Indiana city awaits McVeigh execution with fear

Thursday, April 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) _ In little more than a month, Terre Haute's schools will close for the day, just to be safe. Some people will get out of town. Death penalty supporters and foes will rally in the shadows of the watchtowers and barbed-wire fence of the U.S. Penitentiary.

This self-proclaimed City of Character is nervously preparing for the May 16 execution of Timothy McVeigh.

``I'm fearful. I can't believe that he's going to go out without something happening,'' said Loretta Johnson, who lives across the street from the prison. She is so worried that she recently installed a powerful light in her back yard.

McVeigh, 32, is set to die by lethal injection for the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil _ the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. It will be the first execution carried out by the U.S. government since 1963.

Many people in and around this quiet city of 60,000 cannot wait for May 16 to pass.

``I just think it's really almost going to paralyze, in a sense, the whole city,'' said Sister Rita Clare Gerardot of the Sisters of Providence.

When McVeigh's execution date was set, all 1,600 hotel rooms in the city were booked within hours. In addition to protesters, hundred of journalists and their satellite trucks are expected to descend on Terre Haute. People will no doubt sell T-shirts. And a grocery store plans to peddle shish kebabs in the parking lot, calling it a ``McVeigh special.''

Some residents plan to leave town, worried about crowds or even the possibility McVeigh's execution will spark another act of terrorism.

``We really don't know who's coming to Terre Haute that week,'' said Sheriff Bill Harris.

The time of day the execution will be held has not been announced. But the 16,500-student Vigo County school system decided to close all 30 of its schools on May 16.

``We're not exactly sure what's going to happen in the community,'' said Ray Azar, the school system's student services assistant. ``But we didn't want to take any chances, and we don't want the students getting caught in the middle of anything.''

Among other things, the move frees up more than a dozen police officers who work in Terre Haute schools.

The sheriff's department has worked with the Terre Haute police and federal agencies to work out security procedures, including placing patrols on all roads leading into the county.

Harris said 25 of his 37 officers will be on prison detail on May 16, and all law enforcement personnel will work extended shifts in the week leading up to the execution.

``We've canceled vacations,'' the sheriff said. ``Everybody will be working at least one of their scheduled days off. It's probably the biggest law enforcement effort that we've experienced in our county.''

The planning for this day began when McVeigh was moved to Terre Haute along with the 19 other federal death row inmates in 1999. The Indiana city was selected by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for the federal death row because of its central location.

Up to this point, the main thing Terre Haute has been identified with is basketball star Larry Bird, who played here at Indiana State University in the 1970s. Since then, the city has grown into a major retail center for the surrounding rural counties, with rows of shopping centers. It also has a variety of business and manufacturing employers, from mail-order music company Columbia House to tractor-trailer manufacturer Great Dane.

While Terre Haute residents appreciate the prison as a major employer, with a work force of about 500, some would prefer not to be associated with executions.

``I think it's going to be a real difficult type of challenge for the community,'' Azar said. ``The federal penitentiary is not something we want to be famous for.''

Joan Grubba plans to take her family out of town on execution day for fear of trouble. She is also wrestling with how to explain to her 6-year-old, Olivia, why school is canceled, and why everyone is talking about a man being killed in Terre Haute.

``I should really have an answer ready,'' Grubba said, walking Olivia and her 4-year-old sister, Celia, along the banks of the Wabash River. ``But I don't. It's just kind of a morbid thing.''

Roy Rogers, who owns a gift shop within sight of the prison, said: ``I think the community accepts the fact that it has to be done. We were chosen, and we'll do our best to live up to our commitment''