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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Reviewing the bureau's files in 2000, however, it was plain to Reagan that the case against the Weathermen went well beyond a solitary piece of after-the-fact hearsay relayed by an FBI mole. When he read the statements from the other two informants, who had independently supplied similar details about Weather Underground members conspiring to bomb Park Station, he had one thought: Why didn't they prosecute?

It turns out that law enforcement officials had come much closer to pouncing on the Weather Underground than Reagan realized. In fact, according to another investigator familiar with the case, prosecutors came within a hair's breadth of filing charges against the group in the 1970s based on Latimer's testimony alone.

An articulate young woman with short dark hair who had joined the Weathermen after getting involved with the antiwar movement at Michigan State University, Latimer wore a tan pantsuit on the day she met with San Francisco detectives in a Financial District hotel room. According to the investigator with knowledge of the case, she had come forward to betray her former comrades in the revolution to have a federal hold on her passport lifted so she could travel abroad, and was delivered to San Francisco police by FBI agents. She was willing to testify in court if granted personal immunity from prosecution.

Listening to Latimer calmly narrate the planning of the Park Station attack, step by step, the local detectives knew they finally had a break. In fact, they believed she could make their whole case. Latimer claimed to have personally cased the station, and could describe the package that had held the explosive device before it had gone off. "It was just too detailed," the investigator familiar with the case said. "It was A to Z without leaving out L and M. I was convinced."

The day after interviewing Latimer, the investigator said, the detectives hastily convened a conference with San Francisco District Attorney John Jay Ferdon and a federal prosecutor. At that meeting, the police officers and federal prosecutor argued for granting Latimer immunity and proceeding to file charges. (It is unclear which Weather Underground members would have been named as defendants, or whether the D.A. and U.S. Attorney were aware of Steen's earlier statement to police.)

Ferdon opposed this plan, arguing that Latimer's sudden appearance could be a ploy. Once she was granted immunity, he feared she would simply change her story and confess to planning and executing the bombing alone, clearing herself and her former comrades of criminal liability. He won the argument, and local detectives renewed their efforts to find more evidence or informants to support a prosecution.

Caution in filing charges based solely on Latimer's statements may have been warranted for other reasons. Testimony from criminally implicated informants is notoriously problematic for prosecutors, who must explain to a jury why their witnesses aren't merely lying to avoid more severe punishment. Hence the need, in an ideal world, for more extensive corroboration of what happened the night of the bombing, or physical evidence — in the form of fingerprints or ballistics — to back up Steen's and Latimer's stories.

Such evidence has never been uncovered in the McDonnell murder case. After the launch of the Phoenix Task Force, a forensics expert at the California Department of Justice was able to develop a latent fingerprint on a fragment of the Park Station bomb using new scientific techniques, according to an affidavit filed by Engler in another of the task force's cold cases. But the print was still too undefined to be used for identification.

The FBI's witness statements are also less comprehensive than investigators would like. For instance, neither Steen nor Latimer said they had been present for the construction of the bomb (though Reagan said at least one of them reported seeing bomb-making materials, such as detonator cord, at the planning session), and neither had seen who placed the device on the station's window ledge.

And then there is the most vexing obstacle to a successful prosecution of the Weathermen based on former collaborators' confessions — the inconvenient fact that an entirely different set of militant activists has also claimed credit for the bombing.

On August 28, 1971, Anthony Bottom and Albert Washington, cadres of the violent Black Panthers splinter group known as the Black Liberation Army, pulled up in a car alongside the patrol cruiser of San Francisco police Sergeant George Kowalski at an intersection in the Mission and leveled a submachine gun at him. The BLA was suspected or convicted of multiple attacks on police officers in the 1970s, including the 1971 shotgun killing of Sergeant John Young at San Francisco's Ingleside Police Station. On this occasion, however, they were unsuccessful. The gun, loaded with the wrong type of ammunition, jammed. Bottom and Washington were arrested and charged with attempted murder.

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Peter Jamison
Contact: Peter Jamison