The Last Remaining Fugitive from the ‘Sixties
The ghost of bomber Leo Burt still haunts the Love Generation
Up to that point in history, it was the worst case of domestic terrorism ever committed on American soil. Not all that surprising, given the fact that it happened at the height of the most unpopular war this country has ever been a part of.
The perpetrators came from a privileged class who saw the immorality of the war being fought in Vietnam and had it in their power to change the course of that war. Or so they thought.
Like thousands of college students and anti-war activists in 1970, Leo Burt believed it his duty and inherent right to oppose the government’s policies in the war in Vietnam. But he broke away from the crowd when he and a few friends decided to fight back against the Establishment. By whatever means necessary.
Radical times? In the Spring of 1970, Leo Burt was a student at the University of Wisconsin — Madison with help from an ROTC military scholarship. He was a member of the rowing team and wrote for the campus newspaper.
By the time the Fall semester rolled around, his picture was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitive list for his involvement in the bombing of a public building that took the life of one man and further rattled a war-weary nation.
He remains the only fugitive from the 1960s anti-war movement who was never caught or gave himself up. Today, Burt — if he’s still alive — would be 73 years old.
All was quiet in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early morning hours of August 24, 1970. Quiet was something this campus wasn’t used to. The previous three years had created an active anti-war culture on campus, with protests and violent encounters with police and tear gas becoming all too common in the daily life of students. It was expected that when students returned from summer vacation in a few days, things would be heating up soon enough.
On that night, in the basement of Sterling Hall in the heart of the campus, physics researcher Robert Fassnacht was finishing up an all-nighter in the lab. He was working late, clearing the way for a vacation he and his wife and three kids had planned to take in a few days.
At 3:42 AM, a booming explosion shook the ground and rattled windows as far as twenty miles away. And it left a good part of Sterling Hall in ruins. One office in particular — the Army Mathematics Research Center — was barely damaged. It was the physics lab that took the brunt of the blast. Fassnacht was killed instantly.
Less than a minute later, a yellow Chevrolet Corvair drove past the shattered building. The four men inside looked out silently at what they had just done and headed out of town.
Within ten days the FBI had pieced together enough evidence to lay out an outline of the crime. A stolen Ford Econoline van filled with six barrels of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was parked next to the east side of Sterling Hall that night. The intent was to destroy the Army Math Research Center.
“Army Math,” as it was derisively called by students, was seen as a government-sponsored think-tank directly aiding the war effort in Vietnam. In the minds of the student body, such an enterprise had no place being on a college campus.
As for the perpetrators, the FBI announced it had issued arrest warrants for Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt. Fine and Burt were registered students, while the Armstrong brothers had been part-time students off and on for a few years.
The four friends were known to be committed anti-war radicals who called themselves “The New Year’s Gang,” a name derived from an incident on New Year’s Eve of 1969 when the Armstrongs stole a small airplane and dropped homemade explosive devices on the Badger Army Ammunition Plant outside Madison. (The devices failed to detonate and no damage was done.)
To put this in perspective, American soldiers had been fighting and dying in Vietnam for more than five years, and in 1970 there was no end in sight. The Paris peace talks were stalled and appeared to be going nowhere. Three months earlier, four students had been shot and killed during an anti-war rally at Kent State University in Ohio. Now this. Across the nation, especially the college campuses, there was a real sense that anarchy was close at hand.
Maybe it was.
“Today, the battle cry against imperialism was raised once again, as the mathematics research center of the U.S. Army was struck by revolutionary cadres of the New Year’s Gang. If [our] demands are not met, revolutionary measures of an intensity never before seen in this country will be taken by our cadres. Open warfare, kidnapping of important officials, and even assassination will not be ruled out. Although we have sought to prevent any physical harm to all people in the past, we cannot be responsible for the safety of pigs if our demands are not met. Power to the People!”
Leo Burt wrote those words on behalf of the New Year’s Gang in a short manifesto he mailed to campus authorities the day before the bombing. But as soon as it was announced that an innocent man had been killed and three others injured in the blast, everything changed. The innocence of the anti-war movement was forever tarnished.
The innocence of the anti-war movement was forever tarnished when it took the life of an innocent man.
Participating in campus protests was one thing. So, perhaps, was the writing and distributing of revolutionary prose. But now the four men were on the run and they were wanted for murder.
It didn’t take long to figure out that Canada was their best hope. Somewhere in Canada they split up and went their separate ways. They succeeded in alluding the law — for a while.
In 1972, Karl Armstrong was arrested in Toronto and ended up serving seven years of a 23-year sentence before being paroled.
His younger brother Dwight was arrested in Toronto in 1977. He served three years of a seven-year sentence and died of lung cancer in 2010.
David Fine was captured in California in 1976 and also served three years of a seven-year sentence. In 1987 he passed the Oregon bar exam but was denied admission to practice law on the grounds that he “had failed to show good moral character”.
Throughout their trials and after, all three remained adamant that what they did was a political act; they never intended to kill or injure anyone. They said the war, the Kent State shootings, and the violent response of police to anti-war rallies had combined to radicalize them into believing something drastic had to be done.
Once captured and convicted, they accepted their punishment.
But not Leo Burt. He was last seen on August 30, 1970, running out the back door of a boarding house in Peterborough, Canada, with David Fine while authorities were coming in the front. All he left behind was a wallet with a fake ID.
More than fifty years later, the man’s trail has never been colder. Officially, the case file against Leo Burt remains open, but, much like the war he once fought against, memories are all that is left — no doubt the way he would want it.