Breaking 43 years of silence, she tells the story of her years underground
After the seven other burglars went public, Judi Feingold decided to come forward with the secret she thought she’d take to her grave.
The following is excerpted and adapted from the epilogue to the paperback version of Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, out today from Vintage Books.
It was clear to Judi Feingold what she should do after she and seven other people broke into an FBI office near Philadelphia in 1971, removed every file and then anonymously distributed them to two members of Congress and three journalists:
Get out of town.
She took drastic steps. Remaining in Philadelphia seemed dangerous, so she left town and headed west, moved into the underground and lived under an assumed name, moving from place to place west of the Rockies for years, owning only a sleeping bag and what she could carry in her knapsack. As she was about to detach herself from her past geography and her personal connections, she called her parents and told them she had committed a nonviolent direct action “and was possibly being pursued by the federal government. I told them I could not be in touch by phone, and I would do my best to let them know how I was, but not where I was.”
During the forty-three years since the burglary, none of the other burglars knew anything about Feingold’s whereabouts. Efforts to find her in recent years had failed. Some even thought she might have died.
Likewise, Feingold did not know that the other burglars had not left the area and, instead, had lived in the eye of the intensive search the bureau conducted for the people who revealed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s massive, clandestine political spying and extreme, even violent, dirty tricks operations. Those revelations gave rise to the nation’s first public conversation about the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic society. None of the burglars was found. Only one of them made the list of final suspects. The investigation ended after five years, with the FBI never finding any physical evidence or witness with either direct or indirect knowledge of the burglary.
Immediately after the burglary, Feingold’s Philadelphia neighborhood, Powelton Village, was swarmed by dozens of FBI agents. From many parked cars, agents watched the comings and goings of residents round the clock. Everyone seemed to be regarded as a suspect. The files the burglars removed from the office—the first documentary evidence that under Hoover the FBI had subverted the bureau’s mission—had caused a sensation. For the first time, there were calls in Congress and in newspaper editorials for the bureau and its deeply admired director to be investigated. Hoover, FBI director for half a century by then, was apoplectic, one of his favorite reporters wrote shortly after the burglary. The stolen files emerged, a few at a time, the first ones in a story written by me and published two weeks after the burglary on March 24, 1971, in The Washington Post.
The last time the burglars were together, shortly after the burglary, they had made two promises to each other: that they would take the secret of the burglary to their graves and that they would not associate with each other. They feared that if they continued to associate, the arrest of one might lead to the arrest of others. The seven who continued living as they had before the burglary were silent about what they had done, but they made no attempt to hide or escape.
Throughout the decades since the Media burglary, Feingold kept the pledge the burglars made to each other never to reveal they were the Media burglars. She always assumed no one in the group would break that promise. She never uttered a word about the burglary to anyone.
That’s why she was shocked—angered, even sickened at first—in January when she discovered, by chance, that the other members of the group recently had publicly told the story of how and why they decided in 1971 to risk their freedom for many years to break into an FBI office in search of evidence of whether the FBI was engaged in efforts to suppress dissent.
Until discovering, in news articles about my book, that seven of the eight Media burglars went public, she thought perhaps other Media burglars might also have decided to go underground. Instead, they had lived in plain sight. William Davidon, the physics professor who was the leader of the group and who had thought of the idea of breaking into the office, had continued to teach at Haverford College and continued to be a leader in the antiwar community. John and Bonnie Raines and their three children, all under eight at the time of the burglary, lived for years in the old stone house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia where much of the planning for the burglary had taken place. John Raines is still teaching religion at Temple University. And Bonnie Raines ran a day care center, studied for a graduate degree and eventually became a leading advocate for children’s issues. Keith Forsyth, who trained himself to pick the lock on the FBI office door but in the end had to rely on a crowbar to break in, worked for years as a union reform organizer at the Budd Company, a metal fabricator in Philadelphia, before completing studies to become an electrical engineer. Bob Williamson continued to work for awhile as a social worker for the state of Pennsylvania. Two other members of the group, who have described their roles but have chosen not to be named, also lived as they had lived before.
