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May 11, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 11, 2005

On Deadline: When Roy Kepler stood up to the 'Nazi terror net' On Deadline: When Roy Kepler stood up to the 'Nazi terror net' (May 11, 2005)

by Jay Thorwaldson

One of the oddest chapters in the life of Roy Kepler and his bookstore occurred in 1968-69, when he became a target of a clandestine local group of would-be terrorists -- although "terrorist" was a term rarely used then.

Nine persons were arrested in a multi-agency police raid on Valentine's Day night, 1969 -- but charges were dropped against one of those, Joseph D. (Joss) Cooney of Menlo Park, because he had been kept in the dark about the active attacks of the others. Most of those arrested spent a year or two in jail, and were never heard from again in the annals of local history.

The group's intent was to frighten liberals, leftists, radicals and others with whom they disagreed into silence on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to local efforts to support gun control. They failed, but it is difficult to describe the climate of fear and paranoia they engendered throughout the community.

I was directly involved as a young reporter for the Palo Alto Times, and played a small but pivotal role -- along with several others -- in ending what had become an almost tangible pall of fear in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and neighboring communities.

When the story broke in the Times -- with a newsstand headline that screamed, "NAZI TERROR NET" -- the paper sold a record 1,800 extra copies that day. But I was fast asleep as the newsracks emptied out -- I had been awake 36 straight hours. There was a photo showing a huge collection of Nazi paraphernalia and literature, and many guns.

The headline was a partial misnomer -- the group also was comprised of deeply fundamentalist followers of a right-wing Christian preacher based in Arizona, tapes of whom were played at "Society of Man" weekly Bible-study meetings at a Menlo Park home. A member of the group later confirmed (during one of several jail visits I made) that the preacher "made Billy Graham look like a liberal."

Then the group of nine would meet to discuss politics, and when Cooney went home the others would adjourn to a bomb-making factory -- in the basement of a home on University Street, not far from Draeger's market. (Cooney, who had a broad Irish brogue, and I later became friends.)

Kepler was not the sole target. Former Palo Alto City Councilman Kirke Comstock -- who now resides in Portola Valley -- had the front door of his Palo Alto home blown to smithereens by a homemade bomb, which also took out a grandfather clock. A counterculture organization, the Midpeninsula Free University (MFU), which had a storefront on El Camino a short ways north of Kepler's old bookstore, was also targeted, along with the Peace Center on Lytton Avenue in Palo Alto.

The cast of characters reads like a script for a badly conceived Hollywood B movie. But it was true. Before it was over, the drama involved city officials, several police departments, the FBI, the Times, Kepler and supporters, and an odd assortment of individuals from the left, right and center.

Somewhere along the line, the terrorist group was joined by a Joe Dobiss, who began compiling a remarkable document: a lengthy, single-spaced typewritten letter detailing names, addresses, driver's license numbers, the kind of guns they owned (with serial numbers) and verbal sketches of the personalities of each member.

Dobiss gave the letter to Kepler and others in the MFU, who in turn passed it on to the Palo Alto Police Department -- and slipped confidential copies to me and other reporters. But a Palo Alto officer discounted the letter and didn't share it with Menlo Park police -- an internal investigation later cleared him of complicity, however.

I queried Menlo Park Police Chief Victor Cizanckas: "What letter?" he asked. I provided a copy on condition that he keep me informed -- we began meeting each morning at 7 a.m. for a briefing. He had an officer, Armand Lareau, who knew one of those mentioned in the letter, and Cizanckas decided to make Lareau appear to be a "Birch cop" unhappy with being reprimanded by the liberal chief.

Thus began an intensive, ultra-secret investigation of several weeks, with suspicion on all sides, until group members were arrested for conspiracy for planning to disrupt a lecture on Communist China at the Unitarian Church in Palo Alto.

But Kepler's act of courage had occurred many weeks earlier, before Dobiss wrote his letter. After repeated window smashings and a death threat, Kepler had hired a private investigator, and attended two of the Bible-study meetings despite serious misgivings of his wife, Patricia.

In an interview a week after the arrests, Kepler told me that although it was "a pretty tough experience" to be a target he was unshaken in his pacifist beliefs, and felt that there were important lessons to be learned from the experience.

"I was an item of some curiosity," he said of his initial visit. "We had a rather interesting dialogue." He was asked about the MFU, the United Nations and violence and non-violence. The members were polite.

"I told them the first Christians -- for about 300 years -- would never be soldiers or carry spears," he said.

Two weeks later he went to a second meeting, with MFU Coordinator Robert Cullenbine and a Quaker friend, Tom Coats. "It was all to let them see me as a human being," Kepler said. Dobiss was at the meeting, compiling information for his letter, independent of the private investigator. (A photo of Kepler and Dobiss is on page 14.)

Kepler characterized his political views as outside the usual left-right spectrum, rejecting ideology in favor of the process of how things are done and how people treat each other.

Pacifism is "at the opposite ends from communism in terms of methodology. Communism holds that the 'ends justify the means,' while pacifism rests on the idea the 'the means determine the ends,'" he said. He said the left-wing radicals who took to the streets in the Vietnam War-era bore some responsibility for the terror group members feeling they needed to take things into their own hands.

"I'm hopeful (recent events) may have mellowed them, but what I'm really hopeful about is that people will have learned to deal with each other instead of with stereotypes of each other," Kepler said -- applicable to those of the left, right and center, now as then.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.




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