The Bonny Doon Bombers

Excerpt from NWLF communique published in Dragon, No. 5, December 1975

In 1941 Orson Welles unleashed his vision of William Randolph Hearst upon a largely disinterested cinema going public. Now rightfully considered one of the finest films ever made, the fictionalised biography Citizen Kane sees the titular character seeking eventual refuge in his Xanadu. In Kane, Welles mirrored the reality of much of the life of Hearst including the eventual retreat of the yellow journalist and press magnate to the extravagant property that cost $40 million to construct and that he called La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) and that was known more colloquially to friends, and enemies alike as Hearst Castle. In the nineteen twenties and thirties, invitations to the sprawling one hundred room Mediterranean revival castle and grounds were sought after by the great, the good, and the Hollywood elite. Following the death of Hearst in 1951, the estate became a California State Park in 1954 before being opened to members of the public in 1958. Nearly twenty years later in February 1976 a bomb that had been planted on the veranda of the three story castle blew a three foot hole through a six inch thick concrete wall. Shortly after the explosion ripped through the estate causing an estimated million dollars’ worth of damage (at least according to the estimates provided by the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune) a female caller telephoned a nearby San Francisco television station, and claimed responsibility for the bombing on behalf of one of the most prodigious left wing radical groups of the period, the NWLF.

Largely unknown today, the NWLF (or New World Liberation Front) were one of many radical groups of the sixties and seventies. Unlike the Symbionese Liberation Army who would go on to kidnap the granddaughter of Hearst, Patricia (known to the SLA as Tania, but to everyone else as Patty) and the Weatherman / Weather Underground about whom numerous books and documentaries have been created, the NWLF have largely faded into obscurity. This is surprising given not only the fate and history of the group, but also because it was one of the most prolific exponents of domestic terrorism in the United States, and responsible for more explosions on US soil than any of its more well-known peers. To date there has been little investigation of the group, its motivations, and its downfall, and beyond a few rogue historians, their story remains largely obscured.

It is arguably not possible to discuss the NWLF or their actions without first putting them into historical and social context. The nineteen sixties and seventies were a politically tempestuous time in the United States. In Indo-China, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon oversaw a conflict that was raging beyond their control. On the home front, a generation of young people was becoming politically aware and engaged. Starting with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) that formed in Ann Arbor in 1960, the “new left” emerged as a force to be reckoned with. The reaction of the state in sending more young men to their almost certain demise in Vietnam, the international televised coverage of the horrors of war, and the illegal actions of government programs such as COINTELPRO, as well as the chasm of both experiences and understanding that existed between the young and the old, did nothing to reduce tensions. As a direct response to the war in Vietnam, as well as the disparities and inequalities of life in Capitalist America, a range of groups sprang up. Many were non-violent in form however many were to be radicalised by the constant harassment and violence of the police and federal authorities. Some groups eventually resorted to violent mechanisms in an attempt to overthrow the machinery of the state and the wider society. Both the East and West coast (most notably New York and San Francisco respectively) were hotbeds of revolution, with all points in between being impacted.

Donald DeFreeze was a one time car thief who joined the revolution when in 1970 he met visiting students from the University of California Berkeley who established the Black Cultural Association in Vacaville prison where he had been imprisoned a year earlier for a short gun battle outside a bank he had been attempting to rob. The association sought to assist prisoners with tuition and also impress upon them the widely held left leaning political beliefs of the period. The student volunteers found a welcome convert in DeFreeze who sought an economic explanation for his frequent brushes with the law. In 1972, DeFreeze was transferred to the Soledad Prison in California, where on March 5 1973 he escaped, before making his way to Oakland, and the homes of contacts he had made with the Vacaville BCA. Embracing the political tumult of the time, DeFreeze trading on a romanticised image of the black radical ex-convict and outlaw formed what was later to be known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Best remembered today as being behind the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, and the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst., the SLA mixed freely with other underground radicals of the period, and were suspects in at least one murder of a public official, namely the former Oakland Deputy School superintendent, Robert Blackburn. The SLA was far from the only urban guerrillas that were operating in the United States during the seventies, and were joined by groups as diverse as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the FALN, and a host of others. One of the most prodigious in terms of sheer volume of incidents that they created was the NWLF.

Revolutionary Chic: Patty Hearst as SLA member ‘Tania’

It was in 1973 that the NWLF first emerged onto the radical stage in the United States. That year saw the SLA gaining all manner of negative coverage and criticism in the press, and in was also the year that one time actress turned urban revolutionary and active member of the SLA, Kathleen Ann Soliah started a study group in California by the name of the Bay Area Research Collective. Commencing in August 1975, BARC began publishing a mimeographed journal by the name of Dragon. Truly a product of its time, Dragon published news of bombings, communiques from predominantly West Coast radical groups, political cartoons, incomplete bomb making instructions, and occasional extracts of poetry. For both law enforcement officials and radicals of the period, Dragon was mostly associated with the SLA, but also the New World Liberation Front. For many it was assumed that this latter mysterious group was either a direct outgrowth of the SLA, or else existed purely on paper as many other supposed revolutionary organisations did during the period. Both of these theories were to be proven incorrect by history.

