Who killed Betty Van Patter?
A letter from an old friend stirs up passions from one of the most
disturbing, yet little-known, crimes of the New Left era. It happened
exactly 25 years ago.
By David Horowitz
Dec. 13, 1999 | BERKELEY, Calif.
Twenty-five years ago Monday, my friend Betty Van Patter disappeared from a
tavern on University Avenue called the Berkeley Square and was never seen
Six months earlier, I had recruited Betty to keep the books of the
Educational Opportunities Corp., an entity I had created to run a school
for the children of the Black Panther Party. By the time the police fished
her battered body out of San Francisco Bay in January 1975, I knew that her
killers were the Panthers themselves.
At the time, the Panthers were still being defended by writers like Murray
Kempton and Garry Wills in the pages of the New York Times, and by
then-Gov. Jerry Brown of California. The governor was even a confidant of
Elaine Brown, who had hired Betty and whom Huey Newton had appointed to
stand in for him as the Panther leader while he was in "exile" in Cuba.
At the time of Betty's death, Elaine was running for Oakland City Council
and had just secured a $250,000 grant from the Nixon administration under a
federal juvenile delinquency program. J. Anthony Kline, the consigliore to
whom she had been able to turn when the party's enforcers got in trouble
with the law, was about to be appointed to Gov. Brown's cabinet. (Today
Kline is a justice on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.)
In pursuit of answers to the mystery of Betty's death, I subsequently
discovered that the Panthers had killed more than a dozen people in the
course of conducting extortion, prostitution and drug rackets in the
Oakland ghetto. While these criminal activities were taking place, the
group enjoyed the support of the American left, the Democratic Party, Bay
Area trade unions and even the Oakland business establishment. (The head of
Clorox, Oakland's largest company, for example, sat on the board of the
Educational Opportunities Corp.)
On a far smaller scale, the Panther killings were an American version of
the "Katyn massacre," the infamous murder of Polish officers carried out on
Stalin's orders that the left had denied and kept hidden for decades, until
the opening of the Soviet archives settled the "dispute" for good. It was
much harder for me to understand why the Panthers should be able to get
away with these murders in democratic America, and why the nation's press
should turn such a blind eye to a group that the nation's law enforcement
had made an object of its attentions.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that to this day not a single
organization of the mainstream press has ever investigated the Panther
murders, even though the story is one that touches the lives and political
careers of the entire liberal establishment, including the first lady and
the deputy attorney general in charge of civil rights for the Clinton
administration. Both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Lann Lee began their
political careers as law students at Yale by organizing demonstrations in
1970 to shut down the university and stop the trial of Panther leaders who
had tortured and then executed a black youth named Alex Rackley.
This silence is even more puzzling since, despite the blackout by the
national media, the details of the story have managed to trickle out over
the years. This has been the result of efforts by me and by my colleague
Peter Collier, by radical journalist Kate Coleman, by Hugh Pearson, by the
nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, New Times magazine and one or
two others, including most particularly David Talbot and David Weir, now
editors at Salon.
Because of our efforts, informed citizens are at least aware of these
murders. On the other hand, unlike in the Soviet Union where testimonies
emerged as soon as the threat of retaliation was gone in the 25 years since
Betty's death, few additional witnesses have come forward to add to our
knowledge about her case or these other American crimes. There are hundreds
if not thousands of veterans of the '60s who have at least some knowledge
of these deeds, but who have remained silent and therefore complicit to
These include notable figures like Tom Hayden and journalists like Los
Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer both of whom promoted the Panthers as
revolutionary heroes at the time, and have failed to correct that
impression ever since. But it also includes many lesser figures who worked
day in and day out to facilitate the Panthers' rise to power and to cover
up their crimes along the way. Evidently, these fellow travelers have
remained convinced that even though the crimes were committed, it was (and
is) no responsibility of theirs to help solve them.
I am constantly asked by people who have read my autobiography, "Radical
Son," or who have heard me talk about these events, how it is that my
former comrades on the left can remain so silently and stubbornly devoted
to "experiments" like the Panthers that failed, to doctrines that are false
and to causes that are demonstrably wrongheaded and even evil.
On Nov. 20, an answer to these questions came in the form of a letter from
an old friend, a Berkeley writer named Art Goldberg, who was himself deeply
involved in the activities of the Panthers and in their deceptions, and who
remains a faithful keeper of the progressive flame today.
