Aftershocks

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD JOSH Nichols was almost home free: After much anxious anticipation, he had passed his first day of the eighth grade in relative calm. But now, as he walked from the school bus to his Las Vegas home, another boy approached from behind, running and shouting, "Are you Josh Nichols? Are you Josh Nichols?"

Tensely, Josh turned toward him, answering in the affirmative. And icily came the other boy's retort: "My name is John. My dad's a fireman in Oklahoma, and his station had the windows blown out by the bomb your father set off. I could kill you." A fight seemed inevitable. But John, daunted perhaps by Josh's 5'11", 240-lb. frame, simply flashed a withering glare and walked away.

"Josh has been stamped with a scarlet letter," lamented his mother, Lana Padilla. "One he will carry in his heart and soul forever."

He owes that stigma to his father, Terry Lynn Nichols, 40, the imprisoned extremist who, along with his former Army buddy Timothy McVeigh, 27, has been charged with murder and use of a weapon of mass destruction in the April 19 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the aftermath of the blast—which killed at least 169 people, many of them children—Josh and his mother were drawn into a living nightmare, as Padilla relates in her just-published book, By Blood Betrayed: My Life with Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh.

The subtitle, in fact, is a stretch: A Las Vegas real estate agent, Padilla has been divorced from Nichols, the third of her four husbands, since 1989; her "life" with McVeigh, moreover, consisted of a few innocuous phone conversations. Yet the bombing unquestionably devastated her world, as she and her son found themselves hounded by federal agents and reporters. Josh was even a suspect himself: For a time the FBI thought he might be "John Doe II," a burly, tattooed man believed to have accompanied McVeigh when he rented the Ryder truck that allegedly carried the bomb to Oklahoma City. And, of course, he has had to watch a nation's hate rain down on a father he adores.

"He told me, 'Dad couldn't have done it, he loves children,' " says Padilla, 45. She herself is ambivalent. "It's like the O.J. thing," she explains. "Sometimes you think yes, and sometimes you think no."

At first she didn't know what to think when a pair of federal agents turned up at her office on April 21 and announced that Nichols and McVeigh were prime suspects in the terrorist attack. Questioned about Nichols' recent activities, she recalled—"almost as an afterthought," she says—that last November he had entrusted her with a package, insisting she not open it for 60 days. But Padilla, worried and perplexed, couldn't resist. What she found were a few cryptic notes to Tim McVeigh—one of them exhorting him to "go for it" and concluding with the words "this letter would be for the purpose of my death"—and a letter informing her that Nichols had left her $20,000 taped behind her kitchen drawer. "I cried hysterically," she says. "I just knew that he was going to commit suicide." Nichols had also instructed her to clear out a storage locker in Las Vegas, where she discovered a stash of wigs, masks, panty hose, freeze-dried food and what she estimated to be $60,000 worth of gold and silver bullion. Padilla left the contents alone, but when Nichols, very much alive, showed up in January of 1995, he was furious that she had opened the package; the next day, he cleared out the storage locker himself and disappeared.

To the FBI, her account was compelling circumstantial evidence. Stunned, Padilla allowed herself and Josh to be exhaustively interrogated without consulting an attorney because, she says, she had nothing to hide. "The FBI asked me who could have been the planner," she recalls. "And I said that, from phone conversations, it seemed that Terry was a follower and Tim was a leader." For their own protection, mother and son spent a week sequestered at two Las Vegas hotels—Circus-Circus and then, after a press leak, the Excalibur. "I'd sit there and watch Josh cry," she says. "He'd watch me cry."

In the three months after they returned to Padilla's three-bedroom house, their phones were tapped, and they were routinely quizzed and tailed by federal agents. Josh was of particular interest to the feds because he had spent two weeks just before the Oklahoma blast visiting his father's Herington, Kans., farm where, he confided to one agent, his father had taught him how to make bottle bombs, used to clear away tree stumps. "You need a little gasoline," Josh said, "some ammonium nitrate and..."

When Josh related all this to Diane Sawyer on ABC's Prime Time Live, it caused a sensation. Padilla says she regrets allowing him to appear on the show. As for her own misadventures with the media, she believes she was taken advantage of by interviewers who lulled her into "rambling on." Her trusting bent, in fact, may underlie another problem—the one that she believes got her involved in the bombing frenzy in the first place. "I don't," she confides, "have good luck with men."

Lana met Terry Nichols in 1980 while handling his purchase of a 120-acre parcel of land around Decker, Mich. The eldest of eight children born to Ubly, Mich., dairy farmers Mark "Pete" Walsh and his wife, Evelyn, Lana already had two failed marriages behind her, both to heavy drinkers, as well as two sons by her first husband: Barry, 24, named for Barry Manilow, and Troy, 21, named for Troy Donahue. Of Nichols, Padilla says, "I was impressed that he didn't drink. He was energetic and gentle. Ate started canoeing, playing volley-jail, walking through the woods—things like that."

The pair eloped in January 1981, and 10 months later Josh was born. At first, according to Padilla, Nichols was the archetypal sensitive man—a caring father who ground wheat for homemade bread and helped with the household chores. "I idolized him," jays Troy, now a supervisor at a Las Vegas plastics factory. "I thought everything he did was perfect."

But as his wife made her mark as a real estate agent and insurance broker in Michigan, Nichols, who was taking care of the children and doing odd jobs, began growing despondent. "He was just lost," she says. "I'd talk to him and ask, 'What is it that makes you nappy? What do you want to do?' " Finally, in May 1988, they separated, sharing custody of Josh. Two weeks later, Nichols enlisted in the Army, where he befriended Timothy McVeigh in basic training and at Fort Riley, Kans., where both were stationed. Josh went to live with his father, who was granted a hardship discharge in 1989. A year later, Nichols married 17-year-old Marife Torres, whom he had met on a trip to the Philippines. By then he was sharing a Michigan farmhouse with Josh, his brother James and McVeigh. He was also veering sharply toward radicalism: Nichols renounced his citizenship, stopped paying taxes and began attending meetings of the anti-government Michigan Militia.

Lana, meanwhile, had moved to Las Vegas and started a successful business, Esquire Realty. She also married Leonard Padilla, an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration. It was a stormy marriage, particularly in 1993 when Josh moved back in. Her husband, Padilla says, mocked the boy mercilessly for being overweight, lazy and "just because he existed." ("Yeah, I ridiculed him at times," Leonard Padilla, 38, admits. "Josh is like a big teddy bear, very loving. But a lot of things he does half-assed.")

Now in therapy, Josh is "agitated and depressed," says his mother, and struggling academically to get through eighth grade. Nichols calls him from El Reno prison in Oklahoma twice a week and is usually upbeat—he never mentions the bombing case. "I miss my dad," Josh says. "It's going to be harder for me to get through life. He takes me out hiking and hunting. He laughs a lot, and if someone needed help, he'd help 'em." As for McVeigh, Josh recalls, "he was nice," though he adds, with unintended irony, "he didn't really like kids."

Lana, now represented by an attorney, vows to spare Josh the trauma of testifying at the trial next year. Divorced from Leonard Padilla, she is struggling to rebuild her business, which nearly collapsed after all the negative publicity. "I don't have a sparkle in my eyes anymore," she says. "I cry a lot. And I cover my head at night and wonder when this is ever going to go away.

"It's the worst thing to think if you hadn't divorced somebody, maybe none of those people would have died," Padilla adds, recalling a recent phone conversation with Nichols. "I said, 'I wish we could turn the clock back 10 years and just try to fix it. Maybe none of this would have happened.' He said, 'Yeah, I wish we could turn it back too.' "

LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Las Vegas

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