Clarification: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the reason for Brent Elisens’ early release from prison. He was released from federal custody several months early on credits for time spent in jail that hadn’t been applied to any other sentence.
In May 2017, the FBI loaned a Lexus to an aspiring computer hacker with a criminal history and sent him to talk to a friend in rural western Oklahoma.
A federal agent told Brent Allen Elisens, 31, not to smoke weed in the Lexus and instructed him to get Jerry Drake Varnell, 24, on tape talking about how to make a bomb big enough to blow up a five-story building.
“Don’t limit yourself to filling the trunk of a Toyota,” one of the agents told Elisens. “If he wants a Ryder truck filled with 1,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil and [detonation] cord , we can do that.”
Elisens gushed over the Lexus, but wanted the FBI to buy him a car.
“Are they really gonna get me some wheels?” he asked.
“If you get what you say you’re gonna give — I’m just telling you man, a floodgate will open on shit we need you to do,” the federal agent replied.
With Elisens’ help, the FBI constructed an elaborate sting operation that involved Varnell building an inert bomb in a cargo van and parking it outside a bank building on a weekend when it was closed. Much of the FBI’s initial investigation of Varnell was based on evidence provided by Elisens, a convicted felon with a history of mental illness.
“Brent built their case,” said Varnell’s mother, Melonie Varnell. “They had no case without him. And he is mentally ill.”
The Frontier obtained recordings of one of Elisens’ conversations with a federal agent and another recording of a conversation Elisen taped with Varnell talking about making a bomb. The recordings were filed as a court exhibit in Varnell’s ongoing criminal case.
Varnell faces up to life in prison for allegedly attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in a plot to blow up a bank building in downtown Oklahoma City.
Elisens claims the FBI paid him between $15,000 and $16,000 in cash for his work on the Varnell case. He said the last payment he received for his participation was $10,000.
The FBI gave Elisens the code name “Roadrunner” for the sting operation.
Though documents the FBI has filed in court confirm Elisens was paid for his work as an informant, The Frontier was not able to verify the amount of the payments.
‘Once I have steady contact with him, I can help you build your case’
Elisens was facing up to nine months in federal prison when he told the FBI about a guy he met online who wanted to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank building in Washington D.C.
At the time Elisens contacted the FBI about Varnell, he was in federal custody for violating the terms of his probation in connection with a 2010 conviction for making a bomb threat to the Norman Police Department.
The probation violations included losing his job, smoking marijuana and abruptly leaving Oklahoma to live in the wilderness in New Mexico, according to court documents.
Elisens said he did not trade information about Varnell in exchange for getting out of prison. Records show he was released from federal custody several months early. His federal public defender said Elisens was released early on credits for time he had already spent in custody that hadn’t previously been applied to any other sentence—not for cooperating with law enforcement.
“Once I have steady contact with him, I can build your case for you,” Elisens told federal agents.
He gave federal investigators a series of screenshots of online conversations with Varnell, sent via an encrypted messaging app. However, an FBI agent was not able to view the original messages using the encryption keys Elisens provided, according to court documents.
“I’m out for blood. When militias start getting formed I’m going after government officials when I have a team,” Varnell allegedly wrote to Elisens.
Varnell’s attorney has asked for the indictment against Varnell to be dismissed on the grounds the FBI’s initial interest in investigating her client was based largely on screenshots of text messages Elisens provided that could have been digitally altered.
Elisens also told the FBI that Varnell had a secret bunker rigged with electricity and filled with food and supplies on his family’s property in Sayre. However, Varnell’s family contends the alleged bunker was really just an old shipping container they used for storage.
“(Elisens) was given full reign to build a case against Mr. Varnell with the full power and force of federal law enforcement at his back,” attorney Marna Franklin wrote in a court filing.
Melonie Varnell said she didn’t like her son hanging out with Elisens. The family calls Varnell by his middle name—Drake.
“I kept telling Drake there’s something wrong with him— I don’t want him here,” she said.
In the recording of Elisens’ conversation with Varnell, the two men smoked marijuana with Varnell’s girlfriend and talked about possibly blowing up a data center or a large server farm. The recording was made at the Varnell family ranch in Sayre.
“If you could find the servers for Facebook, you could shut down the whole motherfucker for a while,” Varnell said.
The recording of the conversation between Elisens and Varnell is punctuated with what sounds like numerous bong hits. Varnell and his girlfriend describe feeling very high.
“Oh my God, you want to smoke more?” Varnell exclaims at one point in the conversation as Elisens attempts to offer up more marijuana.
Elisens then pressed Varnell for details about how he would build a bomb and what materials he would need.
As part of the sting, an undercover FBI agent posed as a disgruntled college professor who would provide money and materials for the bomb making plot.