Goldberg and I grew up in Long Island on the same block in Sunnyside, N.Y.a
neighborhood of Queens that had been colonized by the Communist Party, to
which both our parents belonged. Because Art was a few years older, he and
I weren't that close as children, but we became friends after college when
we found ourselves together in Berkeley, in 1960, as members of the nascent
Art was a writer for the Berkeley Barb and other "Movement" papers. He made
himself particularly useful to the Black Panther Party. So valuable was
Art's propaganda to the Panthers that eventually Huey Newton assigned him
to write the official biography of Charles Garry, the lawyer who defended
Newton against charges that he had murdered a young policeman named John
Frey. Newton had indeed committed the murder, but in Art's account and in
all the writings of New Leftists at the time, Huey was presented as the
innocent victim of a racist conspiracy by the state.
Art and another friend named Marty Kenner were the New
Leftists closest to the Panthers among everyone I knew. Marty was a
stockbroker who had organized the famous Leonard Bernstein party that Tom
Wolfe satirized in "Radical Chic," and was working virtually full time as
Huey Newton's personal emissary and financial guru.
In the '60s, I had kept my distance from the party because I had been
frightened by their gun-toting style and hectoring posture. As the '70s
began, however, Newton announced that it was "time to put away the gun,"
and I became involved with the school project I have already mentioned. At
first, I had intended just to raise the money for the school, but when
Kenner withdrew unexpectedly (he told me he was "burned out"), I was left
with the task of organizing the school myself. It was as a result of this
responsibility that I recruited Betty Van Patter to keep its books.
I had not seen or heard from Goldberg or Kenner for 15 years when I
received Art's letter, which was in response to my recent book, "Hating
Whitey and Other Progressive Causes," one of whose chapters is a memoir of
Nov. 19, 1999
Every so often I hear about something you've written that pisses somebody
off, but I don't much care because I have pretty much retired from politics.
One thing I have been meaning to tell you for years, however, concerns the
death of Betty Van Patter, the Ramparts bookkeeper.
In my mind, you are the person responsible for her death. Sending her in to
audit the Panthers' books at that particular time was tantamount to
dressing her in a Ku Klux Klan white sheet and sending her up to 125th
Street in Harlem or to West Oakland.
I distinctly remember warning you to be careful about getting too involved
with the Panthers because things were getting pretty crazy at the time you
jumped in. I had pulled back, Marty Kenner had pulled back and so had Stew
Had you asked Stew or myself, we would have urged you not to send Betty
into the school under the circumstances in which you did ... The fact that
you let Betty deal with them directly was incredibly naive on your part,
and shows you had no idea of what was going on with the Panthers at that
time. If you had asked Stew, myself or Marty, we could have told you ...
Kenner, after all, knew a lot about the Panther finances, as he was a major
fund-raiser. Nothing happened to him ...
The problem was that you were inexperienced and naive and Betty Van Patter
got killed because of it. That's why, whenever anyone brings up Betty's
death, after you've written about it or alluded to it, I always say, "It
was really Horowitz's fault. He set her up." As I said, it was like putting
her in a white sheet and sending her up to Harlem.
Just wanted to let you know what I've been thinking.
Here is the answer I sent back:
Dec. 12, 1999
Unlike you I don't pretend to have "retired from politics," and unlike you
I try not to lie to myself. Having become a conservative, I am prepared
for how pathetic, vicious and disloyal some human beings can be, and how
sublimely unaware of the disgusting image they present to others even as
they preen their moral selves for their own approval. As a result, your
letter does not really surprise me.
The fact that you should have spent 10 seconds carrying around your insipid
thoughts about Betty's death is laughable. Nonetheless, I thank you for
revealing how ignorant you are about yourself and your friends, and how you
are still wallowing in the evil that once engulfed us all.
Marty Kenner, my possible savior. If only I had thought of that! It was
Marty, of course, who left the Panther school project in my hands and
without bothering to say why. The same Marty was so far from thinking the
thugs he was among were bad guys that 10 years later he attended the great
Huey P. Newton's funeral as a fan, and then played the role of
behind-the-scenes sponsor of Panther Field Marshal David Hilliard's
self-glorifying book just before he became President Crack-head of the
Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, and resident tour guide of historic Panther
sites. Stupid me! Why didn't I think of asking Marty for help?
