In the basement of a New Haven housing co-op, tied to a chair at gunpoint, in a vain effort to save his life, Alex Rackley started giving up names after fellow party members poured pots of boiling water over him.
Now you can hear what he said.
The date was Sunday, May 18, 1969. The location: Ethan Gardens, a government-backed cooperative on Orchard Street, in a townhouse apartment that had become the local headquarters of the revolutionary Black Panther Party.
Rackley was a rootless 19-year-old who had come north from Jacksonville, Florida, to New York City and joined up with the party.
The party transported him to New Haven, where he underwent torture and interrogation in a fruitless effort to weed out spies in an organization that was a target of continuous infiltration and disruption by the FBI. Two days after a tape-recorded show trial in Ethan Gardens, the Panthers shot Rackley to death.
Someone in the party thought Rackley was a spy. Or that he knew who the spies were who helped lead law enforcement to arrest 21 party members in New York for plotting an alleged bomb attack.
At Ethan Gardens, they beat Rackley with a stick and poured the pots of boiling water over him. They tied him to a chair in the basement. They poured the pots of boiling water over him. With a gun pointed at him, they demanded that he spill the beans about informers in their midst.
And they taped the whole 45-minute kangaroo trial, minus the torture.
“All of it is true,” Rackley claimed to his interrogators as he named alleged spies and described a rigged restaurant telephone supposedly used by the police to listen to Panther telephone calls.
At one point, an interrogators asked Rackley why he hadn’t come forward earlier with this “information.” Rackley started sobbing.
“I was—I was scared, brother,” he said. “I was scared because the brothers there was talking about shooting me.”
The public, or some members of the public, heard that interrogation tape once, in March of 1971. It was played in Superior Court on Elm Street, at New Haven’s political trial of the century, the murder trial of party leaders Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, whom the government accused of orchestrating Alex Rackley’s murder. The recording chilled jurors, bystanders, law enforcement agents, everyone who heard it.
The Independent obtained a copy of the reel-to-reel tape (pictured above), which was recently discovered in a basement. Nick Lloyd of the Firehouse 12 jazz recording studio in town helped transfer the recording to digital audio and kick up the volume. (Click on the play arrow to watch highlights of Lloyd’s rescue process.) Click on the play arrow the video at the top of the story to hear the recording; you’ll still need to turn up the volume high.
The recording doesn’t include the torture itself. It documents the dialogue that took place right afterwards, when his fellow Panthers convinced Alex Rackley to stop insisting that he wasn’t a spy and that he didn’t know about any spies. The recording offers a taste of the paranoia that reigned on all sides of the battle between radical political groups and U.S. law enforcement in the late ‘60s.
The irony in all this: The New Haven chapter, like all Panther chapters, was indeed crawling with informants. But everyone involved in the case—from the people who killed him, to Rackley, to federal and New Haven agents who spied on the Panthers—was quickly convinced after his death that Rackley was never a spy.
But he paid the price for all the paranoia. Two days after the show trial in the Ethan Gardens basement, two days that he spent tied to a bed and lay in his own waste, the Panthers drove Rackley in a Buick Rivera (borrowed from a police informant) to a secluded swamp in the town of Middlefield. They shot him in the head and the back. They dumped his corpse in the Cochinchaug River.
The rest is American history.
The police raided the Ethan Gardens apartment, rounded up the Panthers. Two of the three Panthers who committed the murder—Warren Kimbro and George Sams—confessed and served jail time. So did the third assassin, Lonnie McLucas, who was convicted of a reduced charge at trial.
But the government, under a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO, wanted two people executed for the murder: national party leader Bobby Seale, who had been in town to speak at Yale the day before the murder, and local party leader Ericka Huggins. Neither had been in the swamp in Middlefield. The accusation: The pair ordered the killing.
More than a year of protests against the trial ensued, the largest one featuring 15,000 radicals from around the country rallying on the New Haven Green on May Day 1970. It shut down local commerce and drew the National Guard to town. No one died in New Haven that day, thanks to a then-unknown conspiracy among cops, Panthers, community members, and Yale officials to avoid bloodshed; three days later, National Guardsmen shot dead four unarmed antiwar protesters at Kent State University in Ohio.
