But Leo Burt’s drug of choice was discipline.
The serious-minded philosophy major and rower from Havertown had learned it in a strict Catholic household, adhered to it during 12 years at St. Denis Grade School and Monsignor Bonner High, honed it at a Marine Platoon Leaders Class, and perfected it through the rigors and deprivations that rowing demanded.
As an undersized member of the Badgers crew team, Burt welcomed the sport’s challenges. He didn’t drink or smoke, didn’t date, and ran the steep Camp Randall Stadium steps in Madison so relentlessly his thighs grew taut as oars.
It was as if he were steeling himself for his future as one of the most elusive fugitives in American history.
At 3:40 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1970, Burt and three accomplices ignited a massive truck bomb that tore through the university’s Sterling Hall. The antiwar movement’s most powerful and frightening explosion of rage, it killed a 33-year-old physicist named Robert Fassnacht and injured three other people. Three blocks away, residents were knocked from their beds. Thirty miles away, other Wisconsinites heard its rumble.
Eleven days later, shortly after Burt’s smiling, bespectacled, and unthreatening face first appeared on newspaper front pages and post office walls, he slipped out the rear window of a Canadian boardinghouse and vanished.
His three coconspirators – among them a Delaware teenager – were long ago captured, imprisoned, and paroled. So were others from those turbulent times – once-defiant radical underground figures such as Weathermen leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, and Kathy Boudin, the Bryn Mawr graduate involved in a deadly 1981 Brink’s truck robbery.
But for 44 years, Burt has remained at large, the last phantom of the 1960s.
“At this point,” said John Vaudreuil, the U.S. attorney in Madison, “he’s the longest-running FBI fugitive.”
All these years later, Burt’s story is unfinished and largely unremembered. It’s also worth reviewing now when the political and cultural divide he and his crime both embodied and exacerbated seems broader than ever.
A three-month Inquirer reexamination did not uncover Burt, but it did give flesh to a ghost. Revisiting this nearly forgotten fugitive and a crime the FBI then termed “the largest act of domestic terror in U.S. history” helps explain how America ruptured, how a rower became a radical, how someone so thoughtful managed something so unthinkable.
“The Vietnam War made a lot of people crazy,” said one of Burt’s Wisconsin crewmates. “His teammates know that the Leo they used to know was not the Leo who committed this crime. The war changed him tragically.”
An altar boy, Boy Scout, and Marine trainee, Burt was raised on American certainties about patriotism, faith, and duty. Then a polarizing war, an unpopular draft, and a White House bent on deception rearranged that world.
Minds changed. Generations warred. Campuses erupted. And with the discord thick as a fog, one Leo Burt vanished and another emerged.
“It’s as if he was two different people,” said Kevin Cassidy, the Madison-based FBI agent now charged with finding him. “The Boy Scout and the Bomber.”
Though dropped from the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List in the mid-1970s, Burt has never left its radar.
Generations of agents have hunted him. The tips have been surprisingly steady and plentiful, particularly after he was featured in a 2010 episode of America’s Most Wanted.
As recently as May, as a reporter spoke with Cassidy for this story, someone phoned a possible Burt sighting into the FBI’s Madison office.
Leads have pointed his pursuers to a boat shop in Hawaii, a resort in Costa Rica, and a homeless shelter in Colorado. Others have placed him in Algeria, Cuba, Canada, California, Ohio, and even Center City Philadelphia.
Joe Muldowney, who rowed with Burt at Penn AC, told the FBI in the mid-1970s that he had seen the fugitive on Chestnut Street.
“I approached him and said, ‘Hey, Leo, how you doing?’ ” Muldowney recalled. “He turned and looked at me with a look of recognition on his face. And, with no words, he just turned and walked away. . . . I’m certain it was Leo.”
For a time, Burt was even suspected as the Unabomber after a police sketch in that case portrayed a curly-haired look-alike in a hoodie and wire-rimmed sunglasses.
The son of one of his Bonner teammates researched the case for a graduate thesis and theorized that Burt is probably in Canada, likely near the rowing hub of St. Catharines on Lake Ontario.
