After decades on the lam, a student anti-war protestor is busted.
A version of this story first appeared in the Riverfront Times, Feb. 16, 2000. Howard Mechanic was granted a pardon in January 2001 by out-going President Bill Clinton.
Penny Overton, a young reporter for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Tribune, found it difficult to believe when Gary Tredway told her he was living under an assumed name. The confession came during her second encounter with the City Council candidate.
During her first interview with Tredway, Overton had told the candidate she would need to verify the information on his résumé and campaign literature. When she informed him of this standard practice, Tredway “started getting really nervous,” Overton says. The reporter tried to put Tredway, a well-known community activist, at ease by asking some softball questions about his family and education, but that only seemed to make the candidate more tense. “He was just sweating buckets the whole time,” she recalls.
After their first meeting, Tredway made repeated attempts to contact her, but Overton says she failed to return the calls because she was busy covering a high-profile murder case. When she finally met with Tredway a second time, on Feb. 3, he first told her that there was a discrepancy in his college transcripts. Overton took this to mean that he had embellished his academic record. But as the interview progressed, Tredway revealed a much darker secret. “Eventually it came out,” says Overton. “He just said, “I’m not Gary Tredway. I’ve been living under an assumed name.’ My response was “You’re bullshitting me,'” says Overton. “This guy is about as square as you can get. He’s a Boy Scout.”
Overton’s story saying that the City Council candidate had a false identity ran in the Tribune on Monday, Feb. 7. Within days, the intricately woven deception had all but unraveled. Tredway was revealed to be Howard Mechanic, a federal fugitive wanted for his involvement in a turbulent demonstration that occurred at Washington University in 1970.
Mechanic, then a 22-year-old student, was convicted on federal charges for throwing a cherry bomb — a powerful firecracker — at firefighters who were attempting to extinguish a fire at the campus Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building. His life story is now the subject of a podcast titled My Fugitive by George Washington University professor Nina Seavey. Seavey, who grew up in University City, became interested in the case because her father Louis Gilden was Mechanic’s defense attorney.
Originally conceived as a documentary film, Seavey uses Mechanic’s plight to delve into the student-led anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s, placing the onus for the repressive measures used against protestors on the federal government and its intelligence apparatus, specifically the FBI. Her research partner in this project was Jeffrey Light, a Washington D.C.-based civil rights attorney, who is an expert in filing Freedom of Information Act requests.
Seavey stepped down as the founding director of George Washington University’s Documentary Center last year after 30 years. Her documentaries and those of her students have themselves received funding from the federal government through the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. She started her career as a political appointee to the U.S. Defense Department during the Carter administration.
The torching of the ROTC building on the Washington University campus in St. Louis, which was carried out by anti-Vietnam War protesters, occurred just after midnight on May 5, 1970, and was precipitated by the killing of four student protesters at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen the previous day.
For Mechanic — a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio — the war in Vietnam had come home: Soldiers were killing students on campus in broad daylight. Although thousands of students cheered as the flames consumed the Air Force ROTC building, no one was ever charged with the arson. But Mechanic was one of the few charged for participating in the demonstration. Upon Mechanic’s conviction by a jury, Judge James H. Meredith — known for his tough law-and-order approach — gave him the maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. After he lost his appeal in 1972, Mechanic jumped bail.
Mechanic lived with his secret for the next 28 years, settling in the early 1980s in Scottsdale, where he established an identity as Tredway, an apartment owner, health-food supplier and concerned citizen. While living in Arizona, Mechanic married and divorced under his assumed name and raised a son, who is now a 19-year-old student at a college in New Mexico. Mechanic’s twin brother, Harvey, a lawyer in Los Angeles, has refused to say whether he was contacted by his sibling during his fugitive years. Attempts to reach Mechanic’s father, who still lives in the Cleveland area, were unsuccessful.
Mechanic, who is now in federal custody in Arizona, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story. He has hired attorneys in Scottsdale and St. Louis, who have in turn retained a PR consultant to handle calls from the press. In addition, a Phoenix-area support group has been formed to lobby for Mechanic’s exoneration on the basis of the exemplary life he has led. The ranks of his defenders include the Arizona chapter of Common Cause, a citizens-advocacy organization, which lauds Mechanic for working to pass a campaign-finance reform law. .
Mechanic’s political activism spurred him to run for local office under his assumed name.
Mechanic, the idealistic student radical, still inhabited the body of this middle-aged Arizona landlord, and it only took a little coaxing by Overton to flush it all out. When the reporter, who was a toddler in 1970, began questioning the candidate about his past, she may have gained his confidence because of her knowledge of history. “I think he told me because we talked about the whole ’60s thing,” she says. When Mechanic said she wouldn’t understand his plight, Overton told him that she had done a college thesis in American studies on how the media covered the Kent State massacre.