After the longest jury selection in state history, amid suggestions (including from Yale President Kingman Brewster) that black revolutionaries couldn’t receive a fair trial in America, the jury deadlocked. The judge declared a mistrial. The pair walked free. (The case was detailed in this 2006 book.)
And people rarely talked about Alex Rackley again.
The government had almost no evidence tying Seale to the murder. In seeking to convict Huggins, it had the tape.
Huggins leads off the proceedings with a summary of the case so far. After that, Sams does most of the talking.
Huggins’ matter-of-fact tone of voice would become the crux of the case against her in court: Was she a cold-blooded killer, as the state maintained, despite her flower-power, Earth Mother persona in court? Or was she, as her attorney argued, a terrified young widow reciting lines at the direction of the pistol-wielding George Sams?
Following is a transcript of how the proceeding began after the requisite “testing, testing” (with a few hard-to-hear words guessed at). Huggins would later admit that when Rackley was “reading” a book by Chairman Mao, he was actually holding it upside down.
HUGGINS: Ericka Huggins, member of the New Haven Chapter Black Panther Party, political education instructor. On May 17th at approximately 10 o’clock, Brother Alex from New York was sleeping in the office; this is a house that we use as an office. And I kicked him and said, “Motherfucker, wake up!” Because we don’t sleep in the office, and we relate to reading or getting out.
And so Brother Alex picked up a book, selected military writings of Mao Tse-Tung, and began to read.
I was talking to Brother George and Warren and George looked over at Alex and said, “Brother, I thought you couldn’t read. You told me you couldn’t read before. What you reading?”
You know, and so the brother said, “I can’t read.”
“So why you got the book? Why did you lie to the sister?” ...
“Because I didn’t know it.”
So then the brother got some discipline, you know, in the areas of the nose and mouth, and the brother began to show cowardly tendencies, and began to whimper and moan.
SAMS: She grabbed him …
HUGGINS: Right. After he would not, you know, say if he could read, we were puzzled, because he picked up the newspaper saying he could not read, and the first person, the first word that he deciphered was [inaudible]. You know, a relatively big word for an illiterate person.
So we decided he was a motherfucking phony, that he was lying, and that if he lied to us, he lied to other party members and the people.
So that, George began to give him other disciplinary [pause] things. Like, you know, a stick was taken to the brother, you see, because he was acting like a coward, and acting like a non-Panther. And as I said before, he was lying.
We asked him again and again if he could read, and he said no, he couldn’t read. So that, you know, he received discipline for a while.
During the time he grabbed George and he tried to fight back and was kicking, kicked Warren, kicked me, you know … discombobulated the whole office and began to cry real tears.
We then stood him up in the middle of the floor and asked him what his name was, if he was was a Panther, if he wanted to be a Panther, how long he had been in the party. And he answered, “I’ve been in the party eight months.”
This is a disgrace to the people’s revolutionary struggle.
Sit down motherfucker. Keep still.
And he then said that he had no conception of what revolution was or what a revolutionary was, you see. So he was taken down to the basement for a while, and he came back up, and it was decided he should leave the house, but we decided, you know, that he shouldn’t leave the house, that he should go back down to the basement again and he should read the 10-point program. And brother Alex began to read the 10-point program …
And then Brother George began to discipline him again because he had prove to us that he was lying, that he could read, you see, he’d read the whole 10-point program. He muddled through and hemmed and hawed, but he read the 10-point program.
He said that he lied to us, to the party and to Brother Landon [Williams, a top Panther enforcer visiting from the West Coast] about the fact that he could not read, because he did read the 10-point program.
So then we began to realize how phony he was and that he was either an extreme fool or a pig, so we began to ask questions with a little force and the answers came out after a few buckets of hot water.
We found out … Oh, he knows all the informers. He knows the informers in the chapter of the Black Panther Party in New York and that there’s heavy infiltration there and a couple of names were given up. Shall I relate those names?
