The Phantom Bomb Plot of 1969

Forty years later, the fallout remains from a notorious case.

By Jonathan Valania

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 17 | Posted Dec. 22, 2009

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“The whole thing took about an hour, and the weird thing was that the kitchen was right in the middle of the apartment, but they made a point of searching there last,” Fraser recalls. “When they finally got to the kitchen, I remember three or four of them forming a semicircle around the refrigerator with their backs effectively walling it off from view, and then they were like, ‘Aha! What’s this?’ and they pulled out this big tin can of C-4 plastic explosives.” 


Pulling the refrigerator out from the wall, the cops then produced three lengths of pipe, some blasting caps and a small quantity of gunpowder.


Fraser believes the bomb-making material must have been planted earlier in the day, but Milkman disagrees. “I don’t see how,” he says. “We were in and out of the refrigerator all day. No, they must have smuggled it in under those big coats they were wearing.” 


As the group was being ushered into the paddy wagon, Fraser began shouting into the cameras that this was a frame-up. At this point, Borghmann showed up, and shortly afterward joined his friends in the paddy wagon. Once they got to jail, Friedman was ushered into the women’s wing, where she was issued a prison dress so short it barely covered her backside. “When I protested that my butt was hanging out, they made me scrub the floor on my hands and knees,” she says.


“I remember I began to get depressed [in jail],” says Milkman. “Not really for myself, because I knew I had been framed, but for the others, most of whom were black. One had been arrested for breaking into his own house because he didn’t have a key, and cops were in such hurry to arrest him they didn’t let him provide ID. Another guy had told a story about how he went to a used-car lot and took a car out for a test drive and the car died; he was in the middle of the street waiting for help when the cops arrested him for trying to steal the car. They told these stories not with outrage but as matter of fact, that this is what it is like to be a black man in Philadelphia in the spring of 1969.” 


The SDS could not have asked for more effective and sympathetic legal representation than they got from Bernard Segal, a high-profile defense lawyer who commanded the respect of the city’s legal establishment, and David Rudovsky, a bright young civil-rights lawyer fresh out of law school. Segal and Rudovsky managed to get the bail reduced for everyone in the group and, eventually, charges dropped against Milkman and Friedman, because they were merely visitors on the premises where the bomb-making materials were found. They also got a break when Judge Edmund B. Spaeth was assigned the case. “He was very intelligent and a Quaker, a man of conscience,” says Friedman. “[The lawyers] told us that he was pretty much the only judge in town we had a chance of convincing."


The prosecution’s case stumbled at the start when Fencl acknowledged in court that he had no proof of Fraser or Borghmann’s involvement in any plot to blow of national landmarks, or that such a plot existed. Futhermore, under questioning by Segal, he said that the police had never dusted the bomb-making materials for fingerprints that would prove Fraser or Borghmann handled them, nor did they take precautions not to leave their own fingerprints on the materials when they collected them. Also, the KYW footage of the search mysteriously went missing from the station’s archives when the defense requested copies.


Shortly after his arrest, Fraser flew out to San Francisco to meet with The Black Panther Party in hopes of forging an SDS/Panther alliance. “They were so paranoid, I remember they picked us up and blindfolded us so we wouldn’t know where their hideout was,” says Fraser. “In the end, they just didn’t trust us.” 


Although a unified front with the Panthers was not to be, the meeting would, in a roundabout way, provide the foundation for their defense. Fencl let it slip at a City Hall rally in support of Fraser and Borghmann that he knew all about Fraser’s trip to meet the Panthers, and it became apparent that authorities had wiretaps in place, something they were loath to admit.


Segal and Rudovsky argued that their clients had a right to know if Philadelphia Police or the FBI had tapped their phones (if the wiretaps had violated the Fourth Amendment, all evidence gathered as a result would be inadmissible in court) and that the defense had a right to know the identity of any moles or informers employed by the authorities, as they would prove to be crucial witnesses for the defense. 


