That Packed Bomb

At 10:45 PM at the San Francisco Park Police Station, a bomb packed with inch long industrial staples exploded on a window ledge. Officer Brian McDonnell was standing nearby at the Teletype machine. McDonnell was hit by staples which cut his jugular vein and lodged in his head. Somehow he wasn’t killed instantly and died two days later. Another officer, Brian Fogerty, was wounded in the blast and suffered partial blindness, but survived.

Officers came to the conclusion that the device had been timed to coincide with a shift change at 11 PM in an effort to maximize potential casualties. No warning had been phoned, nor did any group make an effort to claim responsibility. That the bomb was packed with staples clearly showed that it was intended to kill. This is as much concrete evidence as was ever assembled in the case, which to date remains unsolved with no arrests.

The late 1960s and 1970s were in sheer number of attacks perhaps the height of domestic terrorism in America. Unrest built over opposition to racism, the Vietnam War, and the revival of the left after McCarthyism. As such the list of suspects in any given terrorist attacks from those years is potentially endless. Two groups have been considered prime suspects in this particular case. The first I can conclude was definitely not responsible.

That suspect is the Black Liberation Army. They can be ruled out rather quickly on the basis that the group didn’t exist until April of 1971. The BLA was formed mostly from members of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1971 the BPP was torn by a split between the official party led by Huey Newton and a rogue faction led by Eldridge Cleaver. The Newton faction was more conventionally leftist and focused on political work, whereas the Cleaver faction was more focused on black nationalism and guerrilla warfare. Most of the New York chapter sided with Cleaver. Retaliatory attacks broke out between them and Newton’s Panthers. In response the BLA was formed to fight back against what was imagined to be Newton’s Panthers coming to kill the Cleaver Panthers. But the fighting soon fizzled out and the BLA refocused on waging an insurgency against the government. The Black Panthers as Maoists had long preached the necessity of eventual guerrilla warfare to carry out the revolution and famously engaged in paramilitary training and patrols for self-defense. The official BPP felt that all this talk of armed struggle was premature, but the more extreme Cleaver faction gave a green light for the BLA to start engaging in terrorist activities. Importantly however the BLA wasn’t actually formed until April 1971. Therefore it could not have carried out the February 16, 1970 bombing.

Why then was the BLA ever suspected? The simple answer is that little was known about the BLA at the time, and to an extent even now. The BLA just suddenly appeared and the for some time only evidence that it existed was communiques to the press. Indeed for a time officials suspected that the BLA didn’t even exist and was just a cover being used by unrelated terrorists to give the impression of being a larger group. Lacking information, the FBI eventually began blaming virtually every unsolved bombing and robbery on the BLA. Newer research however has established that the BLA was founded later than was thought. In case there are still doubts that the BLA could have been responsible for the February 16 bombing, it also doesn’t fit the groups pattern of attacks at all. As far as I can tell, the BLA never bombed anything, they engaged in either robberies to raise funds, or shootings of police officers, and once threw a grenade at a police car that was chasing them. So while the motive fits, the means are completely unlike any known BLA attack and the group didn’t exist until over a year later.

The second potential suspect is more complicated but it seems to be the one that the FBI has settled on.

This suspect is the Weather Underground, then known as the Weathermen. This was an extremist and eclectic Maoist faction of Students for a Democratic Society, one of the main leftist protest groups of the 1960s. In 1969 the Weathermen managed to gain control of SDS at their national convention. The Weathermen called for a demonstration in Chicago in October of that year which resulted in three days of rioting and the indictment of most of the leadership of the Weathermen. As a result the Weathermen made the decision to go underground and begin an insurgency.

The first major attack by the Weathermen wasn’t disclosed until 2015 because they never bothered to claim it (and as we will see were perhaps embarrassed by the implications of it). On February 12, 1970, four days before the police station bombing, a team of Weathermen placed two bombs in the parking lot of the Berkeley Hall of Justice. The bombs were assembled by Weatherman Howie Machtinger from two sticks of dynamite using an electrical trigger set off by an alarm clock, and placed inside length of pipe; care was taken to wipe off the device with alcohol to ensure no fingerprints were left. One bomb was placed next to a police car, the other was left on the open ground. No warning was phoned; the intention was to cause casualties to the police. The bombs were set to trigger at midnight when there was a shift change, in order to maximize the amount of potential victims. The bombs detonated as scheduled within 30 seconds of each other while over 20 officers milled around the parking lot. However only one officer was seriously injured, with 6 sustaining minor injuries.

