Private Armies in the 1960s ##

[Interview 7: July 30, 1993]

We talked about the sixties last time quite a bit, but I'd like to pursue a few more topics, and one of the notes that I have on my outline is private armies.


Well, what really is meant by that or what the reference is, is that various groups and organizations, and particularly the Black Panthers, made a lot of public spectacles by professing to be well armed and all that to repulse attacks that they said were going to be made against them, and they were in a sense, in their view, the strong, armed defense of all black people. If you remember, there was the Black Panthers, there was Malcolm X, and they were— Malcolm X and his group were verbally militant. They were much more in the mold of Muslim theology, and that sort of thing, than were the Panthers. The Panthers were ostentatious, they marched, and they had a lot of displays. They had quite an establishment. They collected quite a bit of money. There was some question where the money went at times.

I was the United States attorney, and they were a group that was in the special attention of the FBI. They made statements that were, in my judgment, much beyond their capacity to execute. As a matter of fact, I used to be able to converse with them pretty well, because, while they thought I was a lost soul they didn't subscribe to, they didn't think I was talking to them to compile evidence on them. From time to time, they would come out to the Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue, and there would be a rally, and this would have been publicized well in advance, and so you might have some thousands of people out there and the streets would be blocked. The custom was when there were such demonstrations, after the law enforcement people became used to them, they used to shut the doors and block off the entrance.

People who were inside would be allowed out, but they didn't open the door too wide, and that sort of thing.

They would meet on the steps on Golden Gate Avenue in front of the building, and this was not just true of the Panthers, it was true of all the groups who wanted to get some attention. They would come out there—whether it was the Vietnam War, whether it was the recruiting of fine young to go off to be slaughtered in a far off country, whether it was lack of jobs, whatever it was—they would come to the Federal Building and do their thing. This was always something that the federal, as well as the state and the city, had a lot of hostility about.


Towards the groups?


Yes. They disapproved of them.


Yes, well they were causing them a lot of trouble.


They were causing them lots of trouble, and they didn't know why they should be tolerated. I said, "Well, because there's a little thing in the Constitution of the United States about the right of people to seek redress from the government, and that kind of thing. That's why they're here. Not all of them know that, but some of them know it. They come here because this is the representative of the government to them. When they shut off traffic, as they have done, that is a situation that creates a great deal of confusion and problems for law enforcement people, but that's what happens when they gather at a single place and exercise what the Constitution believes that the minutemen did when they met at Concord Bridge, what the people did when they had the British in Boston and had the Boston Tea Party and threw sugar over the wharves. That's what happened all through history, and you're witnessing a part of some other history. It may be forgotten quickly, but that's what it is." They thought I was kind of nutty.


That was a good way to explain it to them.


Well, by being there, I could tell them. They wanted to kind of kick them back out. I said, "No, let them alone [one by one]. They're not doing any damage. It's inconvenient, but there's no damage."

When the Panthers were going to come out there, they would sometimes advise me of it in advance by phone, or maybe a couple of them would come over to my office. Eventually, we got to the point where we could establish some ground rules, and they could understand that honoring these ground rules would enable them, up

to a point at least, to be more successful because they wouldn't be just a milling mob of people.

I remember at one of those when a young white chap— They had these two flagpoles out in front of that building, and the flags were up high enough on the poles that they couldn't be reached. But this chap shimmied up one of the poles and he cut the rope on the flag and it came down. As a matter of fact, the Panthers got so mad with him [laughs] there was some pushing and shoving. So, the police said to me, "What shall we do with this guy?" I said, "Before your very eyes you saw him damaging government property. Take him in. We'll talk to him later on." So they did. The Panthers were, in effect, saying "We saw it happening." As I say, there was never a question of trust, because I never got in any position in which they had to trust me. I did what I had to do, and they did what they wanted to do, and they understood that I wasn't rushing out to stifle them. They could yell all they wanted to and say what they wanted to.

From time to time, I had talked with specific members of that organization. We would talk about situations in which they felt they were being wrongly treated. I remember when I think it was Eldredge Cleaver took off and went to Cuba. I talked to his friend, and I suggested that that was a dumb thing to do, because he was going to have trouble getting back. He was on parole, I think it was. I think he didn't return until I had left the office, or I didn't have anything to do with him.

