By Ian MacLeod
July 25, 2010
OTTAWA The last 1960s radical still on the run from U.S.
authorities could be hiding in plain view as a quiet, greying Canadian.
Next month marks the 40th anniversary of Leo Frederick Burt's long
fugitive run from police for his alleged role in the bombing of a
U.S. army facility at the University of Wisconsin at Madison at the
height of the anti-Vietnam war movement.
Physics post-doctoral student Robert Fassnacht, 33, working in
another part of the Sterling Hall building, was killed in the biggest
U.S. domestic terror bombing until 1995 in Oklahoma City.
It marked a turning point in the U.S. antiwar movement, discrediting
the strategy of revolutionary violence and alienating many of the
peace-loving activists who filled the movement's ranks.
Burt, then 22, has been running ever since from charges of sabotage,
destruction of government property and conspiracy. For years, his
picture graced the FBI's national 10 most wanted list, which
maintains a $150,000 U.S. reward on his head.
If he's still alive, "whomever Leo Burt chose to become, he is
probably leading a very low key lifestyle, has been doing it for
years, is disciplined not to call attention to himself and more than
likely had help in assuming that," said Joe Brennan Jr., who spent
two years researching and writing a manuscript about Burt, who rowed
with Brennan's father on a suburban Philadelphia high school crew.
Burt's passion for rowing earned him a spot on the varsity crew at
the university, where he majored in journalism, wrote for the student
Daily Cardinal and was a marine reservist.
Based on interviews with Burt's contemporaries and others, Brennan
believes, "it's a pretty good bet that he's somewhere around the
greater St. Catharines area," home of the Royal Canadian Henley
Regatta, one of North America's premier rowing events. Burt attended
the regatta a few times as a high school rower and St. Catharines was
the only place he had ever visited outside of the U.S., said Brennan.
"We always flee to what we know."
This year's regatta begins next week.
"The rowing community in Philadelphia, people for years have gone
back and forth (to the annual regatta) and said 'I was up in St.
Catharines and I saw Leo,'" said Brennan, who has rowed and coached
in the sport.
One of Burt's associates told Brennan that Burt even secretly
attended his father's funeral in Pennsylvania several years ago.
Burt was a middle-class kid and former altar boy from Philadelphia
who dreamt of being a champion rower. But standing barely six-feet
tall in a sport that favours much taller athletes, it wasn't long
before Burt was cut as an oarsman from the university's No. 1 varsity boat.
"That was the animating passion of his life, he wanted big-time
rowing," said Brennan. He was an experienced, tough oarsman from
Philadelphia, which is the rowing capital of this country. He was
devastated, he could not see himself being in the third or fourth varsity boat.
"It's like any intense, any passionate person when they lose
something like that they need to find something else to re-ignite
that passion. Leo threw himself into the Daily Cardinal and into
student journalism. The paper was highly influenced by the campus
left, which was very ascendant in Madison and obviously, very
aggressive and at a time when Madison, Wis., the bucolic little
college town in the middle of America, was one of the flashpoints for
the student antiwar movement.
"It's just this powerful confluence, he's come completely untethered
from the life he thought he was going to have, he's trying to hunt
and peck his way and create a new life for himself and literally
explodes on him."
In the pre-dawn of Monday, Aug. 24, 1970, Burt and three other young
antiwar student activists at the university detonated a massive
fertilizer bomb outside a campus building housing a U.S. army Math
Research Center. The attack was retaliation for the Kent State
slayings. The time was chosen to reduce the likelihood of anyone
being inside building. Fassnacht's family later revealed he was an
The blast caused $6 million in damage and was heard more than 30
Burt and fellow bomber David Fine fled across the northern border.
Six days later, the pair split up after barely escaping RCMP capture
at Peterborough, Ont., rooming house. Burt's three accomplices were
later apprehended, two in Toronto. After serving relatively short
U.S. prison terms, they resume their lives.
The FBI field office in Madison held a media-availability session
this week in anticipation of 40th anniversary coverage. There was
nothing new to report, but the event suggests the FBI believes Burt
is still alive.
At 62, and with more than two-thirds of his life spent in the
shadows, it is likely he has a relatively comfortable existence under
a new identity, possibly in Canada, FBI Supervisory Special Agent
Chris Cole said in an interview.
"Based on the last sighting (in Peterborough) and the connection of
people from the states to Canada during that era, it's as reasonable
as any other place," he said, adding people should not allow
nostalgia for the '60 peace movement to influence opinion about Burt
and his actions
"He's not a folk hero, he blew up a building and killed somebody."
Burt's 40-year run is all the more remarkable given that noted
antiwar, antigovernment radicals and extremists of the day, from the
Weather Underground's William Ayers to Black Panther Bobby Seale,
have long since been caught, surrendered, reformed, died and
otherwise moved on.
One of the latest was Kathleen Soliah, arrested in 1999 in Minnesota
after 25 years on the run for her days with the Symbionese Liberation
Army, the radical group best known for kidnapping Patty Hearst
in1974. Soliah was masquerading as Sarah Jane Olson, a soccer mom and
doctor's wife living in an affluent St. Paul, Minn., suburb. She was
arrested on her way to a community centre to teach a citizenship class.
For a short time in the late 1970s, authorities considered whether
Burt might be the Unabomber, responsible for a 17-year U.S.
mail-bombing campaign that killed three and injured 24. The Unabomber
turned out to be former professor Ted Kaczynski.
Brennan believes if Burt ever considered turning himself in those
days, the threat of being suspected as the Unabomber may have
convinced him to remain out in the cold.
An oft-repeated episode of Burt's story on America's Most Wanted has
generated hundreds of tips, with reported sightings as far away as Algeria.
Whatever life Burt assumed, he has now been that person for far
longer than he was Leo Burt.