Dragon Number One published August 1975. The Canadian journal Arm The Spirit has made all issues of Dragon and a variety of other journals available via Issuu

The pages of Dragon in their first issue were to reveal the extent of the actions of the NWLF up until its publication, and the majority of these claims are further supported by one of the few writers to investigate the group with any depth, Bryan Burrough, whose book Days of Rage is rightfully considered the most comprehensive manuscript to address seventies left wing terrorist groups in the US. According to the NWLF themselves the chronology of some of their early actions is as follows:

“5/31/74: May 19th Combat Unit issues a greeting to the people and a statement of solidarity with the SLA.

9/3/74: Peoples Forces bomb the S.F. brokerage offices of Dean Witter & Co. and issue Communique 1 explaining the firm’s complicity with B of A, ITT and Standard Oil in the exploitation and oppression of the people. Solidarity expressed with the BLA, WUO, and SLA.

9/?/74: Peoples Forces Unit III bombs ITT Harper in San Leandro. Communique declares unity with the Chilean people and indicts ITT for its role in bringing the military junta to power.

10/2/74: Unit II bombs S.F. Sheraton Palace Hotel

10/5/74: Second Sheraton Hotel bombing. Communique names Sheraton chain as an ITT subsidiary and further indicts and documents the ITT role in the creation of the Chilean military government. Response is demanded.

10/30/74: Unit III bombs Los Altos home of ITT Jennings president Robert Hallock. Communique reiterates ITT role in Chile.

11/6/74: Unit I firebombs a Berkeley garage containing government cars. Communique discusses ITT in Chile and further explain Hallock bombing.

12/19/74: Unit I bombs S.F. office of General Motors’ Overseas Operation Division. Communique indicts GM’s labor practices and history of exploitation of the people. A general explanation of the NWLF is made by the Peoples Forces, Communication Division.

2/3/75: Unit III bombs GM office in San Jose, the Pillar Point Radar Station, and Chevron plant in Oakland. Communique ties in different aspects of the capitalist-imperialist system.

2/6/75: Unit III bombs KRON-TV in S.F. Communique indicts the station as a mouthpiece for the ruling class.

3/20/75: Units I & IV bomb an East Bay PG&E tower. Communique denounces PG&E as a “parasite corporation which feeds on the misery of the poor”.

3/27/75: Unit III bombs PG&E Hicks substation in San Jose. Communique makes further indictment of PG&E and salutes the CLF, FALN, SLA, BLA, WUO and locked down comrades.

4/7/75: Lucio Cabanas Unit bombs Hicks substation and issues another statement on PG&E.

5/1/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs Department of Corrections in Sacramento. Communique discusses Joe Remiro and Russ Little and includes educational material about clandestine activity.

5/9/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs PG&E offices in Berkeley. Communique briefly discusses PG&E attempts to raise rates.

5/18/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs gun shack in San Quentin. Communique sends “warmest revolutionary love to Russ Little, Joe Remiro, Ruchell Magee, San Quentin Six, all comrades trapped behind enemy lines and to all our fallen comrades of Attica and the SLA”.

6/3/75: Peoples Forces issue an open letter to Popeye Jackson containing four criticisms of / questions about Popeye’s lifestyle, what the NWLF sees as his privileged treatment by the Adult Authority and his possibly provacateurish criticism of the underground. They ask for a response.

6/11/75: Peoples Front issue a communique denying responsibility for the murders of Popeye Jackson and Sally Voye; this is in response to a pig “NWLF” communique taking credit for the killings. Criticism of Popeye is restated.

(pub 6/27/75): Peoples Forces issue an open letter to the BARB criticizing the paper as basically a servant of the ruling class.

6/27/75: NWLF bombs the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alameda and firebombs two houses in Piedmont. Communique expresses solidarity with the Indians of Pine Ridge.”

As their own statement reveals, the NWLF were responsible for a wave of bombings across the West Coast. According to the research conducted by Bryan Burrough however rather than being a well-oiled and practiced underground militia, their first device failed to detonate correctly when it was left outside the offices of General Motors Acceptance Company in Burlington, California. As well as expressing solidarity with popular causes of the period and other radical left wing groups, the NWLF also publicly decried Wilbert “Popeye” Jackson. The one time convict who had spent nineteen of his fourty four years in the US prison system was the leader of the California based United Prisoners Union and was suspected by some of being a police informer (including the NWLF), and was killed either by agents of the state or an individual or group on which he had informed. The UPU was active in seventies prison reform and were able in conjunction with the Weather Underground associated organisation Prairie Fire Organizing Committee able to lodge petitions for US prisoners to the UN during the period (the radical prison movement is covered in some detail in ‘The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement’ by Eric Cummin). The murder of a radical organizer and that of local teacher, Sally Voye  as they were sat in Johnson’s car at 2am in the morning, was a major talking point of in the West Coast of the period however, it was the NWLF who made front page news in the Berkeley Barb (who they were later to criticise) in June 1975.

Berkeley Barb Issue 513, June 13-19 1975

Although the NWLF was to be accused of the murder of a fellow California based radical, ultimately it seems according to Kohn and Weir (Howard Kohn, David Weir: Tania’s World: The Inside Story of the Patty Hearst Kidnapping, Part Two: People in Need, November 20, 1975) that it was the SLA that were responsible and sought to position blame on the NWLF who had unleashed a wave of bombings, and as a result were garnering far more coverage and sympathy from left leaning Californians. The explosions that were ripping through California were not to end with the death of a prison activist however, and estimates for the 1970 – 1978 period in which the NWLF was active range from 80 to 120 bombings (the accepted figure is typically somewhere around 85 as detailed in the Global Terrorism Database from the University of Maryland). In an era tainted by regular politically inspired explosions on American soil, the NWLF were amongst the most active groups, and was responsible for a sheer volume of explosive attacks that had not been seen before or indeed since.

