In August 2017, FBI explosives experts built and detonated a 1,000-pound ammonium nitrate bomb in a field dotted with wildflowers at Kansas military base. The bomb, made from two garbage cans, and the ensuing explosion were part of the FBI’s case against a man accused of plotting to blow up a bank building in downtown Oklahoma City.
An attorney for Jerry Drake Varnell, 24, is trying to keep testimony about the Kansas explosion out of his trial, arguing video of the blast would unfairly prejudice a jury.
Varnell is accused of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction to blow up the BancFirst building in downtown Oklahoma City in 2017. He was arrested in an elaborate FBI sting operation after he unwittingly built a fake bomb and tried to detonate it at the direction of federal agents.
The case is scheduled for trial in federal court Feb. 12 in Oklahoma City. Varnell faces a possible life sentence if convicted.
Images of the Fort Riley blast filed in court show a large orange fireball surrounded by bits of flying shrapnel and billowing black smoke.
In court documents, Varnell’s attorney argues that the Fort Riley bomb — built by skilled FBI weapons experts — is a completely different device than the fake bomb Varnell made in a rented cargo van with the help of an undercover FBI agent before his arrest.
Varnell has a long history of mental health problems and his parents have legal guardianship over him.
“Mr. Varnell is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction that he never had or had the capability to build,” attorney Marna Franklin argued in a motion to keep a jury from seeing images of the Fort Riley blast. “Showing the jury diagrams, photos and videos of an actual bomb exploding will demonstrate something that never could have happened in this case.”
Franklin is also trying to keep the federal government from presenting evidence on how many people were staying at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel a few blocks away from the bank building the night of the sting operation.
Varnell planned to detonate the bomb in the early morning hours on a Saturday when the bank building was closed. The government contends Varnell’s fake bomb could have killed or injured more than 300 people staying at the Skirvin the weekend of the sting operation — including a wedding party.
Franklin did not respond to an interview request.
Varnell is one of more than 300 people who have been arrested in FBI counter-terrorism sting operations since the 9/11 attacks. Many cases — including Varnell’s — have involved the use of paid informants.
An informant who played a critical role in the sting operation to catch Varnell is now in federal custody and is expected to testify at Varnell’s upcoming trial.
U.S. Marshals arrested former Norman resident Brent Allen Elisens, 32, in upstate New York in December. Considered a flight risk and a somewhat reluctant witness, Elisens is being held at the Logan County jail in Guthrie until the trial.
Elisens had been secretive about his whereabouts in the months leading up to his arrest and there was some question about whether the federal government could produce him to testify at Varnell’s trial.
On Facebook, Elisens claimed to have been hiding out in Europe. Court records show he spent several months in Melbourne, Florida, where a warrant for his arrest has been issued for the crime of extortion unrelated to his involvement in the Varnell case.
Much of the FBI’s initial investigation of Varnell was based on evidence provided by Elisens, who has a lengthy criminal record and history of mental illness. The government paid him for his work on the case.
Elisens made covert recordings of Varnell talking about explosives and also introduced him to an undercover FBI agent who promised to help him get materials to make a bomb.
Federal agents arrested Varnell in August 2017 at an Oklahoma City gas station after he dialed a number on a cell phone he was led to believe would detonate the inert bomb, parked a few miles away.
In a series of Facebook messages last year, Elisens told The Frontier that he regretted participating in the FBI sting operation and said he only gave law enforcement information about Varnell because he feared his friend would harm other people.
A federal judge in New York ruled in December that the government can hold Elisens in jail to ensure he shows up to testify at Varnell’s trial. Elisens’ mental health problems and history of evading law enforcement make it likely he wouldn’t otherwise show up for court, the judge ruled.
Elisens has been hospitalized for mental health issues at least four times in the past and has been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, social anxiety and trichotillomania, according to the order.
When apprehended in New York, Elisens “confronted representatives of the United States Marshals Service Regional Fugitive Task Force with a knife and then ran, leading them on a foot chase during which Elisens and officers rolled down a steep embankment and he actively resisted and refused to be voluntarily handcuffed, resulting in injury to at least one of the arresting officers,” according to court documents.