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Justice Dept. overruled ATF agent aiding FBI over unreliable informant in COINTELPRO plot against Omaha Black Panthers

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation's secret and illegal war on the Black Panthers and other domestic political groups called COINTELPRO was closely directed by the top three officials of the FBI who oversaw an eight-member directorate in charge of the clandestine operation.  At the helm, making all important decisions, was Director J. Edgar Hoover who had ordered FBI agents to "disrupt" the Black Panthers. 

William Sullivan, Assistant Director of the FBI, was the point person who selected which of the thousands of field COINTELPRO memos were to be seen by Hoover.  Sullivan testified to Congress on November 1, 1975, about the nature of COINTELPRO tactics used against the Panthers.  "This is a rough, tough, dirty business, and dangerous.  It was dangerous at times.  No holds were barred."


The FBI had focused on Omaha's Black Panthers early and monitored a 1968 visit to the city by Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver where he spoke to a rally of 400 people at a city park.  In 1969, the Omaha chapter of the Black Panther Party was renamed the National Committee to Combat Fascism and two leaders of the group, Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (then David Rice), became targets of Hoover.


On July 20, 1970, agent Thomas Sledge of the Omaha office of the Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms division of the Treasury Department applied for and was granted a federal search warrant for the NCCF headquarters.  The search was to be led by Sledge and U.S. Marshal Lloyd Grimm who, along with FBI and Omaha Police, were going to stage an early morning raid the next day.  A COINTELPRO tactic used in other cities was to raid Panther homes and offices on any pretext to be able to gather documents and other information.


Sledge claimed in his application for the search warrant that there were ten boxes of machine guns "of Russian manufacture" and dynamite at the NCCF headquarters.   The dynamite was "15, more or less, bundles of 12 sticks in a bundle wrapped with cord or wire."  The individual sticks of dynamite were described as about 12 inches long, an inch in diameter and brown.


Sledge's boss, Dwight Thomas, Iowa-Nebraska ATF area supervisor, approved the use of Sledge's informant, an adolescent, and gave the go-ahead for the raid.  The Omaha World Herald learned from its Washington bureau that officials within the Justice Department initially approved of the raid after U.S. District Court Clerk Richard Peck signed the search warrant sought by Sledge.  Then, later that day, a call came from the Justice Department cancelling the raid.


U.S. Attorney Richard A. Dier was asked by the Omaha World Herald to explain the cancelled raid on NCCF headquarters but declined to answer.  "I'm sorry but I cannot discuss the matter." 


Dier was no stranger to the COINTELPRO-orchestrated focus of law enforcement on the Black Panthers as he had impaneled a federal grand jury in December 1969 to investigate Langa and a school he operated, the Vivian Strong Liberation School named for a 14 year-old girl fatally shot by Omaha Police in the summer of 1969.


The explanation given by a Justice Department spokesman for the cancelled search raid at NCCF headquarters was that the search warrant was based on "questionable information."


Sledge claimed his "questionable" adolescent informant also had detailed knowledge of a recent bombing at a black-owned business, Component Concepts Corporation in Omaha.  Sledge further claimed he spoke with a man who had alleged selling machine guns to NCCF members.


Ed Poindexter, head of the NCCF chapter, denied any machine guns or dynamite were at the headquarters.  "We don't have anything to hide….Actually, if they believe everything they hear, we'd have an entire National Guard armory stuck up here.  We will be glad to let them search all they want."


Less than a month later, another adolescent, 15 year-old Duane Peak, planted a booby-trap bomb that killed Omaha patrolman Larry Minard at a vacant house and injured seven other officers.  Peak quickly confessed following his arrest and gained his freedom after several years in juvenile detention in exchange for testimony against the two COINTELPRO targets, Poindexter and Langa who deny any involvement in the crime.


Two Omaha Police detectives, Jack Swanson and Robert Pheffer, both claim to have found dynamite in Langa's basement, although their competing claims cast doubt on both men.  In Pheffer's latest version of the story, told in an Omaha courtroom in May 2007, an ATF agent was also present at the search of Langa's house.  Pheffer did not specify if the ATF agent was Sledge.  No dynamite was pictured in Langa's house in evidence photographs and the explosives only first turned up in photos in the trunk of a police squad car.


Sledge is the older brother of James Sledge, one of the seven policemen injured by the bomb that took Larry Minard's life.


ATF agent Sledge did have a role in the case against Poindexter and Langa, taking evidence to Washington, D.C. for analysis the week after the bombing.  Sharing custody of the evidence with Sledge on the trip to ATF headquarters, according to the Omaha World Herald, was Assistant Chief of Police Glenn Gates. 


Gates' duplicity in the case would not be known for years until after the trial when a Freedom of Information release of COINTELPRO memos revealed that Gates had asked the Omaha FBI Special Agent-in-Charge to drop Bureau analysis of the emergency call tape recording of the lethal message luring Minard to his death.  Peak, the murderous adolescent witness against Poindexter and Langa, had claimed he made the call but the voice on the tape did not sound like him.  Gates did not want the exculpatory information known to defense attorneys and succeeded in withholding the tape from the jury.

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Michael Richardson is a freelance writer living in Belize. Richardson writes about Taiwan foreign policy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Black Panther Party. Richardson was Ralph Nader's ballot access manager during the 2004 and (more...)

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