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.

Resurfacing at the end of the decade, many of the Weathermen saw charges against them dropped or resolved with meager penalties because of the questionable FBI tactics used against them. Some went on to rehabilitate themselves through careers in academia. Dohrn is now a professor at Northwestern University Law School, and Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Machtinger became a teacher in North Carolina. No former member or associate of the Weather Underground has ever publicly acknowledged a role in the Park Station bombing.

Dohrn, Machtinger, and Ayers did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Brian Flanagan, a New York City resident and former Weather Underground member who has condemned the group's tactics as misguided, denied that any Weathermen had carried out the bombing. "There's nothing that I have for you on Park Station, except that it was not the Weather," he said. "I'm absolutely positive." He declined to say whether he was in San Francisco when the attack took place: "That's as far as I'm going to go."

Rudd, who once held a leadership position in the group, said he didn't think the Weathermen had a hand in the murder of McDonnell, but acknowledged that he could not be sure, since he was not based in California at the time of the bombing.

Former Weather Underground member Mark Rudd denies the group was involved in the bombing of Park Police Station.
Photo courtesy of Max Noel
Former Weather Underground member Mark Rudd denies the group was involved in the bombing of Park Police Station.
Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, seen in 2001, are now professors in Chicago.
Todd Buchanan
Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, seen in 2001, are now professors in Chicago.

"It's my impression that Weather Underground was not involved in that at all," he said in a telephone interview from New Mexico, where he now lives. "I was on the East Coast at the time, but I was still high enough in the organization. I never heard anything about it. Not only that, I was in a position to know." He added, "Of course, that's not any kind of exculpatory evidence."


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, and 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 Nob Hill. 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 SF Weekly for comment.

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