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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Over the next month, Bottom, while in police custody, made an extraordinary series of statements, according to investigators familiar with his case. He reportedly told SFPD homicide inspectors Frank McCoy and Eddy Erdelatz that he had personally planted the bomb that killed McDonnell at Park Station, and said he had helped plan the Ingleside attack, which took place while he was in jail. He also claimed involvement in the bombing of St. Brendan's Church in the Forest Hill district of San Francisco during a police funeral in October 1970, and in a plot to plant sticks of dynamite on the roof of the Mission District police station.

When he made his far-ranging confession, Bottom was already destined for prison. A revolver found with him at the time of his arrest had been traced to New York City police officer Waverly Jones, who was gunned down with his partner, Joseph Piagentini, by BLA members in a Manhattan housing project that May. Today, Bottom is serving a life sentence for his conviction in their murders at Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

A number of law enforcement officials with knowledge of the Park Station case view a BLA link to the bombing with skepticism. Bottom, in particular, was famous among detectives of the era for his big mouth. "He was just a guy who liked to hear himself talk," one investigator said. "We could not corroborate independently what he told us about Park." Another former investigator connected to the case is more blunt: Bottom, he said, "would confess to the quake of '89."

Mark Goldrosen, a San Francisco attorney who represented Bottom when he was charged in 2007, with seven other defendants, for the 1971 attack on Ingleside Station, concurs with investigators' dismissive takes on his client's statements about the Park bombing. "If he had admitted it, and if it was considered credible, this would have been prosecuted a long time ago," he said.

Another former BLA member, Ruben Scott, also told police in the 1970s that the organization was involved in the Park Station killing, according to law enforcement sources. Scott reportedly said that he was not personally present the night of the bombing.

The BLA connection to Park Station may be a red herring — or it could mean that McDonnell's murder was simply the result of two militant groups working in tandem. A prime tenet of the Weathermen's through-the-looking-glass revolutionary doctrine was that it was their duty to shed "white-skin privilege" and put themselves at the service of black radicals, and there are indications that the affinity between the BLA and Weathermen was particularly strong.

For example, the BLA collaborated with former Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert in a 1981 armed robbery in Nanuet, N.Y., that ended with the deaths of two police officers and a Brink's armored truck guard. Ayers and Dohrn have also expressed their fondness for members of the BLA in surprisingly personal ways. Their son, Zayd Dohrn, is named after BLA member Zayd Shakur, who died in a shootout with New Jersey state troopers in 1973.

From today's vantage point, the spectacle of so many revolutionary groups competing to blow up or shoot sworn peace officers might seem strange. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, America's major cities were in something close to a guerrilla war. In 1972 alone, the FBI attributed 1,500 bombings within the United States to "civil unrest" from domestic radical groups. Noel, the retired San Francisco FBI agent, said police officers routinely searched their patrol cars for bombs before starting their engines.

In this environment, many law enforcement officials resorted, with unfortunate results, to dubious practices of their own. The most notorious example of police overreach from the era was doubtless the FBI's COINTELPRO, an elaborate program of domestic espionage that targeted peaceful civil-rights groups alongside the Black Panthers and the Weathermen. Senate hearings on the program in the late 1970s concluded with a formal denunciation of such FBI tactics as wiretapping and illegal property searches.

The rise and fall of the Weather Underground is one of the more outlandish chapters in the phantasmagoria of Vietnam-era radicalism. Formed in 1969 as a militant faction of the mass antiwar movement Students for a Democratic Society, what was then commonly called the Weathermen — named after the Bob Dylan lyric, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" — proclaimed a desire to foment what they saw as an imminent, global communist revolution within the U.S. Their motto: "Bring the war home." (After the winter of 1970, "Weathermen" became the Weather Underground, a nod to the group's fugitive status and disdain for sexist pronouns.)

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Peter Jamison
Contact: Peter Jamison