“He’s probably just blended in,” Joe Brennan Jr. said. “Just another white guy in Canada.”
Burt’s FBI file remains active, its records sealed. Whenever prosecutors want to compare the fingerprints taken during Burt’s Marine training with a new suspect’s, they must petition the court.
The long search has yielded a mountain of evidence – a typewriter Burt used, a 1972 Liberation article he is thought to have written, letters to family and friends, and decades’ worth of interviews and reports.
“An agent in the Unabomber case once asked for all the records,” Vaudreuil said. “We said, ‘How many trucks do you have?’ “
All that evidence, all those tips have led investigators to the same place – nowhere.
Burt would be 66 years old now, and a fugitive for two-thirds of his life. According to a computer-aged image the FBI created by photographing his male relatives, he would have silver hair, an angular face, and traces of the acne that tormented him as a teenager.
One thing that wouldn’t have changed, investigators believe, is his self-discipline.
Leo Burt has made no mistakes on the run. He has thoroughly abandoned his past.
A passion for rowing
Leo Frederick Burt was born April 18, 1948, one of 2,500-plus deliveries at Darby’s Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital in that baby-boom year.
Burt, who has two sisters and two brothers, never knew his mother, Mary, who died later in 1948. His father, Howard, remarried and Leo was said to adore his stepmother, May.
The Burts were distinguished Philadelphia Catholics. Leo’s grandfather William was a principal in Reynolds & Co., a brokerage firm Dean Witter would later acquire. Two of William Burt’s sons became Augustinian priests. One, the Rev. Donald Burt, who died in 2013, was an academic dean at Villanova and a noted philosopher, a subject that would fascinate his nephew.
Howard Burt, a mechanical engineer, worked for Continental Can and held a patent on a system for sorting and storing cans. In the early 1950s, he bought a three-bedroom brick bungalow at 2308 St. Denis Lane in Havertown and raised his family there.
“Leo’s father was challenging and distant,” Brennan said. “He never came to one of his rowing meets.”
At St. Denis parish, whose church and school stand at the foot of his boyhood street, Leo was an altar boy and an A student. He played Little League baseball and joined Boy Scout Troop 144.
“He used to give the Pledge [of Allegiance] before our meetings,” said fellow troop member Mike Druding.
In 1962, Burt entered Bonner, the all-boys high school that was a Red Arrow bus ride away in Drexel Hill.
He earned good grades there, joined the physics club, became one of Bonner’s elite student guards, and, most significant, discovered rowing.
The sport quickly became his passion, appealing to both his physical and spiritual sides. For a boy who wanted to be either a Marine or a priest, it was the perfect pastime.
“Rowing,” wrote famed shell designer George Pocock, “is a symphony of motion. . . . And when you reach perfection, you’re touching the divine.”
Burt became a mainstay on Bonner’s varsity eight, whose like-minded and larger crewmates were his best friends.
Mike Lynam, brother of the former 76ers coach Jim Lynam, recalled that in a Bonner class of nearly 700 boys, the shy Burt found his niche on the Schuylkill.
“Bonner was so big that you had to have your own little group,” Lynam said. “Mine was basketball. Leo, as I remember, was always with the rowing guys.”
Mike Cipollone, a coxswain in one of Burt’s boats and a future Bonner crew coach, grew up around the corner.
“Leo was a great athlete, had a great sense of humor,” Cipollone said. “But he was a real student of rowing, very serious about it.”
After school, Burt would hitchhike to Boathouse Row, where the crew team shared Penn AC’s facilities.
“We’d get there at 4 and start rowing, exercising, running, lifting weights,” said teammate Bob Beaty. “I didn’t really do very much weights, but Leo did.”
Beaty and another teammate, Paul Bracken, both from Upper Darby, became his closest friends. In 1968, all three Bonner grads would be in the Penn AC boat that took the junior-eights title at the American Henley.
On weekends, the trio attended dances at Chez Vous and Holy Cross or hung out at Gino’s, the 69th Street hamburger stand where Beaty worked part-time.
Reserved outsiders, they also had deeper interests.
