By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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Unlike the bloodless bombings the Weathermen carried out in the mid-1970s, murder and related conspiracy charges carry no statute of limitations. 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 to not 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 San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood. 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.
“This whole image that these were nice-type people is what makes me upset,” Noel said. “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 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 BLA radicals—Bottom among them—for the 1971 attack on Ingleside Police Station and the murder of Sergeant Young. The Phoenix Task Force was also responsible for building that case.
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 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 attorney general’s office.
According to 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. A 2002 SFPD bulletin seeking Steen 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; it is unclear whether he would still be a competent witness. Steen could not be reached by Village Voice Media for comment.
Latimer, who would likely have been a star witness for the prosecution, died several years ago, according to Reagan. During his brief return to the Park Station case in 2000, Reagan said, he re-established contact with Latimer, whom he had known during his years as an undercover agent in the 1970s. Speaking to her again after the intervening decades, he found her deeply frustrated that her decision to cooperate with law enforcement so many years ago had been of little consequence. “She was looking for a form of justice, and she was totally disappointed that there wasn’t enough to prosecute,” he said. “To her, it was a reality. She was there, and she heard them talking about doing this.”
At a preliminary hearing earlier this year in the failed Ingleside murder case, Dohrn, in a gesture of solidarity, traveled to San Francisco from Chicago to stand with the defendants’ supporters in the courtroom. Engler was also present.
According to law-enforcement sources, Engler introduced himself to Dohrn as a San Francisco homicide detective and said he would like to speak with her after the hearing. She greeted him politely but was noncommittal, and she left without giving him a chance to interview her. It had been 39 years since Park Station was bombed. Police were still looking for a break. And once again, Dohrn had disappeared.