SAMS: No. He’ll relate them to us.
HUGGINS: OK. So that is basically what happened with Brother Alex, and he’s going to begin to tell us what, you know, what’s really going on. You see. We have to know this.
At that point, Rackley speaks, and continues to speak for the rest of the recording at the prompting of Sams and Kimbro.
He names lots of members of the New York Panther office, where he used to hang out, get lessons in reading, and teach martial arts. He rambles about buying “rugi” (marijuana) and coming upon a “Get Smart”-like wiretapping operation:
RACKLEY: After [one alleged spy] found out that he couldn’t live, he couldn’t be a revolutionary because he had, because the pig was paying too much money, and he was staying away from the party, the brothers and sisters expelled him from the party.
And soon as he got expelled from the party, Lonnie Epps—Lonnie Epps got out and—and they started running again about how the pigs had paid them off, and they was getting money from informing on the rest of them 21 brothers that got busted and put in jail.
KIMBRO: How do you know this? How you do know that?
RACKLEY: I—there’s the telephone in the office is bugged, and the one next door in the restaurant, you can hear what the brothers, sometimes you can hear what the brothers in the restaurant is saying by dialing three-nine-one. ... They pick up the lever and dial, you hear them talking to the pig. And the pigs know when you pick up the receiver. They think you heard enough information, they’ll cut you off.
SAMS: Hold on brother. Will you explain again to the people again what number you last dialed to find out about these pigs’ connect?
RACKLEY: The number is three-nine-one.
KIMBRO: Do you have to put a dime in the phone, too?
RACKLEY: Some time.
KIMBRO: Have you done it?
RACKLEY: Yes, I have done it.
KIMBRO: What did you hear?
RACKLEY: I heard a conversation between Janet Serno and Inspector Hill of the 28th Precinct, also a black cop, a black pig.
KIMBRO: What else did you hear on that phone?
RACKLEY: That she was running it down to them where brothers stayed at, where they kept their guns and stuff, like, and everything and all the information.
At one point in the interrogation, Rackley ran out of names to produce or conspiracies to spin:
RACKLEY: That is all I know.
SAMS: Why haven’t you related this before, brother?
RACKLEY (sobbing): I was—I was scared, brother. I was scared because the brothers there was talking about shooting me …
Pressed by his interrogators, Rackley came up with some more stories.
At one point a gap in the recording appears, then the recording resumes. Sams seems particularly interested in hearing about New York chapter leader David Brothers; Rackley obliges by accusing Brothers, without credible evidence, of double-dealing with the “pig.”
He also dishes on another subject of keen interest to those in the room: relations with other black-led groups with whom the Panthers were at odds, including the NAACP and Ron Karenga’s black-nationalist organization. The latter group was of particular, poignant interest to Huggins: Members of Karenga’s group murdered her husband, New Haven native John Huggins, in a California shoot-out. (Karenga founded the holiday Kwanzaa.)
(The “Rosemary” referred to below is a party member, not Rose Mary Woods.)
RACKLEY: I swear to God this statement I’m going to give now is about the 21 persons that got busted and concerns Chairman Brothers, Janet and Rosemary, secretaries, and people of the central staff of the Black Panther Party.
SAMS: Just a moment. I dig. You saying this thing you say later on in the other tapes is not true, or is true?
RACKLEY: All of it is true.
SAMS: All right. Go ahead.
RACKLEY: Chairman Brothers and, uh, Rosemary [inaudible], Janet. Them about the three of tightest persons in the whole Panther Party in New York State, New York City. Like, uh, the other people, there’s some specific thing going on in the party that others in the chapter’s supposed to know about it. But Chairman Brothers, Rosemary, you know, and they always be the top, the top people who know everything that’s going down wrong, going down that’s right, that’s, that when it go down, nobody in the party don’t know about to expect just these three people. …
SAMS: … Look here, get down to the point, you know, and tell us what you know about them as far as dealing with pigs, you know. Like, just tell us that you know, tell us what you know about them as far as delivering information as far as them or you—I remember you saying that they had a lot of dealing with the new republican. I want you to tell me about Chairman Brothers doing that, and I want you to tell me about Chairman Brothers doing that, and I want you to tell me about information delivered to the pigs, OK? And that’s all I want to hear.