The long-kept secret had been exposed. Wire services and the Arizona Republic picked up on the story and the pieces of a long-forgotten footnote to the Vietnam War era were broadcast nationwide, rekindling a discussion about the anti-war protests and whether Mechanic still deserves to go to prison.
One of those most directly affected by Mechanic’s flight in 1972 was Washington University English professor Carter Revard, who put up his house to secure Mechanic’s $10,000 bail. Although he still faults Mechanic for skipping out, the now-retired academic saves his harshest criticism for “the lying scoundrels and ideologues” — those who used the legal system to help dictate American foreign policy.
“My view is that they wanted to give (Mechanic) five years in jail for throwing a cherry bomb, while they were giving Medals of Honor to people who were dropping cluster bombs and napalm on Vietnamese children,” says Revard. “I thought that it was an outrage then, and I think now that it’s an outrage.”
Despite growing opposition to the Vietnam War, President Richard Milhous Nixon stunned Americans by announcing on April 30, 1970, that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia. Within minutes, anti-war activists took to the streets, and within days more than 60 colleges had been shut down by student strikes. On May 4, at Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen fired more than 60 rounds into a crowd of 200 students, wounding nine and killing four. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, state troopers fired more than 300 bullets into a dormitory, killing two students and wounding 12 others. Students reacted by attacking and damaging ROTC buildings at more than 30 colleges across the country. One of those schools was Washington University. Incensed by the Kent State killings, as many as 3,000 students attended a May 4 strike rally held in the university’s quadrangle. The crowd then marched on the Air Force ROTC building. The military presence on campus had long been the focus of student protests, but nothing matched the fervor exhibited that night.
Around 12:30 a.m., several of the demonstrators entered the ROTC center with torches and set the building on fire. When firefighters arrived, the mob jeered and pelted them with rocks. Although more than 1,000 people were estimated to have taken part in the violence, only seven were charged. But it was no accident that Mechanic was one of the seven.
Long before the police busted him for throwing a cherry bomb, Mechanic had been targeted by the judicial system and police.
His name is listed in a 1970 congressional report as being among those St. Louisans suspected of traveling to Chicago in October 1969 to take part in an anti-war demonstration called the Days of Rage. The protest turned violent and resulted in massive property damage in downtown Chicago. Six protesters were shot by Chicago police, and more than two dozen cops were injured. The FBI’s target in this case was the sponsor of the protest, the Weathermen, a radical faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The Weathermen took their name from the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Other congressional testimony in 1969 shows that the St. Louis Police Department had been monitoring student politics at Washington University long before Mechanic ever enrolled at the university, using informants to spy on left-wing student organizations. Police estimated the ranks of the university’s SDS chapter at no more than 20. Although Mechanic was not linked directly to SDS in the testimony, he was alleged to be a close associate of an SDS member who led a local draft-resistance group.
An earlier fire that gutted the Army ROTC headquarters in the spring semester of 1970, combined with other campus unrest, resulted in a crackdown by the university administration. The university obtained a court order naming Mechanic and six other student demonstrators, including SDS organizer Terry Koch and Devereaux Kennedy, former student-body president. The broad injunction, signed by St. Louis County Circuit Judge George E. Schaaf on March 24, 1970, identified the seven protesters as representatives of a “whole class of defendants” and thereby made them accountable for any future disturbances on campus.
Within hours of the May 4 and 5 rioting, deputized campus police arrested Mechanic. He and other participants in the demonstration had been identified from St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographs surrendered by the newspaper to the FBI. Less than a month later, Schaaf found seven defendants guilty of criminal contempt for violating the restraining order. Mechanic and Koch received the stiffest sentences — six months in jail and $500 fines. But Mechanic’s legal problems were just beginning. The feds were after him for the same crime. In October 1970, Mechanic became the first person convicted by a federal jury of violating the anti-riot law, which had been tacked on as a rider to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Interfering with the duties of firefighters was deemed a federal offense because the Air Force ROTC building was considered federal property. Judge Meredith meted out the maximum sentence — five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Mechanic appealed, unsuccessfully. In upholding the conviction in Dec. 1971, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals expressed reservations about Mechanic’s being tried both in state and federal court for different charges stemming from the same offense. But the possibility that Mechanic had been subjected to double jeopardy wasn’t enough to cause the conviction to be set aside, the appeals court ruled.
“They were trying to get anybody who they thought was a student leader — anybody who they thought was fomenting demonstrations. They had Howard down as one of those guys,” says Revard, the English professor who put his house up as collateral for Mechanic’s $10,000 bond. When Mechanic didn’t show up to begin serving his sentence on May 24, 1972, Meredith started forfeiture proceedings. Revard relied on contributions from fellow faculty members to pay off the bond.