The targets of the NWLF were varied but all focused either upon broad political targets or those that could readily be associated with life in California. The group targeted Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) sub stations and transformers, Safeway stores, TV stations, Court houses, military installations and the California department of corrections. Although these targets may at first glance appear to be arbitrary in nature, in their communiques, the NWLF either expressed solidarity with other radical groups or populist causes, or else focused on injustices in the local San Francisco area, such as the high price of utilities, poor housing conditions endorsed and supported by slum lords, or labour disputes that were taking place at the time. For residents of San Francisco, the bombings of the NWLF during the period they were active became as persistent and almost as reliable as the fog that frequently blanketed the streets.

Following the arrest of Patty Hearst and the televised pitched battle between the SLA and the Los Angeles Police Department, the NWLF escalated their campaign of bombings, and also altered their modus operandi. Up until 1975, the NWLF had distributed their communiques by mailing them to radio stations, newspapers (both of the above and underground variety) and friendly Californian / Bay Area journalists. However this altered in 1975 when the NWLF established an above ground communications platform. To head this up they needed public supporters that were not concerned with the media and law enforcement exposure that would result. They soon found a likely candidate. Following the death of Popeye Jackson, in which the NWLF was a prime suspect, a tall ex-convict using the name Jaques Rogiers convened a ‘Peoples Court’ to investigate. According to research conducted by Bryan Burrough, Rogiers’ real name was Jack Rogers and he had been imprisoned in San Quentin on drug related charges. Upon his release from jail in 1974 he moved to San Francisco, and after hearing of the death of Jackson and the impact it made on radical circles decided by way of his ‘Peoples Court’ to investigate.

On 17 May 1974, police and the SLA clashed in a televised shoot out on 1466 E. 54th street in Los Angeles. Lasting two hours, the gun battle resulted in the deaths of all six members of the SLA that were in the house as it burned to the ground including their leader, Donald DeFreeze (image from Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society)

The fourty four page document that Rogiers produced exonerated the NWLF of all involvement with the death of Popeye Jackson (the document itself is available via the Internet Archive) and the group clearly liked what they saw. According to statements provided to the Berkeley Barb and San Francisco Chronicle, the NWLF approached Rogiers following the publication of his investigation into the death of Popeye Jackson, and appointed him as their public facing courier, and the man in charge of Public Information Relay-1 (PIR-1). Working in tandem with an Oregon native by the name of Marlene Tobias, he initially opened a print shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco, before moving a year later to 423 Oak Street. Here the PIR-1 published TUG (The Urban Guerilla) a mimeographed journal in the same vein as the competing Dragon that was largely a platform for the NWLF and allowed for their communiques, observations, and rationalisations to be published.

“Jaques Rogiers” as pictured by the Berkeley Barb Issue 626, August 12-18, 1977

Law enforcement and federal investigators were largely baffled by the NWLF, having no idea about how large the group was, how they were being funded, how they were finding their explosives that were detonating with such regularity, and indeed what their next targets would be. This was largely due to the model of the NWLF itself. As would be revealed later, the group (such as it was) appealed to all members of the urban guerilla movement in the US of the period, allowing any and all actions to be attributed to it. Although some other groups did potentially brand themselves as the NWLF, the core group such as it was, was small in number. For both the media and law enforcement, Jaques Rogiers and other public members of PIR-1 such as Marlene Tobias (the editor of TUG), Kit Bowden, and Ande Lougher (the ex-wife of Jaques and the mother of his child) who also distributed communiques on behalf of the NWLF) made attractive targets for gathering information.

On 14 July 1976, the twenty five year old Ande Lougher headed from the Haight to the Grand Jury chambers of the City and County of San Francisco. With her she took a communique purporting to come direct from the NWLF and threatening retaliation should the Grand Jury continue investigating the group as the local rumour held that they were. Delivering what could be interpreted as a bomb threat to a government building was contentious even in the heady environment of the nineteen seventies West Coast, and Lougher soon found herself arrested. Held on a $100,000 bail, she was eventually bought to trial in October and following a defence from her court appointed lawyer, J. Tony Serra and a fifteen hour deliberation she was found not guilty of the charge of intimidation of a jury and released without charge.

Free Ande Lougher poster distributed by PIR-1 around the San Francisco Bay Area following her arrest in 1976 on charges of intimidating a jury

Just as the bombings of the NWLF failed to cease, so too did the legal troubles of the above ground cadre that made up the PIR-1. On 26 January 1977, Rogiers was arraigned on four counts of threatening public officials and one count of threatening for proposes of extortion in connection with his work distributing communiques on behalf of the NWLF. Held on a $100,000 bail like Lougher before him, the then thirty eight year old Rogiers did not initially enter a plea to the Municipal Court Judge, Judge Ollie Marie-Victoire having taken a vow of silence upon arrest on January 23 like one of his heroes Meher Baba (an Indian philosopher and mystic who publicly criticised the use of psychedelics as distracting from true spirituality in 1966). Again like Lougher, Rogiers found himself being represented by the public defender, J. Tony Serra.

