Fifty years ago today, Black Panthers took a man they had tortured in this basement room, drove him to a swamp, and shot him dead — thrusting New Haven into a national confrontation over race and justice that resonates today.
The basement is in unit B13 of the Ethan Gardens co-op apartment complex on Orchard Street in New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood. At the time, the townhouse apartment served as unofficial headquarters of then-new city chapter of the black revolutionary organization.
Under the direction of a nationally dispatched enforcer, local Black Panther leaders tied 19-year-old Alex Rackley to a chair in that basement. They beat him and poured pots of boiling water over him until he “confessed” to being a government spy (aka “pig”). Then they brought him upstairs and tied him to a bed, where he lay in his own filth for three days.
Then, the night of May 20, 1969, they borrowed a Buick Riviera from a police informant who had infiltrated their chapter. Undercover city cops — who worked in conjunction with the FBI “COINTELPRO” program’s campaign to destroy the Panthersin part by fueling violent intra-party rivalries — watched as the Riviera pulled out of Orchard Street toward I-91. The car ended up parked by the banks of Middlefield’s Coginchaug River, where Panthers Warren Kimbro (the official tenant of Ethan Gardens Unit B13) and Lonnie McLucas fired the fatal bullets into Rackley’s skull and chest. They left him dead and returned to Orchard Street. It was soon understood by all concerned that, while the Panthers were crawling with spies, there was no evidence or reason to believe Alex Rackley had been one of them.
Kimbro and the man who ordered and supervised the killing, George Sams, were captured and pleaded guilty. A jury convicted McLucas for his part in the crime. But the federal government, out to destroy the party’s leadership, put national Chairman Bobby Seale and local organizer Ericka Huggins on trial for conspiracy. The prosecutor sought the death penalty.
Years of protests ensued, including a nationwide 1970 May Day gathering on the Green that saw Yale cancel classes …
… business owners board up storefronts …
… families flee town, and the National Guard patrol the streets. (Read all about that wild event here.) Critics, including Yale’s president, questioned whether a black revolutionary could receive a fair trial in America.
It was the political trial of the century in New Haven. In the end, a white judge who had been outed for making racist statements about African-Americans declared a mistrial and set Seale and Huggins free. Siding with the Panthers, he concluded that his pal, the white prosecutor, had overstepped in his zeal for a conviction.
Though the Panthers didn’t last much longer in New Haven, their legend lives on here. So do the causes they championed, the problems they identified. Though they don’t call for violent revolution, today’s Panther successors are still marching (and closing down) streetsto protest police violence …
… and monitoring police misconduct, with the help of video and with a goal of civilian review. They’re calling attention to child hunger in city neighborhoods and serving free breakfasts. The sometimes deadly actions of slumlords still provoke outrage and calls to action.
Some of the New Haveners at the time of the Rackley case remain at the front lines. Panther George Edwards — whom Panther leaders also tortured in the Ethan Gardens basement, and who escaped getting killed himself, only to be arrested by the cops in connection with Rackley’s murder — continues burnishing the Panther flame. He attends rallies and speaks out at other public events. He and the community two weeks ago buried his beloved son, a city firefighter.
Thirty-seven years after the murder, in 2006, George Edwards finally got to confront Warren Kimbro at a book event at the Yale Bookstore. He asked Kimbro why he had tortured him in that Ethan Gardens basement. And why he had never apologized.
Kimbro sort of apologized. He also revealed that he had tricked his fellow Panthers into believing he couldn’t track Edwards down that fateful night — to avoid placing Edwards in the Buick along with Rackley on the road to execution.
David Rosen, one of Bobby Seale’s lawyers in the New Haven trial, continues a half-century later to wage crusading lawsuits, including a current class action on behalf of the families forced to flee the dangerous Church Street South housing complex.
Another Panther lawyer from those days, John R. Williams, is keeping his civil-rights practice going as well.
And Kelly Moye, the police infiltrator who provided the Buick, remains in the same home in the Hill neighborhood, occasionally mixing it up with cops and passionate neighbors.
Meanwhile, families continue to live in the 28 apartments at Ethan Gardens. Kids — now including immigrant children — play in the courtyard. Ethan Gardens is no longer a co-op, as it was in the idealistic days when Warren Kimbro lived there. A private real estate company, Pike International, now runs it.
Today, Kathy Gardner lives in Unit B13. She moved in back in December 1997. She raised her two children there.
Over the years she heard that her apartment had some connection to the Panthers and a murder. That’s all she knew, until learning the full story this past week.
She had never heard of Warren Kimbro. She didn’t know that Warren Kimbro was the first president of the Ethan Gardens co-op. It turns out Kathy Gardner was the last president of the co-op, from 2001 to its sale in 2004. She was sad to see the co-op die, as did other nearby co-ops started around the same time under the same federal 221(d)(3) program such as the old Dwight Co-ops (now Dwight Gardens) and Trade Union Plaza blocks away from Ethan Gardens.
Gardner, who works as a special-ed paraprofessional, is now one of only three former co-op residents left at Ethan Gardens. The tale of the murder doesn’t bother her, she said: “As long as they aren’t dead in my basement, I don’t care. It was before my time. I can’t change 50 years ago. Life goes on.” The Ethan Gardens tenants are planning a communal Fourth of July picnic, she said. And she’s in the process of cleaning out the basement. She has a new grandchild named Mehki; that’s going to be his new bedroom.
Murder In The Model City
Following are excerpts from “Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer,” a book by Paul Bass and Douglas W. Rae about the Alex Rackley murder, the subsequent trial of national Black Panther leaders Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, the May Day rally on the New Haven Green, and the late Warren Kimbro’s “second-chance” career as a prison reentry pioneer.