"Nothing happened" to Marty, as you put it nobody raped and tortured him
and then bashed his head (as I would phrase the same) -- because his nose
was so far up Huey's ass right to the end that he couldn't get his tongue
loose to annoy them, even had he the thought to do so.
Give this, at least, to Betty. She wasn't killed because she was white or
stupid. She was killed because she had the integrity and the grit to talk
back. She wasn't spineless, the way you and your friends are. She was
killed because she wasn't a feckless servant of rapists and murderers like
you and Marty were then and apparently still are now.
And Stew Albert!!! How could I have overlooked good old Stew when I was in
need of advice? Stew Albert, the yippee genius who wrote a letter to
Ramparts calling me a police agent because in an editorial I had condemned
the SLA's assassination of a black father of three children, whose only
crime was to have been a superintendent of schools. My editorial gave a
"green light" to law enforcement to carry out the richly deserved execution
of Stew's beloved SLA fruitcakes! With stand-up talent like this, Art, you
should really go on Leno.
I see you are still crusading for social justice going around telling
anyone who has read my latest feeble attempt to right this historical
record and show the world what we did: "It was really Horowitz's fault. He
set her up." Don't worry, my friend. I'm not going to return the favor and
say you did it and I didn't. Of course, you did write all those rave
notices and cover-ups, encouraging others to help feed the Panthers'
criminal appetites (or has age affected your memory of this?). But I'm
still not going to tell people it was your fault that I got involved with
the Panthers or recruited Betty, or even that you kept your mouth shut all
the time I was down in Oakland putting my life and hers in danger.
Of course, you've already prepared your alibi. You told me "things were
getting pretty crazy at the time." What was I supposed to make of that?
"Crazy" could mean that the police were after them, that some of them were
"agents" or that these pressures were creating internal conflicts I had to
look out for.
DID YOU TELL ME THAT HUEY NEWTON
WAS A FUCKING MURDERER AND MIGHT KILL ME?!!! Of course you didn't. In fact,
everything you had written or said to me about Huey Newton told me exactly
the opposite. And that is all that you've ever written to anyone or said to
me about Huey and his progressive gang to this day.
But I still won't point my finger at you now, or blame you for what I did
then. I won't do that because that's how I fell into this mess in the first
place. By blaming others for what I did or did not do, by blaming them for
my own malaise. And that's what your self-serving politics is finally
about, Artyours and Marty's and Stew's. It's about putting responsibility
where it doesn't belong. It's about blaming everyone but yourselves. It's
about getting others to blame anybody besides themselves for who and what
I'm glad you wrote this letter. It makes all the pain and all the wounds
inflicted on me by you and your comrades since then seem worth it. Because
it shows me what wretched human beings I was involved with when I was one
of you when I was a member of the progressive vanguard and at war with the
"enemies of the people."
Your letter shows me that in all these years you haven't changed a bit. But
I have, and it's the only thing in this whole mess that I'm not sorry about.
David Horowitz omitted a key section from my letter in his Salon column.
This is what he left out: "If you felt it necessary to have some accounting
of the funds you had raised, you should have called [Panther leader] Elaine
[Brown], and told her Betty was working for you and if there were any
questions about Betty, she was to tell you ... Also, you should have told
Betty to bring any irregularities to you and you should have discussed them
with Elaine." This, of course, would have made it clear that David was
responsible. Instead, he hid behind Betty Van Patter, and let her take the
Horowitz also chose to omit my reminder that the Panther school had just
received a large grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration,
a favorite program of Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell. Since
Panther finances were generally chaotic, they would be especially wary of
someone poking into their books at that time.
Horowitz has a selective and flawed memory. I warned him several times in
the early '70s not to get too close to the Panthers. Newton was in Cuba,
Seale was back east, Cleaver was in exile, and a new crew was in charge.
They were running many fine programs: the school, Breakfast for Children,
sickle cell anemia detection, free health clinics, and job training
projects that Horowitz fails to mention. But there seemed to be a dangerous
undercurrent, and I and others close to the Panthers chose to pull back.
That's when David, against our advice, blindly rushed in. This was strange,
because in the '60s and early '70s, he almost never went to demonstrations.
He was always too busy writing. So when he describes himself as a New Left
activist, it's simply untrue.