Beyond that, we also had an interesting case that involved a great many guns. It was a fellow named William Thoresen, and his father was the executive president of a steel mill complex out around Gary, Indiana. Thoresen was a person who was somewhat emotionally troubled. He had had some speech difficulty as a young man, and his people were wealthy enough that they hired a speech therapist to help bring him out of that. She did, to the extent that she and he got married. They came out to San Francisco.

One day we got word—I guess it was the Alcohol, Tobacco people [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms]—they got word that this fellow, Bill Thoresen, had a lot of weapons in his house. He lived up on Broadway. He lived just about a block away from the large house which was the house of the archbishop [laughs] of California up on Broadway.

So the agents got a warrant, and one of my assistants went with them to serve it. They went in there. I'm not sure whether Thoresen was home or not. If he was, they put him under arrest. But they went in the house, and the house was filled with weapons. It was just unbelievable. So my assistant, who was there, called

me, and he said, "I think you better come up here and look at this place." So I went up there, and when I went to the front door and rang the bell, they opened the door, and there down the hallway pointing at me was a thirty-seven millimeter anti-aircraft gun. [Laughs] The house just had guns and ammunition everywhere. I don't mean just a gun or two. They had enough so if you were thinking of a plan to supply weapons to a revolution where you were going to overthrow the government in some country, that was enough. They had, for example, all kinds of army weapons, and they had bayonets, and they had a lot of picks and shovels. They had racks of guns and just countless containers of bullets and incendiaries.

While we were there, word got out somehow what it was. I think it was the same people who tipped the ATF people who told the press about it. The press was hammering at the door.


While you were there? The press knocked on the door while you were there?


Yes, but I said, "You don't let them in." Another thing was, it was a very large house. In many of the upstairs rooms lying carelessly around on a bureau or table was lots of money. That's what I saw when I first went there, and the agents were inventorying. I called the guy in charge, and I said, "I don't want anybody up there going through these rooms with all that money there without you being present. You do it one by one, because we're going to hear from this, and I'm going to tell you right now that I'm not making any accusations against your people at all, but the way to prevent trouble is that you take the responsibility in each of these rooms. I mean, have you got me clear?"

I went downstairs and there were barrels with all kinds of cartridges in them—rifle cartridges, there were torpedoes, incendiaries. [Laughs] I'll tell you, when I saw all this stuff, I decided I'd call my wife and tell her, "Look, I'm going to be here for sometime, because I want all this to be inventoried, and I want some controls put in before I can leave here."

Somehow we got word—I'm not sure whether it was the same day or the next day—that there was a couple who lived a block or two away, and they had a garage, but they either didn't have a car, or it was a two-car garage and they only had one car. I've forgotten now what it was. They heard about it, and they called, and we went over there. There under canvas, mounted on a four-wheel gurney of some sort, was, I think it was something like a seventy-five millimeter French repeating cannon. [Laughs]


All this in the city of Saint Francis?


By then we had discovered there was more. What we discovered was that there was a warehouse across the bay in Emeryville, over that way. And that warehouse was chock full of guns and ammunition. We went over there. Somehow the press got that before I did, and they took some pictures. I was standing there watching them count the stuff.

We sealed the warehouse up and took all that away. I think we brought them to the Naval Weapons Station at Concord.

The Department of Justice couldn't believe this, and we did not know, with any certainty, what was the motive for gathering this. There was all kinds of speculation. He was selling arms. In fact, we knew that he had disposed of some arms, and he didn't have a permit to do it. So we brought several charges against him.


Did you get hold of him?


Oh, yes. He and his wife came home [inaudible] and he posted bail. We sent it to the grand jury, and we charged him with the specific arms violations. And he maintained that he just loved to collect these things. I didn't believe him, but we didn't have much in the way of showing any connection betwen him and any of the South American or Central American guerrillas, or any of the African countries. We didn't know.


Could he show where he had bought them?


Oh, yes. We had invoices for a lot of it. His father was a millionaire. He had some money in his own right, and what he said was he just loved to collect these things. We didn't believe that. The agents got some trails indicating that there was some gun running going on. Most of the trails weren't very substantial. They were second- and third-hand things that we got.

We indicted for the simple act of possession. They got Jake Ehrlich to be their lawyer. And Jake Ehrlich, who was famous for his great flashy cufflinks, and all that—Jake Ehrlich was around the courthouse dangling his cufflinks and making those [typical] statements. They moved for a change of venue and we refused it. We tried him and we convicted him.

