On August 17, 1970, at 2:07 a.m., police received an anonymous 911 call from a man who described a screaming woman being dragged into a vacant North Omaha house.
Six officers responded. Instead of a desperate woman, 2867 Ohio Street was empty except for a suitcase inside the front door.
Omaha police officer Larry Minard tripped over it. A deafening blast ripped through the walls of the empty house and shook the darkened neighborhood. Minard died instantly. Another officer was badly injured.
Omaha Deputy Police Chief Glen Gates took command 20 minutes after Minard’s death.
Minard’s death was immediately blamed on the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary, socialist organization FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
The Black Panthers were targeted by a clandestine FBI operation named COINTELPRO, designed to undermine the era’s social justice movements. An acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram, it used fraud and force to disrupt constitutionally protected political activity. (Read more in depth about COINTELPRO through a series called “Framed” written by Michael Richardson).
The program is best known for its efforts to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by secretly tapping his phones. That started shortly after his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. The operation also sought to widen the rift between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam by placing undercover FBI agents around Omaha native Malcolm X prior to his still-unresolved assassination.
COINTELPRO also worked extensively with local police to initiate raids, withhold evidence and produce false testimony in criminal prosecutions across the country. An example was Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, who died from two bullets to the head while unarmed in a joint Chicago police and FBI raid.
Two former Black Panthers in Omaha, Edward Poindexter and David Rice, later known as Mondo Eyen we Langa, were convicted of Minard’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Mondo Eyen we Langa died there in 2016. Pointedexter, now 72 years old, continues to serve his sentence in the Lincoln Correctional Center.
(Requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have since revealed the FBI files related to the Minard case. Unless noted, quotes in this story come from those FBI files.)
The Initial Investigation
In Washington, D.C., FBI Assistant Director Charles Brennan learned of the bombing.
“Omaha advised it had notified military and Secret Service, was following closely, and alerted its racial informants in pursuit of investigation.”
Before daybreak, Detective Jack Swanson, who headed OPD’s Intelligence Unit, looked for “militants” who might be involved.
Swanson worked from a list of members and associates of the National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF). The committee was created by former Black Panthers in Omaha as a break-away from the Oakland-based national party.
Swanson focused on David Rice. He put him first on a list that included Edward Poindexte, Frank Peak Jr. and Raleigh House. Community activist Ernie Chambers made the list, as did Luther Payne, one of three men Swanson had arrested in July 1970 with stolen dynamite.
A county prisoner, George McCline, told police dynamite was for sale in Omaha. McCline knew about Payne’s arrest for possession of dynamite that went unreported by Omaha news media.
McCline said “Bussie,” an uncle of Vivian Strong, a fourteen-year-old girl killed by Omaha police in 1969, was behind the bombing. The next day, the Social Security card of Johnnie Lee Bussby was found in the crime scene debris.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Paul Young and OPD’s Deputy Chief Glen Gates discussed the recorded voice on the anonymous 911 call. They sent a recording to the FBI Laboratory for analysis, but they deliberately did not request a written report.
Their search for the truth was over.
The Conspiracy Begins
FBI Director Hoover had repeatedly pressured Special Agent Young to be “imaginative” and shut down Omaha’s NCCF chapter. Minard’s murder was the perfect crime to pin on Rice and Poindexter.
“(OPD’s) Gates stated he understood these terms and stated the Police Department would be extremely appreciative of any assistance in this matter by the FBI and would not embarrass the FBI at a later date,” Young assured Hoover.
Young advised Hoover that informant OM T-7 told Young the NCCF did not seem to be involved.
“OM T-7 advised that the members of the National Committee to Combat Fascism were pleased over the death of the ‘pig’ but that their actions did not indicate that they had any knowledge of who set off the blast, and at this time seemed unaware of who could have committed the crime.”
At FBI headquarters, supervisor William Bradley sent a memo to Ivan Conrad at the FBI Laboratory. He, too, requested analysis of the 911 recording without a resulting written report. Conrad called Hoover and noted, “Dir advised telephonically & said OK to do.”
Assistant to the Director William Sullivan initialed Bradley’s memo. Assistant Director Charles Brennan, who led the Domestic Intelligence Division, was on its distribution list. The assistant director of the General Investigative Division also got the memo. The head of the Racial Intelligence unit indicated his approval.
Hoover’s inner circle knew Poindexter and Rice would take the fall for Minard’s murder, despite their likely innocence. None dissented.
No Caller ID
In Omaha, Special Agent Young again heard from his informant. “OM T-7 advised that he had heard that certain members of the NCCF supposedly knew who had set the bomb at Ohio Street and that the bomber was from out of town who was trained by the BPP (Black Panther Party) for constructing bombs of this type.”