It's also strange that he omits my affiliation with Ramparts. He and I
shared an office there in 1968, and in 1971 he sent me to New Haven to
cover Bobby Seale's trial. Since my piece ran in Ramparts, he should know
the jury voted 11-1 and 10-2 to acquit Seale and Ericka Huggins of murder,
and that the judge subsequently threw out the charges against them. Yet in
his column, he says the Panthers were guilty of that murder.
Likewise, Horowitz neglects to mention that the police were never able to
find out who killed Betty Van Patter. Is he suggesting that the Oakland
Police were in cahoots with the Panthers in the Van Patter case?
Horowitz is also mistaken when he says Newton "assigned" me to write a book
with attorney Charles Garry. Actually, Newton and Garry were not on
speaking terms in 1973 when I began working on the book, at Garry's
request. Newton never assigned me to do anything. In fact, I first met
Newton when Horowitz assigned me to interview him for Ramparts in 1971.
It's interesting to me that someone who makes a living accusing people of
political and other crimes has such a total disregard for the facts himself.
David Horowitz states that I called him a "police agent" for condemning the
SLA for murdering Marcus Foster, the Oakland superintendent of schools.
This is a lie. I never called him a police agent and the letter he refers
to, which appeared in Ramparts, also condemns the murder of Marcus Foster.
As for David's work with the Panthers, he began doing this when most of the
Berkeley radicals were pulling away from them because we suspected links to
criminal activity and gangsterism. That he recruited a politically
experienced individual like Betty into that environment boggles the
reasonable mind. Art Goldberg is correct if David had asked me if it was
wise or safe to work would the Panthers, I would certainly have advised
against it. But back then David was the sort of guy who always thought he
knew the truth better than anyone else.
What Horowitz hoped to gain from printing that private e-mail from Art
Goldberg, and his wounded rant in rebuttal escapes me. Those of us who
think of the Black Panthers as a wretchedly organized black supremacist
militia do so without Horowitz's help; those of us who believe the
opposite, or who just don't care, will hardly be swayed by this latest
nugget. Using Salon as a bully pulpit from which to execute overkills
against ex-friends represents an unworthy lapse in academic good
n Steven Augustine
You would think that someone you knew for 50 years, whom you had helped
out, who was part of a small group of people involved with an organization
that had killed a mutual friend and brought you to grief, would make a
modest effort to find out the facts before attacking you over the crime.
Not Art Goldberg. His "reply" to my Salon column shows that he has not even
bothered to read what I wrote. I did not omit the Nixon grant to the
Panthers or his affiliation with Ramparts as he claims.
This failure pales however beside the fact that he obviously has never read
the passages in "Radical Son" where I have told the story of Betty's death
and my reaction to it. As a result he has not a clue as to what he is
writing about in any of these matters. He thinks it's a big deal to tell me
I was responsible for Betty's death. If he had read what I wrote, he would
know that I accepted responsibility for Betty's death from the moment she
disappeared, and that the guilt I felt nearly destroyed my life. He would
know that Betty wasn't working for me at the time of her murder, that I was
no longer involved with Panthers (and had no contact with them), and that
therefore I couldn't have interposed myself between her and Elaine Brown as
he so fatuously advises.
Since Art is the author of a book that defends the murderer Huey Newton as
an innocent man, which Art has never retracted, is it likely that he would
have warned me that I was in danger from Newton then? Or that he would have
covered his ass then just as he covering it now? Actually "a dangerous
undercurrent" in the Panthers is all he can bring himself to write about it
25 years after the fact. But the "Panthers" were just pawns of the master
who had life and death power over them. If Huey Newton was not dangerous,
and if I was working directly with him, why should I have had cause to worry?
Stew Albert presents himself now as a vigilante when it comes to "criminal
activities and gangsterism." But in the '60s, he was busy celebrating
gangsters like John Dillinger as revolutionary heroes. A Berkeley Barb
article he wrote about Dillinger, if memory serves, was actually called
"The Outlaw as Revolutionary."
What Stew Albert actually wrote about my Ramparts editorial was that I had
"given the green light to the police" to murder members of the Symbionese
Liberation Army who were killed in a shootout in Los Angeles. In my Salon
article, I summarized this -- perhaps too quickly by saying Stew had called
me a police agent. I apologize if I failed to be sensitive to the nuances
involved insofar as this caused Albert undue discomfort.
However, I am confident that, despite my best efforts, both he and Art
Goldberg will go to their graves blissfully free of any sense of guilt for
anything they have ever done.
n David Horowitz
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