ON THE NIGHT of Tuesday, May 20, 1969, four men sped north from New Haven in a borrowed Buick Riviera. All belonged to the revolutionary Black Panther Party.
Warren Kimbro sat nervously in the front passenger seat directing the driver. Warren was normally quick with his tongue, loose, funny. Yet he was scared silent by the power sitting behind him in the Buick that night.
That power was named George Sams. Maybe it was the pistol Sams always waved around. Maybe it was the threats Sams barked, the herky-jerky intensity of his stocky body. Maybe it was because Sams was part of a team flown in from the Panthers’ California headquarters to whip East Coast chapters into shape.
Earlier, at Panther headquarters in downtown New Haven, Sams had said, “I’m going for a ride. Come with me.”
Sparked by caffeine, by a speed pill, an electric current jangled Warren’s nerves as the car traveled north. Warren didn’t know exactly where he would lead the driver, beyond searching, at Sams’s orders, for a secluded spot. But he knew they were headed to some kind of hell.
Something’s going to happen, Warren thought to himself. He tried not to think about specifics. It didn’t require much imagination.
FOR THE THREE days leading up to May 20, imported Panthers Landon Williams and George Sams had commandeered Warren Kimbro’s three-story townhouse apartment in the mixed-income Ethan Gardens complex on Orchard Street in New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood. The apartment doubled as New Haven Panther headquarters. Sams oversaw a kangaroo trial, interrogation, torture, and confinement there of a suspected FBI informant named Alex Rackley. Now Rackley was to be transported from the house.
It was around midnight when the orders were issued: Alex Rackley needed to be taken away, driven to the bus station.
Someone suggested taking Warren’s Mustang.
No, someone else said. The police will recognize it.
Would that be a problem for a trip to the bus station? The question went unanswered.
Instead, a call went to Kelly Moye, a hanger-on around thirty years old, who made deliveries for a package store. Moye showed up at Panther meetings and always seemed eager to lend the party money or offer a meal. Would Brother Kelly lend the Panthers his car now for an important mission?
Sure thing, Moye said.
Moye hung up the phone and dialed another number — Nick Pastore’s number. Nick Pastore ran the intelligence division of the New Haven police department. He paid Moye to spy on the Panthers. Moye enjoyed the Panther meetings. He especially enjoyed watching Ericka Huggins, the tall, slender, frizzy-haired firebrand who spoke so eloquently, who was followed around in public like the pied piper by adoring Yale students.
Moye reported the request to borrow his car. Nick Pastore advised Moye to go ahead and lend it. Nick had a hunch that something big was happening on Orchard Street; he told Moye that a Panther from New York was being held there and was about to be transported. “Go over and see what is happening,” Nick said.
Within minutes, Moye showed up outside Ethan Gardens in his two-door green Buick Riviera. George Sams stood by the curb waiting for him. When Moye emerged from the Buick, Sams stuck a gun to his head.
“I want to use your car,” Sams said.
“Hey, look,” Moye said, “you can take the car.”
Moye handed over the keys. Another Panther drove him home. No one asked why Kelly Moye was so prompt, so accommodating, because people helped the Black Panthers all the time. They pitched in for the cause the instant they were summoned. That was how a revolution worked.
BACK IN THE Panther apartment, Warren went upstairs to change into black dungarees, a Navy mock turtleneck, plus a black knit cap. Then he entered the bedroom usually occupied by his seven-year-old daughter, who was now sharing a room with her brother. Alex Rackley lay strapped to the child’s bed. Rackley had been there three days since his interrogation. He lay in his own urine and feces. Warren joined other Panthers in untying Rackley. Some Panther women cleaned Rackley up, dressed him, and then returned to the kitchen downstairs.
A wire-hanger noose hung visibly around Rackley’s neck. The men looked around for something to throw over it; they found a Nehru jacket belonging to one of the party members. That would do.
Raised to his feet, Rackley teetered. He wanted to sit down. Instead, the men clambered down the stairs and pushed Rackley through the kitchen, to the back door — out of sight, they hoped, of the police.
From her perch by the kitchen counter, Ericka Huggins, the highest- ranking female Panther in town, watched Sams and Warren walk Rackley out the door. Sams brandished the .45 automatic as he held Rackley’s arms, which were tied together with ropes. Rackley didn’t resist.
On the way out, someone handed Warren a pill and a cup of coffee. “This’ll keep you awake,” he said. Warren needed a jolt. He had barely slept for days amid all the nonstop activity in the house and on the street, not to mention the climate of paranoia.
Kelly Moye’s car was parked on Orchard Street. Sams steered Rackley to the back seat, then sat beside him. Warren sat in front, where he would direct the ride. He assumed that some of the other cars on the block had undercover agents in them; the police and FBI spent enough time on the block to have their mail forwarded.
“Right on,” one of the Panthers called to the departing carload of party brothers. “All power to the people.”
Off they went. Sams started rolling a joint.
Alex Rackley spoke up. Don’t do that, George, he said. The cops might be watching.
The comment caught Sams by surprise. “You’re right, Alex,” he said.
Sams stopped rolling the joint.
Sitting up front, Warren directed the driver, Lonnie McLucas, toward the highway. Warren had traveled far in the short, intense space of a year. In May 1968 he held a job as a youth worker in a social program run by the city. He could talk troubled kids out of fights and into school or jobs while working the back channels of power — in City Hall, schools, the court system — to help them. Intellectually curious and personable, he tried to touch the lives of most everyone he encountered, from all walks of life. He also had a short fuse. When outrage hit, he could turn violent. From the day he entered kindergarten, to his encounters with churchgoers and black-marketeers on the block where he grew up, Warren had one foot on a path to success and one foot in a pile of trouble. He straddled a world of accommodation and one increasingly in conflict.
