It was on the evening of March 8, 1971, when the most unlikely group of lawbreakers broke into an FBI office in the town of Media, Pennsylvania. The thieves — a religion professor, a daycare center worker, a college student, another professor, a social worker, and two college dropouts — were all lead by William Davidon, a college physics professor. Davidon had only assembled them two months earlier, carefully choosing each of them from the Pennsylvania’s growing peace movement.
It was Davidon himself who noticed something odd was happening within the peace movement that protested the Vietnam War. He felt it had been infiltrated with informants and spies intent on disrupting and discrediting it, and that his very own government, through the FBI, was suppressing every American’s constitutional right to dissent. If he and his group could find evidence of this, they could hand it over to the press.
In a type of role reversal, most of the group spent evenings staking out the FBI office. They noted number of vehicles of the street, parking patterns, bus schedules, closing times of local businesses, and peak times of foot traffic. The FBI office was located on the second floor of downtown apartment building. This office kept banker’s hours, which was fortunate for the burglars.
Bonnie Raines, a mother of three and daycare worker, agreed to case the office itself. Posing as a local college student, she made an appointment with the agent in charge to interview him about the FBI’s hiring practices. As the accommodating agent answered her questions about hiring females and minorities, she made mental notes of doorways, locks, and file cabinets. Crucially, she saw there was no internal alarm system.
While the team gathered as much intelligence as they could, one member—John Forsyth—had enrolled in a correspondence course in locksmithing. He built himself a door with the exact lock the FBI office had (from Bonnie Raines’ description), and spent every waking hour picking it, simultaneously trying to get his time down to a few seconds, while being so adept at it he could it without thinking.
The team rolled out on the evening of March 8th, which was chosen because that was the night of the momentous Muhammad Ali / Joe Frasier fight. Most of the city should be glued to the televisions or radios, a welcomed distraction.
Donning a suite and briefcase, Forsyth entered the apartment building like he belonged there. He approached the FBI’s door and absolutely froze. Since Raines’ initial visit, a second high-security lock had been put on the door. Why? Forsyth felt sick. Did they know? Was there a leak? Were agents waiting for him on the other side with their guns drawn?
Sweating and barely able to walk, Forsyth walked back to his car and drove to a motel room where the other burglars were waiting for him. They were about to call the whole thing off when Raines mentioned there was a weird secondary door to the rear storage room. It didn’t have any lock, but it didn’t need one, as the agents had piled old shelving and cabinets against it. They agreed to go back and try to push it open, even though it would now be a clumsy and loud operation.
All his locksmith training now useless, Forsyth took a crowbar to the storage door. The wood splintered, and empty cabinets crashed, but all the team could hear were loud televisions and people cheering the boxing match. They entered, grabbed as many files as they could from each agent’s office, and tried to leave without running.
The spent the rest of the night reading and collating what they had stolen, feeling rage but mostly sadness at what they discovered. The FBI was indeed supressing dissent against anyone who spoke out against the Vietnam war. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. J. Edgar Hoover had spent the previous half century disfiguring the mission of the most acclaimed law enforcement agencies of the United States.
The stolen files revealed Hoover had created two FBIs. One provided law and order and justice across the nation. The other “usurped citizens liberties, treated black citizens as if they were a danger to society, and used deception, disinformation, and violence as tools to harass, damage and, most importantly, silence people whose political opinions the director opposed.”
Hoover was running a bureaucracy of outlaws, more interested in the sexual activities of law abiding citizens than it was on actually fighting crime. Using blackmail and dirty tricks, Hoover “assumed the duty to protect the public by placing it under surveillance.”
Calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, Davidon’s group of burglars sent what they found to various government officials, and most importantly, to the press. They then said goodbye to each other, swearing to have no longer have contact with each other or speak about what they did to anyone.
Hoover struck back hard, spending millions of dollars and assigning 200 top agents to catch the thieves. After five years, they came up empty handed. But soon came the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and Hoover’s death. By 1975, the FBI’s war against lawful American citizens came to an end.
The burglars themselves kept their oaths for 43 years. In 2013 Bonnie Raines and her husband blurted out what they had done to a friend. She encouraged them to break their silence, which they did. Soon the others came forward as well. No longer the FBI’s most wanted, this collection of mostly grandparents now speaks about their role to school kids and town halls. As one observer noted “the members of the crowd don’t just clap. They clap as hard as they can.”
Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library