* * *
During the years I researched and wrote The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, I could not find the woman the other burglars and I often referred to as the eighth burglar. This struck me as strange in the age of the Internet, when it seems as though nearly everyone can be found. The other burglars had told me her name, but despite many attempts by some of the burglars and me to find her, the search for her was futile. Bob Williamson, the member of the group who was closest to her at the time of the break-in, repeatedly tried to find her. Along with Williamson, she was one of the four people who went inside the Media FBI office the night of March 8, 1971, and removed all the files in the dark.
I hoped that soon after The Burglary was published in January she might see a news story about the other burglars becoming public and reach out to them. Without her, the narrative of the Media burglars was not quite complete. But after a month, when many stories had been published and broadcast about the emergence of the Media burglars, I reluctantly concluded that we probably never would hear from her. Perhaps the worst fear of some, that she was not alive, was true.
Then, in late April, as I walked up out of the subway near my New York home and checked email on my phone, I found this message from Williamson:
“I want to give you some very exciting news…. Judi called me yesterday…. She sounded wonderful…. The stories we had heard about her riding the subways of New York at night were completely untrue. She is alive and well, and has had a happy life.”
I practically danced all the way home as I read his words. Judi Feingold, the missing member of the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI—what the burglars called themselves—was alive and well and in touch. Williamson also wrote that “she said she’d be happy to talk with you.”
When I phoned Judi a short time later, she was still somewhat stunned at what she had learned—that the other members of the Citizens Commission had broken their promise to take the secret of the burglary to their graves. By the time we talked in person a few weeks later, her original shock at finding the group’s secret had been exposed had diminished somewhat as a result of being in touch with some of the burglars, people she thought she would never see again.
Like the others, she is now open about that secret that shaped the rest of her life. The forty-three-year journey she reveals is strikingly different from the experiences of the other Media burglars during and since the years when Hoover assigned more than two hundred FBI agents to search for the people who risked decades in prison by breaking into an FBI office and exposing Hoover’s secret files.
Her decision to stay underground and live under an assumed name for nearly a decade, until 1980, meant that she spent the first decade of her adult life as a fugitive. Now 63, she was 19 then, the youngest member of the group. Early in her life, she exhibited the qualities that would enable her at nineteen to see participating in the burglary and living underground as actions she should take—despite the fact that they would be radically life-changing and potentially dangerous. As a kid from Inwood, a neighborhood on the far northwestern end of Manhattan, she adopted pacifism and became an activist in the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements by age twelve. She remembers riding the subway alone by then and going to meetings and demonstrations, including an anti-nuclear weapons rally led by Dr. Benjamin Spock. As a teenager, she had big ideas and made big commitments. Like the other burglars, she was confident that activism could lead to positive change. But she recalls being fairly quiet at home about the depth of her opinions, especially ones about the Vietnam War. Her father had made it clear he disagreed with her.
After a year at the University of Denver, she lived for a year in San Francisco. That’s where she first worked for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, as an intern. After that she worked as a military counselor at the AFSC headquarters in Philadelphia. For that job, she became thoroughly familiar with the Uniform Code of Military Justice and used it daily to advise people who wanted to get out of the military because they had come to oppose the war; people in the military who faced family hardships and wanted to know how to apply for an honorable or general discharge, and people who didn’t want to enter the military and wanted to know their options. While in this job, she felt sure she was regularly under surveillance near her home. That moved her to agree with William Davidon, the leader of the Media group, when he proposed burglarizing an FBI office in order to search for documentary evidence of whether the FBI was spying on political dissidents. She had met Davidon through Williamson, whom she deeply trusted.
Unlike the other Media burglars, Feingold had never participated in a draft board break-in. Media was her first and only act of resistance. She recalls thinking that the action proposed by Davidon was a powerful idea, one that needed to be executed. She also remembers that although she was only nineteen then her eyes were wide open: She fully realized that participating in the burglary could lead to very harsh consequences.
To avoid harsh consequences from the government, she imposed harsh consequences on herself—going underground, cutting herself off from everyone she knew. Looking back, she says she has no regrets. She sees the burglary as a success that was more than worth the risk, and she sees her life in hiding afterward as involving nothing she did not choose to do. In fact, she regards parts of her post-Media decade in the underground as quite wonderful despite the difficult aspects.
