YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images
YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images

The Burglars Who Broke Into the FBI

YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images
YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images

All that stood between Keith Forsyth and the thousands of confidential papers belonging to the Federal Bureau of Investigation was one simple door.

It was early 1971, and war protestor Forsyth had been tasked with picking the lock that kept the FBI’s satellite office in Media, Pennsylvania, secure. Inside was believed to be evidence that the organization had been engaging in unlawful surveillance of private citizens, infiltrating civil rights groups, and spreading a message of paranoia. Forsyth’s allies, an informal assembly calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, planned to offer proof by disseminating the papers to media outlets all over the country.

A cab driver, Forsyth had rallied against the Vietnam war, but his activism had been limited to demonstrations. He was not a skilled locksmith. He took a correspondence course on lock picking, practiced, and waited until the world was busy watching Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier to break into the bureau’s offices. What he and the “Commission” found would lead to congressional hearings and widespread changes over the FBI’s alarming conduct.

But first, Forsyth had to deal with the lock—one the FBI had changed just before he snuck in.

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The idea to steal J. Edgar Hoover’s secrets originated with William Davidon, a well-known activist and physics professor at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Davidon had participated in his share of rallies, but felt no significant change would be effected until the general public could see for themselves what he and other protestors had long suspected—that the FBI had been engaging in unchecked surveillance and sabotage of any group they considered subversive.

In fall 1970, eight men and women had been caught attempting to enter an FBI office in Rochester. All eight were tried and convicted, but the incident led Davidon to pursue a similar plan. How could it be different? For one thing, his group wouldn’t attempt to infiltrate a field office in a major city. Philadelphia was out. But Media, with its quaint FBI arm in an office building that kept banker’s hours, was low on security.

Davidon enlisted John and Bonnie Raines, a married couple, for the plan; he also brought in Forsyth, who had some mechanical knowledge and would make for a quick study when it came to breaching the door. The group was joined by four co-conspirators; all of them spent months learning about the comings and goings of the various office residents.

To case the interior, Bonnie Raines tucked her long hair under a cap and posed as a college student looking to know more about opportunities for women in the FBI. While there, she noticed the filing cabinets were kept unlocked, and that the office only had two entry doors.

On March 8, 1971, Forsyth stepped quietly through the halls of the building. When he bent over to inspect the lock, he found it had been changed since he had last passed through. He went over to the second entrance door and used a crowbar to slowly pry it open. Because the door wasn’t in use, a filing cabinet had been moved against it; when Forsyth began to push against the door, the filing cabinet started to tip over. Realizing that if it hit the ground it would wake the entire building, he ran to his car and grabbed a jack stand (later he told CSPAN, “thank goodness this was 1971 ... when they had real jacks in cars”) that he used as a pry bar. For the next 20-plus minutes, he pushed the cabinet slowly along the floor until he could finally get in.

The Citizens Commission ransacked the offices, filling up as many briefcases as they could with documents and being careful not to leave any fingerprints. Driving to a farmhouse an hour away, they spent days combing through the files, occasionally stopping to hold up a piece of incriminating paper. While the Commission suspected the FBI was abusing its powers, the world was about to be surprised by how far that unchecked privilege had gone.

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Betty Medsger was one of several journalists to receive a semi-anonymous package on March 23. A reporter for The Washington Post, Medsger noticed the return address was Media, Pennsylvania. Inside were 14 pages of photocopied documents detailing the FBI’s impropriety. One brief read that the common goal of the Bureau should be to “enhance the paranoia” and to make dissenters believe “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

The mission statement was mild compared to their actions. As Medsger and other journalists from the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times would learn, the FBI had been persistent in keeping tabs on “militant negroes,” mandating that every agent have at least one informant leaking information about civil rights groups; anyone who had written and signed a letter to a newspaper protesting the war was pegged for investigation; even a Boy Scout troop in Idaho was under surveillance because the scoutmaster may have been planning to take the troop to the Soviet Union.