According to accounts provided by Burrough, the defense strategy Serra and Rogiers utilised was an odd one. Before his court appearances, and during recesses throughout, the defendant and attorney would gather together and frequently and largely consistently engage in smoking marijuana. Although highly unusual, the strategy seems to have reaped dividends, in as much as on June 7, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. And this is where the story of Rogiers takes a very odd twist. On the day of his release from detention, a large party was planned at which the former defendant was to be the guest of honour. Although friends, acquaintances, comrades, and his lawyer waited for his appearance, it never came. Indeed following his release Rogiers disappeared from public view. To this date, his whereabouts are unknown, and what happened to the former leader of PIR-1 remains a mystery.

Despite the disappearance of their above ground courier, the attacks and explosions by the NWLF continued ceaselessly. Before the Patty Hearst trial commenced, the NWLF sent a package to a San Francisco city council member by the name of John Barbagelata. In it was a bomb. A few days late on January 25, 1977 four shots were fired into the windows of real estate office that he owned and operated. Over the course of the next few weeks, the NWLF also sent what were later to be referred to as “candy box” bombs to the homes of San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Supervisor Quentin Kopp and numerous other Bay Area politicians. As revealed by the San Francisco Chronicle, at the time “No messages accompanied the devices, but yesterday local newspapers and radio and television stations received copies of an ‘Open Letter to the Board of Supervisors’ ostensibly from the New World Liberation Front. The terrorist organization did not claim responsibility for sending the bombs but reiterated frequently expressed demands for improved health care at the county jail” (source: Berkeley Barb, January 16-22, 1976, Page 6). And still the attacks came.

Local law enforcement and the FBI finally caught a break in February 1976. Police were called to a house in Marin County in which as shoot out had been happening. Two members of the New Dawn Collective which ran a local bookshop and also published communiques for the Emiliano Zapata unit of the NWLF had been attempting to rob a local drug dealer. As drug dealers typically do not embrace expropriations of their profits, they resisted and a gun fight broke out. A search of those arrested, pointed the police and FBI at houses in Richmond and Oakland, where more NWLF literature was recovered and a 21 year old by the name of Anthony Joseph Baker and several other would be domestic guerillas were arrested (source: FBI find factory for bombs, The Stanford Daily, Volume 169, Issue 15, 23 February 1976, Page 1). The FBI thought they had finally broken the back of the NWLF and yet the bombings continued.

Up until March 1978, the NWLF continued with a wave of bombings throughout California and beyond. The exact composition of the group will perhaps never be known, but at least one source indicates that the SLA may well have played a part in the composition of the NWLF. According to a 1977 book (The Voices of Guns, Vin McLellan, Putnams) about the SLA, following her arrest by the FBI, Patty Hearst claimed that two members of the radical group, James Kilgore and Kathy Soliah had been involved. According to statements from Hearst to law enforcement the duo of Soliah and Kilgore had “used the NWLF signature for the dozens of bombings in 1974 and 1975”. This suited the agenda of the NWLF perfectly. One of the primary drivers of the group had been to make itself appear bigger than it was. Any radical guerilla operating on US soil was free to utilise the NWLF provided that its goals were in accord with those of the group. For modern historians it is impossible to determine how many attacks were conducted by the core group of the NWLF or by sympathisers such as the remnants of the SLA. Following a cessation of their attacks and explosions in 1978, the NWLF would have vanished back into obscurity were it not for a seemingly unrelated and shocking murder which again thrust their name back into the public and media consciousness.

James Kilgore and Kathy Soliah circa 1975

In either 1971 or 1972, a young woman by the name of Maureen Minton met a man by the name of Ronald Huffman. Born in Mountain View California, Maureen was the daughter of a lumber company owner who was later to attend and graduate from Berkley. At the time he met Maureen, Ronald was according to Burrough “a small time marijuana dealer in the San Jose area” (Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage, Page 385). At some point, the man known to all and sundry as ‘Revolutionary Ron’ met Maureen and after a brief spell they moved together to a small rented bungalow in the remote mountainous area of Bonny Doon some ten miles away from San Francisco. Although the bungalow at 350 Martin Road was small, it had a number of advantages, in as much as it came with land, and the neighbours did not pry into the lives of the young couple that had rented it. This suited Huffman and Minton perfectly. Although Maureen was later to become a nursing student at a nearby college, most of here interests and those of Ron, were centred on two key activities, namely the cultivation of marijuana and the construction of bombs.

According to evidence that was later to be gathered by the FBI and prosecution and detailed by Burrough, Minton and Huffman were the core of the NWLF. Although members of the SLA were involved and there was a scattering of other cells throughout California, this young couple was liable for over seventy explosions during the seventies. And they would have probably remained unknown were it not for tragic actions that were to unfold in the backyard of their bungalow. According to later testimony, either due to mental illness or his frequent and consistent marijuana use, Huffman was to become convinced that Minton was possessed by the spirits of “demon dogs” (source: April 25, 1983, Santa Cruz Sentinel, California, Page 2). At the time, Bonny Doon was overrun with both coyotes and feral dogs which frequently howled long into the night, their cries echoing around the hilly community. Prior to her possession, Huffman had already developed a long string of complaints against Minton. According to a local man and long-time acquaintance of Huffman by the name of Dennis Morgan, Maureen was responsible for running his crop, or failing to medicate his dog, Che. Morgan was also involved in the tending of the thousands of marijuana plants the couple were cultivating on their property and according to his later testimony would turn down and offer of $20,000 to help them bring in a harvest. According to Burrough, another reason for a growing sense of acrimony between the couple may have been because Minton had “had an abortion against his wishes” (Burrough, Page 358). Add to this the paranoia caused by long term drug use as well as being sought after because of their explosive antics throughout California, and there was an inevitability to what was to come later.