Supervisor Bradley sent a second memo to Conrad at the FBI Laboratory. He noted Young advised “maximum immediate assistance, particularly since the existing recording of the false ‘bait’ complaint to the police is the most important present tangible evidence.”
But then Assistant Special Agent in Charge Tom Dugan in Omaha called Bradley and canceled analysis of the recording.
The search to identify the anonymous 911 caller was called off just four days after Minard’s burial.
An informant called Detective Swanson with Donald Peak Jr.’s location. Swanson had Peak Jr. arrested. Donald quickly implicated his 15-year-old brother Duane and said he heard Poindexter made the bomb.
The search for Duane Peak led police to Rice’s home. Rice was at a Black Panther rally in Kansas City. Swanson claimed he found dynamite in Rice’s basement. Shortly after the raid, he wrote, “When the above Homicide happened, we felt RICE was a good suspect.”
Rice was returning to Omaha when he heard on the radio his house was searched and dynamite “found.”
“The knowledge that I was being set-up, that I would have to face a scenario which I would probably have no control over, scared me,” he said later. “I had never known such fear. And the fear proved to be justified.”
In the pre-dawn, Omaha police and two FBI agents surrounded a house on Bristol Street. According to OPD Lieutenant James Perry, the FBI paid Donald Peak, who was present, for his brother’s location. The younger Peak was arrested there.
Fifteen-year-old Peak was interrogated by police, ATF agent Sledge and Douglas County prosecutors. Peak’s story kept changing. Exasperated, County Prosecutor Arthur O’Leary told him truth did not matter.
“As a practical matter, it doesn’t make any difference what the truth is concerning you at all,” O’Leary said. ”Eventually you’re going to have to testify about everything you said here and it isn’t going to make one bit of difference whether or not you leave out one fact or not.”
On August 25, Deputy Chief Glen Gates and ATF’s Tom Sledge flew to Washington, D.C., with evidence for the ATF Laboratory. Sledge had some of Poindexter’s clothing and vials of dynamite particles. Kenneth Snow, a forensic chemist at the ATF Laboratory, testified particles removed from Poindexter’s jacket pocket were similar to particles in the vials Sledge brought.
Ten days after the bombing, Rice surrendered. A newspaper picture of Rice waiting for the elevator to take him to jail clearly proved dynamite particles were not in his pants pocket as an ATF chemist later claimed. Rice’s hands tested clean for dynamite moments after the photograph was taken.
But the significance of the photo went unrecognized.
At the preliminary hearing on September 28, Duane Peak recanted his story, testifying instead that neither Poindexter nor Rice were involved. Under cross-examination, he admitted he said differently when police threatened him with the electric chair. County Attorney Donald Knowles told the judge Peak’s faltering memory “had taken us by surprise.”
After a two-hour recess, Peak again implicated Poindexter and Rice. Peak wore dark glasses that he removed at the request of Rice’s attorney, David Herzog. Peak appeared to have been crying. Herzog asked Peak if he was threatened during the recess and whether he discussed his confession to help him remember it. Peak said answered yes. He said his lawyer was not present when he rehearsed his confession with County Attorney Arthur O’Leary.
“When he came back in the afternoon, his face was swollen around his eyes, he had glasses on,” Ernie Chambers said. “When Duane took his glasses off, his eyes were red, you could see he had been crying, and there was an audible gasp in the courtroom. His answers were scarcely audible. A young man who knew nothing about anything in the morning, and suddenly gave the answers that the police, the prosecutors needed to implicate David and Ed.”
On January 28, 1971, a recording of the 911 call was mailed from the FBI Laboratory “for return to Omaha police for trial.” But the jury never heard the tape.
On March 8, 1971, an eight-member team of anti-war activists called the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI burgled a Bureau office in Media, Pa., and stole more than 1,000 COINTELPRO documents. The Washington Post, after affirming their veracity, ran a front-page story on March 24, 1971. The revelations led to a Senate investigation headed by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho.
The murder trial of opened at the Douglas County Courthouse in April 1, 1971. County Attorney Donald Knowles and his assistants Arthur O’Leary and Sam Cooper sought the death by electrocution.
As O’Leary summarized Duane Peak’s story, he said Raleigh House supplied the suitcase for the bomb and added Poindexter was present. But Peak soon contradicted O’Leary when he claimed he and House went together alone for the suitcase.
“Rollie parked his car and went in the house and told me to wait.” Peak said he waited 15 minutes for Raleigh to return. “Rollie came from behind the house with a suitcase.”
