Book Review: The Burglary – The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI – Part 2

By: Ed Prell

April 11, 2020
The Heist

This book, written by Betty Medsger in 2014, tells the incredible true story of the 1971 burglary of an FBI office in Media, PA by a “we-group” of eight who were never detected and kept their secret for 43 years. Stolen documents were made public and revealed extensive wrongdoing by FBI, which precipitated a massive shakeup. Inspiring, especially from the standpoint of precious democratic values, perennially under attack from without and within. 

Fight of the century

The most unlikely burglary gang in history, “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI,” held their initial meeting one night in late December 1970. The first order of business was to pick a date for the burglary of the Media, PA field office of the FBI. They arrived at a brilliant choice: March 8, 1971 – when the “Fight of the Century”, the much ballyhooed match between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, would begin shortly after dusk. In the area surrounding that office, police, night watchmen, and nearby residents would be surrounded by loud noises, and making their own, as they fixated on the blow-by-blow accounts of the match. This gang anticipated ideal cover for their break-in. 

Dining and sightseeing

Davidon and his gang met dozens of times during that winter of 1971. The dinners that started off their evening activities were cheerful affairs around a giant bowl of spaghetti at the center of the Raines’ dining table. The unsuspecting Raines kids were delighted whenever their new friends joined them at meal time. 

Afterward, the diligent crew cased the neighborhood, streets, and night spots near the mixed-use building. Noting the comings and goings of its resident tenants, they were looking for patterns of activity at the 8 o’clock hour – the time that round One at Madison Square Garden was set to begin. Often, they would sit in parked cars and vans, ready to impersonate lovers meeting secretly if a patrolling policeman should inquire.

Into the heart of the beast

Although they did a thorough job of surveying the surrounding area, it was critical to know details inside the office: about security measures, door locks, room layout, closets, file storage, whatever. Bonnie Raines was asked to be the scout for that task. Until then, she had handled the dinners and the kids, and furnished the attic “headquarters” with chairs, tables and a couch for meetings. (Before too long, a street map of Media, a floor plan sketch of the FBI office, and numerous to-do lists would “decorate” its walls.) 

Now, with her “promotion,”  Bonnie felt like she was a real team member, and went all in. She took her assignment to heart, helping to devise the ruse in which she would pose as a co-ed at a nearby college tasked with writing a piece for the school paper about local employment opportunities, including the FBI. Would they grant her a half-hour interview at the Media office? Bill Davidon knew they would jump at a chance for “good press”. And they did.

Bonnie was 28 and could easily pass as a co-ed. For disguise, her long hair was pulled up and tucked under a large stocking cap. She wore horn-rimmed glasses. Snug fitting gloves would leave no fingerprints. Bonnie showed up 15 minutes early for the interview and got a good look around as she waited. No alarm system, no surveillance camera, ordinary door lock. Good. 

The agent was a mild-mannered, crew cut young man. For 20 minutes she took notes in her spiral notebook, glancing around in between. As she got up after the interview, she took a deliberate wrong turn to get a peek at a room she hadn’t yet seen. A heavy storage cabinet stood against a closed exit door. “Oops, sorry. Where is your restroom?” Back at the debriefing, they all agreed she had done well. That night, going over her day, Bonnie realized she may be the one person the FBI could link to the burglary. A scary thought.

Loose lips sink ships

All along, our group needed to proceed with the routines of their lives and “zip their lips” so that no friends, co-workers, students, faculty – nobody, could lead investigators to their trail. That was quite difficult for these activists, who loved to trade “war stories.” They were especially discreet in their phone conversations, believing their lines were being tapped. They were right about that.

Keith Forsyth’s role had already been defined when he was recruited. He would execute the break-in. Keith was determined to make that job as slick and quick as humanly possible. He self-taught a crash locksmith course. He carried a practice door up to the attic,and practice he did. As March neared, he could pick that lock in 30 seconds. 

I wonder who’s Kissinger now?

All their planning was falling in place, then one final surprise struck. William Davidon was invited to the White House along with two other prominent opponents of the war for a sit-down private discussion with Nixon’s then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.

