He filed dozens of federal Freedom of Information Act requests about his case, though responses were slow in coming, if at all.

Ortloff waited. He had nothing but time.

In August 1987, a newly elected U.S. senator from Arizona named John McCain wrote on behalf of Kathleen Smith's family to the federal Parole Commission. McCain wanted to know when Ortloff would be eligible for parole.

Fred Tokars (foreground) broke down when a jury spared his life in the 1992 murder of his wife, Sara.
Atlanta Journal - Constitution
Fred Tokars (foreground) broke down when a jury spared his life in the 1992 murder of his wife, Sara.
Superior Court Judge Warren Granville, who is presiding at Robert Ortloff's murder trial.
Superior Court Judge Warren Granville, who is presiding at Robert Ortloff's murder trial.

Details

E-mail paul.rubin@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8433.

The commission advised the senator that it didn't even have a file yet on Ortloff because he wouldn't even be considered for parole until 1999.

That October, the Smith family filed a wrongful-death civil lawsuit against Ortloff in Maricopa County.

The Smiths prevailed when Ortloff failed to appear in court — the guy was in prison, after all — and a judge ordered him to pay $400,000 in damages (with interest, that sum now is more than $1 million).

Though Robert Ortloff wasn't about to be freed anytime soon, authorities in Arizona hadn't forgotten the Kathleen Smith murder case.

In early 1988, someone from the FBI's Phoenix office sent a memo to FBI Dallas stating:

"FBI Phoenix has a police cooperation case in which Tempe PD considers Robert Ortloff a prime suspect in the murder of his business partner Kathleen Smith. Will direct all informants toward Ortloff in an effort to ascertain any information of the subjects involved in the murder of Kathleen Smith."


By the end of the 1980s, Robert Ortloff's Freedom of Information requests started to trickle into his prison mailbox.

One was a highly censored FBI report about the Phoenix postal clerk who had handled the Fort Hood bomb package in January 1986.

Though names had been blacked out, the report showed that an FBI agent and a postal inspector had spoken to the clerk shortly after the bombing and she had recalled the transaction with a white or Hispanic man.

The feds later handed the clerk a photo lineup that included Ortloff's picture, but she didn't pick out their suspect in the bombing.

Some in the FBI wanted to compel Ortloff to attend a live lineup, but that never happened.

Instead, the government hid the existence of the postal clerk — who could have helped Ortloff's quest for a "reasonable doubt" verdict in his favor — until well after the conviction.

Ortloff also received redacted government paperwork that hinted how FBI explosives expert Tom Thurman might have wrongfully concluded that Ortloff's prints had come from the bomb package.

The paperwork included previously undisclosed statements of medical personnel at the Fort Hood bombing who had noted yellow tissue paper strewn about Specialist Gulczynski's room.

The import was, the government maintained that Anna Carpenter had filled her harmless package — the one that authorities blew up in the latrine — with yellow paper, and that the exploded bomb box in Gulczynski's room was stuffed with brown paper.

The FBI crime lab apparently hadn't analyzed the yellow paper for fingerprints or anything else before destroying it.

By 1992, Ortloff's evolving "theory" in his legal pleadings was that materials from the bomb package had been mixed in with Carpenter's benign package (where his fingerprints definitely could have been, since she'd put it together at his flower shop).

His more malevolent hypothesis was that the government had deliberately engaged in a bait-and-switch of the two sets of packing materials to fabricate evidence against him.

In May 1993, Ortloff submitted a "2255 habeas corpus" petition with trial judge Walter Smith (the number refers to the federal statute), asking for reconsideration of his case based on newly discovered evidence and on other grounds.

Federal prisoners frequently file such petitions, but their success rate is exceedingly low.

Judge Smith quickly dismissed the petition, citing the "overwhelming evidence" against Ortloff, and an appellate court upheld the judge in December 1994.

At the time, the notion of a convicted mail-bomber winning a legal battle against the FBI crime lab and its highly respected and agent Tom Thurman seemed absurd.

Back in June 1991, ABC News had selected Thurman its Person of the Week for his work on the Pan Am 103 crash in Lockerbie, Scotland.

By 1996, Thurman's reputation had grown to almost mythic proportions, and he had been promoted to chief of the FBI's Explosives Unit and Bomb Data Center.

That July, a story in the New York Daily News about Thurman began, "He is the feds' secret weapon in the battle for answers to the crash of TWA Flight 800."

An assistant FBI director said of Thurman in that story, "I want the best guy we have and he is the best guy we have."

But all the accolades ended the following January, when national headlines broke news of a long-brewing scandal inside the FBI crime lab.

Senior explosives expert turned whistleblower Dr. Frederic Whitehurst claimed that lab examiners, including Thurman, had doctored reports, fabricated testimony, and handled evidence sloppily in cases that included the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

One FBI agent wrote of Thurman in an internal memo, "It is clear that [he] does not understand the scientific issues involved with the interpretation and significance of explosives and explosives residue composition . . . Thurman committed errors which were clearly intentional. He acted irresponsibly. He should be held accountable."

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4 comments
bill w.
bill w.

Alan Bell is a well known attorney to myself and other colleagues of mine. He has a sterling reputation as an ethical and dedicated lawyer. His many accomplishments are impressive. He is also a distinguished philanthropist.

KW
KW

I'll always love you Fred. Call me. Remember who you are and that all good intentions get twisted in this day and age.

test
test

test comment

wacokid
wacokid

Fred Tokars is an honest man with a lot of personal integrity. Those closest to him, and there are many, know him to be a true friend, patient, gracious, and forgiving. I will always love this true friend and miss him forever.

 
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