Peak introduced the only white out of 60 people arrested. He said Norma Aufrecht gave him a ride to pick up and transport the bomb. Peak testified Norma waited in her car while Rice let Peak into the house to get the suitcase. Aufrecht never testified.
Jack Swanson testified he found dynamite in Rice’s basement. “Well, there were at least four or five other parties because we examined this carefully before we moved it.” Asked again who saw the dynamite before it was removed, Swanson tightened his answer. “Well, Agent Curd was there and Sledge and Bob Pfeffer.”
Contradicting Swanson, Pfeffer said he never went into the basement. Curd was not asked. Sledge said he saw dynamite in the basement.
Roland Wilder, an ATF tool marks examiner, testified he compared a piece of copper wire purportedly from the bomb with Rice’s pliers. Wilder said he found 15 “points of identification.” But he admitted there were 25 points of dissimilarity. Wilder also didn’t conduct a comparison test with similar pliers.
Poindexter said he never showed Peak how to make a bomb. Poindexter also denied giving Peak instructions or meeting Duane at Frank Peak’s house. Poindexter denied going to Rice’s home with Raleigh House or building an explosive.
Poindexter said he did not know how dynamite particles got into his jacket pocket. “I was unjustly accused of a crime, or accused of a crime I haven’t had anything to do with.”
Questioned about the construction of a bomb, Rice flatly denied any role in the fatal bombing. No secret meetings with Duane Peak, no suitcase, no bomb.
Knowles asked Rice about dynamite and blasting caps. Rice was blunt: “Not in my house.”
The jury deliberated 25 hours between Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning, April 17. Within an hour after Rice and Poindexter were found guilty, they were shackled and transported to Lincoln to begin life sentences.
Ten days after the trial, Assistant Director Charles Brennan realized the FBI documents stolen in Media, PA, endangered counterintelligence operations. Brennan sent Sullivan, Hoover’s assistant, a recommendation.
“These programs involve a variety of sensitive intelligence techniques and disruptive activities which are afforded close supervision at the Seat of Government. … It is felt they should now be discontinued for security reasons because of their sensitivity.”
Hoover ended COINTELPRO the next day.
In July 1972, the Nebraska Supreme Court denied the appeals of Poindexter and Rice. The affidavit for the search of Rice’s house was a central issue. Rice claimed there was no probable cause to allow a search of his home, where they had allegedly found the dynamite. “Were we to uphold appellants in this case the bloody shirt (the dynamite) worn into the police station by the murder suspect would be kept from the eyes of the jury.”
Two years later, U.S. District Chief Judge Warren Urbom differed sharply with the Nebraska Supreme Court.
“Since it is clear that the introduction of the evidence seized in the illegal search and the dynamite particles substantially contributed to the petitioner’s conviction, that introduction was not harmless error. Therefore, the petitioner must either be released from custody or granted a new trial free from the tainted evidence.”
The Supreme Court
In January 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Eighth Circuit upheld Judge Urbom and concluded Rice’s rights were violated. The court also noted “a negligent disregard by the Omaha police for the constitutional rights of not only petitioner but possibly other citizens as well.”
In July 6, 1976, the Supreme Court declined to rule on the merits of Rice’s conviction. COINTELPRO and its counterintelligence actions were not part of the Supreme Court’s deliberations.
The ruling, known as Stone v. Powell, meant federal courts no longer had to consider claims of illegal search and seizure if those claims were already considered in state courts. The ruling applied retroactively to Rice’s case.
Instead, the Supreme Court sent the case back to Nebraska courts. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan predicted a return to Nebraska courts would be futile.
That same year, an investigation led by U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-Ida.) issued its final report on COINTELPRO.
“Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that,” the final report stated. “The Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”
The committee’s final report can be found at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense & Security archives, the Homeland Security Defense Library. It lists multiple COINTELPRO actions targeting the Black Panther Party across the nation.
In May 1980, Douglas County District Judge Paul Hickman presided over Rice’s post-conviction appeal. Jesuit lawyer and law professor William Cunningham represented Rice.
Police Chief Richard Anderson testified he did not know of any FBI involvement in the investigation. Anderson said he did not know the whereabouts of the original 911 recording or if police erased the tape.
Although he failed to obtain Rice’s freedom, Cunningham helped recover a long-forgotten copy of the 911 emergency call. A dispatcher made a copy found in a box at Central Headquarters.
County Attorney Donald Knowles denied he heard the tape. He said he did not know if a copy was submitted to the FBI. When Knowles was asked if he had any communication with the FBI, his memory failed. “I don’t remember.”