On the morning of September 23, 1979, Huffman dragged Minton into the rear of the property. After forcing her to kneel, he bought down an axe on her head. She died instantly. Not satisfied, Huffman beat her body with a nearby plank of wood, before removing a section of her brain. Packing quickly, Huffman dashed from the property in the car he had shared with Minton, taking with him $30,000 in cash, and a paper sack which held the portion of Maureen he had removed. After picking up a male hitchhiker from Germany he had found on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, Huffman continued his flight. After rambling at the confused and understandably terrified young German for some time, Huffman pulled the car to a stop and slashed at his passenger with a knife. Thankfully the young man escaped and sought refuse at a nearby market. Police were called.

Approximately an hour after the savage murder of his long term partner, Huffman was forced to stop by California highway patrol. Huffman emerged from his vehicle, swearing and sweating profusely, and as the police drew their revolvers, held aloft the paper bag containing the mortal remains of Maureen as if attempting to ward off the bullets that may have wended their way towards him. Huffman was subdued without being shot, and soon found himself in police custody. Initially set for trial in San Francisco, Huffman was defended by J. Tony Serra who had previously defended other members of the NWLF. At first Huffmans’ ties to the group were unknown but eventually the FBI were able to confirm that the fingerprints of both Huffman and Minton matched those that had previously been found on communiques distributed to the media throughout the course of NWLF activities. It was not until 1983, when the trial commenced in Monterey (Serra having forced the change in trial location owing to potentially prejudicial pre-trail reporting) that the links between Huffman, Minton, and the NWLF became known.

Although the crux of the defence offered by Serra was that his client was insane and thus not culpable for his actions either in the murder of his girlfriend, cultivating bales of marijuana, or causing multiple explosions around the Bay Area, the jury was not convinced. Huffman who was described by Serra as “stark raving mad” (Burrough, Page 360) was following a guilty plea sent to a Californian state prison, in which he was to die unknown and forgotten in 1999.

Between them, Huffman, Minton and various other Bay Area radicals (including the remains of the SLA) were to be responsible for a wave of attacks that caused widespread alarm during the nineteen seventies. They were one of the most successful domestic terrorist groups that operated in the United States, and many core members of the NWLF were utterly unknown to both local law enforcement and federal investigators. Outside of a few articles and references in local media, they were also largely forgotten until the publication of Days of Rage in 2015. Both the Weather Underground, and the SLA who were active in nineteen seventies California have had a wealth of books, films, and other reference materials produced since the days of their activities. The NWLF who were even at the time considered a fringe group of radicals, have like others in their milieu (such as Popeye Jackson) been largely ignored by social and political historians. Even stranger, their activities and the viciousness and pointlessness of the death of Minton, have been ignored by even true crime authors. The activities of the NWLF and their associated groups caused more explosions on American soil than any other terrorist organisation before or since. Using a loose network of affiliates operating under unified banner their actions confounded investigative authorities for years. Although the majority of their attacks were not deadly, they had devastating economic impacts, and the chilling effect of their actions impacted upon regional and national politics of the period. In a modern age that is fraught with the threat of terrorism by domestic radicals, the actions of the NWLF and their ilk should arguably be investigated closely. As our own age seems to drifting into a terrorist frenzy, consideration of earlier progenitors is arguably both vital and necessary if effective mechanisms are to be found in reducing the impact, reach, and dangers posed by the actions of those that put beliefs ahead of the safety of innocent civilians.

A Whisper in the Woods

They had been lucky so far. The four friends, Robert Hart, Bob Farmer, Fred Payne, and Tommy Willetts had managed to avoid detection as they wandered through the woods. Spotting a large elm tree, the four approached, thinking it would be a good place to search for what they had come looking for. The year was 1943, and the world was at war, which left many, including the working class young friends who were walking through the woods, hungry. Too young to be conscripted, the boys (all of which were in their teens) had decided to try and assuage their hunger pangs by poaching on private land. Although the tree was old, largely hollow and had been cut so aggressively and frequently that the branches resembled wispy hair, in April they were confident that it may hold both nests and eggs. Reaching the base of the tree, Bob volunteered to climb it. At fifteen he was both a competent and confident climber. As he neared the top of the tree, Bob happened to glance inside the hollow. What he saw inside would remove some of his confidence, and leave a mystery that continues to baffle local historians, anthropologists, and journalists alike.

Hagley Wood is situated in Worcestershire, UK. Running along the boundary of Clent Hill, the woods are part of the estate of Lord Cobham who also owns the nearby Hagley Hall. The history of the Cobham clan can be traced back to Sir Thomas Temple, 1st Baronet, of Stowe who was the uncle of James Temple, a radical puritan and participant in the English civil war who would later be held responsible for the regicide of Charles I. It wasn’t until his grandson, Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham was awarded the estate owing to his actions in Ireland, and in capturing and holding the city of Vigo in North Western Spain for ten days in September 1719 that the estate of Hagley came into the family. Many locals of the nearby village of Hagley, may have been unaware of the history of the Temple family, but they knew that at the heart of the second world war when rationing was at its peak, and food at its scarcest, that the woods made an excellent poaching spot, which was the explanation for the activities of the four local boys.