But they appealed, and this court, the Ninth Circuit, held that the trial judge had erred in refusing to accord to the defendant his right—he had a prior [conviction], you see, and that's why he couldn't have guns. He had a prior felony

conviction. That prior felony conviction also had to do with arms. So halfway through the trial, his lawyer wanted to challenge the validity of the conviction in that prior case. They routinely did this. We paid no attention to it.

But after he had been convicted, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down an opinion which held that where you have a prior, the defendant has a right to show, if he can, that the prior conviction was invalid because he's been denied due process for something, and that that would weaken the prior. So they reversed our conviction.

And also there was another—I'm not sure whether it was the Supreme Court, or which court ruled on that other thing—but there was a question about publicity. There were headlines in the paper and everywhere. They claimed damage—prejudice as a result of the pretrial and trial publicity. The press was just speculating. Anyhow, when you get in that situation and there is a lot of publicity, you think about changing the venue to another place. We had to try the case again, so we decided we would change it down to Fresno. Of course, that was inconvenient for a lot of people, but that's exactly what we wanted it to be.

So we went down to Fresno, and my assistants said, "Are you going to come down?" I said, "No, I'm not going to go down to Fresno. I'm going to send you down there. They've got enough publicity. If I walk in the courtroom and the press has got 1,500 questions, I may be tempted to answer one of them, so you just do your job, and let me know; keep me in touch with where you are. If you have any problems, let me know. I may drop in on you and see how you're doing, but don't count on it." In fact, I did send my chief assistant with them down there.


Do you recall who that was?


I think that was Richard Urdan. They went down there. In the meantime, another thing had been developing, which was that the Thoresens weren't getting along so well, because he would fly into these uncontrollable rages and she would be black and blue. In fact, I sat down to talk with her one day. I said, "Look, what we have is serious enough, and I'm not interested in hearing prurient details of difficulties that you may have between the two of you. What I am thinking about is your own safety. You tell me about that." She didn't want anything done about it. She told me one time that he had apologized to her and said he wasn't going to do it, and about two days later he was slamming her all around the place there. She was grown, and she—you know, no one saw them in the act.


The trial was being set up down in Fresno, and we needed a lot more time to set it up down there, because there were some things we weren't going to be able to use from the former trial. In any event, Thoresen was on bail, and as part of the conditions of bail, he was required to get permission from the court if he traveled outside the area where he was and where he lived. Anyhow, what we heard was that he had really resumed this pretty wild and violent treatment of his wife. So one day he was in bed asleep and she got a gun and she shot him six times in the head. She claimed that he had violently mistreated her.


You wouldn't think this case could have gotten any more publicity than it did, but they charged her with murder, and she told her story, and she got acquitted.


Where did she find a gun after all this?


Well, I wasn't surprised, because it occurred to me there were a couple of times in between when she knew that he had acquired them. This time she got it. But she was tried and was acquitted, and that was the end of the Thoresen case. We never did, at least I never got anything that was firm enough for it to be accepted; we never got anything specific. We knew he had been down in Central America, and there were some rumors down there, but nothing that was strong enough for us to be able to present to a grand jury. That was one of those things. All of this went over a period of about eighteen, nineteen months, I guess.


Private army was the right word for that one person.


I'm still not sure what he was doing. We thought that somehow he had become aware of some movements out of this country in Central America and that he would be stockpiling this ammunition, and at an appropriate time was going to send it there. I didn't know what the occasion would be.

But that was the most we ever had to do with weapons. I think by the time Thoresen had died it was probably about 1969 or 1970.

There were a lot of incidents of violence. Remember the Chicago Seven disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Chicago. Among them were the Black Panthers. There was also a murder on the green up at Yale. I'm trying to think who it was. It was Charlie Gary's client, and he was charged with murder. Then he was one of the Chicago Seven who had been accused of disrupting the convention. There was a great deal of turmoil about that. They were indicted under a statute that

had been enacted by the Congress about 1987 to deal with the strong violence that was manifested in a number of places, particularly by the Students for a Democratic Society. Remember they had the execution at Kent State—the National Guard. A lot of things would trigger these people to get together with loudness and efforts to block traffic. It was a situation in which it was pretty easy to provoke the law enforcement establishment because they would do some just ridiculous things.