratory’s chief of scientific analysis, who testified that the FBI crime lab found residues of explosives on the clothing that McVeigh was wearing when he was arrested after the bomb exploded (see 9:03 a.m. -- 10:17 a.m. April 19, 1995). The letter reads in part, “Material evidence presented by the government in the OKBOMB prosecution through the testimony of Mr. Burmeister appears to be false, misleading, and potentially fabricated,” referring to testimony Burmeister had given in an unrelated civil case, which contradicted his testimony in the McVeigh case; Burmeister had talked about the restrictions on his work area and the requirement that laboratory employees wear protective clothing. The letter is sent to Ashcroft by fax and by courier with the notation “urgent matter for the immediate attention of the attorney general.” The letter will sit in Ashcroft’s clerical office for nearly two months before being turned over to the FBI. Justice Department spokesperson Barbara Comstock will say that neither Ashcroft nor other top department officials ever saw the letter, and it was never reviewed to determine if it should be given to McVeigh’s lawyers. Prosecutors used Burmeister’s testimony to determine the exact composition of the bomb McVeigh used to bring down the Murrah Federal Building and kill 168 people. The judge in the trial, Richard P. Matsch, refused to allow McVeigh’s lawyers to hear criticisms of the crime lab’s evidence handling (see January 27, 1997 and May 20, 1997). The accusations against Burmeister were never given to McVeigh’s lawyers, even as a judge was weighing the option to delay McVeigh’s execution because the government failed to turn over other evidence (see May 10-11, 2001, May 16, 2001, and June 1-7, 2001). The letter is later turned over to the lawyers of convicted bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (see December 23, 1997, June 4, 1998, and May 15, 2001), who will face 160 counts of murder in an upcoming trial by the State of Oklahoma (see September 5, 2001). [New York Times, 5/1/2003]
The Associated Press reveals that 10 days before the execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see June 2, 1997, June 11-13, 1997, and 7:14 a.m. June 11, 2001), lawyers for FBI laboratory employees sent an urgent letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, saying that a prosecution witness in the McVeigh trial, forensic expert Steven Burmeister, may have lied on the stand (see June 11, 2001). The letter was never given to McVeigh’s lawyers. McVeigh’s former lawyer Stephen Jones says, “It is truly shocking and just the latest revelation of government conduct that bankrupts the prosecution, investigation, and verdict.” Justice Department spokesperson Barbara Comstock says she does not believe the allegations, even if true, would have affected the outcome of the trial, saying, “Court after court has found that the evidence of guilt against McVeigh was overwhelming.” FBI officials call the allegations against Burmeister specious. FBI laboratory director Dwight Adams says: “It didn’t happen. Steve Burmeister is one of the FBI’s finest experts. He is meticulous and honest.” [New York Times, 5/1/2003]
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