Prosecutor Arthur O’Leary could not say if the tape was turned over to the defense. When asked if the FBI was sent a copy, O’Leary went blank. “I do not know whether it was or not.”
Cunningham asked O’Leary if he ever said to Peak, “As a practical matter it doesn’t make any difference what the truth is concerning you at all?” He couldn’t remember. Cunningham asked if O’Leary said, “It isn’t going to make one bit of difference whether or not you leave out one fact or not.” O’Leary’s memory again failed him.
Judge Hickman denied Rice’s request for a new trial. The Nebraska Supreme Court did likewise, as they also had after the Supreme Court returned the case to Nebraska.
In January 1991, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals denied Rice’s third federal appeal. “Rice failed to show that the tape recording would have created a reasonable doubt about his guilt had it been introduced at trial.”
“Peak testified at Rice’s trial that he never entered into a deal with the prosecution and the prosecutor denied that any bargain was struck with Peak.”
However, Peak was allowed to walk away from a first-degree murder charge in exchange for a finding of juvenile delinquency.
In a post-trial hearing, OPD Sergeant Robert Pfeffer contradicted his trial testimony and claimed he, not Swanson, had found dynamite in Rice’s basement. When confronted with his contradictions, Pfeffer became enraged and said he was misquoted by the court reporter.
Pfeffer also claimed he found three suitcases with wires sticking from them during the search of Rice’s house. He described how he dragged the three suitcases with a rope through their handles. Pfeffer could not account why no police report or other witness confirmed the existence of the three suitcases or why they were not seized as evidence.
A System Failure
Former Governor Frank Morrison, the Douglas County public defender who represented Poindexter, wrote in July 1997. “The self-confessed murderer was turned loose after a slap on the wrist. … I feel both I and the system failed Ed Poindexter.”
In a later deposition, he elaborated. “I had no idea the extent to which J. Edgar Hoover would go to secure a conviction. … These federal agents were so convinced Rice and Poindexter were behind this murder and put this kid up to it, they were out to get them regardless of the lengths they went.”
In December 1999, Fred Whitehurst, a retired FBI Laboratory supervisor, provided a series of consultation reports to Nebraskans for Justice.
“This is a damned tragedy,” he wrote. ”There is mention of dynamite particles found. I still find … something wrong with the fact that dynamite particles were found on the evidence items. … I am still troubled by where the dynamite particles were allegedly found in Rice’s pocket. That makes no sense.”
In January 2006, Douglas County District Judge Richard Spethman ordered Duane Peak to submit a voice sample. “The identity of the person who placed the 911 call was, without question, a matter of considerable controversy during the prosecution,” wrote Spethman, who ruled “the caller’s identity was not conclusively determined.”
Thomas Owen, an internationally known voice identification expert, who testified approximately 180 times as an expert witness, conducted an analysis of Peak’s voice and concluded Peak had not made the 911 call.
Despite this new evidence, Fourth District Judge Russell Bowie in Omaha denied Poindexter’s request for a new trial. Bowie said Pfeffer’s contradictions did not matter. “Who found it is immaterial.”
In June 2009, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld Bowie. “The particulars of who found the dynamite and who was with that person at the time are relatively insignificant.”
Four years later, District Judge James Gleason denied Rice’s final appeal. “Defendant has failed to set forth any claim of actual innocence.” Yet Rice’s appeal clearly stated, “Defendant Rice is entitled to a new trial because he did not commit the crime charged and he is not guilty of the crime.”
Refusing to explain why it rejected Rice’s claim of innocence, the Nebraska Supreme Court simply said “overruled.”
Death in Prison
“I cannot say with certainty that each cop, FBI agent, member of the County Attorney’s Office, and every other person who participated in the unlawful, unethical, and fraudulent process that resulted in my being in the joint knew that he or she was going after a person who was innocent,” Rice said. “But I do know that most or all of them did not care whether I was innocent or guilty.”
On March 11, 2016, Rice died in the Nebraska State Penitentiary hospital unit.
Poindexter remains imprisoned, his appeals exhausted. He continues to maintain his innocence and won’t seek parole because it requires an admission of guilt.
“The reason they were suspected was because they were members of the Black Panthers,” former Governor Frank Morrison said. “They weren’t convicted of murder. They were convicted of rhetoric. The only thing these young fellas did was try to combat all the racial discrimination of the time, the wrong way.”
If you want to dive deeper into this story, follow the series “Framed” on the North Omaha History Blog where writer Michael Richardson reveals more research on the Omaha Two and the constant affects of these historical decisions.