Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

AMBUSH: THE BRINKS ROBBERY OF 1981

The Explosion

New York street with brownstones
New York street with brownstones (AP)

Brownstones stand like soldiers in a row on tree-lined West Eleventh Street in lower Manhattan. Many were built at the turn of the century when pride in workmanship still prevailed in the building trades. Eleventh Street is just three blocks north of famed Washington Square Park, once a public execution ground in the 19th century, and extends west through Greenwich Village, past historic Hudson and Bleecker Streets, ending finally at West Street on the shore of the Hudson River. A long line of artists, writers, actors, musicians and celebrities of every manner and fashion has called this area home. Herman Melville and Walt Whitman once lived here. And Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Raven when he lived in a boarding house on Greenwich Street in 1844. The great "Satchmo" played the blues here from time to time and Sara Vaughn often performed in Village jazz clubs, along with Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, "Cannonball" Adderly, Monk and Miles Davis.

On March 6, 1970 at 11:55 a.m., Susan Wager, former wife of film actor Henry Fonda, was in her basement at 50 West Eleventh Street with her housekeeper sorting her laundry. A few minutes before noon, she heard a tremendous explosion outside her building. "We both looked at each otheryou could feel it, a real quaver ran through the ground," she later told reporters. Immediately, she heard two more rapid-fire explosions. Mrs. Wager hurried up the steps and out into the street. She saw that the explosions came from building number eighteen. As she ran down the block, Mrs. Wager saw the flames blowing out the front windows of the townhouse. There was concrete debris lying on the sidewalk and large pieces of the townhouse on the tops of parked cars. In the doorway, she saw a "red, incandescent glow, more scary than flames" emanate from inside the 1st floor hallway.

It was then she took notice of two girls that staggered out of the burning townhouse and into the street. One girl was wearing blue jeans. The other was completely naked. The explosion had burned the clothes off her body. Mrs. Wager thought they were both around twenty years old. The girls were dazed and covered with soot and ash but they did not appear to be seriously injured. A large chunk of the building fašade then crashed to the street just feet from where the girls were standing. Both victims were trembling and appeared to be in shock. Mrs. Wager took them over to her house, just yards away and brought them into her living room. She took them upstairs to a bathroom and gave them some clothes to wear.

Mrs. Wager then went downstairs, told the housekeeper to make some coffee and went back outside to look for more victims. When she reached the building at 18 West Eleventh, it was fully engulfed with flames. Residents were outside on the street and sirens could be heard in the distance. Within minutes, the fire apparatus was pulling into Eleventh Street from Fifth Avenue. The fire was roaring and neighbors were evacuating the block. Mrs. Wager then went back to her home to check on the two girls.

When she entered her living room, her housekeeper said the girls were gone. "Well the girls have left, they were going to the drugstore to get some medicine," she said. Mrs. Wager thought that was odd.

Meanwhile, the fire consumed the townhouse as gas lines exploded and windows shattered into the street. But firefighters were able to get hoses on the inferno quickly and soon, it was brought under control. In the early evening, a man's body was found in the basement and a short time later, a woman's torso was discovered on the first floor. Police also found several handbags with personal identifications that were stolen from college students over the previous few months. Late that same night, cops located at least 60 sticks of dynamite, a live military antitank shell, blasting caps and several large metal pipes packed solid with explosives. Neighbors, including actor Dustin Hoffman, who lived next door, began leaving in droves.

The dead man was later identified as 23-year-old Theodore Gold, a leader of a student strike at Columbia University in 1968. He was a member of the Weathermen, a radical group of college students who believed that the only way to change America was through confrontation and violence. The dead girl, whose body was horribly mangled by the powerful blast, was eventually identified as Diana Oughton, another former college student. Seven days later, police managed to locate another dismembered body of a male. His identity remained a mystery until the Weathermen later claimed it was Terry Robbins, one of their own members.

James P. Wilkerson, a radio station owner from the Midwest, owned the townhouse. His daughter, Catherine Wilkerson, 25, was also a known member of the Weathermen. She was currently out on $40,000 bail on assault charges in Chicago where she struck a police officer with a club during a political demonstration. A close friend of Catherine's, a girl named Kathy Boudin, was staying with her at the time of the blast. Boudin, too, was out on $20,000 bail on similar charges in Chicago. Neither of the girls could be located. Police soon speculated that the town home was being used as a bomb factory and the occupants were probably assembling bombs when something went very wrong.

But it was just speculation. Only those inside the house could say for sure. Three were already dead and the two girls who had fled from the house after the explosion could not be found. One of the girls was identified through photographs as Cathy Wilkerson. Police were almost certain that the other girl who disappeared was Kathy Boudin.

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