By Jay Thorwaldson
On Deadline, Part the Third: Now for the Top Three of my Top 10 storiesUploaded: Mar 14, 2011
(Continued from Friday, March 11, column/blog.)
My Number 3 top news story: In mid-1966 I was reassigned from the Mountain View bureau of the Times to one of the main "beats" -- Palo Alto, then deeply divided over growth issues (then as now?).
After my first meeting, Editor Al Bodi advised me that it was important not just to list what happened at a meeting but how it happened. So I paid special attention to "how."
Then on Halloween 1966 a fist-fight nearly broke out between two feisty council members, hefty Bob Debs and compact Bob Cooley, on opposite sides of the growth-no growth debate in town. It was a full-blown "how" story. City Manager George Morgan physically kept them from going into the garden area to duke it out, as I stood scribbling notes a few feet away and wondering who would win. But they were pulled apart, shaking fists.
Bodi in an editorial called for putting all members of the council up for election at the next vote in May 1967, and a pro-growth "establishment" group took him up on it.
The bitter, name-calling election resulted in four of the six slow-growth "residentialists" getting voted off -- including Byron Sher, who made a comeback five years later and later became a respected state Assemblyman and Senator. Only council members Enid Pearson and Kirke Comstock survived the election on the residentialist side.
Number 2 top story is closely related to Number 3: In the aftermath of 1967, moderate residentialists regrouped and by the mid-1970s a truce was declared, ending the local "two-party system," involving former council members Larry Klein (now back on the council) and Mike Cobb.
But a second concern had arisen: the future of Skyline Ridge and foothills, being eyed hungrily by developers. A survey by Fadlo and Barbara Mousalem, which I reported in the Times, surprisingly showed strong support for increasing taxes to prevent that.
City planning officials started exploring ways to slow down growth, using zoning and regulations limiting houses on steeper slopes and requiring shallow slopes below housing pads, but they wouldn't acknowledge those as growth-control measures. A local piano teacher started badgering me about covering the five-hour meetings more thoroughly. I finally replied in self defense that the ideas were disingenuous and were weak anyway because a pro-growth future council could rescind them in 30 days.
One day Bodi called me into his office and (having talked to a foothills landowner or developer) took off angrily after the slope-related proposals. I agreed. I told him that I'd told this emotional woman that if they truly wanted to preserve the hills they should do what people did in the East Bay in 1933: Vote to create a park district and buy the land at fair market value. I noted that my dad had been a stock broker and said the magic words: "That's the American Way."
A slow smile spread across Bodi's face, and he said something like, "Yeah. Draft me an editorial." So on Feb. 16, 1970, the Times came out with a modest attack on the regulation-approach and suggested creating a district that would collect taxes and buy and preserve land in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. San Mateo rejected the plan, but Santa Clara decided to move ahead, and southern San Mateo County was later annexed by petition.
The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has now amassed nearly 60,000 acres and created hundreds of miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails -- replacing the barbed-wire-lined Skyline Boulevard of my youth. The power of the press.
At the district's 20th anniversary dinner I told the story of my early conversations with its principal founder, Nonette Hanko, and I introduced conservative Bodi (to his glee) as the true father of the district -- it was HIS editorial; I was just a reporter drafting it.
Finally, my NUMBER ONE top story of the past half century:
The antiwar and counterculture tensions of the late 1960s spilled over into a series of bombings and window-breaking attacks on the Peace Center in Palo Alto, Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park (founder Roy Kepler was a longtime Quaker pacifist), the storefront office of the counterculture Midpeninsula Free University, and liberal Palo Alto Councilman Comstock, after he proposed a local gun-control law.
A pall of fear clouded the community, or parts of it. Then in early 1969 I was contacted by an individual involved in the counterculture, an illegal alien from Canada -- which struck me as odd -- who became a multi-millionaire after founding a high-tech business. He slipped me a remarkable document.
I was sworn to secrecy, as he said the Palo Alto police already were investigating the highly detailed information in the multi-page letter, written by someone named Joe Dobiss. The Mercury's Ron Miller had also been slipped a copy. The letter listed nine individuals. It had driver's license numbers, gun serial numbers for a collection of guns and personality profiles.
Nothing happened for about two weeks. Then, pushing a bit, I joined a regular morning coffee session of Palo Alto detectives in the back room of a downtown restaurant. Walking out with Lt. Phil Ray I innocently asked if he'd ever heard of a Joe Dobiss. Oh yeah, he replied, adding that Dobiss had written a letter listing people but it was discounted after Dobiss was interviewed and was determined to be 50-50 (unstable). Embargo broken.
Dubious, I called Menlo Park Police Chief Victor Cyzanckis and asked what he thought of the Dobiss letter, as numerous articles had quoted comments about how closely the departments were collaborating.
"What letter?" Cizanckas asked. I told him. "I want it," he said. I said he could have a copy if he included me inside the investigation, and 10 minutes later I gave a copy to a Menlo Park officer in front of the Times building on Lytton Avenue.
Cizanckas called back within 20 minutes, saying one of his officers knew one of the persons listed, an attendant at a local service station. He created a fake letter of reprimand for young Officer Armand Lareau.
Lareau showed the letter to the attendant and griped bitterly about his "damned liberal chief." Thus he was drawn into the secret group -- the only case of which I'm aware where a uniformed police officer was able to infiltrate a secret terrorist group.
I met with Cizanckas every morning at 7 a.m. to go over what Lareau had found out, an incredible two-week top-secret time. Only I, the city editor and the editor knew what was going on.
From a City Hall source, I learned that Comstock was going to raise the issue at a Monday-night council meeting, demanding action -- and very likely scaring the group into silence and inactivity. On my own I stopped by Comstock's house (closely watched by the FBI, I knew -- I could see the hood of the FBI car sticking out from behind a hedge just down the street, like a billboard). I told Comstock that if he raised the matter in public he would likely scare the group into laying low, so he backed off.
On Valentine's Day night in 1969 police agencies staged a multi-community raid and rounded everyone up. Palo Alto cops were horrified that I, a reporter, was in the back row of the pre-raid briefing.
The following day the Times had a "NAZI TERROR NET" banner headline, and sold 1,800 more copies than usual with the multi-page story. I went to bed after a 36-hour stint of covering and writing the raids, and coordinating photos.
It was surely the best "scoop" of my career.
I followed up with an interview with Roy Kepler, and visited one of the group, John Mirto, in jail. He initially wanted $500, which I laughed off. But he told me his side anyway. He resided in College Terrace, and police said he had enough kegs of black powder in his house to blow up part of his block, at least.
I became kind-of friends with a godfather to the group, Jos Cooney, who didn't know about the bombings. He used to sit behind me at meetings and at an award ceremony, which freaked out my wife. He had a wonderful Irish brogue, and once said, "If there's iver anythin' I can do for ya, gi' me a call."
"Thanks, Jos. I'll call you.