Now, in May 1969, Warren belonged to an outlaw political movement that preached, and sometimes practiced, violent revolution. The Black Panther Party had come to New Haven just five months earlier; Warren was their prized local conscript.
Founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers carried guns and told white America that they were ready to shoot when necessary. The party combined socialist ideology with street credibility. Oakland’s police force, recruited in part from the Deep South, openly brutalized black citizens, whether law-abiding or not. In response, the Panthers formed armed neighborhood “self-defense” patrols. The party drew middle-class, intellectual idealists inspired by Algerian writer Frantz Fanon. His Wretched of the Earth inspired Third World liberation movements; advocates of Black Power increasingly came to see this work as relevant to the United States. The Panthers held classes on Fanon’s book and talked about sharing its ideas with the “baddest” characters on urban American street corners. Like Malcolm X right before his death, they hoped to tie an American rebellion to the spirit and program of liberation movements in the Third World. In a world where India, Kenya, Congo, Cuba, and other downtrodden societies could throw colonial masters out of power, why not aim for revolutionary change?
The Panthers’ ten-point party platform claimed “the power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.” It sought full employment, “an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our Black and oppressed communities,” better housing, “education for our people . . . that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society,” universal mili- tary exemptions for black Americans, and “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.” The platform also called for a blanket amnesty for all black prison inmates, as well as juries composed of true “peers” for black defendants.
The Black Panther Party also drew heavily upon working-class blacks without intellectual, or moral, pretensions. Some, like leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, managed to combine intellectual prowess with an unmistakable edge of violence. Seen from the heights of America’s white establishment, the Panthers were small, ragtag, and hardly a match for one major agency of law enforcement, namely, the FBI. But, as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover understood perfectly, one cannot be a great hero without a dangerous enemy. The FBI did everything it could to dramatize the dangerous revolutionary powers of Pantherdom. The Panthers cooperated with braggadocio of their own. In New Haven, the police — who, in conjunction with local FBI agents, were commanded to wipe out the Black Panther Party by any means necessary — watched every move of Warren and his comrades.
INDEED, UNDERCOVER POLICE watched the Panther car pull away from Warren’s apartment complex with Alex Rackley. They followed — at first. Warren led the Buick’s driver onto the highway northbound on Interstate 91, aimed toward nothing more specific than darkness and seclusion.
At some point, the officers disappeared. They would eventually claim they lost the car.
According to a later affidavit by Nick Pastore, he received a call from a “reliable” informant he had “known for at least five years.” The informant (Kelly Moye) reported that Kelly Moye’s car “would be used, or was about to be used, to transport a person who was about to be murdered, to an unknown destination.”
Even the police chief, Jim Ahern, had advance notice of an event worth watching. Ahern was in the nearby Hill neighborhood eating dinner at Leon’s, one of New Haven’s finest Italian restaurants. In his book Police in Trouble, Ahern would offer his version of the police’s reaction, with a bevy of supporting actors and extra vehicles, a version strikingly at odds with the mountain of details that would emerge later from the case. According to Ahern:
My portable police radio told the story.
The phone rang. Something was happening at Panther headquarters; there was a great deal of activity. But we decided there was still not probable cause for arrests. We agreed, however, that more unmarked cars should be brought into position. The call went out, and they were on the way.
But before they could arrive, the gathering at Panther headquarters suddenly broke. Knowing that they were being watched, the Panthers split up into four cars and left in different directions. The radio was crowded with noise as our men sorted the cars out. Three were fol- lowed. In the confusion, the fourth slipped away.
That car had to be stopped. We put out an all-points bulletin on it for suspicion of kidnapping.
Yet the car “somehow” managed to elude the police twenty miles up the highway, according to Ahern.
Ahern may not have been fully forthcoming about how much police officials actually knew in advance about the activity at Panther headquarters. There has never been any other evidence to suggest the Panthers had four cars leaving the scene. Ahern downplayed the existence of probable cause for arrests — or, at the very least, a visit — before the crew in Kelly Moye’s car took off.
“As a result of this information,” Ahern wrote, the local police did eventually stop the Buick. But they wouldn’t “find” it until hours later, around 4 a.m. By that time the car would be back in New Haven, back in Kelly Moye’s possession.
IN THE BACK SEAT of Moye’s car, George Sams informed Alex Rackley that he was being kicked out of the party. Sams also assured Rackley that, despite orders to kill him, he would be allowed to flee to freedom.
Warren directed the driver to exit the highway onto State Route 66, then onto a two-lane road winding through the sleepy hamlet of Middlefield. Warren saw a sign for Powder Ridge, a ski resort quiet in the off-season. The car twisted down through woodlands into the floodplain of the Coginchaug River. The headlights revealed a long stretch of darkness; the driver stopped the car by a low bridge off Middlefield’s deserted Route 157.
Sams ordered everyone out. The four men walked into the woods. The moon shone, but they could barely see beneath all the trees. They crunched their way through skunk cabbage and dead branches, weaving past the trunks of swamp maples to the bank of the Coginchaug.
Alex Rackley passively hobbled alongside them. Rackley was thirteen days shy of his twentieth birthday. Clothesline bound his wrists. The makeshift noose around his neck jutted out beneath the Nehru jacket. Second-degree burns stung his chest and thighs. The burns came from pots of boiled water poured over Rackley’s body during the torture session back on Orchard Street; they had festered over the subsequent three days Rackley spent tied up.
Sams ordered the group to the edge of the open water. He told Rackley freedom was at hand: “You’re gonna take a boat. You can take the boat to New York or Florida.”
Sams reassured Rackley again, then warned him: While you wait for the boat to come get you, stay in the woods. Sams suggested that the woods might be crawling with Minutemen, members of a violent white supremacist group active in the area.
Thank you, Rackley said. No one asked: What kind of boat could sail the Coginchaug River? Perhaps a canoe. Certainly not a vessel capable of reaching New York, much less Florida.
