OKC bombing suspect was 'typical' probationer on prior case
Oklahoma City — Prosecutors are scheduled to present evidence on Tuesday against Jerry Drake Varnell, who allegedly tried to detonate an inert bomb in downtown Oklahoma City.
Varnell, 23, was arrested by the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force after he allegedly dialed a cellphone that he thought would detonate a 1,000-pound bomb in a van near the BancFirst building early Saturday. The person who assisted him in building the fake bomb was an undercover FBI agent.
Varnell currently is in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service. A judge could set or deny bond in a detention hearing, also set for Tuesday. A federal grand jury is expected to consider an indictment against him within the next 30 days.
Terri Coulter, Varnell's court-appointed attorney, declined to comment on the case.
It isn't clear whether Varnell may pursue an insanity defense, but he did report a history of schizoaffective disorder in court documents from a prior domestic violence case. He pleaded no contest after strangling his then-wife in 2013. The couple divorced in 2016.
Bailey Weis, communications and policy adviser at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said Varnell successfully completed probation, including getting required mental health treatment. He was discharged from probation in October 2016, and it isn't clear whether he continued to receive treatment after state supervision ended.
The Elk City office, which supervised Varnell, reported he was a “typical” probationer, Weis said. His record included a few missed check-ins, which he followed up on promptly and no major violations such as new crimes, she said.
Specific information about the treatment he was told to undergo isn't public, but Weis said a probation officer would have checked in with the providers treating him at least monthly to assure he was participating. Treatment is based on the offender's individual problems, such as trouble managing anger, she said.
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“It wasn't just the word of the probationer,” she said.
Much remains unknown about Varnell's mental state at the time he came to the attention of the FBI. Family members took to social media to defend him and suggested investigators had led him into cooperating with a plot.
In a Facebook post that was later deleted, Cade Varnell, who identified himself as Jerry Varnell's brother, said law enforcement lured his mentally ill brother into the scheme.
“My brother is schizophrenic and the FBI brought him the van loaded with explosives. Good job America,” Cade Varnell wrote.
The criminal complaint told a different story, citing text messages that indicated Jerry Varnell was angry with the government and wanted to bomb federal and bank buildings, including the Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C.
Varnell said he wanted to "Somehow cripple the government," according to an FBI affidavit. "Something that sends a message that says, 'you are a target.'"
Ragy Girgis, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, said it isn't clear whether people with symptoms of some serious mental illnesses are any more vulnerable to extremist ideas than the general population. He added that he couldn't discuss Varnell's case.
“I'm not sure if anyone knows the answer on that,” he said.
Art Rousseau, an Oklahoma City psychiatrist in private practice, said he couldn't speculate on what Varnell experienced, but very few people with schizoaffective disorder act violently.
The disorder causes both thought and mood problems. A person can experience hallucinations or delusions, like those seen in patients with schizophrenia, as well as symptoms of depression or mania, Rousseau said.
A 2008 article in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment estimated between 0.2 percent and 1.1 percent of Americans experience schizoaffective disorder. Pinning down how common it is can be difficult, because the disorder can resemble other illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some specialists think schizoaffective disorder isn't a separate condition, but a combination of other illnesses.
Symptoms can “wax and wane” over a person's lifetime, Rousseau said, but many patients respond well to medications. Some people can stabilize with one of the more-recently developed antipsychotic medications, he said, while others need multiple drugs.
“It is something that is individualized to the patient,” he said.
With appropriate treatment, most people with schizoaffective disorder can have healthy lives, including work, school and relationships, Rousseau said. Patients are at a higher risk of suicide than the general population when their symptoms aren't under control, but aren't more likely to harm others.
“Just because someone has this disorder doesn't mean they're going to be violent,” he said.
People with mental illnesses drive only a small percentage of violent crimes — alcohol and other drugs are much more likely to be implicated, Girgis said. Untreated hallucinations and delusions can be a risk factor for violence, he said, though only a professional examining a defendant can know if they were a factor in a particular case.
The most important thing the general public can do is to keep an eye out for signs that a loved one may be struggling, Girgis said. If a person is struggling at work or school, has withdrawn from other people or has stopped tending to his hygiene, that person may need treatment, regardless of his risk of violence, he said.
A professional can evaluate what treatment the person needs to prevent his symptoms from escalating, and avert danger to the patient or others, Girgis said. Screening patients for signs that they are having violent thoughts needs to be as much a part of standard practice as asking about thoughts of suicide, he said.
People who are in the early stages of psychosis may experience thoughts of violence that they find very disturbing, Girgis said. They don't consider those thoughts to be their own and may believe that someone else is controlling their minds, he said. People resist those thoughts, but sometimes they become emotionally overwhelmed as illnesses changes their brains.
“That's when people tend to act,” he said.
Contributing: Staff Writer Kyle Schwab
Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›