An Investigation Into a SF Cop Killing Leads to a Chicago Professor Who Helped Launch Obama's Career

Time Bomb
The investigation into a San Francisco cop killing in the ’70s leads to a Chicago law professor who helped launch Barack Obama’s political career

On the night of Feb. 16, 1970, Brian McDonnell was sorting through bulletins on the Teletype machine at Park Police Station in the Upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco. The respected 44-year-old sergeant was checking results from the recent union elections, in which he was running for station representative. Steady rain fell outside. At 10:45 p.m., a bomb planted on the ledge outside a nearby window went off.

McDonnell took the brunt of the blast to his body and face. The bomb was packed with inch-long industrial fence staples, which severed his jugular vein and lodged in his brain. He would die two days later without regaining consciousness.

Former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn (right) is suspected by investigators of organizing the deadly attack on Park Police Station
Photos courtesy Max Noel
Former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn (right) is suspected by investigators of organizing the deadly attack on Park Police Station
Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers (below), pictured in a law-enforcement identification kit from the 1970s
Photos courtesy Max Noel
Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers (below), pictured in a law-enforcement identification kit from the 1970s

Investigators would later surmise that the explosion had been intended for 11 p.m., when roughly two dozen officers would be coming on or going off duty. As it was, many were still changing in the second-floor locker room. Rushing downstairs, they found Officer Frank Rath, who had been in the office with McDonnell, stumbling dazedly around the room with his gun drawn. Blood and staples covered the floor.

“I was a Vietnam veteran. I’d been in a war,” recalled retired police sergeant James Pera, then a 24-year-old patrol officer and one of the first on the scene. “But I never expected this to happen in my hometown, in a police station. It was something we never expected to see in our own country.”

Awash in revolutionary and antiwar fervor, the Vietnam era was a dangerous time for cops.

Information in the long-running investigation into the Park Station bombing has been closely held by law-enforcement officials. Yet rumors have circulated for the past four decades that the Weather Underground, a militant leftist group, was involved in the attack.

National interest in the Weather Underground was revived during last year’s presidential campaign, when Republicans and conservative bloggers tried to smear Barack Obama for his ties to the group’s former leaders, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. A married couple now comfortably ensconced in the ranks of Chicago’s liberal intelligentsia, Ayers and Dohrn were early political patrons of Obama’s, hosting a campaign event for the future president in 1995 when he ran for the Illinois state Senate.

Ayers and Dohrn assert today that the group deliberately avoided killing people in a campaign of “symbolic” bombings of empty government buildings. They and other former Weathermen have dismissed as right-wing conspiracy theories any suggestion that their organization was responsible for the Park Station bombing.

Now, speaking publicly for the first time about the investigation, former FBI agents have told Village Voice Media the basis for their belief that the Weather Underground was behind McDonnell’s murder. The agents have revealed that two credible eyewitnesses—both former left-wing radicals tied to the Weathermen—gave detailed statements to investigators in the 1970s alleging that Dohrn and Howard Machtinger, whom investigators believed to be one of the group’s principal bomb technicians, were personally involved in organizing the deadly attack. Both witnesses claimed to have participated in meetings at which the bombing was planned, and one confessed to having cased the police station for the Weathermen.

Working from these statements, authorities have quietly devoted far more attention to the Weather Underground in recent years than was previously known. Dohrn, Machtinger and Ayers were all targets of a secret, federal, grand-jury investigation in 2003 into McDonnell’s killing, according to San Francisco criminal-defense lawyer Stuart Hanlon, who has become familiar with the Park Station case while defending a client charged in another 1970s police murder. While indictments against the three were never issued, Hanlon said, “it was clear they were the targets. They weren’t called—other people were called about them.”

The case against the Weathermen is far from complete. Some investigators say they are troubled by the impunity with which Ayers and Dohrn have peddled a version of the past wiped clean of bloodshed. “I don’t think they should be besmirched. I just think the truth should come out,” said retired FBI Special Agent Willie Reagan, who investigated the Weathermen in the 1970s and served on a task force that in 1999 reopened the investigation into McDonnell’s murder. “There’s so much there. If you’ve ever been in a courtroom, you know defense attorneys can create doubt about anything. But common sense tells you something. Who else could it be?”

*     *     *

Reagan, 68, now lives north of San Francisco and has little in common with the partisan hacks who tried to make hay from Ayers’ militant past during the 2008 election season. In his career, Reagan would deploy his talents for disguise and detection to help bring down extremist groups of all political stripes.

In the 1970s, Reagan grew out his hair and mastered the counterculture shibboleths of the New Left. His work as an undercover agent—or “beard,” as they were known at the FBI—helped disrupt a 1977 plot by the Weathermen to bomb the Fullerton offices of John V. Briggs, the conservative state senator representing Orange County. Years later, Reagan grew a beard again—this time for a stint with the Freemen, a group of armed right-wing radicals who sequestered themselves on a Montana compound at the height of the militia movement in the 1990s. In between, he infiltrated drug organizations and the mob.

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