Sams turned to Warren. He placed a .45 automatic in Warren’s palm. “Here, Brother Warren,” Sams said. “Ice him. Orders from National.”
Warren gripped the .45. He waded toward Alex Rackley through the ankle-deep muck. He aimed at the back of Rackley’s head and pulled the trigger.
Rackley collapsed into the water. Sams took back the gun and handed it to McLucas. On Sams’s order, McLucas kicked around in the marsh until he found Rackley’s body. He shot an insurance bullet into his chest.
As they turned to leave, Rackley’s executioners abandoned his body for dead. According to later expert testimony, Rackley’s heart may have continued beating—he may not have breathed his final gasp for four more hours.
Deep down, Warren knew Rackley was no FBI agent, no spy. Why didn’t he stand up to Sams? Fear. He had the sense that the Black Panther Party stood behind these orders. They could kill him instead of Rackley, he reasoned. His son and daughter were asleep back in the townhouse apartment. Something could happen to them, too.
THE THREE SURVIVING Panthers trudged back to the car. McLucas turned the wheel toward New Haven. They got lost on the twisting rural roads. Before they hit the highway, Sams threw bullets out the window. He preferred to return without any unused bullets; he wanted to impress the Panthers that this was a big job requiring lots of ammo.
Sams was hyped up when the three returned to headquarters. One coat-hanger-collared member of their party was conspicuously missing. Several other Panthers, night owls, remained awake, drinking coffee in the kitchen. Although there was no mention of what exactly had happened, it seemed clear that the returning warriors had been up to some mission of consequence.
Warren scrubbed his hands right away. He was wiped out. He wanted to sleep.
While most of New Haven slumbered, the Panther apartment buzzed with people not yet ready to go to bed. Joints were rolled and passed around. Warren, ever mindful of his wardrobe, washed off his muddy shoes. He cleaned the .45 and returned it to the coffee table drawer in the living room, where the party had been keeping it.
George Sams ran about the apartment high on the aftermath of battle. “Brother Warren,” he exclaimed, “is a true revolutionary!”
ALONG WITH ALEX RACKLEY’S CORPSE, the facts were left behind to decompose in the Coginchaug River, devalued, abused, ultimately forgotten in America’s domestic war over race, poverty, and the right to dissent.
“A lot of educated people are going to have to be convinced the facts are irrelevant!” protest leader Tom Hayden would yell into a microphone when he joined other radicals on the New Haven Green in protesting the arrests of Black Panthers in Alex Rackley’s murder. Indeed, it may have seemed that the facts were irrelevant to everyone touched by the murder. Everyone, it seemed, was lying when it came to the Rackley case and the protests it provoked: the president, the FBI, the New Haven police, the man who pulled the trigger, the Black Panthers, the white radicals who swooped to their cause. No one had use for the facts
Still, the facts mattered. They would prove central to the story of how Alex Rackley ended up dead in a swamp and to the subsequent trial that put the criminal justice system’s travails on national display. The facts would prove central to the story of how America lost its innocence at the end of the sixties—how, in the course of a decade, a nation on the path to greater civil rights and opportunities for its most disenfranchised citizens jerked violently backward and chose to lock up huge portions of ghettos rather than seek solutions. An idealistic youth-powered movement that helped stop a war and rewrite civil rights laws succumbed to fratricide and exhaustion. The facts were relevant to how liberalism became a dirty word in the country and how questioning people in power became un-American.
MAY 21, 1969, was a good day for a ride, the air clear, spring in blossom. John Mroczka started up his Triumph motorcycle and drove around the winding open roads of Connecticut’s Middlesex County. Mroczka, a tool-and-die maker, had eight hours or so before the midnight shift at the local Pratt & Whitney jet-engine plant. Three weeks earlier he had returned home from a two-year tour in Vietnam. Mroczka was a local boy, still single at twenty-two. He had no political views to speak of. His own passions involved his Triumph and his fishing rod.
Mroczka swept on his Triumph along the quiet roads of Middlefield. He passed Route 157 near his favorite fishing spot. It was off a deserted stretch of country road, beneath a tiny bridge overlooking the Coginchaug River. The state stocked that spot with trout each year. Mroczka decided to check if the trout had arrived.
He parked his Triumph and crossed the street. Before he got to the bridge, he spotted what looked like a mannequin half submerged in the river.
He walked over to inspect it. The mouth was open; flies buzzed around the body.
This was no mannequin. This was a corpse.
He noticed rope around the corpse’s wrists. HThe scarecrow-like figure had on a jacket, blue striped trousers, a green shirt, no shoes.
Mroczka ran back to his Triumph. He rode to a deli up the road. It was between 4:30 and 5 P.M. His face white with shock, he told the woman behind the counter about the body. The state police were called. State Trooper William Leonard was the first to show up at the deli. Mroczka got back on the Triumph to lead him to the fishing spot.
Waiting around for the coroner to arrive and declare the body dead — this would take hours — Mroczka had to repeat his story, word for word, six different times, to different troopers.
In between he heard them speculating about the victim. The victim had blue pants on. Some thought he was an escapee from the prison in Haddam.
Then the coroner arrived. “He has a bullet hole in his ear,” one of the troopers reported to the group. “There’s another one in his chest.”
After the coroner made his official declaration of death, the cops found a handwritten note inside a pocket of the jacket draped around the body. The note was addressed to “Chairman Bobby.”
“Someone called from Oregon,” the note read. “There have been bombings at the University of Oregon. Called to your mother’s house. They said it would be best if you did not come to Oregon at all. There have been threats to murder you. The brother in Oregon, who is head of the Party there, says there have been bombings, but they have calmed down. No danger . . .”
The note was signed, “Ericka.”
