Time Bomb: A '70s Cop Killing Investigation Leads to a Chicago Law Professor Who Helped Launch Barack Obama's Political Career

On the night of February 16, 1970, Brian McDonnell was sorting through bulletins on the Teletype machine at Park Police Station in the Upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco. The respected 44-year-old sergeant was checking results from the recent union elections, in which he was running for station representative. Steady winter rain fell outside. At 10:45 p.m., a bomb planted on the ledge outside a nearby window went off.

McDonnell took the brunt of the blast to his body and face. The bomb was packed with inch-long industrial fence staples, which severed his jugular vein and lodged in his brain. He would die two days later without regaining consciousness.

Investigators would later surmise that the explosion had been intended to coincide with the 11 p.m. turn of the watch, when roughly two dozen officers would be coming on or going off duty. As it was, many were still changing in the second-floor locker room. Rushing downstairs, they found Officer Frank Rath, who had been in the business office with McDonnell, stumbling dazedly around the room with his gun drawn. Blood and staples covered the floor.

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, photographed in 2001, are now professors in Chicago.
Todd Buchanan
Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, photographed in 2001, are now professors in Chicago.
Brian McDonnell was killed by shrapnel in the 1970 bombing of Park Police Station.
courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department
Brian McDonnell was killed by shrapnel in the 1970 bombing of Park Police Station.

"I was a Vietnam veteran. I'd been in a war," recalled retired police sergeant James Pera, then a 24-year-old patrol officer, who was one of the first on the scene in the minutes after the bombing. "But I never expected this to happen in my hometown, in a police station. It was something we never expected to see in our own country."

Awash in revolutionary and antiwar fervor, the Vietnam era was a dangerous time for cops. McDonnell was not American law enforcement's first casualty, and he would not be its last. Police continue to investigate his murder, which remains unsolved.

Information in the long-running investigation into the Park Station bombing has been closely held by authorities, who still cling to hopes of bringing charges in the nearly 40-year-old case. Yet rumors have circulated for decades that the Weather Underground, a militant leftist group, was involved in the attack.

National interest in the Weather Underground was revived last year during the presidential campaign, when Republicans and conservative bloggers tried to smear Barack Obama for his ties to the group's former leaders, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. A married couple now comfortably ensconced in the ranks of Chicago's liberal intelligentsia, Ayers and Dohrn were early political patrons of Obama's, hosting a campaign event for the future president in 1995 when he ran for the state Senate in Illinois.

Ayers and Dohrn assert today that the group deliberately avoided killing people in a campaign of "symbolic" bombings of empty government buildings. They and other former Weathermen have dismissed as a right-wing conspiracy theory any suggestions that their organization was responsible for the Park Station bombing.

Now, speaking publicly for the first time about the investigation, former FBI agents have told Village Voice Media the basis for their belief that the Weather Underground was behind McDonnell's murder. The agents have revealed that two credible eyewitnesses — both former left-wing radicals tied to the Weathermen — gave detailed statements to investigators in the 1970s alleging that Dohrn and Howard Machtinger, another member of the group, were personally involved in organizing the deadly attack. Both witnesses claimed to have participated in meetings where the bombing was planned, and one confessed to having cased the police station for the Weathermen before the explosion.

Working from these statements, authorities have quietly devoted far more attention to the Weather Underground in recent years than was previously known. Dohrn, Machtinger, and Ayers were all targets of a secret federal grand jury investigation in 2003 into McDonnell's killing, according to San Francisco criminal defense lawyer Stuart Hanlon, who has become familiar with the Park Station case while defending a client charged in another 1970s police murder. While indictments against the three were never issued, Hanlon said, "it was clear they were the targets. They weren't called — other people were called about them. The Weather Underground was the target of Park Station [investigators]."

The case against the Weathermen is far from complete. Still, given the multiple witnesses tying the group's former members to the killing of a police officer, some investigators say they are troubled by the impunity with which Ayers and Dohrn have peddled a version of the past wiped clean of bloodshed.

"I don't think they should be besmirched. I just think the truth should come out," said retired FBI Special Agent Willie Reagan, who investigated the Weathermen in the 1970s and served on a task force that reopened the investigation into McDonnell's murder in 1999. "There's so much there. If you've ever been in a courtroom, you know defense attorneys can create doubt about anything. But common sense tells you something. Who else could it be?"


