Wednesday, November 17, 1999
By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Joseph H. Hartzler's mobility has been hampered by multiple sclerosis, but not his spirit and enthusiasm for life.
Hartzler, the lead federal prosecutor in the successful conviction of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, brought a message of hope to about 200 people who attended the Allegheny County Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's dinner at the Hilton Hotel last night.
"I try to make the audience realize that there are ways to deal with MS, to not let it result in major depression, or what I refer to as cocooning, where you envelop yourself in self-pity and assume you cannot accomplish anything," Hartzler said prior to his speech.
Hartzler, 48, married and a father of three sons, already had been dealing with multiple sclerosis for seven years when he applied for a chance to work with a team of prosecutors on the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
In volunteering for such an assignment, Hartzler didn't expect to become the chief prosecutor. He was hoping to play a small role in the prosecution of the perpetrators of the deadliest chapter of terrorism in American history.
"I was struck by the enormity of the crime. It was really a crime against the people, government of the United States," he said.
The truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City took the lives of 168 people, including 19 children and eight federal agents.
At that time, Hartzler was happily settled in Springfield, Ill., where he was prosecuting fraud cases for the U.S. attorney's office there.
He and his wife, Lisa, both were involved in community organizations and were raising their sons, Alex, Adam and Matthew, now 15, 12, and 8.
A week before he was appointed chief prosecutor, Hartzler was honored as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Father of 1995, an honor that enabled him and his family to meet President Clinton in the Oval Office.
Multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, often causes fatigue, blurred vision and a host of other symptoms.
Fatigue has not been a problem for Hartzler, but his mobility has deteriorated. When he first was diagnosed in 1988, he used his umbrella as a cane to help him walk; now he uses a motor scooter for transportation.
Hartzler made it to the final interviews before anyone asked about his health. He thought his interviewers might have been afraid to bring the subject up, fearing to tangle with discrimination issues. When the subject finally was raised, Hartzler decided to put a positive spin on it.
In his family, Hartzler said, the philosophy is to hope for the best, but expect the worst.
Hartzler got the job as lead trial attorney, a job that took him to Oklahoma City and Denver, where he was in the national limelight when McVeigh was tried.
On April 25, 1997, Hartzler made an opening statement to the jury in the McVeigh trial that was described by the news media as "electrifying." He told the jurors about a tender encounter between two toddlers who died in the bombing.
The trial was a grueling experience: three weeks of jury selection, 17 days of trial and the death penalty phase. On June 13, 1997, Hartzler and his prosecutors finally rested, when a jury condemned McVeigh to death by injection of lethal poison.
Exceeding his two-year commitment by a few weeks, Hartzler returned to Springfield and his family, leaving the trial of the second suspect, Terry Nichols, to other prosecutors.
Hartzler said being away from his family was the toughest part of the experience. In a "bizarre way," he said, having MS made him continue, even when he felt that he should be home with his sons and wife.
"If I had withdrawn before my two years were up, there would have been speculation that it was because of my health," he said.
"MS would be tagged as the culprit," he said.