National Panther chairman Bobby Seale had been in the news earlier in the week when he delivered a fiery speech on Yale University’s campus in New Haven. He had left town early Tuesday morning, just before the Oregon call came in to Warren Kimbro’s apartment. Ericka Huggins dispatched some Panthers to the airport with the note, but they arrived too late to deliver it to Seale.
Around 8 P.M., Steve Ahern, chief of detectives of New Haven’s police department, received a call at his home about a “male Negro body” found in Middlesex Country, shot in the head. He returned right to work at police headquarters, a block east of the city’s seventeenth-century Green. Ahern, the head of the detectives, brother of the chief, as well as the mastermind of the department’s illegal wiretapping operation, knew he’d be working through the night.
A call followed from a state cop at Middlesex Hospital with the news about the “Chairman Bobby” note. Ahern ordered his men to call in street informants. Soon he was in a room in the first-floor detective bureau with Nick Pastore and Sergeant Vincent DeRosa, talking with a woman whose information had helped them make successful busts in the past. The woman was close to the Panthers, including Warren Kimbro. She told the cops about the torture of a “Brother Alex” at the apartment. She described a trial tape-recorded in the presence of Warren and Ericka and some tough guy named “Sam.”
Around 9 o’clock, the FBI arrived with fingerprints of the victim. They matched the prints of an Alex Rackley who had a record of two minor arrests in Florida. Ahern called cops in Florida and confirmed the prints.
Police in Bridgeport, a twenty-five-minute drive west, rounded up a woman named Frances Carter and brought her to New Haven. She identified herself as secretary of the New Haven chapter. She admitted she had seen the torture victim held at Warren Kimbro’s apartment.
Steve Ahern shoved a color Polaroid of Alex Rackley’s devastated corpse under Carter’s nose. “Isn’t that the man?!” he yelled from close range. “Isn’t that the man?”
Yes, it was. She talked until midnight. She would remember being badgered by ten to twenty cops at a time hovering over her. “Everybody’s dead!” they told her. Instantly she flashed on her sister Peggy and Peggy’s kids. “Where’s Peggy? What did you do with Peggy? I’ve got to have a phone. I got to call Peggy!”
The interrogation proceeded with threats of her ending up in an electric chair. Sweating, her head pounding, Carter passed out. Right before losing consciousness, she remembers the one policewoman in the room whispering to her, “Peggy’s fine.”
MEANWHILE, NICK PASTORE was collecting details from his own informants — the location of the guns and the identities of the Panthers the cops might find at Warren’s apartment when, as it now appeared likely, they would bust through the door.
As the police planned a raid on Warren’s Ethan Gardens apartment, the party went on with its business. Warren arranged for the purchase of three snub-nosed .38s from a black-market dealer working inside the Colt factory in Hartford. He gave Lonnie McLucas $105, the keys to his Mustang, and the directions, and then sent him off to collect the guns.
Midnight approached, the raid set. Steve Ahern gathered his detectives to discuss the details. He assigned some to arrest the people downstairs and others to go upstairs. Female officers would handle the women. Nick would head to the basement; he knew that Alex Rackley’s torture had taken place there; he would look for rope and other evidence to tie the apartment to the Rackley torture and therefore the murder.
“There are children in there,” Ahern told the officers. So be careful. No shots if they could help it.
IT WAS AN early night for the Panthers. By 12:30 a.m., most of the household was asleep. The women scattered around the living room; a handful held babies. Warren lay on the floor beside a rifle. His young son, Germano, and daughter, Veronica, shared a bed in Germano’s room.
A crash shattered the dark stillness. Down fell the front door. Sergeant DeRosa would later claim that he did knock first. If he did, no one heard him. Apparently DeRosa hadn’t known the front door was unlocked.
Swarming in, officers moved in every direction, stepping over the women on pallets. They overturned flour bins and ransacked the premises.
“You’re all under arrest!” Steve Ahern announced.
Warren awoke to a snub-nosed .38 in his face wielded by DeRosa. The gun shook in DeRosa’s hand; he had the hammer of the gun cocked. “Don’t move!” he barked.
Beside him, Detective Billy White lunged for Warren’s rifle. Billy White and Warren had known each other for years. They once worked together in a New Haven antipoverty program, and Warren had also coached White’s younger brother in little league football. They’d always gotten along. Like many others in New Haven, White couldn’t understand the radical turn Warren’s life had taken, but he still liked him.
“Warren,” White told him, “you’re under arrest.” White was too young to panic or to worry about retaliation. He wasn’t angry, especially not at Warren. This was business. Warren did what Warren had to do. White did what he had to do.
“Black Power!” Warren called out. He followed revolutionary protocol: Never give the pigs the satisfaction of knowing that you’re scared.
One officer went straight upstairs to Warren’s bedroom. He quickly returned downstairs announcing that he’d found the murder weapon. Warren was surprised because he had been sure George Sams had taken the gun with him. He had no idea it was still in the house. Yet the police seemed to know exactly where to look.
Warren’s wife, Sylvia, had emerged from the shower, about to get ready for work the next morning at her job at a drug treatment center, when a black cop stormed up the stairs and pointed his gun at her. Sylvia recognized him; she was his son’s godmother. The officer instantly recognized the only partially dressed Sylvia. He turned away, embarrassed. … A female officer came up the stairs and placed Panther-hating Sylvia under arrest. Unlike Warren, Sylvia was not scared. She was humiliated. The cop watched her get dressed. Then she escorted Sylvia out the door to the police station.
Germano and Veronica awoke to lights flashing in their eyes. Germano instinctively rolled onto his sister. They stared at gun barrels. There was talk of searching them. Then Germano and Veronica heard someone say, “These are just kids.”
The kids were shepherded downstairs. Germano and Veronica saw their dad handcuffed behind his back, his face toward the floor, a lit cigarette in his mouth. The smoke swirled into his eyes.