Reagan, 68, has little in common with the partisans who tried to make hay from Ayers' militant past during the 2008 election season. A gruff career undercover investigator who now lives in retirement north of San Francisco, he has deployed his talents for disguise and detection to help bring down extremist groups of all political stripes.

In the 1970s, Reagan grew out his hair and mastered the counterculture shibboleths of the New Left. His work as an undercover agent, or "beard," as they were known at the FBI, helped disrupt a 1977 plot by the Weathermen to bomb the office of John V. Briggs, a conservative California state senator. Years later, Reagan grew a beard again — this time for a stint undercover with the Freemen, a group of armed right-wing radicals who sequestered themselves on a Montana compound at the height of the militia movement in the 1990s. Between, he infiltrated drug organizations and the Mob.

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6 comments
Ted McKim
Ted McKim

I loved this article. I think that last statement shows where the article gets its sources, from one-sided speculation! I especially enjoyed the last statement, "...she disappeared..." Cut to man's face not blinking.... Cut to: woman's back as she hurrriedly moves away from view...fading into dark smoke.

Hey, she disappeared to Chicago where she lives!

Ted McKim
Ted McKim

Having lived through that time I wouldn't trust an FBI agent's word for anything that they said about then. Not sure I trust what they say about people now!

Joe Curwen
Joe Curwen

Emil's comments are quite perceptive. One thing to bear in mind foremost in my opinion, is the operations of COINTELPRO at the time. Their activities continually muddied the waters concerning who was who and who did what.

During that time I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to the White Panther Party (among other groups). I recall that then several of the WPP people were either incarcerated or wanted for various radical activities, including a small bombing alleged to have been perpetrated by them. They always asserted that COINTELPRO was behind a lot of it. Many people wrote their stories off as counter-culture paranoia.

Decades later, though, the truth came out. COINTELPRO had been behind a lot of the grief that came their way. Paranoid or not, they had been correct about that much.

I never cared much for the SDS or the Weathermen. They were (aside from the violence) a bunch of jerks and party poopers. The SDS always rambled on about Marxism and who wanted to hear that crap? The WPP were a lot more fun. Still, at the time, the government provoked people toward unreasonable measures, and sometimes the government aided and abetted the radicals with entrapment and fabrication of evidence.