Unlike Mechanic, Napoleon Bland didn’t avoid incarceration. Bland, now a Muslim who has changed his name to Napoleon A. Rahim, ended up serving four-and-half years in federal prison for his part in the disturbance. In 1970, Rahim worked at Barnes Hospital and attended Washington University part-time. As a youth, he took an active interest in the civil-rights movement and in Urban League and NAACP-sponsored activities, and, for a brief period, he belonged to the militant Black Liberators group. In the wake of the Kent State massacre, he found himself swept up in the fiery protest that erupted at Washington University.
“I was one of the few African-Americans who was caught up in this melee,” says Rahim. “All I did was go down there and throw rocks and cans at the ROTC building. When they went into the building, I ran up to the building. A fellow came out and handed me a flag,” says Rahim. “The next thing I know, he was torching it. They got a picture of me. They said I burned the flag.”
Rahim says he received ineffectual legal representation and ended up serving his time at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. His prison record has haunted him ever since. “Every time that comes up, (it) seems to hold a shadow over me, as if it’s something recent. I felt that it was a great miscarriage of justice,” says Rahim, but he doesn’t hold a grudge against Mechanic for fleeing. “I’m a Muslim now, and we don’t live in the past.”
Rahim says Mechanic appears to have led an honorable life as Gary Tredway. “I feel it’s a great miscarriage of justice to even think about putting him in jail, due to the fact he’s done so much great community work where he’s been at,” he says.
It’s a view shared by Mechanic’s supporters in Phoenix. They argue that he has suffered enough and more than paid for his crime by committing himself through dedication to the community in which he lives. Others aren’t so willing to forgive and forget. One of them is retired Special Agent J. Wallace LaPrade, who headed the St. Louis FBI office in 1970. “I think he violated the law, and I think he should be held accountable,” says LaPrade, 73, who now lives in Virginia. “The fact that he left, I think, should increase the punishment that was rendered at the time that he fled. Leniency? Absolutely not. This individual committed a crime. He was convicted of a crime. And he should pay for the crime.”
LaPrade, who moved to New York City in 1971 to head the bureau’s largest field office, ironically saw his own career abruptly end, thanks to his activities fighting the anti-war movement. He was sacked as assistant director of the FBI in 1978 for failing to cooperate in the Justice Department’s investigation into the FBI’s illegal activities. The FBI was accused of burglarizing private residences and offices as part of its efforts to apprehend fugitive members of the Weather Underground.
After the burning of the ROTC building in 1970, a declassified FBI memo shows, LaPrade was contacted by an unidentified intermediary who had won union support to “repair all the damages caused by the (Washington University) demonstrators at no cost to the government.” According to the memo, the plan was designed to garner “considerable publicity … (and) Life magazine is among the members of the news media who have expressed an interest in this matter…. ” Asked this week about the memo, LaPrade says, “I never heard of such a thing.”
Washington University, however, elected to move the controversial ROTC program off-campus, and the public-relations effort flopped.
The FBI’s local efforts were not always so benign. In 1975, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that the St. Louis field office had sent anonymous letters in 1969 and 1970 to two black-militant organizations in an attempt to disrupt those groups’ activities by alleging marital infidelity among members.
The FBI’s efforts to smash the Weathermen took on added purpose in March 1970, when the group’s bomb-making efforts backfired, killing three members of the organization at a safe house in Greenwich Village. Subsequently, the Weather Underground carried out scores of bombing against targets such as Harvard University, the New York City Police headquarters, the offices of Gulf Oil, the U.S. Capitol Building and the Pentagon.
In 1971, a final attempt was made to destroy Washington University’s ROTC offices, which had been moved off-campus. That year, William Danforth was named the university’s chancellor, succeeding the beleaguered Thomas H. Eliot, who had struggled with waves of campus unrest.
Under Danforth, Washington University’s reputation grew nationally, faculty members won Nobel Prizes and Pulitzer Prizes, and the university’s endowment grew 11-fold to more than $1.7 billion. Today, about 50 Wash. U. undergraduates are enrolled in ROTC. The turmoil of 1970 became a historical footnote, and Howard Mechanic was forgotten.
Danforth, now 73 and the university’s chairman emeritus, has few recollections of that period and offers no opinion about the fate of the former student who spent a lifetime on the run for throwing fireworks at firemen. During a phone interview Saturday morning, Danforth interrupts his reminiscences to make sure of the safety of his granddaughter, who has wandered into the street in front of his house. “I didn’t like the Vietnam War,” he says. “(But) I was in the Korean War and had a great sense of patriotism.” From his perspective, Danforth says, he could see both sides of the issue.
“Eventually things got worked out,” says Danforth.
Howard Mechanic, however, can’t say the same thing.