“Can you loosen the handcuffs? They’re too tight,” the kids heard Warren ask his tormentors.
“The handcuffs are too tight!” Veronica piped up. “The smoke is in his eyes.”
Germano wondered: Where is the shoot-out? He had heard tales of Panther-cop shoot-outs in other cities. Friends in Ethan Gardens showed him where their family cut holes in the wall of their apartment to climb up to a skylight; there the parents kept a lookout and a cache of guns in case the cops came. Now the real confrontation was happening, and it was one sided.
Germano and Veronica were ushered outside into a squad car. They were taken four blocks north to Sylvia’s mother’s house on Dickerman Street.
Back at Ethan Gardens, everyone was rounded up. Investigators stayed another four hours digging for every shred of evidence. They’d return over the next few days. The inside of the three-floor apartment, part of a ballyhooed government-financed experiment in mixed-income housing, was reduced practically to rubble, with walls torn apart, furniture upended, household items thrown around the floor.
ON COURT STREET Warren was in the fire department headquarters, where the police intelligence division had a third-floor lockup for interrogating prisoners
Warren was shuttled into one of the cages in the lockup. He was ordered to strip. His new uniform consisted of a baggy shirt, damp oversized khaki pants, too-small sneakers. They took fingerprints and fingernail scrapings.
A friendly voice broke through the corridor.
“Hey, give Warren a cigarette! I know Warren from St. John’s. He’s a nice guy.”
It was Nick Pastore. Nick approached the door of Warren’s cage.
“Warren,” Nick told him, “we know you did the shooting.”
“I know nothing,” Warren retorted. He thought to himself: Could they really know that already?
Burial Of A Footnote
ALEX RACKLEY WAS BORN in Jacksonville on June 2, 1949. He was the first of eight children fathered by a variety of men. His mother, Parlee, was a strong woman — large and outspoken. She set boundaries and disciplined her children — when she was around. A cook, she sometimes worked at an exclusive Jacksonville club. The job just as often took her north, where she cooked for rich people for months at a time or longer. Those northern jobs paid more, plus Parlee enjoyed the travel. She left her parents, Isaac and Rosalie, in charge of the children and sent money home as often as she could.
Alex grew up on a crowded block surrounded by poultry plants, slaughterhouses, and a dog pound. The neighborhood, known as Mixontown, may have smelled like dead chickens, but the people had jobs. Grandfather Isaac raised chickens; the Rackleys ate a lot of chicken. Twenty or more Rackleys at a time shared the three-bedroom house on Watts Street — brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents bumping into each other all day, sleeping in bunk beds.
With such a crowded house, the Rackley kids tended to spend time outdoors. Alex and other kids on the block would play stickball, football, marbles. Alex liked sports, liked dancing and music, though he wasn’t a standout in any of these pursuits. While not particularly interested in school, he did love clothes. Hoping to become a tailor, he enrolled in Stanton Vocational after junior high, but he dropped out before very long. He sometimes had luck at dice, which once helped pay for a double-breasted suit. What would later become known as the “Superfly” look was coming in, and Alex took to it. He parted his Afro on the side. He had his two front teeth capped; he’d chipped them in elementary school when Freddie, the brother closest to him in age, accidentally tripped him on the way home.
Alex took up karate at seventeen and became a black belt. Karate came in handy. One day, with no key, Alex found he could knock down a locked door at his house. And though he wasn’t known for starting fights, he got into his share of neighborhood scraps; he wanted to look out for himself and his younger siblings. He looked out for Parlee, too. Despite her long absences, he and his mother were close. One time Parlee’s boyfriend appeared ready to strike her. Alex jumped him first and prevented him from attacking. Alex was muscular, around six-one, 175 pounds.
Still, he didn’t leave much of a mark beyond his own block. When the FBI tried to track down information on him, they found little. The FBI noted that he had brown hair and eyes, a scar over his left eyebrow, and two misdemeanor arrests on his record, both in the first part of 1968, one for “vagrancy and loitering” on Jacksonville Beach and another for “disorderly conduct — gambling.” Alex bounced around jobs. He pumped gas for a while, working the night shift. One night his younger brother Wayne heard him come home and ask Parlee for a gun; people kept rob- bing him at the station, and he was fed up with it.
In 1968, Alex turned nineteen. Parlee was up in New York cooking. He headed north to join his mom, since nothing much was developing for him in Jacksonville. And that was about all the family ever heard from him again. He sent one snapshot home of himself in his new Superfly duds. No hint of politics, no talk of revolution.
Drinking and using drugs, jobless, homeless, Alex walked around New York City barefoot after staying briefly with Parlee. He stumbled onto the Panthers through friends he knew from Jacksonville. He started crashing at communal Panther pads. He hung around Panther headquarters in New York, always eager to help. He sold Panther newspapers. He attended political education classes; inevitably, he’d fail the exams. “Listen, brother,” ranking Panthers told him. “You need more political education.” Rackley’s claim to a black belt was perhaps his only distinction. As the chapter’s “karate instructor,” he taught martial arts to other Panthers at the Panther office in Harlem. He struck New York Panthers like Shirley Wolterding as “unsophisticated, like a baby, a child . . . very, very naïve . . . almost like an eager puppy.” Gene Roberts, an undercover cop posing as a chapter member, learned little about Rackley during Rackley’s time in New York; Rackley said nothing about his past except to claim, falsely, that he’d been a member of the notorious Blackstone Rangers street gang in Chicago. Roberts figured Rackley for a hanger-on, a non-entity in the Panther universe. Rackley’s marginality left him as something of a mystery.
