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The Sterling Hall Bombing


Tim Gratz
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From the August 15, 2005 "USA Today"

Hunt still on for '70 blast suspect

By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY

In a flash, Leo Burt — onetime altar boy, Marine reservist and college athlete — became an alleged American terrorist. Almost as quickly, he vanished.

The disappearance of Leo Burt has some speculating he is dead or was a 'plant' by the governnment.

That was 35 years ago this month, at the zenith of protests against the Vietnam War. Burt is accused of joining three others in bombing the Army Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, killing a researcher.

The three others were caught, but Burt remains at large, quite likely the last student radical on the lam.

"He probably is the last one," said Mike Johnson, an FBI supervisory special agent in Milwaukee.

Theories abound: He has a new identity; he's dead; he was a government plant.

"He disappeared off the face of the Earth. You just don't do that," said Michael Zaleski, 64, an attorney now in private practice who prosecuted one of the bombers.

Burt was last seen six days after the 1970 bombing. He and another fugitive, David Fine, slipped out of a house in Peterborough, Ontario, moments before Mounties entered.

Fine was caught in San Rafael, Calif., in 1976. Two other plotters were also captured, both in Toronto: Karleton Armstrong in 1972 and his brother, Dwight, in 1977. All three were convicted and did time in prison.

As it had with the others, the FBI slapped Burt's face on posters for its 10 most-wanted criminals. Usually that works: The FBI has found 450 of the 480 of those on the list since 1950, according to its Internet site.

"We still get leads on him from time to time," Johnson said. "And we still track them all down. But they don't turn up anything."

Birth of a radical

Burt's upbringing offered no clues that he'd become a suspected killer on the run. Born April 18, 1948, Burt grew up in a Catholic family in suburban Philadelphia. He was an altar boy and attended parochial school. An athlete, he enrolled at Wisconsin and joined the crew team. He also spent time as a Marine reservist.

His politics apparently changed in the tumult of the Vietnam War era. The University of Wisconsin, like Michigan and Berkeley, were hotbeds of unrest. Tension spiked in May 1970 when National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus in Ohio killed four students during an anti-war protest.

John Elder, a sociology professor at Wisconsin who opposed the war, recalled a campus in turmoil in 1970. Police and National Guardsmen clashed with protesters. Clouds of tear gas crept across town. Windows were smashed, buildings burned. It became nearly impossible to teach, he said.

May 1970 was the peak of the anti-war movement," Elder said. "It was chaotic. Students had picket lines in front of classrooms."

Burt, who studied journalism, wrote for the student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal. Walter Ezell, an editor at the paper in 1970, remembered that Burt had written an editorial arguing that non-violent protest had failed. He warned of class and race warfare and predicted urban violence.

"I didn't think it was very clear thinking," said Ezell, who is now 56.

The summer of 1970 had been relatively calm on campus, Elder remembered.

That changed in late August.

Burt, then 22, allegedly recruited Fine just days before the bombing, according to court records. On Aug. 24, the bombers wheeled a stolen Ford van in front of the building housing the Army Math Research Center. It was packed with 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer soaked in aviation fuel. They lit the fuse and warned police. At 3:42 a.m., the explosion tore into Sterling Hall.

The blast knocked out windows six blocks away, tossed parts of the van on top of an eight-story building and caused $6 million in damage.

It also killed Robert Fassnacht. A post-doctoral researcher in physics, Fassnacht, 33, was working late to finish an experiment before leaving on vacation, said Don Reeder, then an associate professor of physics. Fassnacht was married and had three small children. His family could not be reached for comment for this story.

"It was as traumatic as one might imagine," Reeder said.

As it happened, one of the principal targets, a computer used for Army research, had been replaced months before by a faster model in a different building, Reeder said.

Burt fled to Canada. David Mebane, an assistant Wisconsin attorney general at the time who tracked Burt and the others, said they had help from an underground network of radicals in Chicago; Ann Arbor, Mich.; New York; Boston; and Toronto.

"There were false IDs involved, assistance in facilitating travel to places they wouldn't be found," Mebane said.

After Burt's brief appearance in Canada, the trail went cold. There are no indications that investigators ever came close to finding him again, Mebane said.

"He had a certain amount of luck, running into the right people and avoiding others," he said. "He was cool enough and smart enough."

So much so that Mebane assumes he's still at large. "He's probably in the U.S.," he said. "Maybe he's a stockbroker. Who knows?"

Mebane and Zaleski would like to see him prosecuted. If he's alive, Burt would be 57.

"You just don't let people walk away from murder," Zaleski said.

Case remains open

The FBI hasn't stopped looking. The warrants are still active. A new agent has been assigned to Burt's case in Madison.

They might be wasting their time, Zaleski said.

"To me, there are only two plausible explanations: He's dead, or he was a plant by the government," he said. "That theory was floated for a while. Remember that Richard Nixon had his dirty tricks.

"Here's the reason I think it's minimally plausible: He was never found, and there was nothing in his background that would suggest that he was ever capable of this (crime)."

Zaleski doubts that Burt, like some other radical fugitives of the era, is at large. The life of a fugitive — changing identities, avoiding family and friends — is fraught with too many hazards to avoid capture.

"I think he's dead. I think that's the most plausible scenario," Zaleski said. "There's no reason he shouldn't come in from the cold."

Thirty-five years later, Burt and the bombing still haunt those involved in the case.

Wisconsin, Zaleski muses, has a state bird (robin), state animal (badger), even a state insect (honeybee).

"Leo Burt ought to be our state ghost," he said.

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From the above story:

Burt, who studied journalism, wrote for the student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal. Walter Ezell, an editor at the paper in 1970, remembered that Burt had written an editorial arguing that non-violent protest had failed. He warned of class and race warfare and predicted urban violence.

"I didn't think it was very clear thinking," said Ezell, who is now 56.

This explains why we found it necessary to start a clear-thinking student newspaper. Ironically, "The Daily Cardinal" (appropriately named) was state subsidized so the State of Wisconsin was sunsidizing an editorial impliedly calling for violence, written by a man who participated in a bombing killing an innocent researcher.

Ironically, that paper, "The Badger Herald", recently ran an editorial highly critical of Karl Rove. I guess I've been hoisted by my own petard! Oh, well!

Edited by Tim Gratz
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