Judge Spaeth agreed, but prosecutors dragged their heels on both motions during the nearly two years of pre-trial hearings until Spaeth finally issued an ultimatum: 
Either provide the details of any wiretapping and provide the names of any informers or he was throwing out the charges. Which is exactly what happened in April of 1971. 


The decison not to disclose on the wiretaps and informants went all the way up to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and then-Attorney General John Mitchell, who discussed the case on several occasions, as Fraser would later learn when he secured his voluminous FBI file with a Freedom of Information Act request. Curiously, the prosecution never appealed Judge Spaeth’s ruling or re-filed charges despite its prerogative to do so.


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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. josh freeman said... on Dec 23, 2009 at 08:32AM

“thought you'd get a kick out of this. steve”

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2. Maslauskas said... on Dec 23, 2009 at 02:39PM

“at government surveillence of SDS and other activists continues to this day. did you know the military was spying on activists in Olympia? Fort Lewis, the army, navy, US capitol police from DC and air force intell agents from New Jersey are all spying on SDSers and other activists in Olympia. look up John Towery (the military spy) and Maslauskas Dunn (an SDSer) on google or democracynow.org to get the story.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Dec 23, 2009 at 05:58PM

“Fencl was an arrogant, egomaniacal fascist. He tried to stir up trouble during a student sit-in at City Hall that was an attempt to settle the very first teachers' strike, so he could arrest somebody and make an example -- and headlines. He was a pig in the truest sense of the word. It's a joke that the Philly cops have an an award named after him.”

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4. Beverly C. said... on Dec 24, 2009 at 09:13AM

“I think the whole story would make a great movie!”

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5. Anonymous said... on Dec 24, 2009 at 12:54PM

“i agree on the movie.”

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6. The Ponderer said... on Dec 25, 2009 at 04:54PM

“The SDS, and the Weathermen Underground, which really were, and still are one in the same, won, they have the admitted bomber Bill Ayers as a Poster Child, and his protege in the Presidency. Why do we have to feel sorry for any of them?”

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7. Hylozoic Hedgehog said... on Dec 26, 2009 at 04:30PM

“Readers interested in a far more detailed look at this case may want to consult the website LaRouchePlanet.info and specifically a study entitled "'Leninist Boomers' Build the 'Fifth International'" available at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.Factnetdossiers .

The Fraser-Borghmann story constitutes an important part of the early history of the SDS Labor Committee which later became the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). By 1973 the NCLC had deteriorated into a political cult led by Lyndon LaRouche (a/k/a "Lyn Marcus"). By that time both Steve Fraser and Richard Borghmann had long left the organization.

The file section on Philadelphia also includes an examination of the case taken from Frank Donner's book Protectors of Privilege, and Paul Lyons superb study of the Philadelphia New Left entitled The People of This Generation. The file also reprints Judge Spaeth's decision to dismiss the case.

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8. Quercus Alba said... on Dec 27, 2009 at 02:02PM

“Thank you for a fine article. I see the value of the alternative press growing as the mainstream media becomes further corrupted by commercial and political influences. I knew nothing of this story, and it recalls my own experience as an accused West Philly bomb builder. In that infamous case, I had rented my building to some protesters during the RNC. In order to subvert a politcal protest, the police and associated authorities levied the same baseless accusations of bomb building. What I find ironic is that the only documented case of a bombing in Philadelphia that I know of was carried out BY the police, in the Move case. Several children were burned to death by their actions, and no one was ever held responsible, to my knowledge.”

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9. The Ponderer said... on Dec 28, 2009 at 03:17PM

“Quercus Alba, while we are most likely political opposites, I do agree with you that the PW article is something that we would not see in the mainstream media, and that PW is to be commended for printing this article. Now, if in the interest of true journalism, if PW could investigate and publish articles that take into account the any nefarious activities they could find on the left and ultra left side of the spectrum, that would be refreshing.”

