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8 ex-radicals arrested in '71 police slaying

January 24, 2007|John M. Glionna and Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — The racial tensions of the civil rights era marched back into this city Tuesday when eight former radicals -- some now husbands, grandfathers and community organizers -- were arrested in connection with the 1971 shotgun slaying of a white police officer.

The men, including a real-estate appraiser and a Los Angeles County employee both living in Altadena, were mostly taken into custody during early-morning raids in California, New York and Florida. They are accused of being part of what investigators called a five-year conspiracy that started in 1968 to kill police officers in the United States.

A joint state and federal task force identified seven of the arrested men as former members of the Black Liberation Army, a violent outgrowth of the Black Panthers.

San Francisco Police Sgt. John V. Young was gunned down Aug. 29, 1971, at a neighborhood police station. At the time, the Bay Area was a nexus for radical groups of all stripes.

Eight days earlier, a bloody prison riot after a foiled escape by a Black Panther engulfed San Quentin State Prison. Two inmates and three guards were killed. Attacks on police officers nationwide were being blamed on black militants.

Over 36 years, authorities doggedly pursued the Young case. Some suspects married and started families. Others committed crimes and went to prison. Two years ago, three went on a nationwide speaking tour to decry the renewed investigation. One died last month.

In the last two years, about a dozen suspects, including some of those arrested Tuesday, were called to testify before a grand jury in San Francisco and in recent months investigators sought DNA samples.

On Tuesday, 35 years after Young's death, charges finally were filed.

Charged in Young's killing were: Ray Michael Boudreaux, 64, and Henry Watson Jones, 71, both of Altadena; Richard Brown, 65, of San Francisco; Francisco Torres, 58, of Queens, N.Y.; Herman Bell, 59, and Anthony Bottom, 55, both incarcerated in New York state; and Harold Taylor, 58, of Panama City, Fla.

Another man, Richard O'Neal, 57, of San Francisco, was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder police officers. He was not charged "as an active participant" in the Young killing, authorities said.

A ninth suspect, Ronald Stanley Bridgeforth, 62, was charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and aggravated assault on a police officer in connection with Young's killing. He was still at large Tuesday.

Defense lawyers and justice advocates Tuesday questioned the charges, one calling the long-running case "a perversion of justice."

"I'm stunned that the government is still trying to pursue criminal cases against these men. It's beyond explanation," said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor and founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, who appeared on the speaking tour.

"In the meantime, they've become husbands and grandfathers and neighborhood organizers," he said. "It's a reflection that with all they've been through, they've still been able to raise their heads high."

John Philipsborn, a San Francisco attorney who is representing Jones, added that he was skeptical that any convictions would result.

"This is a case that's been brought before," he said. "It's an old case, and the evidence we know of is of dubious value, given the fact that a number of statements had been several times found to be coerced."

The investigation, which was named the Phoenix Task Force, involves local, state and federal agencies and has been collecting evidence related to attacks on police officers in the turbulent years between 1968 and 1973.

They include the bombing of a police officer's funeral and the attempted bombing of a police station, both in San Francisco.

This is not the first time arrests have been made in Young's killing.

In 1975, three defendants were charged with the shooting, but a judge dismissed the case, ruling that evidence had been gained through torture. An attorney who represented one man said police in New Orleans had used cattle prods and electrodes to extract a confession. The statement was later thrown out of court.

Two then-San Francisco police inspectors, Frank McCoy and Ed Erdelatz, were present at the New Orleans police station when the confession was obtained. Attorneys say both were called out of retirement recently to work on the case.

"The problem with people like Erdelatz and McCoy is that they got the answer they wanted through improper means, and they have been running with it for 30 years," said Stuart Hanlon, who represents Herman Bell.

In the last two years, authorities convened two special grand juries to look into the killing.

Ann Moorman, a Bay Area defense lawyer, said she represented Oklahoma City resident John Bowman, who was one of five suspects who refused to testify before the San Francisco grand jury hearing. They spent 20 days in jail.

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