As she watched the FBI presence increase exponentially after the burglary on the streets of Powelton Village, staying there seemed like the worst option. “Everybody in the activist community was talking about Media,” she recalls. Remaining there seemed dangerous. She thought a Media burglar would be much more likely to be arrested if she or he stuck around Philadelphia. Feingold recalls that her decision “came from my gut: Get out of here.”
“Once we saw what the documents revealed at the farm house, we knew it was huge. So I wasn’t sticking around for the aftermath. I was going to do the best I could to live the life I wanted to live, a life without surveillance. I followed my heart…to a nonviolent, peaceful life west of the Rockies.” She got out of Dodge.
With three friends from the women’s collective where she had lived since shortly before the Media break-in, Feingold left Philadelphia and drove to New Mexico. She was charmed by the natural beauty of the area, as Williamson was when he also traveled there, at her urging, a step that also changed the geography of his life forever. She loved Williamson, and they had continued to be close friends after she became part of the women’s collective. But even he was unaware that she had decided to go underground and would do so shortly after he arrived in New Mexico.
Feingold’s first home in the underground was on a goat farm north of Taos. Like several other places she would stay, this farm was owned by a woman and was part of an informal network of rural properties in the West known as “women’s land”—places where lesbians built alternative communities that were intentionally free of patriarchy.
Feingold thought it was the ideal place for her at that time. As she points out, she could have hidden anywhere, but she welcomed the chance to live underground in the country instead of in a city. She loved the outdoors and the physical work required in such places. Growing up in New York City, she had yearned to live in those wide-open spaces she saw as a child on countless television Westerns. Now she had that life. She dug irrigation ditches and learned how to make goat cheese and gather eggs. She remembers living happily in those old cowboy landscapes that recently had been reclaimed by women. Until then, roaming Central Park was as close as Feingold had come to her dream of living in wide-open rural spaces.
When the woman who owned the farm near Taos decided to use it for other purposes, Feingold and others who lived there drove in a caravan of pickup trucks to other women’s land in California. They had heard about the new place at one of the large gatherings of women that took place twice a year in large rural settings in the west, summer and winter solstice celebrations. After a relatively short stay on that California land, she lived for several years on women’s land in Oregon.
She traveled light in those years, carrying only a knapsack and a sleeping bag. “That was all I had,” she remembers. She worked at menial jobs so she could be paid under the table, with no tax records. “I was a dishwasher, I was a dog-trainer…..I worked in plant nurseries…..I just brought in money any way I could.” For medical care, she relied on free clinics. Dental care was sometimes hard to find. She also wrote poetry and kept a journal. One day while browsing in a women’s bookstore in Seattle she leafed through an anthology of lesbian poetry and was delighted to find a poem she had written years earlier and left behind in a house where she had stayed.
The places she called home during those years varied greatly. In addition to long stays on women’s land, for a few months she lived with a young couple and their two children in a garden cottage in Seattle. Once she lived in a beautiful wooden house on a cliff high above the Pacific on the coast of Oregon. She lived awhile in a poor part of Albuquerque and off-season at a ski lodge. At one point she lived in a women’s shelter in Berkeley. There, she said, she learned “immeasurable lessons” about survival from a woman who at age twelve rescued her younger siblings from their abusive parents and raised them on her own in extremely difficult circumstances. Feingold has kept in touch with this woman, who years later became an electrician.
It was a time in the life of the nation, says Feingold, when it was perhaps easier than it ever has been, before or since, to be accepted for who you are, with few questions asked about what you do, where you’ve been. She felt many people had become more accepting, less judgmental. That gestalt was very helpful for a fugitive who needed to live as a person without a past.