“I need to know what I need to do like as far as the ammonium nitrate,” Elisens told Varnell. “How much do we need to get? I need to know what I need to do so we can continue moving forward.”
Federal agents swooped in to arrest Varnell in August after he dialed a number on a cell phone he was led to believe would detonate the fake bomb, parked in a rented van outside the BancFirst building in downtown Oklahoma City.
Melonie Varnell says her son has struggled with severe mental illness since he was a teenager. He’s been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and his parents have legal guardianship over him.
She believes her son’s mental illness made him an easy target for the sting operation.
“He has a voice who talks to him all the time, but there’s nothing anti-government to him,” Melonie Varnell said. “When things are really bad, the voice takes over.”
Despite his history of mental illness, a federal magistrate found Varnell mentally competent to stand trial.
Informant has history of mental illness, convictions for threats and harassment
Elisens left Oklahoma after his involvement with the Varnell case and has since spent time in New York and Florida. He now claims to be in Europe. Elisens would not agree to a phone interview with The Frontier, but answered questions in a series of Facebook messages.
“The bad guys play the good guys and the truth doesn’t matter,” Elisens said. “Innocent and guilt aren’t by definition. When everyone manipulates the system what the fuck is the point of having it. Who can manipulate it better? The difference between them and I? I admit my fuckups.”
Elisens said he regrets 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.
“At the end of the day he pressed the button. Three times,” Elisens said about Varnell. “If he is successful at suicide, he’d be one of the lucky ones and I envy him.”
Like Varnell, Elisens has a history of mental illness. He also has multiple criminal convictions for harassment, violating protective orders and making threats.
At least three women have filed for protective orders against Elisens in Oklahoma, according to court records.
In 2017, Elisens pleaded no contest in Cleveland County District Court to charges of placing a harassing phone call and threatening to perform an act of violence after he allegedly called one woman 263 times in a single day after she asked him to stop. Another victim told police Elisens called her and said “I’m gonna come over there and kill all you motherfuckers.”
Since parting ways with the FBI, Elisens has gone public about his involvement in the case.
Reporter Meg Wingerter interviewed Elisens for a story that appeared in The Oklahoman in December. But he was displeased when the resulting article mentioned his criminal history. Wingerter later called Oklahoma City police and reported receiving threatening communications from Elisens, but he was never arrested or charged. Wingerter said Elisens mainly expressed that he was unhappy with the story, and she reported the emails to police as a precaution in case the situation escalated.
Elisens has also launched a website about his involvement in the Varnell case, which includes recordings he made of conversations with FBI agents, as well as recordings of his various court appearances and information about the woman who have filed protective orders against him.
“Varnell had no resources, no materials, no means to pull off this fake data center bombing,” Elisens wrote on his website. “….We set him up and I got paid well for it.”
Elisens claims on his website to be a computer hacker who wanted to work for the FBI to uncover child pornography rings. He also has appeared as a guest twice on the podcast TNT Tanya Talks to discuss the Varnell case.
Podcast host Tanya Hathaway believes Elisens truly regrets cooperating with the FBI and now wants the world to know the truth about the case.
“He feels he made a mistake and now he’s trying to do the right thing,” she said. “He’s a whistleblower.”
Varnell hospitalized, accused of assaulting jail guard
Varnell hasn’t been doing well in jail.
He’s being held at Grady County Law Enforcement Center in Chickasha while awaiting trial, where he’s had to be hospitalized once for for self-harm.
After arriving at the facility, Varnell was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks and put into a “trunnel,” a body restraint device designed to keep inmates from committing suicide, according to court records.
Varnell is also facing a felony charge of assault and battery of a police officer in Grady County after a scuffle with jail guards.
According to a court affidavit, Varnell punched a jail guard in the eye so hard the man’s contact lens flew out.
A jailer tried to use his taser on Varnell, but claimed it had no effect on him.
Varnell claims he acted in self defense.
The guard had to get stitches. Varnell was treated for bruises on his face and eye after the fight.
After the fight, Varnell was placed in solitary confinement again and the jail guards took his glasses away, which he needs to see and read court documents to aide his defense, his parents claim.
His parents have petitioned the court to have Varnell moved into the medical wing of the jail and receive treatment for his mental health. The jail psychiatrist has refused to raise the dosage on his antipsychotic medication, according to court documents.
A call to the federal liaison at the Grady County jail was not returned.
Melonie Varnell fears her son’s mental state will continue to deteriorate before his upcoming trial if he doesn’t get adequate treatment.
“I am scared to death we are going to go into trial in less than a month and his mental state is not going to be there,” she said. “Mentally, I think he’s going to give up.”
Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. To become a Friend of The Frontier, click here.