As he glanced into the hollow of the elm, young Bob Farmer saw what he thought was a pile of animal bones. Ironically the elm has always been a tree that has had long connotations with death and the underworld. In the Aeneid by Virgil for example, the elm occurs as a motif as Aeneas is led to the Underworld by the Sibyl of Cumae. For the Romans and Greeks, the elm tree was perceived as being a representation of ill omen, and some of this belief has leaked into British folklore. The tree that Bob saw the bones in was a wych elm, and many assume that this species gets its name from an association with witchcraft, however some etymologists claim that rather than wych being a derivation of the word witch, that it actually means pliant, which the wood of the elm distinctly is. Driven by curiosity, Bob pulled what he thought was an animal skull from the confines of the tree. Seeing two empty eye sockets staring back at him, Bob also saw strands of human hair attached to the skull, crooked front teeth, and a patch of rotting flesh. Dropping his gruesome discovery back within the hollow of the elm, Bob jumped down from the tree and joined his friends, all of whom agreed to keep their find to themselves rather than admitting they had been poaching in the private woods.

Three of the boys kept their word, but for the seventeen year old Tommy (who is often reported as having been the youngest in all but historical sources of the time such as the Birmingham Daily Gazette of 24 April 1943) the events of the afternoon proved too concerning to keep to himself. At some point on the evening of 18 April 1943 he told his father what he and his friends had found in the woods. The following day, Mr. Willets, reported the gruesome discovery to the Worcestershire County Police Force who were on the scene the following morning. Inside the elm tree they discovered a full set of small skeletal remains, rotting clothes, and nearby to the corpse a crepe soled shoe. Widening the search from the location of the discovery the day before, the police also discovered an empty bottle that was suspected as being attached to the case. In addition the investigators also found a number of small bones that were missing from the body. According to the more lurid accounts of this strange case, the remains of a severed hand were buried close to the base of the tree, however a review of the available documentation of the period which sadly is limited to press reports indicates that the working assumption of the police was that such bones as were recovered not attached to the body has been “carried away by squirrels or foxes that habitate the woods” (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 24 April 1943, ‘Summer Night Scream may be Woods Riddle Pointer’, Pg.4). It also fell to the local police who were soon joined by Detective Inspector Inight, and Superintendent Hollyhead (who was in charge of the investigation as reported by the press at the time) from the County Criminal Investigation Department to remove the body from its resting place. Once carefully extricated the body was transferred to the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands where it was examined by Professor James Webster. During his investigation, Professor Webster was able to determine that the body was that of a young woman, no older than thirty five, who was five feet tall, and had mousy brown hair. She also had irregularities with her lower teeth, and had given birth at least once. Whoever she had been, she had been in the tree for at least eighteen months before she was discovered by the boys, dying at some point in 1941.

Oddly considering where the body had been found, there were no marks of violence on the body itself. In the throat and mouth of the body, Professor Webster found a lump of taffeta, which was in his estimation the cause of her death by asphyxiation. The current location of the skeleton and the accompanying autopsy report are not known however, and so it is problematic for interested parties to review what additional data may have been collected. The body in the tree was the likely result of a murder, and had been positioned in the hollow when she was still warm, as the onset of rigor mortis would have made insertion into the narrow elm impossible for her attacker. As well as determining the cause of death, and rough description of the victim, Professor Webster was also able to determine what she had been wearing at the time of her untimely death, and noted that she was also wearing a cheaply produced wedding ring. This allowed the police to circulate a description to the local media and community.

Police sketch circulated in the local press (from http://www.blackcountrymuse.com/myths.htm)

Police enquiries and appeals largely led to naught. Although Professor Webster was able to establish that the victim had distinctive unaligned teeth, and had visited a dentist recently, appeals to local dentists and indeed even a description as printed in widely circulated dental journals (as revealed the Birmingham Daily Gazette on 4 May 1943), failed to result in identification. The clothing worn by the victim also proved to be a dead end from an investigatory perspective. All labels had been removed from the clothing, which was common for second hand clothing sold during the period. The footwear recovered was eventually traced to a market stall in Dudley which only dealt in cash, and had no memory of anyone fitting the victims’ description having purchased them. The police were left with a working class female victim discovered in a highly unusual location and with no motive for her death.

As reported in the Birmingham Daily Gazette at the time of the investigation, a clue to the identity of the victim and the circumstances of her untimely demise may be found a year prior to gruesome discovery in the woods. In July, 1941 several witnesses including a local schoolteacher reported hearing a piercing scream from within Hagley Woods. Although these reports were investigated at the time, no trace of their cause could be found. Some have assumed that this was because that there was nothing untoward to discover, and that the screams heard were actually mating foxes. Although the noises made by foxes can prove terrifying for the residents of cities, for those in the country, they would be a common noise, and not one that long term country residents may ordinarily confuse with the piercing screams of a woman in distress. Perhaps rather than foxes, the noise was more indicative of more suspicious and potentially deadly activities. Like so much with this case, the truth of the cause of the screams may never be known.

