Give me a million or the lights go out

BPA towersBy Finn J.D. John

On a sunny late afternoon, in a remote woodsy area near the base of Mount Hood, five fiery explosions rattled windowpanes in a few farmhouses along Highway 26 near the community of Brightwood.
It was immediately clear what the coordinated blasts had been: an attempt to take down the power grid.

The explosive charges had been set at the bases of five of the giant steel towers that carry high-voltage electricity generated at Bonneville and other dams on the Columbia River.
When the smoke cleared, three of the five-targeted towers were down, and two of the explosions and subsequent sparking of broken wires had touched off small forest fires. These were quickly brought under control; the power was rerouted around the damaged lines; and Bonneville Power Administration officials started scratching their heads. Who was bombing their power lines? And why?
One thing they now knew for sure: Whoever was doing this was persistent and serious. Three weeks earlier, a helicopter on line patrol had found three heavily damaged towers near Maupin, apparently also targeted with dynamite. This wasn’t kids having fun; this bomber was on a campaign.
And if there were any lingering doubts about that, they vanished the very next day, when three more towers went down near The Dalles.
But BPA officials still didn’t know what the bomber wanted.
Demand: One million dollars
But they hadn’t long to wait. The answer to that question arrived two days later in the form of a letter sent to the F.B.I.
“The extent of damages resulting from the demolition of five (sic) of your power-line towers Wednesday night is incidental,” the letter stated tersely. “Our primary objective was to impress upon any potential non-believers that we mean business. ... We have the men and equipment to keep as many towers down as is necessary to force compliance with our demands.”
Those demands were, essentially, one million dollars. And failure to pony up would, the extortionist added, lead to much more than $1 million in damage to other power towers and to companies that depended on the electricity grid for operations.
“If you are entertaining any illusions of apprehending our men, forget it,” the letter continued. “An attempt will lead to: Your delivery men will be killed. We will black-out the entire Portland area and vicinity, or both.”
The letter was signed by “J. Hawker,” an apparent reference to the “Jayhawkers” of pre-Civil-War Kansas. “Mr. Hawker” claimed membership in something called the “R.V.O.V.N.,” which stood for “Reorganized Veterans of Viet Nam.”
“Hawker” also wrote that the million dollars was not supposed to be seen as an ordinary extortion attempt, but rather as a demand for “just compensation from the government” for Vietnam veterans.
BPA: We will not pay
At the urging of the FBI, the BPA immediately and staunchly refused to give “Hawker” a nickel. But the company did immediately offer a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever was responsible for the blowing-up. And, of course, the BPA stepped up patrols of its towers.
The problem was, those towers ran for thousands of miles across the most remote parts of the state. “Hawker” was attaching his charges to the towers using silver duct tape, so they were almost invisible until one got quite close — meaning helicopters were useless as patrol vehicles. Catching “Hawker” planting a charge would be a one-in-a-million shot, no matter how many law-enforcement patrols went out. And if they did find him, he would probably be armed and dangerous.
All they could really do was wait for him to make a mistake. So the city of Portland hurried to dust off its old gas turbine backup generators, and everyone waited for the bomber to make his next move.
Water supply threatened
A week later, “J. Hawker” seems to have gotten impatient. He released another letter in which he threatened to start a forest fire in the Bull Run Watershed, apparently intending to damage the city’s drinking water supply, unless that million bucks were speedily forked over.
This might have worked OK, had not the skies opened up just after he mailed the letter. By the time “Hawker’s” threat to light Bull Run on fire arrived at City Hall, a full half-inch of rain had fallen on it.
Meanwhile, the F.B.I. had received yet another letter from “J. Hawker” — the fourth of a total of six he would send out. This letter included instructions for communicating with him through CB radio transmissions on Channel 9 in Morse Code. In an attempt to avoid having his voice identified, “Hawker” would use a duck call to painstakingly honk out his messages, and the FBI would respond in plain voice. (The FBI wouldn’t say, but they were probably pretending to negotiate delivery of the million-dollar ransom.)
The quacking duck
In any case, it was this duck-quacking protocol that furnished the FBI with its big break in the case. While monitoring the CB channel for the distinctive sound of “Hawker’s” waterfowl honks, an FBI agent just happened to hear a bunch of them while driving behind a blue-and-gray
1968 Plymouth in Southeast Portland. The driver of the Plymouth had his elbow out the window and a walkie-talkie in his hand.
Then, as he watched, the woman in the passenger seat turned, saw his official-looking car, and turned quickly to the driver, who instantly threw the radio down on the seat beside him.
Out of the 2 million people in range of the agent’s CB radio, what were the chances this one guy was the man he was looking for?
Actually, the chances were excellent. Agents had been communicating with “Hawker” for over a week. Over that time, they had triangulated his CB signal to a small quadrant of Southeast Portland and identified it as a mobile unit. When “Hawker” instructed the agents to contact him via CB radio at 1 p.m. that day, they’d flooded the neighborhood with FBI agents. “Hawker” hadn’t stood a chance.
Beavercreek Bomber busted
The agent pulled the car over and introduced himself to the couple driving it: David and Sheila Heesch, both 34 years old. They were a ways from home; they lived in Beavercreek, a woodsy rural hamlet about halfway between Oregon City and Molalla.
The radio, when the agent picked it up, was set on Channel 9. There was a duck call on the floorboard. And when the agent honked on it, it sure sounded familiar.
David and Sheila were utterly busted. And once the cops got a warrant to search their home, they found all the evidence they needed: They had found “J. Hawker.” And David didn’t bother to deny it, entering a guilty plea along with a full explanation to the public. He said he didn’t want people worrying that there might still be dynamite out there.
On Nov. 16, 1974 — just one month after the BPA tower blasts that started it all — David Heesch, the “Beavercreek Bomber,” was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Sheila drew 10 years as an accessory.
(Sources: www.fbi.gov; Portland Oregonian, 17 Oct through 19 Dec 1974)

Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

 

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