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Time Bomb 

Weather Underground leaders claimed their bombings were devised to avoid bloodshed. But FBI agents suspect the radical '70s group killed an S.F. cop in the name of revolution.

Wednesday, Sep 16 2009

Page 2 of 5

He soon came across a set of decades-old documents that astonished him. In the bulging case file on the Weathermen was a sheaf of FD-302 forms, used by bureau agents then, as now, to summarize interviews performed in the course of investigations.

The FBI's first recorded statements on the Park Station bombing plot came from interviews over two days in June 1972 with a man who once had been a writer for the Berkeley Tribe, an underground newspaper. While Reagan would not disclose the man's name, law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation said he is Matthew Landy Steen, who has used the alias William Hellis Coquillette.

Steen told agents he had attended a Bay Area meeting in January 1970 at which half a dozen Weather Underground activists discussed their plans to plant a bomb at Park Police Station. Among those Steen placed at the meeting were Dohrn, the Weather Underground's charismatic leader; and Machtinger, who investigators believed to be one of the group's principal bomb technicians.

Also in the case file were multiple forms from interviews with a former Weather Underground member named Karen Latimer. In the mid-1970s, years after Steen spoke to the FBI, Latimer came forward to say that she had attended a separate planning session for the Park Station attack with Dohrn and Machtinger in the winter of 1970. (In the months leading up to the bombing, Dohrn was living on a houseboat in Sausalito, according to an account in A Radical Line, the family memoir of Thai Jones, son of former Weatherman Jeff Jones.)

At these meetings, Reagan said, Dohrn "seemed to be more or less the ringleader," while "Machtinger gave instructions on how to build the bomb, and they discussed the placing of the bomb at Park Station."

Reagan said the witnesses' descriptions of the meetings were consistent with each other and strikingly similar to other Weather Underground planning sessions he had personally attended while an undercover agent. The idea, he said, was to implicate all members in a criminal conspiracy, reducing the chance that anyone would turn to the police.

"To them, building a bomb is an act of cohesion," Reagan said. "It's almost like the Mob, when they ask someone to kill somebody or hack a guy's arm off. They trust you more when they're dirty with you."

Reagan's account was confirmed by Max Noel, another retired FBI agent who investigated the Weathermen in the 1970s while based at the bureau's San Francisco field office. "They did exist, and they were credible," Noel said of the statements.

San Francisco Police Inspector Joe Engler, the lead detective on the Phoenix Task Force, declined to comment on evidence or potential witnesses in the Park Station case, citing the ongoing investigation into the bombing. He referred a request for the forms on Latimer and Steen to federal authorities. At press time, the United States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California said a Freedom of Information Act request from SF Weekly for the documents was being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

For decades, the only known indications of the Weather Underground's involvement in the bombing of Park Station had been tenuous hearsay from Larry Grathwohl, a U.S. Army veteran who was hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Weathermen in 1969. In sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1974 and in a 1976 memoir, Bringing Down America: An FBI Informer with the Weathermen, Grathwohl asserted that he had heard from Ayers during a meeting of a Weather Underground cell in Buffalo, N.Y., that Dohrn "had to plan, develop, and carry out the bombing of the police station in San Francisco." But former Weathermen have long dismissed his story as a fabrication. During a book tour of the Bay Area in January, Ayers told the San Francisco Chronicle that Grathwohl was "a paid dishonest person."

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 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 in order to have a federal hold on her passport lifted so she could travel abroad, and was delivered to the SFPD 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.)

About The Author

Peter Jamison


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