Files Not Found

Thousands of missing FBI documents in the Timothy McVeigh case? It comes as no surprise to the survivors of Operation Lightning Strike.

To pay the bills, Brown went to work for Eagle Technical Services, where he often served as a human guinea pig for the tests conducted by JSC's manned space division. Brown sometimes flew in the so-called Vomit Comet to experience the effects of weightlessness in space. Brown had access to much of the JSC complex, and he became friends with some astronauts, including David Wolf, who spent 122 days aboard Skylab in 1997 and 1998.

Most important, Brown began making inroads into the Clear Lake-area community of NASA contractors and subcontractors. In 1991 he teamed up with two other young entrepreneurs to form TerraSpace Technology Inc., a company designed to provide high-technology and engineering services to businesses and government. To keep their fledgling company afloat until they could land a lucrative subcontracting job from IBM or Rockwell that would put them on fiscal terra firma, the three young turks moonlighted for other area aerospace companies, many of which were startups themselves.

Shortly after the formation of TerraSpace, Brown went to work for Neal and Karen Jackson, owners of Horizon Aerospace. Not long after Brown came on board, the couple developed a relationship with a newcomer to the Clear Lake community named John Clifford. Clifford was an outsider in more ways than one. He was actually undercover FBI agent Hal Francis. Recently transferred from St. Louis, where he had successfully engineered a sting of U.S. Department of Defense contractors, the agent had come to Houston to target JSC contractors in a similar operation.

Dale Brown (right) in the Vomit Comet: News of the missing McVeigh files also made him sick to his stomach.
Deron Neblett
Dale Brown (right) in the Vomit Comet: News of the missing McVeigh files also made him sick to his stomach.

Francis set up shop as Southern Technologies Diversified, or STD, a play on the abbreviation for sexually transmitted diseases. Armed with the gift of gab and a seemingly unlimited supply of cash, Francis attempted to plug in to the NASA community by promoting a lithotripter, a device for smashing kidney stones. Space shuttle astronauts had been plagued by kidney stones, and Francis claimed his portable machine could be used in space. Problem was, no portable lithotripter existed. Still, Francis convinced the Jacksons and Brown that it did -- at least initially -- and he hoped to use them as his entrée into NASA society. Francis promised the Jacksons that if they hadn't made a million dollars by their then-expected child's first birthday, he'd make up the difference out of his own pocket. He also promised Brown a job as the supervisor of a planned island resort, a position that included a large salary and his own private plane.

Unfortunately for the undercover agent, word of Operation Lightning Strike, estimated to have cost anywhere from $4 million to $50 million, leaked to the media before he could ensnare any of JSC's big fish. Francis was left with only 15 guppies like the Jacksons and Brown. While the entire undercover operation reeked of entrapment and coercion, only Brown fought the charges brought against him. "For all that money, they got some poor souls to plead guilty to something they didn't do," says Brown. "But I fought them all the way through. And I haven't been healthy since."

Shortly before his indictment in August 1994, Brown underwent an upper aortic transplant. That was followed in 1996 by a heart transplant and the removal of three blood clots from his brain that have left his right side pretty much useless.

In 1995, sandwiched in between his operations, Brown endured another kind of trauma: a three-week-long federal trial. Originally Brown faced 21 federal charges. By the time he reached court the charges had been reduced to the five relating to a $500 bribe prosecutors claimed Brown made to a Defense Department procurement officer. Along the way, federal authorities withheld evidence as long as possible and constructed obstacles, great and small, including trying to deny Brown his choice of attorneys.

Strapped for funds, Brown attempted to arrange for a federal public defender. However, since another Lightning Strike defendant -- who at that point had not yet pled guilty -- was already using an attorney from the public defender's office, prosecutors convinced U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. that if Brown also employed a public defender, a conflict of interest would exist. So Brown was forced to accept a lawyer chosen by the judge from a pool of ad litem attorneys. That attorney turned out to be a former FBI agent. According to Brown, the first thing the former agent told him was that he would always be loyal to the bureau. The first thing Brown told his attorney was that he was fired.

"So now I had just fired the only volunteer I had," laughs Brown.

With nowhere else to turn, Brown contacted an uncle back in Indiana who was well-off enough to hire an attorney who could adequately defend Brown against the considerable resources of the federal government.

Brown's first choice was constitutional expert Michael Tigar. However, in a dark bit of happenstance, before Brown could approach the Austinite, McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, and Tigar was hired to lead the defense team of co-conspirator Terry Nichols. Brown then turned to high-profile criminal attorney Mike DeGeurin but was, once again, thwarted by the feds. Since DeGeurin's law partner Paul Nugent had had discussions about representing Brown's friend and business associate Neal Jackson, prosecutors argued -- and Judge Werlein concurred -- that DeGeurin's representation posed a possible conflict of interest. (Jackson eventually pleaded guilty to bribery charges and was sentenced to three years' probation. His wife was never charged.) Brown countered by hiring DeGeurin's even more famous brother, Dick DeGuerin. Still, says Brown, the obstruction to his defense continued.

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