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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If the Weather Underground was involved in the attack on Park Station, the group's denials or silence on events during the winter of 1970 would make sense, at least from a legal perspective. Unlike the bloodless bombings the Weathermen carried out in the mid-1970s, murder and related conspiracy charges carry no statute of limitations. In other words, if prosecutors opted to file charges in the Park Station bombing, Dohrn, Machtinger, or any others implicated in the attack could be hauled into court.

Meanwhile, veteran investigators still fume over the ease with which Ayers and Dohrn have assumed the mantle of middle-class respectability. When people talk to Noel about the Weather Underground's avowed intent not to harm people, he likes to tell the story of a 1971 search of one of the group's principal "safe houses," an apartment on Pine Street in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood. Inside, FBI agents and SFPD inspectors discovered C-4 explosives, voice-activated bomb switches, and concealable shivs made from sharpened knitting needles epoxied into the caps of ballpoint pens.

"'Voice-activated switch' means the bomb goes off when a person comes in and talks," Noel said. "This whole image that these were nice-type people is what makes me upset. It's bullshit. That's not what they were. They were thugs and they were criminals trying to overthrow the U.S. government." During the 2008 election season, Noel even made a brief televised appearance with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News to counter the arguments of Weather Underground apologists who were saying the group had been essentially nonviolent.

Noel, Reagan, and other law enforcement officials interviewed for this story still hold out hope that the Park Station case will one day bring a reckoning for the Weathermen. But the specter of the Vietnam era's radical legacy should be summoned with care, as another prominent cold case from the same period illustrates.

In 2007, the California Attorney General's Office filed charges against eight alleged former Black Liberation Army radicals — Bottom among them — for the attack on Ingleside Police Station and the murder of San Francisco police Sergeant John Young in 1971. The same Phoenix Task Force that reopened the Park Station investigation was responsible for building the case on the Ingleside attack.

After lengthy litigation and an outcry from liberal activists over the belated prosecution, charges against five of the defendants were dropped. An additional two, including Bottom, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received probation — hardly a meaningful punishment for someone serving a life sentence. Charges against the eighth and last defendant have yet to be resolved, but by most accounts, the case has been a huge disappointment for cold-case investigators and a humiliation for the state Attorney General's Office.

According to San Francisco defense attorney Hanlon, who represented one of the Ingleside defendants, the documentation he's seen on Park Station doesn't bode for better results. "I've looked at probably 90 percent of the evidence," he said, explaining that much of it was available to Ingleside defense attorneys because of the BLA's possible connection to the bombing. "They have no case, and that's why they have no prosecution. They have enough snitches. They just don't have any evidence."

Investigators privately acknowledge that, as time passes, a conviction seems more improbable. Steen, one of the two former radicals who described the Weather Underground's alleged planning of the Park Station bombing to the FBI, apparently became a homeless drifter. It is unclear whether he would still be a competent witness. A 2002 SFPD bulletin seeking him as a witness in a criminal conspiracy investigation states that he was "transient," last encountered by police during a 2000 arrest for squatting in Golden Gate Park. Steen could not be reached by Village Voice Media for comment.

Latimer, who would likely have been a star witness for the prosecution, died several years ago, according to Reagan. During his brief return to the Park Station case in 2000, Reagan said, he re-established contact with Latimer, whom he had known during his years as an undercover agent in the 1970s. Speaking to her again after the intervening decades, he found her deeply frustrated that her decision to cooperate with law enforcement so many years ago had been of little consequence.

"She was looking for a form of justice, and she was totally disappointed that there wasn't enough to prosecute," he said. "To her, it was a reality. She was there, and she heard them talking about doing this."

But the Weathermen, fugitives for the better part of a decade, haven't lost their knack for evading the scrutiny of the law. At a preliminary hearing earlier this year in the failed Ingleside murder case, Dohrn, in a gesture of solidarity among aging radicals, traveled to San Francisco from Chicago to stand with the defendants' supporters in the courtroom. Engler, head of the Phoenix Task Force, was also present. He recognized and approached her, according to law enforcement sources who described the scene.

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Peter Jamison
Contact: Peter Jamison