Then-Attorney General John Mitchell implored the Post not to publish information from the papers, insisting they were stolen property and a matter of national security. After hours of deliberation, the newspaper’s staff ran with the story the following day. Before long, the national news media had been blanketed with irrefutable proof the FBI had overstepped its bounds.

The Citizens Commission had only stumbled across the proverbial iceberg tip. In 1973, NBC News reporter Carl Stern became intrigued by a small stub that referred to a project called COINTELPRO, Hoover’s name for the agency’s covert domestic spy operations. After a legal struggle, the FBI released 50,000 pages of files that were even more incriminating. Among them: an anonymous letter sent to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964 advising him that his alleged infidelity would be revealed if he continued his activism.

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do,” the note read. “You know what it is.” The message, which was implying King should take his own life, had been a product of the FBI.

In 1976, Congress held hearings to discuss the leak, the first to ever explore the inner workings of a government intelligence agency. Expressing outrage at Hoover's behavior—in which they noted legal restrictions had been ignored—the hearings eventually resulted in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 that required a warrant to monitor a private citizen.

Despite Hoover putting more than 200 agents on the case, only one member of Davidon’s crew was even considered a possible suspect. When the crime’s statute of limitations ran out in 1976, the group still swore to keep the operation a secret, fearing some unknown retribution might still be possible. It wasn’t until Medsger met with the Raineses in 1989 that the couple confessed their involvement, and it wasn’t until 2014 that most of the others went public, in part to support the actions of document leak target Edward Snowden.

With no arrests made, the FBI officially closed the case on March 11, 1976. They had compiled over 33,000 pages relating to their investigation of the break-in. Presumably, they bothered to lock their filing cabinets this time.

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FBI
Amateur Sleuths Claim to Have Uncovered D.B. Cooper's Real Identity
FBI
FBI

For decades, both the FBI and amateur investigators have been preoccupied with the identity of “Dan Cooper,” a mysterious passenger mistakenly reported by journalists as "D.B. Cooper" who boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971. Without appearing frantic or violent, Cooper informed the crew he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in ransom. After making the pilots stop for fuel and then lift off again, the skyjacker collected his money and parachuted out of the plane, never to be seen or heard from again.

According to one Cooper devotee, that might not be exactly true. Tom Colbert has led a team of amateur investigators looking into the case and made headlines last year after acquiring some of the closed portions of the FBI’s file via a freedom of information lawsuit. According to Colbert, a letter purportedly written by Cooper and sent to the Oregonian shortly after the crime reveals a “confession” hidden in code. The man’s identity, Colbert claims, is that of Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who is now 74 years old and living in San Diego.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” the letter read. “Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Colbert showed the letter to Rick Sherwood, a former codebreaker for the now-defunct Army Security Agency. Sherwood maintains the repetitive phrasing of Unk and other words corresponds with a simple letter-to-number code that, when broken, reveals the sentence “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.”

Another letter uncovered in the FBI’s files earlier this year contains a numerical sequence that Colbert's team says they have matched to codes used by Rackstraw’s Army unit in Vietnam. That letter’s writer—who Colbert believes to be Rackstraw—claimed he used a toupee and a putty nose to disguise his appearance on the plane.

Rackstraw was at one time considered a suspect by the FBI but was later cleared in 1979. After initially teasing that he might be the culprit, Rackstraw backed off those claims and insisted the accusation was without merit. The bureau officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads. In February 2018, Colbert claimed the FBI wasn’t acknowledging his work out of embarrassment.

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Lies, Blackmail, and Murder: The Mysterious Life—and Death—of ‘Madame X’
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

Three screams pierced the night air—loud enough to be heard over the waves crashing on the rocky beach below—and Olive Dimick froze.