“Leo was somewhat of an erudite guy, well-read, well-spoken,” Beaty said. “We all liked philosophy, especially Sartre.”
That may have resulted from their being taught by Augustinians, the spiritual descendants of the church’s first great thinker. Years later, investigators seeking insights into Burt would pore over St. Augustine’s writings on pacifism and “just war” theory.
Friends mention Burt’s compassion and idealism. Beaty said he developed so strong a social conscience that they jokingly called him “Leo the Commie.”
He sometimes traveled to WPEN-AM’s Center City studio to join the audience for Red Benson’s radio talk show. There he saw folksinger Dave Van Ronk and Black Muslim leader Malcolm X.
On June 14, 1966, during a Convention Hall ceremony, Burt was among Bonner’s 646 graduates. He had scored better than 1200 on his SATs and, by then, had committed to Wisconsin.
His family had pushed him toward Villanova, where his Uncle Donald taught and where a cousin, Joe Burt, was a student activist.
But rowing would be the determinant. He wanted to win a national championship, and Wisconsin, a Big 10 school located between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, had a top program. When, in his senior year at Bonner, the Badgers took the national title at the IRA Regatta, Burt’s mind was made up.
“He had these great ambitions,” Brennan said. “They were probably too high given his ability. He was a tough Philly kid, but he was 5-11, and those 6-6 Wisconsin farm boys were going to beat him out every time.”
Burt held his own that first year at Wisconsin, occupying the crucial No. 8 seat in the freshman boat. He resided in a dormitory and, prior to selecting a major, took a course load that mixed science and the humanities.
Resistance to the Vietnam War was building, particularly in the city that had the nickname “the People’s Republic of Madison.” Beginning in 1966, Wisconsin students conducted a series of protests against Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of napalm. In the fall of 1967, one turned violent.
Burt, according to Beaty, took notice but remained “fairly patriotic.” In his first collegiate summer, he attended the rigorous six-week Marine Platoon Leaders Class at Camp Upshur in Quantico, Va.
As a sophomore, Burt saw his rowing ambitions hit rough water. While others from his freshman eight moved up to varsity, he was mired on the JV boat.
The Badgers got a new head coach his junior year: Randy Jablonic, the former freshman coach. Burt wrote Cipollone that he liked “Jabo” at first since he reminded him of their Penn AC coach, Ted Nash.
But Burt still couldn’t crack the varsity eight and when Jablonic demanded he get a haircut before the team’s annual banquet, he quit.
That painful break, investigators theorize, was Burt’s “Rosebud” moment.
A different Burt
Burt’s obsession shifted, first to writing about rowing for the student newspaper, then to a more socially conscious journalism, something advocated by Jack Scott, a fellow Pennsylvanian whose book The Athletic Revolution influenced him deeply.
As Vietnam continued to alter everyone, few changed as thoroughly as Burt.
By his junior year, he was covering – and openly sympathizing with – the antiwar movement overwhelming the lakeside campus. He found a like-minded staff at the Daily Cardinal, so strikingly militant that in 1969 conservative students founded an alternative daily, the Badger Herald.
“There were a lot of kids at the Cardinal from New York and the East Coast,” said one ex-staffer who asked not to be identified. “They tended to be more outspoken against the war than the Midwesterners. Some people, even some in the administration, resented that.”
During his last summer in Philadelphia, friends noticed a different Burt.
“He was a nice, easygoing kid,” Muldowney said. “Even though I was seven or eight years older, it was easy to get into a conversation with him. We had a Catholic education in common. We were rowers. There was an easy rapport.
“But after he stopped rowing, something happened. I ran into him on the Parkway. I said hello and we started talking. But he was a different kid. He, like, tuned me out. After a few minutes, he said goodbye and walked away.”
Muldowney would not think of Burt again until he saw his face on The CBS Evening News the night of Sept. 2, 1970. Burt’s was one of four photos on the screen. Above them were the unimaginable words:
“Wisconsin Bombing Suspects.”
By 1970, as the title of a Temptations hit that year perceived, the world seemed to be a “Ball of Confusion.” Perhaps nowhere was it wound as tightly as Madison.
