After 40 years, FBI hunt for elusive bomb suspect heats up
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The anonymous call came in the middle of the night, from a phone booth near Madison, Wis. "Hey, pig!'' a male voice warned. "There's a bomb in the math research building.''
It was 1970, the height of student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The pig, in the vernacular of the times, was a police dispatcher. And the bomb was real, a novel device that exploded minutes later on the University of Wisconsin campus, causing massive damage and killing a researcher who was the father of three young children.
The devastation triggered an intensive FBI manhunt for one of the bombers, a frustrating quest that 40 years later has become the ultimate cold case. The quarry is Leo Burt, who has eluded the FBI longer than any other fugitive who made its Ten Most Wanted List. A prominent figure in the annals of domestic terrorism, he is virtually unknown to the general public.
Now the search is heating up again. New tips have flowed to the FBI in recent months, and the bureau is taking advantage of the bombing's 40th anniversary to bring new attention to the case in the hopes that the publicity might lead them to Burt.
Burt, 62, is the final suspect in what is known as the Sterling Hall bombing. The August 1970 explosion, which targeted an Army-funded research center, stood for a quarter-century as the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
It was the first time bombers had packed major explosives in a vehicle, and authorities say it ushered in the modern era of terrorist truck bombs. It also marked a turning point for some in the antiwar movement, who were disturbed by the violence.
A former altar boy and ROTC student who embraced left-wing politics, Burt is thought to be the last of the Vietnam-era radicals pursued by the FBI. His trail has tantalized for years, with false sightings at a Denver homeless shelter and a Costa Rican resort among hundreds of tips.
Some say he's dead - or was a government plant. Authorities at one point suspected he might be the Unabomber. He has been compared to D.B. Cooper, the hijacker who parachuted out of a jetliner with $200,000 and vanished.
"We have a state bird and a state flower,'' said Michael Zaleski, who prosecuted one of Burt's three alleged co-conspirators, all of whom were caught in the 1970s. "Leo Burt is the Wisconsin state ghost.''
Longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover - determined to crack down on student activist groups - took charge of the investigation in the final two years of his life. In recent years, especially in the past few months, agents have intensified their efforts with periodic help from the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force and legal attaches overseas. For the 40th anniversary of the bombing, the FBI highlighted the case online and recirculated Burt's "wanted" poster.
"He needs to be held accountable for what he did,'' said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Chris Cole, who oversees the Madison office.
Yet even as agents are tracking dozens of new tips, Burt's fate remains a mystery. "It's not like we've gotten a call from someone saying, 'I was Leo Burt's ex-girlfriend, and I know where he is,' '' said one federal law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation in detail. "That makes someone hard to find.''