It was February 4, 1929, and she had just said goodnight to her next-door-neighbor Kate Jackson, after spending a night out at the movies with her. The two women lived in a cluster of cliffside bungalows overlooking Limeslade Bay in Wales, on a headland known as Mumbles. The area is said to derive its name from two shapely rock formations just offshore; according to town lore, they once looked to French sailors like les mamelles, or a pair of breasts rising from the water.

It took just a few seconds for Olive to realize the screams sounded like her neighbor, and that they were coming from the direction of her backyard. She rushed over, where she found her friend crouched on her hands and knees, bleeding from her head and moaning. Kate's husband, a fishmonger named Thomas, stood over her, half-dressed.

The pair carried Kate into the kitchen, where Olive attended to her. At about 11:45, Thomas called a doctor, who arrived around midnight and said that Kate should be taken to the hospital. Once there—Thomas, Kate, and Olive travelled in a taxi, the doctor in his own car—Thomas made a very curious remark. When the doctor asked through the taxicab window how Kate was doing, Thomas replied that she was sleeping peacefully, and then added: "I have been married to her for ten years, and I still don't know who she really is. She has never been open with me."

This was not just a simple issue of marital miscommunication. Kate Jackson's identity—her background, her source of income, even her name—was ever-shifting. To her husband, she was an aristocrat born in a foreign land. To neighbors, she was a best-selling novelist and journalist. But to the local police, and soon a jury, she would become a murder case that has yet to be solved.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

The woman who would become Kate Jackson was born Kate Atkinson in the late 1880s to John Atkinson, a laborer in Lancaster, and his wife, Agnes. Sometime in her teens, she left Lancaster with a dream of becoming an actress on the London stage. She lived for a while with an artist named Leopold Le Grys, who later described her as uneducated, but "clever, and a good talker."

Never one to pass up an opportunity for the dramatic, she caught the attention of union official George Harrison in 1914 by fainting after witnessing a minor car accident on Charing Cross Road. She told him she hadn't eaten in three days, and so he took her to lunch. They became involved, and the next year she asked him for £40 for an abortion. Then she said there were complications from the procedure, so she needed more. For one reason or another—perhaps there were more procedures, perhaps she threatened to expose the affair, perhaps he was paying for her sexual services—Harrison sent her as much as £30 (over $4000 in 2018 dollars) a week over the course of a decade. All of it was embezzled through his position as the secretary of a cooper's union.

Harrison was far from the only man in Kate's life. When she met the man who would become her husband in 1919, Kate told him she was Madame Molly Le Grys, the Indian-born youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. That wasn't all: She also said she was a writer under contract with publisher Alfred Harmsworth, an early-day Rupert Murdoch-type who pioneered tabloid-style journalism. It was a mutual deception, as he gave her a fake name of his own: Captain Harry-Gordon Ingram. Really, he was Thomas Jackson, a World War I veteran surviving on a pension.

The pair married later that year, and Thomas moved into Kate's palatial farmhouse in Surrey. Kate always seemed to have money—even after Harrison was put on trial in 1927 for embezzling £19,000 (over a million British pounds in today's dollars) from his union, £8000 of which reportedly went to Kate. She was called to give evidence at the trial, but was not identified; the police called her "Madame X," in hopes that she would return at least some of the money Harrison had stolen and given to her. (It's not clear what her husband thought about all this.)

Kate indeed signed over her beautiful house as restitution and moved with Thomas to a humble bungalow named Kenilworth. They adopted a daughter, Betty, whose origin was another of Kate's mysteries: She told Thomas that Betty was the illegitimate daughter of a lord, and he apparently asked no follow-up questions.

Though her setting was less rarefied, Kate was still behaving like a belle in a Gothic melodrama. She dressed in silk, her homes were luxuriously decorated, she tipped generously, and she spent more than her husband made in a week on her fresh flowers. The source of her income at this point is unclear: Harrison was serving a five-year prison stint, so he likely wasn't sending her cash any longer. But she was still receiving regular bundles of banknotes every Wednesday—money she may have earned through sex work, or possibly blackmail of other lovers/clients. Thomas later said that they mostly lived happily, except one time when she threw a flower pot at his head and threatened him with a knife for getting too friendly with Olive Dimick.

