Newly released FBI files give details of 1970 Sterling Hall bombing aftermath

Newly released FBI files give details of 1970 Sterling Hall bombing aftermath


“Consider dangerous,” the memo warned. “Case is to receive continuing attention even through holiday weekend approaching.”

The urgent FBI memo was issued on Sept. 4, 1970, just days after four men bombed UW-Madison’s Sterling Hall, the worst incident of domestic terrorism at the time.

That same day, the FBI put the men — Karl and Dwight Armstrong, Leo Burt and David Fine — on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

Offering insight into the FBI’s response after the bombing, the agency released more than 600 pages of documents from Dwight Armstrong’s FBI file in response to records requests from the State Journal and other news organizations.

Armstrong died last summer, making his FBI file public record.

Many facts we already know. On Aug. 24, 1970, the Armstrongs, Burt and Fine placed explosives in a stolen Ford Econoline van outside of Sterling Hall, home of the UW-Madison physics department as well as the Army Mathematics Research Center, and lit a fuse. They didn’t think anyone was inside. The resulting blast at 3:42 a.m. caused an estimated $6 million in damage, killed Robert Fassnacht, a 33-year-old researcher, and injured several others.

The Armstrongs and Fine were all ultimately convicted of the crime and served prison sentences. Burt has never been found.

“In view of seriousness of this case, and possibility this bombing could trigger similar tragic consequences elsewhere, it is imperative that early solution be made in this case,” the FBI director wrote to all offices in a memo on Sept. 1, 1970.

The documents describe how the fugitives eluded capture at least twice. The first was on the night of the bombing, when a sheriff’s officer stopped the men in a white Corvair on the way to Devil’s Lake State Park, but released them after about an hour.

In the second incident, about a week after the bombing, Armstrong and another person were stopped for a routine traffic check in Little Falls, N.Y. Armstrong showed a driver’s license with his name, but the police officer did not recognize the name and released the men.

One FBI memo instructs wanted fliers to be issued to transient facilities, such as the Salvation Army, because the men were considered to be “financially distressed.” Armed robberies and burglaries were to be considered tied to the bombers.

Agents working in offices near the fugitives’ families and acquaintances were to have them report any contacts from the bombers.

They followed up on leads in Oregon City, Ore., Milwaukee and the “jungle area” of Waikiki that was inhabited by “hippie type individuals,” according to the documents.

The FBI redacted names of individuals besides Armstrong. But the documents show that Armstrong was known by the following aliases: David Jeffrey Borchelt, Martin Henry Fairchild, Douglas James Hardy, David William Henning, and Virgo.

FBI investigators knew that he was slender, with a scar on the web of his right thumb, reportedly used drugs, walked with a slouch and had a preference for pinkish-purple bell-bottom slacks.

“The Sterling Hall bombing was one of the seminal events of the anti-war era in Madison and by extension in the country,” said Stuart Levitan, a Madison historian. “Any additional accurate information that can aid our understanding of the why and wherefores of any of the actors is useful for the historical record.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Related to this story

The bombing of Sterling Hall on the UW-Madison campus in the early morning hours of Aug. 24, 1970 has a peculiar hold on Madison even 40 years later, in part because of the many lives that were changed by the blast - most notably the lives of Robert Fassnacht, the researcher killed in the explosion, and his family. Here's a look at what has happened to others involved in that history-changing moment.

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