A frightening episode took place when she lived with some other women in a house near a hilltop in Oregon, part of a horse farm. The owners and their three children lived in the main house at the foot of the hill. One day one of the children ran up the hill and, with a sense of urgency, told them, “Mom says you have to leave. The FBI is here.” Feingold never knew why the FBI was there. She assumes the reason was unrelated to her, but she took no chances. She and the other women grabbed their few possessions and left immediately, going down the other side of the hill and never returning to that location. Someone who lived nearby gave them a ride to Portland. No one at the farm knew exactly why Feingold was concerned about being caught by the FBI, just that she was. And that was enough to cause them to protect her.
In the underground, Feingold lived what she calls a horizontal life rather than a vertical life. In the latter, a person follows a plan, such as: go to high school, go to college, go to graduate school, enter a profession, marry, buy a home, have children, live for long periods in the same location and develop life-long friends and acquaintances. Her horizontal life, by contrast, had none of those elements. Instead of being a series of expected steps, each leading to the next, her life became a series of experiences, some of which were anticipated or connected, others not.
Feingold found many aspects of her underground life satisfying, especially living on several parts of the women’s land network, but she missed some of the rewards of a vertical life. She learned something valuable from most of her underground stays, but at times she longed for the stability and pleasure that are the rewards of routines, such as being able to return repeatedly to favorite people you’ve known for years for contentment or mutual personal support. She also missed the pleasure of returning often to long-cherished places.
She had always read the New York Times. She kept that habit while in the underground, reading it and other newspapers in local libraries wherever she was. After a long time between libraries, the next time she would go to a library she caught up with the news by reading spooled films of newspaper pages on microfiche machines. It was in quiet corners of small western libraries that she learned that her most important wish was being fulfilled—the Vietnam War was ending. Perhaps no one in those libraries ever noticed the small woman crying some days as she squinted at the microfiche machine screen. That news stimulated both deep sadness and happiness—sadness at how long the war had lasted and how much damage it had caused, happiness that it was, at last, over.
It also was in libraries that she read about the 1976 Church Committee hearings taking place in the U.S. Senate. She read about the testimony of FBI officials who revealed outrageous, even violent, past FBI actions and about the reforms that resulted from the congressional investigations. She realized that this was happening, in large part, as a result of what the band of eight she had been part of in Media, Pennsylvania, had done.
She talked with the women she lived with about some of this exciting news, but she did not mention her connection to the events. That was her sweet secret. Sometimes she found a way to express her happiness and pride. She would read about a major reform that had taken place in Washington after the intelligence hearings and dance alone on a mountainside and yelled a loud and joyful “Yay!” to the empty, beautiful countryside.
“I was really excited and happy,” she recalls. “You do something like this, you were willing to give up your freedom, and then you find out what happened. It was an affirmation that the sacrifice was worth it.”
* * *
In 1980 Feingold decided to leave the underground and take back her identity. She had managed to live on very little, but gradually she wanted to make more than she was making in menial jobs. “I was getting older,” she recalls. “I wanted to make a better living. And I wanted to do it at something I enjoyed…something I’d do outdoors.”
She felt the political climate had changed. She had noticed that some people from the Weather Underground had emerged and were not suffering heavy repercussions. With the end of the war, she felt a shift had taken place, one that meant she might be in less danger of being pursued for the Media burglary. She paid a lawyer $500 to answer this question: What’s the statute of limitations for someone who committed a federal offense and crossed state lines after they committed the offense? He told her that whatever danger originally existed for such a person continued to exist. Even with that answer, she decided to take a chance.
Her immediate goal was to take courses at a school in Washington state that would qualify her to be certified as a forest technician. To enroll, she needed to request transcripts from schools where she had taken courses before the burglary. To do so, of course, she had to use her real name. That was her first step out of the underground. All went well. When she used her name for the time in nearly a decade, she did not set off an alarm. She took a civil service test and was hired as a park ranger in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee.
It was quite a transition: She had moved from being a federal fugitive in the underground to being a federal employee protecting federal land.
But, “It was not easy for me to be Smokey the Bear,” says Feingold. The job was a good beginning to a new life but not for the long haul. Wearing a government uniform and turning people in for running stills on federal property in Appalachia wasn’t the niche she wanted. She left the National Park Service and moved on to landscaping.