EVERYBODY DISTRUSTED EVERYONE else in Panther chapters. Anyone might be a spy, and few seemed totally trustworthy. The FBI and the New York police red squad relied on two kinds of helpers. The first kind were their own spies, posing as real Panthers. The second kind were loyal Panthers whom the FBI had “bad-jacketed” by inserting false rumors of disloyalty.
Like everyone else, Rackley could with equal credibility have been either or neither of these in the eyes of his comrades. And like practically everyone else, he was wondered about when he wasn’t around, though not, apparently, more than anyone else.
On March 11, in a conversation secretly recorded by a police infiltrator, one member expressed doubts about Rackley’s party loyalty. As was so often true of the heavily infiltrated party, it is impossible to know which speakers were genuine Panthers and which were agents provocateurs charged with creating suspicion.
That paranoia was ratcheted even higher after an April 1 police bust. Twenty-one New York Panthers were arrested on charges of having planned to blow up department stores and landmarks like the Botanical Garden and the Statue of Liberty. It would never become clear, even at trial, if such a plan ever really existed, or if it had, whether it came from the imaginations of undercover law enforcement seeking to incite law-breaking by the Panthers.
The top priority in the Black Panther Party increasingly became weeding out informers. The party’s national office sent leaders of its military wing to the East Coast to investigate and instill discipline. The heavies, including enforcers Landon Williams and George Sams, took control. Sams called himself “Crazy George” and “Nigger George.” He had been in fights and trouble with the law since his childhood bouncing around foster homes and mental hospitals in the South, then New York City and Michigan. The Panthers once kicked him out of the party for stabbing another Panther; party leaders reinstated him only when nationalist leader Stokely Carmichael, whom Sams served as a bodyguard, intervened on his behalf. Sams was known in Panther circles around the country as the wild man who swung into town and made threats, beat people, harassed women, and left internecine fights in his wake. He kept two or three pistols inside his brown trench coat; he clattered when he walked. He bounced with nervous energy, always moving, twitching, glaring at people as though daring them to challenge him.
Sams particularly seemed to enjoy meting out discipline in the Harlem office that April. One time Alex Rackley walked into the office with his hair braided. Sams exploded: Rackley was guilty of “disrespecting the people.” Hair braiding, apparently, constituted “cultural nationalism.”
Besides, Sams declared, Rackley looked like a pickaninny. Sams beat Rackley on the spot. Then he ordered him to run around the block.
Rackley hung on; he had nowhere else to go. On Saturday, May 17, he begged Sams — on his knees, his hands clasped in prayer — and the other leaders to allow him to accompany them on a trip to New Haven.
“Please, sister,” he begged one of the local chapter officers, Rose Mary Byrd. “Please let me go.”
Rackley won a seat in one of the two cars to New Haven. Once there, he hung out with the crowd, while leaders met privately to plan discipline as well as the appearance in town, two days later, of Bobby Seale.
FROM THE MOMENT they arrived at local Panther headquarters at Ethan Gardens in New Haven, the visiting leaders, Landon Williams and George Sams, whispered to Warren Kimbro and Ericka Huggins about Alex Rackley. They told Warren and Ericka to watch Alex Rackley: he might be a spy.
Rackley’s identity may have been confused with that of Alex McKiever, one of the Panthers indicted in the New York bombing-conspiracy case. That Alex, former president of the Afro-American History Club at New York’s Benjamin Franklin High School, fled the country before the police could arrest him. The Panthers suspected him of being a police agent. And, for some reason, one leader decided that Alex McKiever and Alex Rackley must be the same person.
In reality, the Alexes occupied different echelons in Pantherdom; McKiever served on New York’s elite security team before the bust and was responsible for the safety of high-ranking Panthers visiting town. He was close to Eldridge Cleaver.
Alex Rackley into the Orchard Street apartment, eager, as usual, to help. He and Warren rolled up posters for the upcoming Bobby Seale event. Mean- while, George Sams and Landon Williams took charge. Sams called Warren and Ericka to the side and issued an order: one of the women should seduce Rackley, then determine if he was an informer. The assignment went to fifteen-year-old Maude Francis. Sams handed Francis a speed pill to stay awake. Rackley willingly succumbed to the girl’s entreaties.
In the aftermath, Francis popped the question. No, Rackley told her, he was no spy.
WHETHER OR NOT Maude Francis believed Alex Rackley’s answer about not being a spy, suspicion in the house remained strong. Sams would claim years later that even he didn’t believe Alex Rackley was a spy. But his job was to find out for sure.
One Sunday morning, Ericka came downstairs to find Rackley dozing on the couch in the living room. Ericka was a commanding presence in the Panther apartment, a natural leader. She walked tall and spoke with confidence. Beneath her sometimes hippie-sounding, idealistic patter burned a ferocity that flashed bright and hard whenever she perceived a threat. Dozing Alex looked like a threat—to revolutionary comportment, perhaps. Wake up! Ericka demanded. She threw a book at him. The thud of Selected Military Writings by Mao Tse-tung startled Rackley awake.
Ordered to read, Rackley raised the book — upside down. He scanned the letters.
Rackley told Ericka that he couldn’t read, and then proceeded to say how he wished he could read, how he wished the Panthers in New York had given him more help. Enraged, Ericka lectured Rackley that he should have asked the sisters.
Warren was coming downstairs with George Sams. They’d heard the last exchange.
“If you can’t read,” Sams asked Rackley, “what are you doing with the military works of Mao?”
“Stand up!” Sams barked. He accused Rackley of lying.
Sams directed someone to get the “Panther stick.” The “stick” was a fraternity hazing paddle Warren had picked up. People called it the “Panther stick,” and until now it had been merely a decorative threat.
Rackley tried to resist. He lunged at Sams, kicked Warren, kicked Ericka. Blood spurted from Rackley’s head from the paddling.