On Saturday, March 6 (two days before the burglary!), our Bill was led into the sub-level situation room of the White House. The meeting was an attempt by Kissinger to understand where these thoughtful pacifists were coming from. It was over one hour long, cordial but intense. Davidon took the opportunity to query Kissinger on the necessity of napalming villagers, including children, in Vietnam. The Director listened earnestly, but the answers came from Kissinger’s “Realpolitik” perspective, with pain, suffering, and horror occluded from view. Davidon left the discussion with feelings he couldn’t quite define. Perhaps, he wondered, if Henry was a prisoner in his own skin?

In his 1979 Memoir, “White House Years”, Kissinger recalled that meeting:

“Gently, they expressed their deep and passionate opposition to the war, but they had no idea how to end it. The problem for me, on the other hand, was how to translate inchoate ideas-no matter how deeply felt-into concrete policy. Ours the perpetually inconclusive dialogue between statesmen and prophets, between those who operate in time and through attainable stages and those who are concerned with truth and the eternal.”

Betty Medsger, the author, picked apart Kissinger’s eloquent statement clinically. Damn right, they were concerned with the truth. They yearned for truth in the administration’s dealings with Congress and the public. They were outraged with the lies that got us into the war, and the lies that kept us there. And, concerns about the eternal? The nun that sat next to Davidon at Kissinger’s invitation was acutely concerned with the situation that brought her and her religious and non-religious allies to the table. Painting dissenters as other-worldly saints was (and is) a common technique. Attainable stages? Peace was attained, but not the way Kissinger, etal would have preferred. 

The best laid plans

As the burglars left their day jobs and darkness descended on March 8, they proceeded as planned. The baby-sitter arrived at the Raines residence after dinner, this time for an overnight stay. John and Bonnie gave their kids bittersweet hugs, and hooked up with Davidon and the others at a nearby hotel. Shortly thereafter, Keith Forsyth pulled up near the “crime scene”, carrying the tools of his new trade in his briefcase. When he reached the office door, he got what must have been the shock of his life. He saw a second lock on the door that neither he nor Bonnie had noted before. Not like the standard lock he had practiced on, but a high security model that he had no chance of picking. Thoughts of, “How could we have missed this? Have they just installed it? Are they on to us? What now?” raced through his head. Three months of careful planning were up for grabs. He drove to the motel for a huddle. After an intense 15 minute of soul (and gut) checking, the consensus was to continue. Could Keith do his 30–second pick at the office’s second door – the one Bonnie had observed with a storage cabinet backing it up – and swing it open safely? Nobody got cold feet. They knew from the start that one slip-up could land them behind bars. Those odds just got better. The long awaited fight and its diversions were already due to be underway, and the gang hadn’t even gotten started. And, if that cabinet tipped over . . . .

Keith subdued the lock. Only the cabinet stood in the way. Only. It took him several anxious minutes with the aid of a pry bar to swing the door, inch by inch, open wide enough to squeeze through. None of the residents had walked by as he struggled on the hallway floor. He slid the cabinet away to make room for the “clean out” crew and their suitcases. Keith shut the door behind him and made his way back to the motel. He entered their room with a huge grin on his face. He was greeted by several very relieved comrades. Then, he collapsed on one of the beds.

Life Savers, paper clips, and .357 shells

The actual burglary was rather anticlimactic. The inside crew of four arrived, one by one, gripping suitcases in their gloved hands. They moved from desks to file cabinets, neatly packing the file folders for their voyage of discovery. There were some amusing moments. One crewmember noticed that some doo-dad trays in the middle desk drawers held bullets along with the usual life savers and paper clips. Another burglar took a souvenir – a framed photograph of Hoover and the Media office Commander, autographed by the Director himself. It would certainly be missed.

Mission accomplished, the merry team exited the office, suitcases bulging. They were headed for an unoccupied Quaker farmhouse, an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, where their loot would be assayed for market value. For all they knew, all they had was stacks of expense reports, holiday schedules and application letters. But at that point, they didn’t care. Their high anxiety had just been replaced with giddiness.

Oh, the fight? Frazier won in 15 rounds by unanimous decision. New York was snowbound, and there was so much celebrity hoopla that the start of the fight was delayed by two and a half hours – just as Forsyth was struggling to open that office door. Some things are meant to be. 

Author: Ed Prell

Ed is a prolific writer and one of the original team of Co-Creators of the NRTH Voices blog.

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