She soon found work she still regards as a perfect fit: horticultural therapy. For many years now, in various places she has lived, she has conducted this therapy with developmentally delayed adults, teaching them to propagate and sell plants and work on grounds crews. She enjoys the outdoor and service aspects of this job. “It’s very gratifying to developmentally challenged people,” she said, “to be able to grow and care for plants and do landscaping. Seeing the pretty results of their work builds confidence.”
Feingold lovingly and painstakingly rebuilt her family ties, which had been completely severed for years. After she took back her name, she found her parents and sister and talked with them by phone, but she realized that far more was needed. In order to try to heal emotional wounds and build a loving relationship with her parents, she moved from Oregon to Florida, where they had moved while she was in the underground. For two years she rented an apartment near their home, worked in the garden department at the local Sears store and had dinner with her parents regularly.
Face-to-face communication among them was awkward at first. It was a matter of starting over and building trust and love where those qualities had been weak even before she went underground. In the early months, they didn’t have much to say to each other at dinner. “I just kept doing it, and eventually we started talking…really talking….like, ‘Remember the time you did this?’ or ‘I can’t believe that.’ I started to have deep connections with my parents, and we grew to enjoy each other’s company…..We got to be a family.”
Many years later, when it became clear that her parents could no longer live on their own, they accepted Feingold’s suggestion that they leave Florida and live near her in Oregon. She took care of both of them until, just seven months apart, they died, first her mother in 2009, then her father in 2010. She looks back on those care-giving years as “a wonderful gift.” Her smile is strong and warm as she says that.
Ultimately, both of her parents received hospice treatment, an exposure that led to Feingold’s recent decision at sixty-three to study to be certified as a nurse’s assistant who will provide comfort care to hospice patients. As a volunteer now, she helps care for a ninety-six-year-old woman in hospice care near the small Arizona town where she lives.
* * *
Feingold had not returned to Philadelphia since the day she headed west in 1971. Early in 2014, Judith Bouzoun—her friend in love, the term they use for each other—asked her if she’d like to go with her on a trip to Philadelphia in May. Bouzoun was going to visit her daughter in Princeton and spend a few days in Philadelphia. Even though Feingold no longer feared arrest, the idea of visiting Philadelphia made her a little nervous. When she left in 1971, she intended never to go back. She wanted to think about it.
On January 22—the experience was so traumatic that she remembers the date—she was at her local computer club checking email when she decided to search online for Media, Pennsylvania. She did it out of curiosity prompted by Bouzoun’s invitation. She had done that online search a few times over the years. Each time she got the same two hits related to the burglary. One was about the Brandywine Peace Community’s annual celebration of the burglary, and the other was a story that expressed regret that the significance of the Media burglary had been overlooked.
This time was different.
On this January evening, when she typed “Media, PA” in the search box, as she had before, instead of only those two items, up popped about ten pages with ten or more articles each. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The first headline she saw was “Burglars Go Public.”
“I was like a deer in the headlights. I mean, I just got sick. I was like, What?!” Because she was in public she could not shout what was roaring through her mind. In an effort to calm herself down, she said to herself “Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay.” She tried to stand up, but her legs were too weak. When she was able to stand, she tried to walk a short distance across the room, but she couldn’t. “The earth shifted. I couldn’t function.”
“They have a printer in the club. So I printed the first six articles. I didn’t read them. I was shaking. As I printed, I was glancing, seeing the headlines. And I was, like, What the hell? And then I took them home, the six articles…and I put them in a drawer. And then I went for a swim. It’s good to think when you’re swimming. So I take a swim and, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God. I can’t believe it.’”
“And I just kept swimming and swimming and swimming. And then I felt better from swimming, and I went home and I took a shower. And I sat down and took the pages out and I started to read. I just couldn’t believe it. I absolutely couldn’t believe it. I was so upset.”
Needing a comforting voice, she called Bouzoun. A year earlier, she had asked Bouzoun if she wanted to know what her 1971 crime was, and Bouzoun, a retired military nurse and now a hospice nurse, said no. It was the first time Feingold had broached the possibility of telling someone the secret. She told herself then that revealing the secret might cross an ethical line with Bouzoun and might even end their relationship. She accepted that possibility and says she did not fear what Bouzoun’s reaction might be. For decades, she said, she had accepted who she was and what she had done and was determined not to be upset by being rejected because of that part of her life.
