Book reveals secrets of a burglary from Phila.'s antiwar past

Bonnie and John Raines, among the FBI burglary's coconspirators.
Bonnie and John Raines, among the FBI burglary's coconspirators. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2014

John and Bonnie Raines had gathered for dinner with their three young children that Monday night in Germantown.

When the babysitter arrived, the couple said goodbye to the children, climbed into their Ford wagon, and drove west, toward Media.

For weeks, the Raineses and others had been studying a four-story building across from the Delaware County Courthouse.

This was the night they had waited for. While millions were distracted by a championship boxing bout, the crew would pull off the unthinkable:

They would break into an FBI office and gather proof that agents had been waging a secret war on political dissent.

Now, almost 43 years after the never-solved crime, the coconspirators have revealed one of the best-kept secrets from an era when Philadelphia was pulsing with draft-board raids and Vietnam War protests.

"If we had not been pretty confident that we could get away with it, we wouldn't have done it," John Raines, now 80, said in a recent interview. "None of us were into the martyrdom stuff."

Raines and the others agreed to break the pact of silence they made when they last met, about two weeks after the March 1971 burglary, and to share their story with author Betty Medsger. Her book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, comes out Tuesday.

At the center of her account is an unlikely band of Philadelphia-area burglars that included three college professors, a day-care director, and a 20-year-old cabdriver who taught himself to pick locks.

What united them was a goal - to get damning proof of the FBI's nationwide campaign against Vietnam War opponents. Some had dropped out of college to join the antiwar movement; all had taken part in at least one draft-board raid.

When some of the hundreds of stolen files were mailed weeks later to newspapers, Hoover's FBI was shaken to its core. The files "proved beyond a doubt that the FBI was investigating students as if they were criminals," a top FBI aide wrote later.

One memo suggested that agents step up their questioning of activists in the New Left campus political movement. That, the memo said, "will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."

African American student organizations were to be infiltrated and watched.

The first news story, "Stolen Documents Describe FBI Surveillance Activities," appeared March 24, 1971, in the Washington Post, under Medsger's byline. The story also was published in The Inquirer.

Because of the statute of limitations, the burglars are now beyond the reach of prosecutors, said David Kairys, a Temple University law professor and attorney for some of them.

"There really is not any legitimate or good-faith basis to bring any charges against them at this point," he said.

Asked Monday for comment on the book, Michael Kortan, an FBI spokesman, said: "A number of events during that era, including the burglary, contributed to changes in how the FBI identified and addressed domestic security threats, leading to reform of the FBI's intelligence policies and practices, including the creation of investigative guidelines by the Department of Justice."

Raines, who spent the ensuing decades as a professor of religious studies, said the crime and the aftermath made this a Philadelphia story in a much deeper sense than just geographical.

"I am convinced it could not have been successful except in the Philadelphia region," he said, "and for this reason: We knew that there were literally thousands - thousands - of war resisters in the Philadelphia area, and we knew that no matter how many agents J. Edgar Hoover threw out there to try to find us, they faced a very daunting task to sift through thousands of possible suspects."

Plotting in advance

The account that Medsger pieced together - confirmed in interviews with Raines and two others - is one of amateur break-in artists pulling off a crime that baffled the country's most prestigious law enforcement agency.

The man who recruited and led them was William C. Davidon, then 44, a physics professor at Haverford College, who was active in war resistance.

For weeks, the group members had staked out the block outside the second-floor FBI office at Front and South Streets in Media. After each surveillance, they gathered in their war room - the attic of the Raineses' home in Germantown - to compare notes and debrief.

They discovered that the building had apartments on the upper floors and that the front door stayed unlocked at night.

They also had picked a date: Monday, March 8, 1971, the same night the nation's eyes would be focused on Madison Square Garden and the heavyweight championship fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

But they needed inside information. With about two weeks to go, Bonnie Raines, then 29, mother of three and a day-care director, donned glasses, tucked her brown locks into a hat, and walked into the FBI office.

Raines told the agent in charge that she was a student researching job opportunities for women. She also scanned the room. She saw no security system.

Meanwhile, Keith Forsyth, a 20-year-old cabdriver and war resister, had spent weeks learning how to pick a lock, and sneaked in to size up firsthand the FBI's door locks.

On the night of the break-in, Davidon directed the operation from a motel room across from Granite Run Mall.

Forsyth was surprised to find a more secure lock on the main door to the FBI suite than he expected, but easily picked the lock on a second, unused door - which Raines had warned was blocked by a filing cabinet. Forsyth used part of his tire jack to pry his way in.

Then four others, all wearing gloves, arrived from the motel with suitcases and broke open the filing cabinets, carting off about 1,000 files and an autographed photo of Hoover.

Of the four, only Bob Williamson, then 22 and from Runnemede, has since agreed to be publicly identified. (Medsger interviewed but did not name two of the others.)

The burglars drove off undetected and transferred the files to other cars.

