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.

Published December 13, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

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 alive again.

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 this day.

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 New Left.

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 Betty's death.

Nov. 19, 1999

Dear David,

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 Albert.

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

Dear Art,

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, Art -- yours 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 they are.

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.


By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

MORE FROM David Horowitz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Hillary Rodham Clinton