EMPIRE — Julie Weeks remembers her Glen Lake school bus driver back in 1973 as a “fascinating” character but never guessed he and his wife played a role in a notorious burglary of an FBI office.
Weeks said she reconnected with John Raines and his wife, Bonnie, a few years ago and easily recognized them on a slew of recent national news shows.
“It’s mind-blowing to see them in the news, but not surprising because I know his sensibility and feelings of righteousness,” said Weeks, who also babysat for the couple’s children. “He’s much more educated and worldly than your typical bus driver. But to think of him as the get-away driver was kind of amusing.”
The couple and other anti-war activists recently broke their silence of nearly 43 years to reveal details of their break-in of an FBI satellite office in Media, outside of Philadelphia.
The band of eight believed the FBI was targeting dissenters. To try and prove it, they stole nearly every document from the FBI office on March 8, 1971, and leaked them to the media. After the heist, they adhered to a vow of silence, but some are speaking out with the publication of “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” by Betty Medsger.
The couple, interviewed by phone from their Philadelphia home, said John drove school bus while on sabbatical to write the book, “Attack on Privacy.”
“We were hiding in plain sight,” John said.
John’s book made no mention of the break-in, but included the publicly reported information that the burglary had reaped.
John was an non-tenured religion professor at the time; his bus driver job seemed to endear him to folks in Leelanau County, where his family owns a lake cottage, he said.
Their three children attended Glen Lake schools and Bonnie volunteered in the kindergarten.
“Everyone was very kind. We’d get invited to the bus drivers’ parties,” she said.
The couple said they privately talked together about the burglary, particularly before the statute of limitations put them beyond the law’s reach in 1976. But they didn’t say a word to their children until they were old enough to put it in historic context.
“They were pretty surprised. I think they were very proud,” Bonnie said.
The activists planned the burglary in the attic of the couple’s Germantown home. They spent weeks casing the building and decided on a date when the nation would be highly distracted: the night of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier championship boxing match.
Two weeks before, Bonnie, then 29, a mother, day-care director and graduate student, walked into the FBI office to check out security. She had tucked her hair in a hat, put on eyeglasses and introduced herself as a Swarthmore College student checking out opportunities for women.
“I really wasn’t scared; they greeted me very cordially. There was no suspicion at all,” she said.
She scanned the room and saw only a lock on the hallway door.
On the night of the burglary, Bonnie and John said good-bye to their children. They feared they might not come back and arranged for John’s brother to care for their children if anything happened.
“We had to think about if the worst thing happened and we were convicted and sent to prison,” Bonnie said.
Bonnie was prepared to block the street with her “broken down” car, but it wasn’t necessary. Meanwhile, four others broke into the office and stole about 1,000 documents. John received five suitcases from the get-away car and drove them an hour way to a farmhouse hideaway. The couple and others spent the next several nights photocopying, sorting and mailing documents to the media.
“We divided the files in 40 percent criminal investigations — we didn’t want to touch those—and the other 60 percent political subjects,” Bonnie said. “We sorted them with gloves on the whole time.”
John helped crafted a media statement issued by the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” that accused the bureau of executing a shadowy, illegal war on war activists.
One of the stolen memos called for FBI agents to increase questioning of campus leftists, saying the effort would “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”
Medsger’s book said African Americans were also targeted.
The couple, who still visits the family cottage in Leelanau County each summer, decided the burglary would be their last hurrah.
“That was the end of the 1960s protest movement for us,” said John, who also marched for civil rights. “We thought, ‘Okay, we’ve done our part.’ We were very busy. I did not have tenure. I had to work on this book, and Bonnie was having both her work and her degree program.”
But the couple has taken advantage of the media blitz to assert that Edward Snowden is a whistle blower just like they were.
“When you have a very powerful institution making decisions about your daily activities, surveilling your daily activities behind closed doors, and making these decisions without consulting the public, you need a whistle blower,” John said. “Otherwise, the public doesn’t know what’s going on.”
The ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this story.