According to some accounts of the case, the police were presented with another series of clues that commenced in December 1943. On a wall in the Old Hill area of Staffordshire, block printed graffiti written in chalk was discovered that stated “who put luebella in the wych elm?”, however it is worth noting that seems to be little to support this claim directly. As reported by the media of the period (Evening Despatch, 30 March 1944, ‘Hagley Wood Bella’, Pg.1) the graffiti was joined in March 1944, by further on Upper Dean Street in Birmingham which stated “Who put Bella down the Wich elm Hagley Wood?”. On the same wall of the empty premises that had previously been targeted a few days before on Dean Street, the phrase “Hagley Woods Bella” was found scrawled high up on 30 March. The name ”Lue-Bella” was reportedly first seen on the side of a house in Haden Hill Road in Old Hill (Birmingham Mail, 1 April 1944, ‘Mysterious Writing on Walls, Pg. 1). At the time the theory of the graffiti writer as favored by the local police, was that it was the work of one individual the handwriting being consistent across all three occurrences, and someone who came into Birmingham in the early hours with farm produce for sale in the cities markets. Up until the present time and starting in the seventies when the case of the body in the woods began to enter local legend, graffiti still intermittently appears in the area local to Hagley Woods, typically on the Hagley Obelisk which stands in Hagley Park near the summit of Wychbury Hill (it is worth noting that the last time that this monument was reportedly defaced was in 1999).

There were numerous theories for the unknown victim, who would come to be known to all as Bella owing the activities of a potential hoaxer, and these are worth examination in detail. Perhaps the most lurid is that Bella was the victim of a witchcraft inspired sacrifice. This was seemingly first suggested by the anthropologist and Egyptologist, Margaret Murray who was the author of ‘The Witch-Cult in Western Europe’. Noted for her examination, Murray assumed that the case of Bella was linked to that of Charles Walton, whose badly mutilated body was found in the hamlet of Lower Quinton in Warwickshire on 14 February 1945. According to the theory proposed by Murray, Bella has either transgressed the ordinances of a local coven she was a part of, or been the victim of a sacrifice, and her missing bones, were sufficient to establish as much. Murrays’ theory is that whoever was responsible for the death of the woman in the woods, had taken the opportunity to remove her hand and construct a ‘hand of glory’. This theory was repeated by the British journalist and popular historian, Donald McCormick in his 1968 book, ‘Murder by Witchcraft: A Study of the Lower Quinton and Hagley Wood Murders’ (Murder by Witchcraft. London: Long, 1968) and has been repeated on numerous occasions since Murrays initial theories were published. A hand of glory is a dried, pickled, or otherwise preserved hand that is utilised in witchcraft that supposedly made immobile all those that were presented with it. In some instances the hand of a gallows victim is preserved and made into a candle. Unfortunately for Murray, McCormack, and later lurid researchers into the Hagley Wood incident, a hand of glory according to all the eighteenth and nineteenth century sources that first popularised belief in such, is always traditionally made from the left hand of a male victim of violence, commonly those that died upon the gallows. As shown in the articles of the period, unlike what many later researchers have claimed “Bella” was not allegedly missing a hand, but merely a number of finger joints. It seems far more plausible that such damage as occurred against the body was enacted post mortem, and rather than being as a result of the actions of a clandestine cabal of country witches was a result of natural decal and scavenging.

Another popular theory is that the mysterious body in the woods belonged to that of a war time spy. This theory first came to prominence ten years after the discovery in 1953, when the Wolverhampton Express and Star journalist, Wilfred Byford-Jones writing under the pen name of Quaestor began to compose and publish a series of articles about the case. In one of his initial articles, it was claimed by the local church warden A.H. Hodgetts that the woman found in the woods (now known to all and sundry as Bella) was actually a Roma gypsy that had been punished for an indiscretion of offence. Although more than a little racist by modern standards, it was this theory that was largely locally believed and initially posited by Byford-Jones. He changed his opinion however when he posted a reward of one hundred pounds leading to information concerning the death of Bella. One hundred pounds was a significant sum in nineteen-fifties Britain, and the journalist soon found himself deluged with letters. Of the number that flooded into the offices of the Express and Star, one stuck out from the many cranks, which stated:

“Finish your articles re the Wych Elm crime by all means. They are interesting to your readers, but you will never solve the mystery.

The one person who could give the answer is now beyond the jurisdiction of the earthly courts. The affair is closed and involves no witches, black magic or moonlight rites

Much as I hate having to use a nom-de-plume, I think you would appreciate it if you knew me.

The only clues I can give you are that the person responsible for the crime died insane in 1942, and the victim was Dutch and arrived in England illegally about 1941. I have no wish to recall any more – ANNA, Claverley”.

The Original “Anna” Letter as held by the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service (http://www.explorethepast.co.uk/2016/09/monthly-mystery-who-put-bella-in-wych.html)

Anna was subsequently to meet both Byford-Jones and the police, and tell a tale of a spy ring that was operating in the Midlands area according the accounts provided by McCormick. The actual story she told (which has been conflated with that of Josef Jakobs which will be outlined later) was far more prosaic however. Anna, it transpired was really Una Mossop. According to Una, there were a number of pro German conspirators operating in the Midlands during the war and regularly passing on intelligence about munitions and aircraft factories. One of these was her ex-husband Jack. Although a black marketer, Jack also worked in a munition factory, and occasionally dressed as an RAF officer (even though he was a civilian). According to the confession he was later to make to Una, Jack had been drinking with a Dutchman by the name of Van Ralt, in a pub by the name of the Lyttleton Arms in Hagley. Van Ralt had been with a Dutch woman who was drunk and insensible. According to the accounts later provided when driving back from the Lyttleton Arms, Van Ralt had argued with the woman and killed her and then he and Jack Mossop had deposited her body in a the elm. In another account, the pair had left their victim alive and gagged in the tree, owing to her drunken state. The guilt proved to be too much for Mossop, and he was subject to frequent hallucinations concerned with a face in a tree, prior to his committal to a Stafford mental hospital and alleged death in 1943. In all probability, Mossop may have been committed to St George’s Hospital (known as the Stafford Mental Hospital between 1929 and 1948) however a review of the archives from the 1913 – 1960 Board of Control and Patients Admission Register as available online do not show an admission for either Jack or John Mossop (this may have more to do with the absence of searchable records via the Internet than their absence from the archives in Kew). Although the details provided by Una Mossop to Byford-Jones are intriguing, they have been muddied as highlighted by conflation with the case of Josef Jakobs.