John Raines, then 37, a veteran of the civil rights movement, who was working toward tenure in the religion department at Temple, drove his station wagon to a hideaway near Pottstown for sorting and mailing the files to reporters.

He and Davidon handled the first two mailings, copying the files at their school offices in the off-hours. They had also crafted a statement to announce the burglary, issued by the "Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI." It accused the bureau of waging a secret and illegal war on dissent.

The next morning, an angry Hoover ordered an all-out investigation. Soon, agents were swarming over Powelton Village, where many war resisters lived, and began scouring lists of hundreds of possible suspects in the region.

The Raineses did not know it then, but the agents were fanning out armed with a police sketch of Bonnie Raines - described only as the "unknown subject" who weeks earlier had visited the Media office. They narrowly missed her when they confronted John Raines one day as he arrived home.

The sketch turned up years later when FBI files were opened to the public.

Medsger was on the story from the start. Before moving to Washington, she had been a reporter for the Bulletin and had covered the local antiwar movement.

In the 1990s, she began piecing together the unsolved crime.

Combing through now-public FBI files, she found that the names of seven of the eight burglars had been listed among hundreds of possible suspects at some point, and one - Williamson - was still so listed when the FBI, after five years, finally closed its investigation.

Though the Media burglary story faded, it reignited in 1973 when courts ordered the FBI to begin releasing documents of its "counterintelligence programs" that Hoover had secretly directed against individuals and organizations that he deemed subversive. There was a reference on a Media routing slip, "COINTELPRO-New Left," that gave reporter Carl Stern of NBC News and others leverage to force these records into public view, leading to congressional hearings and reforms.

Staying in the shadows

Medsger's book contends that FBI headquarters itself sent the Media investigation into a dead end by deciding early on that the ringleader must have been John Peter Grady, a Catholic activist leading draft-board raids at the time. He had been purposely kept out of the burglars' plans.

Two weeks after the Media break-in, the burglars made their secret pact and went their separate ways. For decades, they had little or no contact.

Davidon, a lifelong peace activist, died Nov. 8 in a Colorado nursing home. Williamson, now 64, works as a business coach in Albuquerque, N.M.

The Raineses and Forsyth remained in the area. In recent interviews, they defended their conduct.

"Anybody in the social-justice movement at that time, whether it was civil rights or the antiwar movement, we all knew the FBI was not only spying on people who were engaged in legal protest, they were also doing surreptitious, dirty-tricks types of things," said Forsyth, who lives in Manayunk and is principal engineer for a manufacturer of optical devices.

Said Bonnie Raines: "We all knew that was going on, but there wasn't really any way to prove it."

She and her husband live in a two-story rowhouse in Center City and have seven grandchildren. He retired in June 2011 as chair of Temple's religion department and still teaches a course on social protest in the 1960s.

Asked how he thinks Temple officials will react to the book, John Raines said: "I hope they will be proud."


The Characters

William C. Davidon. At a recent memorial service at Haverford College, where he taught physics and math until retiring in 1991, speakers recalled Davidon’s mind for detail, his lifelong passion for peace, and how he leavened protest with humor. He campaigned against nuclear weapons, marched for civil rights in the South, and counseled Vietnam War resisters. He died Nov. 8 at 86.

John C. Raines, now 80. From a Minnesota family of Methodist pastors, Raines was a veteran of civil rights actions in the South from 1961 to 1965, then taught religion at Temple University in 1966 and became department chairman. He was “one of the few scholars in Christian studies who did research and wrote articles and books about class and class struggle in America,” he wrote in a private reflection.

Bonnie Raines, now 72. From Michigan, she founded two child-care centers in Philadelphia, wrote a 1989 study on the city’s latch-key children, and from 1995 to 2008 was a policy associate with what is now Public Citizens for Children and Youth, where she remains a volunteer. The couple’s fourth child was born a few years after the burglary.

Keith Forsyth, now 63. Having dropped out of an Ohio college to join the Philadelphia resistance, he taught himself locksmithing as war resisters were breaking into draft boards. Later, with an electrical engineering degree from Drexel University, he went into the fields of electro-optics and photonics, and is now principal engineer at Avo Photonics in Horsham. He also teaches GED math classes.

Bob Williamson, now 64. Raised in Runnemede, he dropped out of college to join the antiwar movement and had participated in several draft-board raids before being recruited for the Media burglary. Described now as “a conservative with libertarian leanings,” he does “professional coaching and training for people in the mortgage industry” in Albuquerque, N.M.


By the Numbers

0: Fingerprints found. The burglars wore gloves.

200: FBI agents assigned to the case.

400: Files opened on possible suspects.

1,800: Interviews in the Media area.

4,500: Xerox copiers sampled in search of ones used to copy files.

33,698: Pages in the FBI's public "MEDBURG" file.

SOURCES: "The Burglary" and FBI records.


mjwagenveld@gmail.com

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