RACKLEY: Chairman Brothers, like, like the night before we came up here, that was a Saturday, right? We came up here, Chairman Brothers and them was, he was rapping to the pigs. And before that about a couple of weeks before that I see we have a press release in the office. About an hour before it start, the pigs was in the office. And Chairman Brothers didn’t want me to search the pig or do nothing to the pig.
I asked Chairman Brothers why he didn’t want me to search the pig, search the newspaper, search the newspaper reporter, because they might be pig. Chairman Brothers told me no, no that if they was pigs, that’s none of your business, and what do go down between the newspaper man and myself, “that just between me and the news reporter and Rosemary.”
SAMS: How do you know the reporters was pigs?
[A baby starts crying in the background]
RACKLEY: ... Because I had seen pigs watching the office before, and they was constantly watching the office. And it surprised me very a great deal when I seen Chairman Brothers rapping to these pigs. And it surprised me a whole, a great deal when I seen Chairman Brothers and Rosemary talking to these pigs. …
KIMBRO: ... Did you see them rapping with the pigs that whole week?
RACKLEY: Every day I came to the office, the pigs, like, they had a press conference two times in that same week. And there was Chairman Brothers and Rosemary. And they was rapping to the news reporters and the pigs at the same time. And the pigs was, uh, had their movie cameras taking, putting it down on tape. And the pigs were having a small tape recorder and their movie cameras taking everyone’s picture and taking pictures of the office to show the rest of the, to carry back to the pigs. And Chairman Brothers and them was saying on the thing—like, Alexander’s, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Botanical Gardens, all this added up to the thing that was on the indictment of the 21 brothers.
KIMBRO: Now wait a minute. All this was said before the 21 brothers got busted?
RACKLEY: Right ...
The tape posed the greatest challenge to Huggins’ attorney, the late civil-liberties lawyer Catherine Roraback. She decided to appeal to female jurors’ sympathies by turning the argument back on the state’s hard-charging prosecutor, the late Arnold Markle, who was arguing the case that would define his career; by many accounts he may have overstepped by pressing so hard to demonize Huggins and Seale, who were earning the sympathy of even the trials’ conservative judge, Harold Mulvey.
In her closing remarks, Roraback walked jurors through key lines in the recording to portray Huggins as a victim of Sams, the interrogation’s ringleader.
“Down in that basement, [Rackley] was beaten again. He was questioned. He was tortured. He was questioned. The hot water was poured. He was questioned,” Roraback told the jury. “And then after Goerge Sams had been yelling at Alex Rackley for a long time, after George Sams had been questioning Alex Rackley, after he said he was a phony, after he said he was lying, after he said he was a disgrace to the Black Panther Party … It was after all that that George Sams said, ‘OK, we’re going to make a tape. Come on, bring that tape down to the cellar.’ And he said to Ericka, ‘We want you to open up this tape.’
“Now I want you to remember that George Sams is walking around there with that gun in his belt. He had been brutalizing another party member. And Arnold Markle would somehow have you believe that when Ericka Huggins made that tape, she was just performing some little function. She was looking at Alex Rackley, who had been brutalized by these men, and even then was sitting there with a gun held on him by George Sams. And she began to talk. …
“… If you know, as I know Ericka Huggins knew, what George Sams expected of her, I think you too would have said, ‘We decided he was phony,’ and didn’t say, “George Sams decided he was a phony.’ You, too, might have said, ‘We then stood him up.’ Not: ‘George Sams and so-and-so stood him up.” …
“We come to that famous phrase, ‘We found out he is an informer.’ And George Sams then said, ‘No. No. No. No. He is not an informer. He knows all the informers.’ And Ericka Huggins, taking the lead, says what George Sams wants her to say: ‘Oh, he knows all the informers.’ And then she asked him if she should relate names … And George Sams was the one who said, ‘No, he will relate them to us.’