As with the witchcraft theories proposed by Murray the espionage explanation for unknown woman in the woods has been latched upon by a number of people including McCormack. He claimed in 1968 that the body in the woods belonged to a German female spy by the name of Clarabella and sometime occultist that had parachuted into the Midlands in 1941, and lost radio contact with her handlers before for some reason ending up entombed in a tree (possibly as a result of being murdered by locals who subsequently hid the body rather than reporting that they had captured an enemy spy). Utterly unconfirmed, this theory was further confused by the release of MI5 war time records as pertaining to Jakobs. Josef Jakobs was born in Luxembourg in 1898 and by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War was a German citizen. Imprisoned by the Swiss legal authorities for selling counterfeit gold between 1934 and 1937, Jakobs eventually joined the Abwehr, the intelligence department of the German Army. In January 1941, Jakobs parachuted into the UK in Huntingdonshire in Cambridgeshire, but upon landing promptly broke his ankle. Quickly detained by the authorities, Jakobs faced a military court martial and was the last person to be executed by firing squad at the Tower of London on       15 August 1941. During his interrogation, military authorities recovered a photograph of the cabaret singer and German movie actress, Clara Bauerle who Jakobs admitted was his lover. According to statements released later, Bauerle had met Jakobs at the Café Dreyer where she was performing. As well as being as being a singer and sometime actress, Bauerle allegedly was also in close contact with leading Nazis and had like Jakobs been recruited into the Abwehr. According to statements that Jakob provided, Bauerle had a distinct advantage one many wartime agents, in as much as she had spent two years working in West Midlands music halls before the war, and spoke with a convincing Birmingham accent. According to reports published in the Independent Online (‘Is this the Bella in the wych elm? Unravelling the mystery of the skull found in a tree trunk’, 22 March 2013) Jakobs claimed during his interrogation that Clara had been due to parachute into the Midlands in Spring 1941 and had subsequently lost radio contact with the Abwehr. Clarabella or Clara Bauerle could well or so it was assumed be the mysterious Bella in the wych elm and the unsubstantiated claims made by McCormack could hold a ring of truth. Owing to the research of Giselle K. Jakobs researchers now know that not to be the case. In September 2016, revealed how after years of dedicated research she had managed to establish that rather than parachuting into the Midlands in 1941, Bauerle had died on 16 December 1942 at a Berlin hospital of complication caused by Veronal poisoning. Varonal was the first commercially available barbiturate marketed until the 1950s and it may have been the case that Bauerle may well have been the victim of a suicide possibly in reaction to the death of her lover Jakobs at the hands of the British authorities.

Death Certificate of Clara Bauerle from Giselle K. Jacobs (http://www.josefjakobs.info/2016/09/clara-bauerle-is-finally-laid-to-rest.html)

So, if “Bella” was not a spy, a sacrificial victim, an unfortunate Dutch immigrant, a gypsy, or a former coven member, who was she? One theory that has been suggested is that the body in the woods belonged to a prostitute from the Birmingham area that had been taken to the woods and subsequently murdered. This theory too seems unlikely. Although prostitution was rife in Birmingham during the Second World War, for a woman to travel from a secure location where she may have had the protection of her peers to an isolated wooded area which would have required a car ride seems doubtful. Alternatively, it has been suggested whoever she was, she was seeking refuge from a nearby air raid, and in doing so climbed voluntarily into the wych elm. Others have suggested that owing to the wedding ring “Bella” was a local resident who had an abusive spouse or partner who was responsible for her death and the disposal of her body. Still other theories have suggested that “Bella” may have committed suicide in mysterious circumstances akin to those of Elisa Lam in 2013. All of these theories, and those others outlined in this article, are of course conjecture, and they arguably do the victim a disservice.

Whoever “Bella” was, she ended her days in circumstances that were truly hellish. She was a small woman at only five foot. She was also in all probability a financially poor woman. She wore clothes from which the labels had been cut out which was common practice for second hand clothing purchased from markets. She wore shoes that had also been purchased on a market stall. She may have gone to the woods by choice, or by force, alive, or recently dead, but it was where her journey ended. She died on an estate controlled by a family that had huge influence in the local area. She died in an environment where poaching was a dangerous pursuit and where trespassers may have been shot by overzealous gamekeepers. She may have died as the result of a violent attack, or as a result of exposure, or as a result of a gunshot wound that failed to impact upon her skeletal remains, but she died alone and possibly in pain. Although her death remains mysterious it looks likely to remain so. In a final indignity, both the autopsy report and her skeleton have vanished from the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in the West Midlands or Birmingham University where they were believed to be present. Advances in DNA testing will never be applied to the remains of the woman found in the elm tree. In 2005 the West Mercia Constabulary (successors to Worcestershire Constabulary) officially closed the file on “Bella” owing to a lack of investigative opportunities. She deserves better than spurious theories, wild conjecture, and to be related to the category of “creepy” local legend. It is my hope that this post can dispel some of the mythos that has been built up around the unfortunate end to a life, and prompt a more serious consideration and examination that may finally produce tangible answers.