Biafra, urban and campus riots, hijackings, and, of course, the war in Vietnam and the My Lai massacre dominated the news and conversation at the University of Wisconsin.
According to the Associated Press, 23,000 young Americans had fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Burt had hinted cryptically to a journalism professor that he too might soon become a political exile.
He was a Daily Cardinal stalwart, his protest beat both frenetic and frightening. At times, Burt wore a gas mask as protection against the ubiquitous tear gas.
“You tell people what it was like here back then and they don’t believe it,” said Grant Johnson, an assistant U.S. attorney who moved to Madison in 1970. “During the day it was pretty quiet. At night, everything would heat up and you’d smell the tear gas.”
That May, while Burt was in New Haven, Conn., covering a Black Panthers protest, the U.S. commenced bombing raids into Cambodia.
That triggered virulent nationwide protests, most famously at Kent State University in Ohio, where National Guardsmen shot and killed four students.
Burt, by all accounts, was outraged. He hustled back in time to cover Wisconsin’s violent reaction. At one demonstration, after flashing his Daily Cardinal credentials, he was beaten by police.
In his story the next day, Burt included this wry description:
“Cardinal reporter Leo Burt was beaten and had his gas mask confiscated by Dane County police who were not deterred by his press card.”
The incident may have been the last act in the old Leo Burt’s existence. A new version, now scarred physically and psychically, had emerged.
A plot takes shape
While completing his final two courses that summer, Burt met Karl Armstrong at the Nitty Gritty, a Frances Street bar favored by hippies and antiwar activists.
Armstrong, 24, a former University of Wisconsin student, bragged to Burt about actions taken by his “New Year’s Gang” – basically Armstrong and his brother Dwight, a 19-year-old high school dropout.
On New Year’s Day 1970, they had stolen a Cessna aircraft and dropped three bottles filled with a mixture of fuel oil and ammonium nitrate onto a munitions plant north of Madison. The incendiary devices failed to ignite. Later they started a fire at a campus ROTC office.
Now Karl Armstrong was stirred by what he had read in the Cardinal. An Army Math Research Center (AMRC), in Sterling Hall, was conducting research the newspaper termed “vital to the American war effort.”
Burt had written pieces attacking its presence on campus, so when Armstrong told him “AMRC is next,” he went all-in.
The plot took shape in early August. Shortly before the assault, Burt recruited David Fine, a bright and fervently left-wing 18-year-old from Wilmington who was a fellow Cardinal staffer.
“Leo Burt approached me at this party and said, ‘Let’s go in the other room, I want to talk to you,’ ” Fine, by then paroled, said in a 1987 deposition. “He said, ‘There is going to be a bombing, Army Math Research Center, and we need somebody else.’ “
On Aug. 16, 1970, Karl Armstrong rented a U-Haul, bought 100 gallons of gasoline, and, using the name George Reed, purchased 1,700 pounds of fertilizer from the Farmers Union Cooperative.
After Burt researched a formula for ANFO (the explosive mix of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil), the gang began testing it north of Madison.
On Aug. 20, they stole a professor’s 1967 Ford Econoline van from campus and hid it along with several barrels of ANFO.
In the early hours of Aug. 24, they were ready. The super-fit Burt lifted the barrels into the van. After the barrels were connected to a fused dynamite charge, he and Karl Armstrong drove toward Sterling Hall.
Dwight Armstrong was in the getaway car, his parents’ Corvair. Fine occupied a nearby phone booth, ready to make a warning call.
The summer session had ended Aug. 15. They had chosen the middle of the night, between a Sunday and Monday, as a time when the targeted building would most likely be empty.
But as they pulled into its south-side loading dock, Burt and Karl Armstrong were surprised to see lights on in the building. A car and bicycles were parked near an entrance.
It was about 3:35 a.m. when an obviously emotional Burt, his anxieties heightened by a fever, turned to Armstrong.
“Do we go ahead?”
“At that point,” Armstrong would tell CBS’s Sunday Morning in 2010, “I thought, ‘Now I know what war is all about.’ And I told him to light it.”