“Really, I would also like to ask you: What was Ericka to say, and who could she say it to? She tried. You remembered, she tried to speak to obey Seale. She got as far as ‘There is a brother…’ And then, in this group of men, whom Arnold Markle would have you believe she should have rallied to go back to the house to free this man—this group of men, she got cut off in.
“Maybe this seems unusual or impossible for Arnold Markle. But then, he is a man. And perhaps a few of the women in the jury will know just how easy it is to have that happen.”
Who Speaks For Alex Rackley?
Undeterred, Markle wound up with a passionate appeal to the jurors to act in the name of the man whose pitiful sobbing and “revelations” they heard on the tape recording.
“Did Alex Rackley have an attorney to speak for him? Did he have all the God-given rights of a trial? Did anyone speak for Alex Rackley? Did anyone say, ‘Stop, hold it. The man is entitled to medical attention, to kindness, to some kind of ministration of help’?” Markle proclaimed. Then he answered his question: “No, not at all. They all jumped in and beat him.
“Even animals don’t treat their own like that that I know of. But here we’ve got human beings.
” ... Who’s going to raise a hue and cry about a man from Florida, the poor man that comes from Florida and been in the party eight months? Did you hear one voice say, ‘Don’t do it. Stop. Help him’? Not at all—there was no voice. Because they didn’t care what happened to Rackley. They were in the pack, and they were after Rackley. And they used him, and they tossed him away all in the name—and that’s what makes it so, so deadly, so sad—all in the name of something that could have been decent.
“... They’ll tell you just George Sams was vicious, but they all partook. I mean, how can you leave a man tied to a bed, day after day, in his own filth, not feed him, and say that you were afraid? How can you go out and go about your own business, and go home every night and sleep, and eat, and do your own daily routine, and say that you are a human being?
“You are also the voice of Alex Rackley. Are we going to become so immune to violence, to hatred, that this man can be wiped out in the name of something that they are going to talk about in ethereal terms—when in practice no one is doing anything about it? Are we going to say to Alex Rackley, other Alex Rackleys, there’s no way to prove this?
“Because if you do get killed, we are going to be able to say: ‘There were political ramifications to this’? There were no political ramifications to the torture of Alex Rackley. .. Where were the ‘political ramifications’ for Alex Rackley? A virtually illiterate man who had come up from Flordia and was trying to make it in New York?
“They knew he was illiterate. They knew he was penniless. They knew everything they wanted to know about him. But they had him in their hands, and they wanted to play God. And they crushed him. They crushed him. Not us.”
In the end, after the jury couldn’t decide, Judge Mulvey not only declared a mistrial. He decided no new trial would take place. He wasn’t going to put Connecticut through all that judicial trauma again.
The Rackley affair was over. The judge and the prosecutor would go to their graves pretty much known for this case alone, not for their many other accomplishments. Bobby Seale became a popular speaker and author of barbecue cookbooks. Ericka Huggins moved west and joined a yoga group. Warren Kimbro served time, then turned around his life and until his death ran Project MORE, the state’s leading program giving ex-offenders second chances of their own.
It was never over for another Panther named George: George Edwards of New Haven. He, too, was tied to a chair, tortured and interrogated at gunpoint that day in Ethan Gardens. He never confessed to anything. He went to jail, then returned to New Haven and has spent decades as a community activist.
The Panthers made a tape of his interrogation, too, Edwards has always insisted. Click here for a story about how Edwards confronted Warren Kimbro at a 2006 event at the Yale Bookstore. Edwards demanded—and received—an apology from Kimbro for the torture; click on these two videos’ play arrows to watch what happened.
Meanwhile, Edwards asked, whatever happened to his tape?
So far it hasn’t turned up in anybody’s basement.
Paul Bass is co-author with Douglas W. Rae of Murder In The Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, And The Redemption Of A Killer (Basic Books, 2006).
Ian Applegate animated the NHI outro tag at the end of the top video.