Portland, Ore. — The city was still asleep early Saturday morning on November 21, 1970.
A light snow was falling downtown when a bomb blast shook Portland City Hall.
The explosion blew out more than half of the windows in the city building. It ripped doors from their hinges and knocked over desks. Windows broke in every structure within a three-block radius.
Police said the dynamite bomb was placed in a replica of the Liberty Bell in the city hall rotunda. It destroyed the bell. The force of the explosion drove a piece of steel through two wooden floors and punctured the door of a steel safe.
Despite the force of the explosion, no one was injured.
The blast went off directly beneath an empty city council chambers. Chairs flew across the room. The floor was badly damaged. There was shattered glass everywhere. It caused $170,000 in damage, equal to $1 million today.
Police and federal agents fanned out across the city, looking for whoever set off the bomb. Initially, police focused on four young men seen in the area, but they were later cleared. Eventually, the trail went cold. Police never made an arrest.
Forty-five years later, the bombing of Portland City Hall is still unsolved.
“I think it was a form of terrorism,” said Oregon historian Chet Orloff. “There was clearly a sense of tension, if not fear, that was going on here and I think that bomb certainly played into that.”
KGW dug up old police intelligence reports, FBI advisories, film footage and newspaper clipping to find out more about this forgotten piece of Portland history. We also attempted to track down investigators, witnesses and named suspects. Unfortunately, many of those most closely involved in the case are no longer alive.
The records and interviews compiled by KGW provide a unique glimpse into an era of civil unrest and police surveillance.
“They didn’t do it by intercepting your cell phone communication in those days, but they did it by trying to infiltrate organizations,” said historian Carl Abbott.
City hall was a crime scene, sealed off from the public. A team of military investigators from Fort Lewis, Wash. helped Portland police and the FBI sift through shards of glass and small piles of rubble. Film footage showed investigators using common gardening tools, like shovels and a wheelbarrow, to examine the blast scene.
Detectives also fanned out across the city. Police reports show they focused on members of outspoken political groups, including the Revolutionary Union, White Panthers and the Portland Patriot Party.
“We divided into two different teams and proceeded to check all known militant’s houses on both sides of the River,” said a type-written police intelligence report.
The report, which was marked “confidential,” read, “It was imperative that we check all of our known sources as well as hangouts amongst our revolutionaries.”
Initial news reports said police and the FBI were looking for a Volkswagen microbus, with four occupants spotted leaving the area shortly after the bombing.
“They were said to have been seen in a white Volkswagen bus bearing California license plates,” said wire copy from the United Press International. Police declined to give any other details publicly.
A teletype message dated March 3, 1971 confirmed police were looking for a Volkswagen bus. The alert told officers “DO NOT BROADCAST. KEEP CONFIDENTIAL. READ AT ALL ROLL CALLS.”
The teletype explained that the FBI had requested any officer who issued a traffic citation to the driver of a Volkswagen, “any body style or color,” on the day of the bombing or the day after the bombing to forward all information to the FBI.
Police files show investigators requested from the FBI a list of all owners of red or blue Volkswagens with California licenses.
Susan Gates was a senior at Lincoln High School in November 1970.
“My boyfriend and I were driving around downtown, going up Broadway,” recalled the Portland resident.
“I looked over and I saw this kind of tall guy with a big beard and long hair,” said Gates. She alerted police after seeing a story in the newspaper about the bombing that encouraged witnesses to come forward.
During an interview with investigators, Gates said police showed her a variety of photos.
“They had had all these eight-by-ten black-and-white glossies of protests that had been going on at Portland State and there were all these different angles of pictures of kids,” remembers Gates. “I was shocked that people were taking pictures of all these kids.”
Gates identified one of the men in the photos. She thought she’d seen him driving a Volkswagen bus in downtown Portland the night of the bombing, but she could not be positive.
The man, whom KGW is not identifying because he was never charged, was described in the police report as “a known member of the militant Patriot Party.”
Police wrote that the man was believed to be the owner of a “blue and grey Volks Wagon (sic) bus.”
“This vehicle was seen in the vicinity of the recent theft of dynamite and murder of the guard near Albany, Ore. and was surveilled following that for some time,” the report said.
Gates said investigators later told her the man had an alibi and was cleared as a suspect in the city hall bombing case.
Investigators received dozens of tips from the public claiming to have information about the city hall bombing.
“City hall was bombed by the Mafia,” said an informant in a Portland police report.
Many of the tips stemmed from overheard conversations or suspicions about neighbors and co-workers.
Police pursued drug dealers, disgruntled employees and kids who liked explosives.
Investigators hauled in one teenager who bragged to friends that he was responsible the bombing.
“He had made a statement to a number of persons to the effect that he had constructed a bomb to damage city hall,” said a police report.
Several friends told police that the teenager played with explosives. Investigators found a piece of twisted galvanized sheet metal from one of his alleged blasts. They sent it to the ATF for testing.
The teenager was later cleared by police, but after a lie detector test a detective warned, “The activities of this young man should not be overlooked.”
“I lost my job because of them,” said the man, who KGW is not identifying because he was not charged.
The man, now 63 years old, said police used heavy-handed tactics.
“They were all over me. It was really unfair,” he said.
Ten days after the bomb blast at Portland City Hall there was another explosion at Johnson Hall on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. No one was injured.
In the early 1970s, there was a pattern of unsolved bombings in the state, mostly occurring in Eugene. It is not clear if the blasts were connected.
“It was an era in which the targets were symbols of American military power or authority,” said the historian Abbott.
The investigative files now stored in the Portland city archives were primarily assembled by the Portland Police Intelligence Division. This unit monitored militants, activists and everyday citizens involved political activities.
In 1981, Oregon passed a law forbidding police from monitoring political speech or activity unless the information directly relates to a crime.
Historian Chet Orloff believes police may have been headed in the wrong direction from day one by chasing a group of young men in a Volkswagen van.
“I’ve always been somewhat suspicious,” said Orloff. “You tie together Volkswagen bus – who drove Volkswagen buses? Hippies in those days. Rebels. Rebellious types. So, it’s easy to put one and one together and come up with two. But I don’t think it is necessarily that easy an equation.”
Police say there have been no new developments in the case over the past few decades.
If caught, it is unlikely the person responsible for the 1970 city hall bombing could be prosecuted. There is a five-year statute of limitations on federal crimes except in cases of murder or when a person has been indicted.
Forty-five years after the blast, the case remains one of the city’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
“We don’t know if the people who did it are still in Portland. Are they still alive?” asked Abbott. “If they were 25 years old, they are now 70 years old. Maybe they’re living in Palm Springs now.”