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Copyright 1995 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

May 7, 1995, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 7;  Page 28;  Column 1;  Book Review Desk 

LENGTH: 819 words

HEADLINE: The Mind of the Bomber

BYLINE:  By Reed Massengill;   Reed Massengill is the author of "Portrait of a Racist," a biography of Byron De La Beckwith.


By Mark Winne.
Illustrated. 317 pp. New York:
A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner. $23.

THE bloody aftermath of a bombing has never been more graphic -- and its tragedy rarely more felt -- than in the case of the attack a little more than two weeks ago on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. As we struggle to understand, each fragment of information about the accused helps us grapple with the crime and its impact.

In Oklahoma City, the target seems to have been the Federal Government, and the bomb came disguised as a rental truck. Often, the bomber's vehicle is even more ordinary, like the small, heavy package, believed to be from the Unabomber, that killed the chief lobbyist for a California forest-products trade group late last month. In the case of Walter Leroy Moody Jr. -- the protagonist of Mark Winne's "Priority Mail" -- bombs also came in brown paper packages; they bore stamps depicting Yosemite National Park and were delivered by United States mail carriers to offices and homes across the Southeastern United States.

"Priority Mail" is the story of a highly publicized series of 1989 mail bombings targeting lawyers, officials of the N.A.A.C.P. and judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Mr. Moody was ultimately convicted of those bombings; "Priority Mail" is Mr. Winne's attempt to do what we wished was possible in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing -- understand the mind of the bomber.

Mr. Moody is drawn as a perpetually litigious, Elvis-coiffed ne'er-do-well whose aspirations sharply exceeded his abilities. Even his defense attorney characterized him to jurors as "a most unpleasant fellow." He seems cut from the same peculiar fabric as some of the distinctly Southern racists whose earlier crimes were resurrected after many years -- notably Byron De La Beckwith, convicted last year for the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, and J. B. Stoner, convicted in 1980 for the 1958 bombing of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

It was a botched 1972 mail bombing, directed at the used car dealer who repossessed his 1967 MGB roadster, that came back to haunt Mr. Moody. Mr. Moody's first wife was badly hurt when she opened a package in his makeshift study and the bomb detonated prematurely; although he argued that the device was planted, he was convicted of possessing a bomb. That conviction, Mr. Winne argues, kept him from realizing his dream of becoming a lawyer. More than a decade later, after serving his sentence, he appealed, bringing forth "witnesses" he had paid and coached. The 11th Circuit declined to overturn his conviction.

Two months later, after his request for a rehearing was denied, Mr. Moody issued a "Declaration of War," followed by letters in the name of "Americans for a Competent Federal Judicial System." The declaration cited the 11th Circuit's "callous disregard for justice," arguing that the court's "failure to render impartial and equitable judgments" demonstrated not only bias but "the mistaken belief its victims cannot effectively retaliate."

Vengeance ensued. On Dec. 16, 1989, Judge Robert Vance was killed by a letter bomb at his home in Birmingham. Two days later, an identical package ripped apart Robbie Robinson, a lawyer who did work for the N.A.A.C.P., at his office in Savannah, Ga. Similar packages were delivered to the Jacksonville, Fla., branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and the Atlanta offices of the 11th Circuit, but were intercepted.

What makes the investigation of mail bombings so frustrating is that if a bomber is meticulous, all the potential physical evidence is destroyed with the explosion. Enough remained of Mr. Moody's 1972 device to demonstrate convincingly that it was a prototype for the 1989 bombs. In fact, what is remarkable about this case is that Mr. Moody was convicted in spite of the lack of fingerprints, DNA evidence, witnesses or a paper trail linking him to the 1989 bombs.

Instead, prosecutors offered a psychological profile of a man with a tenuous motive, obsessed with the judicial system and prejudiced against blacks; bomb components that could be purchased almost anywhere; and -- the denouement -- a unique pattern of bomb construction that they argued was his signature.

The great failing of Mr. Winne's book is that despite a wealth of research material the real protagonist is not the demonic bomber but his ingenious device. Readers never feel Mr. Moody's fury, nor do they envision him plotting his revenge. The book's few chilling passages detail the bloody deaths of Judge Vance and Mr. Robinson, horrors made all the more brutal because, as in Oklahoma City, they were wrought out of retribution for perceived wrongdoing.

Mr. Moody was sentenced to seven life terms plus 400 years, and, as Mr. Winne notes soberly, "there is no parole in the Federal system." To no one's surprise, Mr. Moody is appealing his conviction.