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10. Chuck Stevens said... on Jun 12, 2010 at 01:06PM

“I was one of the original SDS Labor Committee members from the Fall of 1968. I had just begun moving to Baltimore, my home, where I was setting up another SDS Labor Committee and we did form a Baltimore Strike Support Coalition which helped win the Schmidt's Bakery strike in 1970. I remember Fencl trying to disrupt our leaflet distribution at Philadelphia high schools. This was most ironical. Indeed, our leaflets called for a program of more housing, better schools and jobs, but also discussed the coming monetary crisis, which did evolve into the August 1971 collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. (This original monetary crisis foreshadows the much worse one we are in today.) The irony was that all of this was a little much to expect high schools students to seriously read, let alone comprehend. But Fencl's intervention peaked their curiosity. I had visited Fraser's apartment, noticing the curious construction trailer parked outside, the day before the raid.”

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11. Hylozoic Hedgehog said... on Mar 25, 2013 at 04:43PM

“I have recently published a long study of the early SDS Labor Committee entitled How It All Began. It examines the bomb plot case in some detail.

How It All Began is available at
http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php”

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12. Anonymous said... on Sep 8, 2014 at 03:58PM

“Not in position to argue with the allegations re the bomb plot. As someone who was at Penn during that period and covered protests for the Daily Pennsylvanian I have some comments.
1. SDS did not spearhead the College Hall sit-in. The organizers, led by Ira Harkavy, were not associated with SDS.
2. I observed Fencl many times, especially during protest marches (e.g. the one from Penn to Independence Hall during the Cambodia incursion) and found him to be calming, not disruptive, His squad did not impede peaceful demonstrations or interfere with speeches made in connection with the protests. My 4 years at Penn (68 to 72) coincided with the height of anti-war actions and other activism (e.g. Jerry Rubin's 1971 Irvine Auditorium speech).
3. The Labor movement wanted no part of SDS. During the GE strike (at the 30th and Walnut facility) the workers shunned their offers of support.
4. SDS belittled women. One infamous remark: "The position of women in the movement should be prone."”

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13. Charles Mac Donald said... on Dec 5, 2014 at 12:48PM

“My grandfather, George Fencl, was a well respected police officer who went above and beyond to do the job he was paid to do. No one is perfect. He died an early death due to the stress related to the job. He sacrificed time with his family and on this earth to help people in the city he loved.”

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14. Cindy Bertrand Holub said... on Dec 16, 2014 at 04:55PM

“I was a member of the SDS Labor Committee during these years, and this article is accurate to the best of my knowledge and memory. Harkavy and others may have organized the protest at the site of the Science Center, but it was largely at the urging of Fraser and other Labor Committee members that College Hall was taken over, and the terms of the sit-in widened from protesting the war-related research of the Science Center to protesting the eviction of hundreds of African American residents from the area and demanding new housing. As for those high school leaflets, I remember writing them. I think Chuck's memory might be a little off; we always tried to gear toward the audience. And as for the Fencl award; I suppose it's about as appropriate as having a statue of Rizzo at the MSB. I know I always give the latter a one-fingered salute when I go by.”

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15. Cindy Bertrand Holub said... on Dec 16, 2014 at 05:31PM

“Can't edit these things, I see. Meant to say, Harkavy and other Penn SDS members may have been *part* of organizing the protest...

Re: Other ill-informed comments above: the SDS Labor Committee was not SDS as a whole, which had already split into factions by then. We were quite vocally opposed to the Weather Underground. Did you read the article?”

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16. Cindy Bertrand Holub said... on Dec 16, 2014 at 06:50PM

“If anyone is still reading this after five years -- wish it was like Facebook so I could edit -- I should think longer before I type. Right, Anonymous 12, Harkavy wasn't SDS, but he didn't spearhead anything. The sit-in was initiated by the SDS Labor Committee and taken over by Harkavy and more moderate students once it grew and drew in liberals as opposed to radicals.They were in a great hurry to settle the sit-in once the Labor Commitee started actively trying to bring in high school students and demanding the University make concrete commitments to providing housing units to replace those destroyed by the Science Center. Harkavy made his career at Penn; this was his first step.”

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17. CIndy Bertrand Holub said... on Dec 17, 2014 at 04:38PM

“And hey, Anonymous 12, "The position of women in the movement should be prone" is actually a quote from Stokely Carmichael of SNCC.”

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