Suburban Philadelphia native's route from Boy Scout to bomber to fugitive

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PHILADELPHIA — During the chaotic late 1960s at the University of Wisconsin, an epicenter of that era's crumbling conformity, the marijuana haze was sometimes as thick as the tear gas.

But Leo Burt's drug of choice was discipline.

The serious-minded philosophy major and rower from Havertown had learned it in a strict Catholic household, adhered to it during 12 years at St. Denis Grade School and Monsignor Bonner High, honed it at a Marine Platoon Leaders Class, and perfected it through the rigors and deprivations that rowing demanded.

As an undersized member of the Badgers crew team, Burt welcomed the sport's challenges. He didn't drink or smoke, didn't date, and ran the steep Camp Randall Stadium steps in Madison so relentlessly his thighs grew taut as oars.

It was as if he were steeling himself for his future as one of the most elusive fugitives in American history.

At 3:40 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1970, Burt and three accomplices ignited a massive truck bomb that tore through the university's Sterling Hall. The antiwar movement's most powerful and frightening explosion of rage, it killed a 33-year-old physicist named Robert Fassnacht and injured three other people. Three blocks away, residents were knocked from their beds. Thirty miles away, other Wisconsinites heard its rumble.

Eleven days later, shortly after Burt's smiling, bespectacled, and unthreatening face first appeared on newspaper front pages and post office walls, he slipped out the rear window of a Canadian boardinghouse and vanished.

His three coconspirators — among them a Delaware teenager — were long ago captured, imprisoned, and paroled. So were others from those turbulent times - once-defiant radical underground figures such as Weathermen leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, and Kathy Boudin, the Bryn Mawr graduate involved in a deadly 1981 Brink's truck robbery.

But for 44 years, Burt has remained at large, the last phantom of the 1960s.

"At this point," said John Vaudreuil, the U.S. attorney in Madison, "he's the longest-running FBI fugitive."

All these years later, Burt's story is unfinished and largely unremembered. It's also worth reviewing now when the political and cultural divide he and his crime both embodied and exacerbated seems broader than ever.

A three-month Inquirer reexamination did not uncover Burt, but it did give flesh to a ghost. Revisiting this nearly forgotten fugitive and a crime the FBI then termed "the largest act of domestic terror in U.S. history" helps explain how America ruptured, how a rower became a radical, how someone so thoughtful managed something so unthinkable.

An altar boy, Boy Scout, and Marine trainee, Burt was raised on American certainties about patriotism, faith, and duty. Then a polarizing war, an unpopular draft, and a White House bent on deception rearranged that world.

Minds changed. Generations warred. Campuses erupted. And with the discord thick as a fog, one Leo Burt vanished and another emerged.

"It's as if he was two different people," said Kevin Cassidy, the Madison-based FBI agent now charged with finding him. "The Boy Scout and the Bomber."

Though dropped from the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List in the mid-1970s, Burt has never left its radar.

Generations of agents have hunted him. The tips have been surprisingly steady and plentiful, particularly after he was featured in a 2010 episode of America's Most Wanted.

As recently as May, as a reporter spoke with Cassidy for this story, someone phoned a possible Burt sighting into the FBI's Madison office.

Leads have pointed his pursuers to a boat shop in Hawaii, a resort in Costa Rica, and a homeless shelter in Colorado. Others have placed him in Algeria, Cuba, Canada, California, Ohio, and even Center City Philadelphia.

Joe Muldowney, who rowed with Burt at Penn AC, told the FBI in the mid-1970s that he had seen the fugitive on Chestnut Street.

"I approached him and said, 'Hey, Leo, how you doing?' " Muldowney recalled. "He turned and looked at me with a look of recognition on his face. And, with no words, he just turned and walked away. . . . I'm certain it was Leo."

For a time, Burt was even suspected as the Unabomber after a police sketch in that case portrayed a curly-haired look-alike in a hoodie and wire-rimmed sunglasses.

The son of one of his Bonner teammates researched the case for a graduate thesis and theorized that Burt is probably in Canada, likely near the rowing hub of St. Catharines on Lake Ontario.

"He's probably just blended in," Joe Brennan Jr. said. "Just another white guy in Canada."

Burt's FBI file remains active, its records sealed. Whenever prosecutors want to compare the fingerprints taken during Burt's Marine training with a new suspect's, they must petition the court.

The long search has yielded a mountain of evidence — a typewriter Burt used, a 1972 Liberation article he is thought to have written, letters to family and friends, and decades' worth of interviews and reports.

"An agent in the Unabomber case once asked for all the records," Vaudreuil said. "We said, 'How many trucks do you have?' "

All that evidence, all those tips have led investigators to the same place — nowhere.

Burt would be 66 years old now, and a fugitive for two-thirds of his life. According to a computer-aged image the FBI created by photographing his male relatives, he would have silver hair, an angular face, and traces of the acne that tormented him as a teenager.

One thing that wouldn't have changed, investigators believe, is his self-discipline.

Leo Burt has made no mistakes on the run. He has thoroughly abandoned his past.


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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com

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