Emil Pulsifer
Emil Pulsifer

(1) The article cites former Weatherman Mark Rudd's "memoir" in describing the group's "charismatic leader", a woman, as "praising the acolytes of cult leader Charles Manson for stabbing pregnant actress Sharon Tate in the stomach with a fork" -- scarcely an act of revolutionary violence. Is it possible that Mr. Rudd, like so many authors of scandalous "tell-all" biographies, added this and other shocking details to increase the notoriety (hence salability) of his book at a time when the group had been out of the spotlight? (2) The article states that the Weathermen "decided to alter their bombing campaign, targeting only empty government facilities" in March, 1970. Yet it also states that a 1971 search of "one of the group's principal safe-houses" by FBI and SFPD inspectors discovered "voice activated bomb switches", and quotes FBI Special Agent Noel in explaining that " 'voice activated switch' means the bomb goes off when a person comes in and talks". So, did the group "alter their bombing campaign" or not? Also note that in 1971 there was no such thing as a "voice activated switch": there were sound activated switches, but these would be very dangerous for anyone planting a bomb since, once the bomb was activated, any sufficiently loud noise would set it off, like a sneeze, or (depending on the sensitivity of the microphone) such random sounds as a door or window slamming nearby, honking car horns, slamming car doors, or the rumble of a passing truck. One possible use for a sound-activated switch would be to function as a killswitch to (permanently) deactivate the bomb, if anyone (such as an office cleaning crew) came in during the night when the bomb's timer would otherwise detonate it. This would be consistent with attempts to prevent injuries or deaths. (3) The article is surprisingly mute on the issue of forensic evidence, specifically on the design and materials used in the Park Station bomb. While it is always possible that this particular bomb could have been specially made to throw investigators off the track, it is more common for bomb makers to have a modus operandi in which certain elements of design and certain materials are used over and over, despite other variations. Parts must be purchased somewhere (the Unibomber notwithstanding) and they can be traced to manufacturers. Microscopic examination of bits of wire can reveal characteristic tool-marks (e.g., wirecutters and strippers). The authorities had numerous examples of Weatherman bombs and even some seized materials and tools. Was there a match to the Park Station bombing? Presumably not, since that kind of forensic evidence would allow a case to be built on the basis of independent corroborative evidence. (4) The article quotes FBI Special Agent Reagan as saying, of the Weathermen's culpability in the Park Station murder, that "...common sense tells you something. Who else could it be?" Yet, the article elsewhere characterizes America's major cities at the time as being "in something close to a guerrilla war" with "the spectacle so many revolutionary groups competing to blow up or kill sworn peace officers". The article notes that a different group, the BLA, actually took credit for the Park Station bombing: a group actually known to have committed, and attempted to commit more, murders of police officers. The two choices offered to the reader in connection with this admission, is that it was either empty bragging and the Weathermen are the real culprits, or else that the two groups were "working in tandem". But two other possibilities exist: (a) the BLA alone was responsible; (b) the bombing was the work of neither group. (5) The FBI was equally sure (perhaps on the basis of "common sense") that security guard Richard Jewell was responsible for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. After having his career ruined, Jewell was exonerated and successfully sued various media sources, including NBS News for Tom Brokaw's statement (apparently made on the basis of leaked information) that "The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still some holes in this case". (6) The article cites FBI Special Agent Reagan, paraphrasing informant Karen Latimer (now dead) as saying in 2000 that she was "looking for a form a justice" and that she was "deeply disappointed that there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute" other former members of the Weathermen. Yet the article also states that Latimer did not come forward until the mid-1970s, years after the Park Station murder, and quotes an investigator as saying that she did so "to have a federal hold on her passport lifted so that she could travel abroad". (7) Informant Matthew Steen was not described by the article as a current or former member of the group at the time he told investigators, more than two years after the Park Station bombing, that he had attended a planning meeting at which the group discussed plans to bomb Park Station. But it isn't clear why a non-member, even if sympathetic, would be admitted to a planning meeting at which a police station is the intended target of a murderous bomb packed with industrial staples; particularly in an age when undercover police agents and informants were common and every radical group knew it. Steen might well have attended a Weathermen meeting or two, but this? Also omitted from the article is any mention of the circumstances of Steen's interview: was he being investigated on unrelated criminal charges or did he come forward voluntarily; and if the latter, why did he wait two and a half years? The Weathermen were publicly mentioned in the press as suspects in the heated, high-profile coverage following the murder. Investigators coming across any known or suspected associates or sympathizers of the group would question them about it, and anyone seeking a quid pro quo from the authorities wouldn't need much prompting to know that an identification of those responsible for the Park Station murder constituted a kind of golden ticket. (8) The most damning evidence presented in the article is twofold: (a) FBI Special Agent Reagan asserting that the descriptions of the Park Station planning sessions held by the Weathermen (as given by informants Steen and Latimer) were "consistent with each other and strikingly similar to other Weather Underground planning sessions he had personally attended as an undercover agent", a characterization backed up by FBI Special Agent Noel; and (b) the detail of informant Latimer's narration of the supposed planning of the Park Station bombing, as recounted by an unnamed "another inspector familiar with the case". Well, the descriptions given by Steen and Latimer couldn't be too similar to what was observed by SA Reagan in an undercover capacity, since he would then have had grounds to arrange some arrests. As a member, Latimer would have been familiar with the general layout and process, and if Steen attended some meetings he would be too. Aside from the fact that the reader isn't told whether "another inspector familiar with the case" was personally involved at the time or had acquired this familiarity second or third hand in reviewing the (cold) case files, it's a shame that New Times went to press before obtaining the (no doubt heavily redacted) primary documents in the case. That's because anyone who has seen enough original case notes understands that what investigators characterize one way in statements to the press (or other verbal testimony) may be less impressive when evaluated by third parties with different attitudes and goals. Ask any criminal defense attorney about the discrepancies between investigators' verbal characterizations and the casefile materials they've acquired through the discovery process. Note that none of these observations and counter-arguments exonerates the Weathermen of the Park Station murder: but the matter may be less clear-cut than suggested by the article.

Jack Swift
Jack Swift

libertyinjeopardy, you're an effen racist moron.

libertynjeopardy
libertynjeopardy

Wow the New Times uncovers a great story! The only problem you leftists have is that Drudge had this story 9 months ago. We warned you fools about Odumba way back when but of course liberalism is a mental disease.

 
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