SALEM, Ore. — People who knew Bruce Turnidge and his son say they loved their guns, hated President Obama, and fantasized about starting a militia and a tent city in the woods for people who shared their radical beliefs.
Prosecutors say they acted on their anger at the government by planting a bomb that blew up inside a small-town bank in 2008, killing two police officers and maiming a third.
The father and son are on trial in Oregon in a case that has painted a picture of a rural underworld of hatred and resentment in which the defendants blamed their troubles on a government bent on taking their guns and freedom.
Bruce Turnidge regularly lectured anyone who would listen about the need for citizens to be armed to defend their freedom, and cheered the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, according to testimony. His son, Joshua, shared similar views and spoke of robbing a bank to raise the money to keep their biodiesel business afloat.
“The catalyst was the election of Barack Obama in 2008,” prosecutor Katie Suver said at the start of the trial in September.
She said both men believed the Obama administration would crack down on their rights to own guns. The attack occurred about a month after Obama was elected.
Though the two are on trial together, they have turned against each other in their defenses against aggravated murder charges that could send them to death row. Defense lawyers believe the Turnidge’s political beliefs should have no bearing on the trial, and contend the bomb wouldn’t have detonated had officers not bungled the response.
Bruce Turnidge, 58, was the son of a prominent mint farmer in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley. He was forced to go out on his own at 18 when his father lost the farm.
In the 1990s he and a group of like-minded men approached a Salem businessman for a loan to buy military-grade weapons. Richard Faith testified that he didn’t share their beliefs and turned them down, though he later gave Turnidge a loan to buy an onion farm in northern Nevada.
Gail Lambert went to church with Bruce Turnidge in Orovada, Nev. She testified that Turnidge often sat “like a ticking time bomb” during adult Sunday school, his chin in his hand, only to erupt to loudly declare people needed to rise up and take power back from the government.
“Bruce said that Timothy McVeigh was a hero,” she testified.
Melodie Chasteen, once Joshua Turnidge’s girlfriend, told jurors that during a dinner at Bruce Turnidge’s home, father and son both exulted in news of the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing that killed 168 people. She said Bruce Turnidge pumped his fist in the air and “cheered like it was a football game.”
Bruce Turnidge eventually lost the Nevada farm, and returned to the Willamette Valley, where he and his son started a business turning used restaurant frying oil into biodiesel for farm tractors.
Marissa Sherwood, who ran the office for BD Oil, testified both men feared the Obama administration would crack down on gun owners, and that financial hardship forced Joshua Turnidge to pawn his guns.
“It meant a lot to him to have his guns,” she said.
Joshua Turnidge, 34, more than once talked about robbing a bank to bail out the business, though she never imagined it would happen, Sherwood testified.
The prosecution has finished presenting its case, and the defense began calling its witnesses this week. Joshua Turnidge is expected to take the stand Monday.
Defense lawyers maintain the bomb never would have gone off if state police bomb technician Bill Hakim had not mistaken it for a hoax and tried to take it apart.
Hakim died along with Woodburn Police Lt. Tom Tennant. Police Chief Scott Russell lost a leg.
The son’s attorney has contended the bomb was the result of the father finally going through with one of his hare-brained schemes.
In opening arguments, Steve Krasik told the jury that soon after the bombing, Joshua saw his father in the barn, mumbling that “Nobody was supposed to get hurt,” leading Joshua to believe his dad had something to do with the bombing. Pat Turnidge testified his brother had said something similar in a frantic phone call.
The father’s lawyer has argued the son, aware DNA evidence linked him to a cell phone left behind as part of the bomb plot, was trying to throw blame on his father.
The bomb went off at the West Coast bank in the little town of Woodburn on Dec. 12, 2008.
A bomb threat was phoned in earlier that day to the Wells Fargo Bank branch next door. Police found a bundle of plastic garbage bags and a disposable cell phone left behind that bank.
Police then found a green metal box in some bushes at the West Coast Bank. Curious bank employees tipped it over and saw a wire sticking out.
Hakim took a good look at it. Despite being unable to get his X-ray equipment to show what was inside, he decided it was a hoax and took it to the bank lobby to take it apart. Tennant and Russell stayed to watch.
A bank employee was on her way out when she heard Hakim say, “There, I got it,” just before the bomb went off. Jurors watched silent video that went from Hakim bending over the box, Christmas decorations on the hearth next to him, to billows of dense smoke.
Prosecutors maintain Hakim did not set off the bomb. They called an expert who testified it was accidentally detonated by radio waves from a garage door opener or a passing truck driver.
Police quickly tracked down the Turnidges from the cell phone found with the garbage bags, arresting the son and going to the father’s house on a farm in the community of Jefferson. They found loaded guns throughout the house and evidence linked to the bomb thrown into the Santiam River.
Sitting in his living room while police searched, Bruce Turnidge extolled his anti-government views as an FBI agent kept an eye on him.
“Bruce started talking about the Second Amendment and citizens’ rights to carry firearms,” Special Agent George Chamberlin testified. “Bruce talked at length that the government should fear the people and that the people should not fear the government.”
Turnidge also spoke about the origins of a racial slur, adding, “Now we have one in the White House, ” Chamberlin testified.