EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains graphic language.
A federal jury has found Jerry Drake Varnell guilty of charges he attempted to blow up a bank building in Oklahoma City as part of an FBI sting operation.
Varnell’s family left the courtroom in tears on Monday after the verdict was read.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours Monday afternoon before returning the guilty verdicts, finding Varnell guilty of attempting to use an explosive device to damage a building in interstate commerce and of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property used in interstate commerce.
He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for the first count and a maximum sentence of 20 years for the second count. He will return to court later for formal sentencing.
In closing arguments, Varnell’s attorney Marna Franklin painted a picture of Varnell as a lonely, troubled young man who was easily influenced by government agents to take part in the bomb plot.
The year of Varnell’s arrest was arguably the worst year of his life, Franklin said. His wife left him for another man and he had to withdraw from college classes due to mental illness.
Varnell has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and experiences delusional thinking and paranoia, she said.
An FBI informant, Brent Elisens, who posed as Varnell’s friend, also plied him with marijuana, further influencing him to take part in the bomb plot, Franklin said.
Elisens and Varnell smoked marijuana in each of their meetings, although the FBI instructed Elisens not to do anything illegal. The FBI later admonished Elisens for smoking marijuana with Varnell.
“This was a bomb plot invented by the FBI,” Franklin said. “They took a 22-year old schizophrenic who has paranoid tendencies and dupe him into following through with their operational plan.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Dillon argued that Varnell spoke of wanting to overthrow the government and build bombs online long before the FBI ever became involved. Dillon read several messages that Varnell sent to Elisens where he talked about blowing up banks and other buildings.
“It’s time to bomb some f------ banks,” Varnell said in one written exchange.
During his final words to jurors, Dillon showed a still image taken from surveillance video of the night of the FBI sting operation. Varnell is grinning widely in the picture.
“Look at the smile on his face,” Dillon said. “Does that look like somebody who doesn’t want to be there?”
During the two-week, trial jurors heard testimony from Elisens, a paid informant who said Varnell wanted to blow up a building to spark an anti-government revolt after the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
“F--- Trump, F--- monopolies, shit needs to burn” Elisens testified Varnell wrote in one message.
Varnell initially said he wanted to blow up the Federal Reserve building in Washington D.C. or a large data center, but eventually settled on the the BancFirst building in Oklahoma City.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy DeGiusti earlier rejected a motion to dismiss Varnell’s charges on the grounds of outrageous government conduct, but instructed the jury they could consider entrapment as a defense against the charges.
According to the defense, Elisens and the FBI took advantage of Varnell’s severe mental illness and plied him with marijuana to ensnare him in a elaborate counter-terrorism sting operation.
FBI Agent Eric Larsen testified that Elisens had been admonished for smoking marijuana with Varnell during the sting operation. Covert recordings Elisens made of his conversations with Varnell are punctuated with the sound of coughing and smoking pot.
Varnell’s attorneys claim he lacked the skill or wherewithal to follow through with a bomb plot. His mother testified that Varnell had struggled with mental illness and delusional thinking since adolescence. He has variously been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.
Varnell, 24, was arrested in an elaborate FBI sting operation in August 2017 after he built what he thought was an ammonium nitrate bomb in a cargo van, parked in a cargo bay at the BancFirst building and tried to detonate it at the direction of federal agents. The bomb materials—all supplied by federal agents—were inert.