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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 cohorts 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 bombmaking 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 Aug. 28, 1971, Anthony Bottom and Albert Washington, cadres of the violent Black Panthers splinter group known as the Black Liberation Army (BLA), 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 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.
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 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 the 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.