On paper this would seem like quite damning evidence implicating the Weathermen for the February 16 bombing give the obvious similarities between them. And this seems to be what the government thought. In 1972 a San Francisco leftist named Matthew Steen passed a tip to detectives that he had planned the bombing with Weathermen Bernardine Dohrn and Howie Machtinger. The FBI had also managed to insert an informant into the Weathermen, Larry Grathwohl. He claimed in 1974 that Weatherman William Ayers had told a Weathernen meeting in New York that the attack had been supervised by Bernardine Dohrn. Grathwohl however has not been the most reliable source of information and has tended to both greatly play up his role and exaggerated the threat posed by the Weathermen (he leveraged this into occasionally popping up as a talking head on Fox News for example). The government has put the most stock in another tip, this one from another Weathermen associate, Karen Latimer. Latimer informed the FBI in the 1970s that she was at a meeting at which Dohrn and Machtinger built the bomb. On the basis of this testimony prosecutors nearly indicted Dohrn, Machtinger, and Weatherman Jeff Jones, before deciding against it due to the slender evidence to build a case on. In 1999 the FBI reopened the case but were unable to make any progeess due to the lack of available physical evidence and Latimer’s death in the interim. The latest push to close the case came in the 2010s when authorities asked Machtinger to give voice and handwriting samples, but nothing came of this either. As of this date Dohrn, Machintger, Jones, and Ayers are all free and still alive. As a result of most of the evidence against the Weathermen being gathered by illegal means, most of them didn’t serve much if any jail time. After an explosion at a townhouse in New York killed three Weathermen who were building bombs to use at an army dance at Fort Dix, the Weathermen moderated their campaign to avoiding casualties (and if they weren’t responsible for the February 16 bombing they were successful at not killing anyone). Hence why the Weathermen might be reluctant to claim this bombing as their own since it came before their change in statsgegy, as well as the risk of being prosecuted for it. A final point in favor of the Weathermen as the guilty party is that as far as I know this was the first bombing of that time period which was intended to maximize casualties. Previous bombings hadn’t been packed with shrapnel. The only organization at this time which was carrying out attacks of this type was the Weathermen.

My personal opinion is that this wasn’t the Weathermen either. There are two factors. One, the bombing took place only four days after the Berkeley bombing and a member of the Weathermen testified to author Bryan Borroughs that the Weathermen couldn’t have pulled off two bombings in such a short amount of time because the Berkeley bombing alone took weeks of preparation in scouting locations and building the bombs. Secondly, no member of the Weathermen has ever testified that the Weathermen was responsible for the February 16 bombing. Even members who are critical of the Weathermen such as Cathy Wilkerson have never claimed that this was their work. Testimony to Bryan Burroughs confirmed that the Berkeley bombing was the work of the Weathermen, but not the February 16 bombing. Now to be fair, this might be a case of people being unwilling to incriminate themselves in an open murder case. But I still find it striking that no one has confirmed the involvement of the Weathermen in this bombing, not even as hearsay. The informants I don’t find particularly convincing either, Grathwohl is an unreliable source. Latimer and Steen said they attended meetings but I’m not sure how reliable they are, or perhaps they confused the bombing at Berkeley with the one on the 16th. And either way talking about it isn’t any hard evidence. Finally the Berkeley bombing didn’t use shrapnel, while the bombs being built for use at Fort Dix used nails rather than industrial staples, making the bomb used on February 16 not a match for either of the bombs the Weathermen were using at this time. Unfortunately I don’t really have a good suspect. The amount of groups with a motive is high, although none of the groups appears to have had both the sophistication to carry out this type of attack – as noted most bombings prior to that consisted of either molotov cocktails or a stick of dynamite in an empty building. The bombing was probably carried out by a group, although its not impossible that it was a single person. The group could well have been very small, as there are some similarities between this attack and the four person New Years’ Gang which used a car bomb on the UW Army Mathematics Research Laboratory and killed a graduate student, although in that case it was inadvertent whereas the February 16 bombing was intended to kill. But if I had to hazard a guess it was probably carried out by a similarly small group of terrorists.

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