Now, when Feingold called Bouzoun, she told her she had just learned something very upsetting. She explained that it was about something that “happened long ago and far away. I told her I did an action I was proud of and that I went underground for it and it changed my life.” And now, Feingold told her, the “other people” involved in the action had now gone public, despite a promise everyone in the group had made to take the secret of the action to their graves. “And I can’t believe it,” she told Bouzoun. “And now there’s a book about it and a documentary.” (A documentary film, 1971 by director/producer Johanna Hamilton, also tells the story of the burglary.)
She thinks she talked to Bouzoun for a couple hours, somewhat incoherently. She kept repeating herself. Finally, she said goodbye. She did so without stating what she and the others had done. She did not do so despite the fact that she now knew that anyone in the world could learn the burglars’ secret on the Internet.
Feingold tried to sleep that night, but she couldn’t. Finally, at 4:30 in the morning she got up and walked around her neighborhood. She walked for three hours. At 7:30 she walked into Bouzoun’s house, just five doors down the street from hers. Feingold again talked continuously about how upset she was that the other members of the group had revealed the secret.
Finally, Bouzoun asked her, “What the hell did you guys do?”
It was still hard for Feingold to state what she had thought would be secret forever, but, confronted now with a direct question, she uttered the words for the first time. She told Bouzoun what she and seven other people did the night of March 8, 1971, in Media, Pennsylvania.
After she got the words out, they were both very quiet. Then Bouzoun said, in a simple, powerful way, “That was a really brave thing you did.” Later, Bouzoun made it clear that she not only admired what Feingold did all those years ago, but she thought Feingold should be willing to publicly claim what she did. Feingold was not ready for that.
But she did think she now had an obligation to reveal her hidden past to people deeply affected by it. After she called her sister, she called five women who had taken Feingold into their homes at various times. “These were people who sheltered me, loved me on and off for years…so I could have a safe harbor.” They had trusted her before without knowing what she had done. Now, her secret past revealed to them, each of the women expressed respect for her long hidden action.
After she reconnected with Bob Williamson and Keith Forsyth, the two members of the Media group she knew best and had missed most over the years, her profound confusion about why the others had gone public was replaced by the deep joy she felt by being reconnected with them. She also came to see positive value in the story being told.
Reflecting on the forty-three years that have passed—nine years spent in the underground, forty-three years totally silent about the burglary—Feingold says, “I chose a path of nonviolent direct action. I committed a federal crime with serious consequences. I knew my life would be fundamentally changed. I had made the right decision for me. My heart was breaking then over the deaths in Southeast Asia.”
Memories sealed away for years now play in Feingold’s mind as a black and white movie. She remembers feeling a sense of contentment as she and Williamson cased the area near the Media FBI office night after night. They had deep conversations and good laughs during the countless hours they watched and waited. Then, inside the office during the burglary, “I felt like I was not breathing. My body was on high alert. I remember thinking, ‘I am functioning, and I am not breathing.’” On the way to the farm house with the files, “I have a strong sense of taking a wrong turn on the road and feeling lost.” When lost on country roads even today, she says, she still flashes to the drive that night from Media to Fellowship Farm, the trunk filled with suitcases full of FBI files, and the fear of being lost, of being followed and, then, pulled over.
Thinking about the days the group spent at the farm reading and sorting the files, Feingold recalls an unsettling reaction that remains vivid. “My memory of the farm that will be with me forever is standing outside, looking over the rolling hills and the road entering the farm, half expecting FBI agents to be driving up that road toward us.”
Several months after Feingold’s discovery that the Media burglars had broken their silence, she was enthusiastic that her old partners in non-violent resistance had emerged and revealed they were part of the group that was responsible for the burglary that shook the foundations of the FBI and led to the first congressional oversight of all intelligence agencies. “Once I recovered,” she said, “I was grateful to be able to reconnect with people once so important to me, who I care for and respect. I am glad to know they are alive and healthy and explaining our purpose. It’s quite something.”