Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dwight Armstrong, radical bomber (1951-2010)

Dwight Armstrong was still a teenager when he made the FBI's most-wanted list following the killing of a researcher from a bomb blast on the University of Wisconsin campus in 1970. BELOW: Armstrong in handcuffs. Portrait of a fugitive, circa 1970. Portrait of a family man, circa 2008.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 11, 2010

The man known as Gary Mitchell rode the bus to his job as an apprentice printer and enjoyed the occasional glass of draft beer at a nearby Toronto tavern. He took correspondence courses, watched shows on an abandoned television he had repaired, and paid his $22 weekly rent for a furnished room in cash.

On a Saturday evening in April, 1977, he was arrested by four plainclothes Toronto police at a restaurant on Yonge Street.

His landlord and coworkers were surprised to learn he was actually Dwight Alan Armstrong, 25, of Madison, Wis., a fugitive who had spent seven years on the most-wanted list of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Armstrong had been a long-haired teenager — a high-school dropout — when he and an older brother, with two accomplices, parked a van loaded with fertilizer and fuel oil outside Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin campus in his hometown. They lit the fuse before fleeing.

The resulting blast failed to destroy its target — the Army Mathematics Research Center, on upper floors of the building — but it caused damage to several surrounding buildings and injured three civilians. It also killed a 33-year-old postdoctoral fellow who was conducting a late-night superconductivity experiment. Robert Fassnacht, a father of three, was the victim of a twisted plot by radicals to bring home the violence of a war they opposed.

Mr. Armstrong, who has died of lung cancer, aged 58, later expressed regret and remorse at the death, though he was unrepentant about using violence to protest the Vietnam War.

Dwight Armstrong was born on Aug. 28, 1951, the youngest of Ruth (nee Kennedy) and Donald Armstrong’s four children. His father was a machinist who worked his way into a white-collar job as a purchasing agent. Baseball and Boy Scouts were parts of an ordinary middle-class upbringing.

Dwight worked as a cook, dishwasher and railroad switchman. He became radicalized by his brother Karleton’s opposition to the war in Asia. On New Year’s Eve, 1969, the brothers stole a two-seat Cessna from a nearby airport. Dwight had worked as a maintenance man for the company that owned the plane before being fired for refusing to cut his hair. With less than 30 hours experience at the controls, Dwight flew through snow flurries before reaching their target, the Badger Army Ammunition Plant at Baraboo. Three homemade bombs were tossed from the plane, but they failed to explode, fizzling in the snow.

The New Year’s Gang, as they styled themselves, tried other attacks, these also failing. In one case, Karl threw a firebomb inside a campus building he had wrongly identified. The device failed to ignite.

As foolish were these attempts at sabotage, the one success was devastating. The brothers, joined by recruits David Fine and Leo Burt, stole a Ford Econoline van, which was then filled with legally purchased fuel oil and 700 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The van was parked alongside Sterling Hall. A warning call was made to police from a nearby telephone booth before Dwight drove the four men away from the campus.

At 3:34 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1970, the predawn stillness was shattered by a tremendous explosion heard for miles around.

The bombers felt their car briefly lift from the road by the force of the blast, occurring coincidentally just as a police car sped by in the opposite direction likely in response to their warning.

Dwight Armstrong was shocked by the spectacle of what he had unleashed.

“It looked like an atom bomb had gone off,” he once told magazine journalist Michael Fellner. “The sky was all red. Debris was still rising in the air, almost in slow motion, forming a mushroom cloud over the city. It was eerie.”

The quartet fled, getting away even after being pulled over by a suspicious police officer. They sought help from anarchists in Ann Arbor, Mich., only to be turned away. The four split into pairs, the brothers making their way to New York City, where they survived by panhandling and shoplifting.

In a two-part series published in Wisconsin magazine in 1986, Fellner described Dwight Armstrong’s underground life as one of impoverishment featuring several close scrapes.

The brothers originally holed up in Montreal, which turned out to be a poor choice for a haven after the invocation of the War Measures Act in response to two kidnappings by militant Quebec separatists. An apartment next door to their hideout was raided by police.

The brothers moved to Toronto, where Dwight survived by panhandling and selling copies of the Guerrilla underground newspaper. He was arrested for vagrancy but not fingerprinted, so left jail after one night on $25 bail.

When daily newspapers reported the fugitive had been spotted at a Toronto youth hostel, Dwight fled to Vancouver, where a thriving counter-cultural scene offered support.

(Meanwhile, Karl Armstrong was arrested by the RCMP in Toronto in 1972. He fought extradition for a year before being returned to Wisconsin, where he got a 23-year prison sentence.)

Dwight later returned to Montreal, where he found work as a hospital janitor under the name of Martin Fairchild.

In January, 1975, he flew to Calgary before catching a bus to Milk River near the border with Montana. He planned to walk across the frontier by following railway tracks, a cockamamie scheme in wintertime. A blizzard forced him back. He returned to Toronto, where a girlfriend agreed to help him enter the United States. They drove to Kingston, Ont., where he paddled across the St. Lawrence River. The girlfriend met him in a car on the other side.

He then flew to San Francisco, where he was eventually arrested for shoplifting cheese. He spent five days in jail before being released because of overcrowding. Though he had been interviewed in custody by an FBI agent, his true identity was not uncovered. Dwight returned to Toronto, where, after 18 quiet months, he was arrested on April 9, 1977.

He was the third bomber to be captured. David Fine had been arrested in California a year earlier.

A fourth suspect, Leo Burt, narrowly escaped capture at Peterborough, Ont. His whereabouts remain unknown to this day. The FBI still offers a $150,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

Dwight Armstrong received a seven-year sentence after being convicted of second-degree murder. He was released from jail after three years. His brother was paroled in 1980. Fine, also sentenced to seven years, was released in 1979 after serving three.

Dwight Armstrong married in October, 1984, and a daughter was born two months later. However, he was soon once again on the lam.

In April, 1987, he fled warrants issued for his arrest after police busted an Indiana-based group that manufactured and sold methamphetamine. He was arrested four months later following a car chase in British Columbia, after which Vancouver police charged him with possession of methamphetamine, stolen property, dangerous driving and two charges of leaving the scene of an accident.

He got a two-day jail sentence before being extradited. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the drug laboratory and was released in 1991.

“My life has not been something to write home about,” he told the Capitol Times newspaper in Madison the following year.

In recent years, he worked at a produce company and as a cab driver in Madison, where he also helped care for his ailing mother.

Three years ago, the university unveiled a plaque at the rebuilt Sterling Hall in memory of the research scientist killed in the blast.

On the 40th anniversary of the bombing last month, the school’s library and the Wisconsin Story Project installed a booth to record the memories and anecdotes of those who remembered the attack. The tales will be including in documentaries looking at the era of campus protest.

Mr. Armstrong died on June 20 at UW Hospital on the same campus on which he had planted a bomb 40 years earlier. He leaves a daughter, his mother, two sisters, and his brother, Karl, who, in warm months, operates the Loose Juice food cart on the university’s Library Mall.

Police and firefighters carry out the body of Robert Fassnacht, a physics researcher killed in a bomb attack on the University of Wisconsin campus in 1970.

1 comment:

Stettin Curtis said...

Although the ammonium nitrate and fuel oil were legal, the bombers also had to obtain dynamite to enable the main charge to explode. A U.S. felony was committed in obtaining the dynamite.