Sams informed Rackley that he was hereby expelled from the Black Panther Party for “lying to the sister.” He was not to show his face at any other chapter offices, either. Where did he want to go now?
Call the bus station, Sams ordered Warren. Find out what it costs to get there.
Warren called. Sams put out money for Rackley. Rackley left the apartment — and remained right outside, sitting. He returned, said he needed his coat. He couldn’t find the coat. Everyone started looking for the coat. No one could find the coat.
Hmmm, maybe Rackley had no coat. Anyone remember Brother Alex coming in with a coat?
“Brother,” George Sams said, “I don’t really think you want to leave. And I think you are the pig.”
SAMS ORDERED RACKLEY, Warren, and Lonnie McLucas into the basement. Warren had never finished the basement since moving into Ethan Gardens. The walls were mostly concrete; one had partial sheetrock. Incandescent lights on the ceiling illuminated a concrete floor bare except for boxes and a combination desk-chair low to the ground. Warren had originally planned for his kids to use the desk for their homework.
The group fashioned a noose around Rackley’s neck and threw it over a joist; McLucas held the rope and told Rackley to read. Again he insisted that he could not read.
“Brother,” declared Sams, “this calls for more discipline.” Warren and the others took turns whacking at Rackley with the Panther stick.
Then they stood Rackley’s limp body, paddled a good fifteen times on the buttocks alone, back up. The order resumed: Read! Desperate, Rackley muttered words. It sounded as if it might have been reading, or it might have been a mixture of recognized written syllables with remembered recitations of cant.
To Sams, it was proof of perfidy. Clearly, Rackley could read. “We are going to tie him up and get some information from the brother.”
Rackley landed in the desk-chair. Warren and the others bound Rackley to the chair by his arms and legs and around the waist.
“Get some hot water,” Sams directed. Upstairs, women started boiling water. Meanwhile, Sams ordered Warren to gag Rackley with a towel. When the water boiled, Panthers brought it downstairs. Sams poured the boiling water over Rackley’s back, over his shoulders. First one pot, then a second. Then a third. Then a fourth.
OK, Rackley cried through the towel gagging his mouth, his head bobbing, OK! He was ready to talk.
Upstairs, Warren’s children, Germano and Veronica, saw people carrying the pots of water downstairs. The kids could hear the cracks of beatings. They heard Alex Rackley’s pitiful screams. Veronica’s stomach twisted. Germano tried to peek down the stairs, figure out who was doing what to whom. “We need to get these kids out of here,” he heard someone say. Sylvia took them away.
In the basement, Sams once again poured the boiling water over Rackley’s back and shoulders.
A TAPE RECORDER was brought into the room. A party member who worked at the phone company had donated it to the party. The proceedings would be preserved as evidence for party officials. Ericka was called downstairs.
In spite of any misgivings, Ericka and Warren soon glided into the roles as interrogators.
“Ericka Huggins,” she announced, “member of the New Haven Chapter Black Panther Party, political education instructor. On May 17th at approximately 10 o’clock, Brother Alex from New York was sleeping in the office, that is, a house that we use as an office, and I kicked him and said, ‘Motherfucker, wake up, because we don’t sleep in the office and we relate to reading or getting out!’
“And so Brother Alex picked up a book, Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-tung, and began to read. I was talking to Brother George and Warren, and George looked over at Alex and said, ‘Brother, I thought you couldn’t read. You told me you couldn’t read before? What you reading?’ And so the brother said, ‘I can’t read.’. . .”
“So then the brother got some discipline, you know, in the areas of the nose and mouth, and the brother began to show cowardly tendencies, began to whimper and moan.”
Rackley at one point apparently tried to get up.
“Sit down, motherfucker!” Ericka commanded. “Be still.”
Ericka related for the record how the Panthers had started posing questions “with a little coercive force,” how “the answers came after a few buckets of water.” So they had their proof: “He is an informer. Oh, he knows all the informers.”
“Name names, nigger!” Warren barked, after Ericka completed her introduction. Warren continued for a bit, then deferred to George Sams.
Sams demanded that he name “pigs” infiltrating the New York party. Rackley started singing for his life, a disjointed melody of all the names and settings he could summon from his memory.
At the merciful end of Rackley’s travail, Sams, Warren, Lonnie McLucas, Ericka, and the rest of the girls and young women followed Rackley upstairs to the second floor. He had a cold shower. The women cleaned Rackley’s wounds, covered them with bandages. He was bleeding, battered, scarred from his head all down his body. Second-degree burns covered his chest and thighs. For days, members rotated on duty guarding Rackley as he lay wallowing in his waste in Veronica’s bedroom.
“The New Haven Police Department had received information that members of the New Haven Black Panther party had kidnapped a New York Panther and were holding him in the Orchard Street apartment of Warren Kimbro that was functioning as party headquarters,” Ahern would claim in his 1972 book, Police in Trouble. “We did not have enough information to make arrests, but we had the apartment under surveillance.” …
ALEX RACKLEY’S MURDER made the New York Times. It didn’t make either daily newspaper in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. A couple of days later the papers did run a one-paragraph death notice. It mentioned merely that he “passed in Middletown, Connecticut” (close enough—one town over from Middlefield) and (falsely) that he “had been living in Middletown for the past two years.”
Parlee Rackley, who had returned to Jacksonville from New York, learned the news from the police. The Black Panthers? Since when was her son involved with the Black Panthers?
Freddie was the closest to Alex in age. It hurt him to watch his mother grieve, to see her cry, so much that he stayed away from the funeral. He and his siblings would remember the family having to wait two weeks to bury Alex; they were told that the authorities sent the wrong body the first time.
Wayne, born three years after Alex, and Velva, ten years Alex’s junior, accompanied Parlee to the funeral. The event drew a sparse crowd. Wayne would remember no one crying except Parlee and her children. He cried because his mother cried.