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

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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.

"I worked the right wing as hard as I worked these nuts," he said of the Weathermen. "But the press kisses their asses, and a lot of the information isn't out there."

In 2000, Reagan was recruited out of retirement to join the Phoenix Task Force, a team of local and federal law enforcement officials investigating unsolved cop killings from the 1970s, including the long-dormant Park Station case. Among his duties was sifting through the FBI's voluminous paperwork on the Weather Underground.

He soon came across a set of decades-old documents that astonished him. In the bulging case file on the Weathermen was a sheaf of FD-302 forms, used by bureau agents then, as now, to summarize interviews performed in the course of investigations.

The FBI's first recorded statements on the Park Station bombing plot came from interviews over two days in June 1972 with a man who once had been a writer for the Berkeley Tribe, an underground newspaper. While Reagan would not disclose the man's name, law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation said he is Matthew Landy Steen, who has used the alias William Hellis Coquillette.

Steen told agents he had attended a Bay Area meeting in January 1970 at which half a dozen Weather Underground activists discussed their plans to plant a bomb at Park Police Station. Among those Steen placed at the meeting were Dohrn, the Weather Underground's charismatic leader; and Machtinger, who investigators believed to be one of the group's principal bomb technicians.

Also in the case file were multiple forms from interviews with a former Weather Underground member named Karen Latimer. In the mid-1970s, years after Steen spoke to the FBI, Latimer came forward to say she had attended a separate planning session for the Park Station attack with Dohrn and Machtinger in the winter of 1970. (In the months leading up to the bombing, Dohrn was living on a houseboat in Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, according to an account in A Radical Line, the family memoir of Thai Jones, son of former Weatherman Jeff Jones.)

At these meetings, Reagan said, Dohrn "seemed to be more or less the ringleader," while "Machtinger gave instructions on how to build the bomb, and they discussed the placing of the bomb at Park Station."

Reagan said the witnesses' descriptions of the meetings were consistent with each other and strikingly similar to other Weather Underground planning sessions he had personally attended while an undercover agent. The idea, he said, was to implicate all members in a criminal conspiracy, reducing the chance that anyone would turn to the police.

"To them, building a bomb is an act of cohesion," Reagan said. "It's almost like the Mob, when they ask someone to kill somebody or hack a guy's arm off. They trust you more when they're dirty with you."

Reagan's account was confirmed by Max Noel, another retired FBI agent who investigated the Weathermen in the 1970s while based at the bureau's San Francisco field office. "They did exist, and they were credible," Noel said of the statements.

San Francisco police Inspector Joe Engler, the lead detective on the Phoenix Task Force, declined to comment on evidence or potential witnesses in the Park Station case, citing the ongoing investigation into the bombing. He referred a request for the forms on Latimer and Steen to federal authorities. At press time, the United States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California said a Freedom of Information Act request from Village Voice Media for the documents was being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

For decades, the only known indications of the Weather Underground's involvement in the bombing of Park Station had been tenuous hearsay from Larry Grathwohl, a U.S. Army veteran hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Weathermen in 1969. In sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1974 and in a 1976 memoir, Bringing Down America: An FBI Informer with the Weathermen, Grathwohl asserted that he had heard from Ayers during a meeting of a Weather Underground cell in Buffalo, N.Y., that Dohrn "had to plan, develop, and carry out the bombing of the police station in San Francisco." But former Weathermen have long dismissed his story as a fabrication. During a book tour of the Bay Area in January, Ayers told the San Francisco Chronicle that Grathwohl was "a paid dishonest person."

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Peter Jamison
Contact: Peter Jamison