To Olive and her other neighbors, Kate explained the money by saying that she was a writer and the daughter of nobility. She let drop that she was secretly Ethel M. Dell, a well-known but critically reviled romance writer mocked by the likes of Orwell and Wodehouse. The real Dell was famously secretive; she was never interviewed and rarely photographed. So how were her neighbors supposed to fact-check their new friend? Besides, Dell's stories were quite racy, filled with passion and throbbing and exoticized visions of India, befitting Kate's made-up aristocratic origins.

"A PLEASANT SURPRISE"

Back at the hospital, Thomas Jackson left quickly, saying he had to return to his daughter. Kate spent six days there without ever fully regaining consciousness. When questioned about the identity of her attacker, she repeated the word Gorse, although it's not clear what—or who—she meant. She died on February 10, 1929, at the age of 43.

Police who arrived early in the morning after the attack found a tire iron under a cushion in the house, which Thomas later suggested Kate had hidden as a "pleasant surprise" (it's not clear if he was being ironic, or if he considered it a potential gift for his tool box). They also found a number of threatening letters. One read:

"Lest you forget. This is to tell you that we are watching you and we will get you. You husband-stealer. You robber of miner's money that would have fed starving children; you and that man of yours, I suppose he is somebody's husband, too. When we get you we will tar-and-feather you, and for every quid you have taken from us you will get another lump of tar and one more feather. We will show people you are as black outside as you are in. We don't mind doing quod [prison time] for you, you Picadilly Lily. We will get you yet."

It went on like that. Though he had been cooperative and there was no indication the letters were written by him, police arrested Thomas promptly. The next month he was charged with murder.

When the trial commenced in June 1929, the prosecution's theory was that Jackson, tired of his wife now that she was bringing in less money, had argued with and then attacked her as she was removing her coat. The prosecution pointed out that his story was weird—who hides a tire iron in a couch as a surprise?—and his behavior after her attack, including not summoning police immediately and not staying long at the hospital, was sketchy. They pointed to triangular cuts in her coat that looked like they could have been made with the tire iron. It was also alleged that all of the mystery in her life was entirely his creation, and that Kate never claimed to be anyone other than she was. The letters were ignored.

In his defense, Jackson produced expert witnesses who said it might not have been the tire iron that killed his wife. He spoke of her fear of attack after the threatening letters, saying that she was nervous to be left alone at night. Another neighbor, Rose Gammon, testified that Kate had been jumpy; Gammon recalled seeing Kate jump out of a bath, put on a robe, grab her gun, and walk out onto her dark veranda to investigate a noise (it's not clear if Gammon was spying on her neighbor, or how else she might have witnessed a bath).

The judge was firmly against Jackson, but during the trial, the fishmonger became a folk hero of sorts. He was charming and witty, playing up the grieving-single-father angle by emphasizing his concern for poor Betty. After just half an hour, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty." The crowd went wild. As he left the courtroom after his verdict, a crush of women pressed upon Thomas, trying for a kiss.

The police never pursued any other leads, convinced that they had missed their shot at the true villain. And maybe they were right. Perhaps Kate's husband was her killer. Or perhaps it was a man who suffered from her blackmailing—"Gorse," or someone else. Perhaps it was a member of the union who felt she hadn't paid enough restitution. Kate Jackson had made a lot of enemies in her four decades, which helped make her death as mysterious and complicated and sad as her enigmatic life as Molly, and/or Kate, and/or Madame X; she was truly the stuff of the novels she never actually wrote.

Additional Sources: The Times of London: February 12, 1929; February 25-26, 1929; March 13-14, 1929; March 20-22, 1929, July 2-8, 1929; Still Unsolved: Great True Murder Cases; A-Z of Swansea: Places-People-History

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