An article by Alex Fryer published in the Seattle Times on June 24, 1999
Stepping into the mid-day Colorado sun, John Sherman pauses, searches his pockets for a quarter and excuses himself to make a phone call.
He tells a half-way house on the other side of Boulder that he is leaving a bakery to go back to work. It’s one of the conditions of parole, he explains later. That, and not eating poppy seed muffins, which show up as opium in drug tests. Minor inconveniences, he says, for a man who has spent the past 18 years in prison.
The last time Sherman walked free, he used a false name and told no one that his past included leading Seattle’s most notorious radical group and a stint on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. The once shoulder-length hair is now short, thin and gray; the black-framed glasses familiar in news photos and police bulletins have been replaced by thin spectacles, and the handlebar mustache is cropped and neatly trimmed.
Freedom means more than living in a room without bars. It means being able to answer questions about who you are. Ask Sherman about a quarter-inch scar just above his jaw line, and he will tell you about a botched bank robbery in Tukwila on a cold January day in 1976. Ask him why he and two others were trying to rob the bank, and he will tell you about his time in the George Jackson Brigade.
Named after a Black Power radical killed in San Quentin prison, the George Jackson Brigade began its run of destruction by blowing up a power station in Laurelhurst in the dawning minutes of the country’s bicentennial celebration, New Year’s Day 1976.
Two years, 11 bombings and 14 bank robberies later, the FBI finally caught up with the last three members of the brigade while they ordered hamburgers at a Tacoma drive-in.
The motivation behind the George Jackson Brigade was simple, says Sherman. There was a war going on between ideologies, between generations. For the 20 million people who celebrated their 18th birthday between 1964 and 1970, the question often wasn’t what you opposed - the draft, racism, the Establishment - but rather, how far you were willing to go to oppose it.
For Sherman, that meant bombings, bank robberies and jail breaks, each more outrageous than the last. “It was an idea of an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ “ he says. “Only if injustice could be eradicated, then the full potential of human life could show itself. I think it was optimistic and idealistic and hopeful.”
FBI special agent Richard Mathers describes it differently. “It was all a lot of left-wing drivel,” says Mathers, the former bank-robbery coordinator who tracked Sherman two decades ago. “They were hoodlums.”
Twenty-one years ago, the question of whether the George Jackson Brigade was a band of common criminals or a cadre of idealists channeling the last of a generation’s anger was placed before a federal-court jury in Seattle. The question tormented the jurors and forced them into unexpected soul-searching. The judge’s sentence, when it came, shocked the prosecutors, changed Sherman’s life, and closed the curtain on a troubled era of Seattle history.
Today, some people still fear the convicts-turned-revolutionaries they say poisoned the antiwar movement with acts of violence. Others answer questions about the brigade with trepidation, fearful that the FBI could arrest their friends and acquaintances for helping members on the lam 20 years ago.
Even through the rear view mirror of history, John Sherman and the George Jackson Brigade defy easy judgment. The lines that once defined a generation, it seems, haven’t disappeared quite yet.
When a pipe bomb filled with 12 pounds of gunpowder blew up a transformer at the Laurelhurst substation just after midnight Jan. 1, 1976, neighborhood residents put on jackets and came out to watch the blaze, at first thinking the explosion may have been fireworks.
More than 2,000 gallons of oil leaked out and burned, sending flames shooting into the winter sky. Though temperatures were in the mid-20s, investigators had to wait nine hours before the site cooled down enough to search. Damages were estimated at $275,000. The next day, police blamed the Weather Underground, a radical group with members across the country, and warned to expect more bombings throughout the bicentennial.
Sherman remembers watching the explosion on television, with other members of the George Jackson Brigade. He doesn’t remember if there was a celebration when the device finally went off, a few minutes later than expected.
“My recollection is more general,” he says, sitting in a conference room of the Gangaji Foundation, an Eastern spiritual group that has been his employer since his release from prison. “Just that it was the best bombing I ever heard of.” His voice becomes barely audible. “Still is.”
There was little in Sherman’s background to suggest he would one day become a devotee of political violence. In the fall of 1968, Sherman was a 27-year-old gambler and petty thief when he was arrested for buying a car with a bad check. The New Jersey native and one-time dockyard machinist had fled Los Angeles to start a new life in the Northwest. He got as far as Grants Pass, Ore.
Politics meant nothing to Sherman when he entered McNeil Island Penitentiary. He was released three years later a radical leftist who could quote from Marx, Mao and Lenin.
In 1975, Sherman led a dual life, working at Boeing and dreaming of revolution. Although the days of civil-rights marches and antiwar protests had largely ended, the leftist community in Seattle continued to thrive. By then, “The Movement” included peace activists, anti-nuclear organizers and those who formed collective businesses such as Puget Sound Consumers Cooperative and Left Bank Books. Some were committed to democratic change, remembers Jo Mayne, who worked at a collective restaurant. Others expounded a political agenda that seemed alternately romantic and delusional, she says. “You could create a revolutionary army with six people and a mimeograph machine,” she says.
Sherman joined the George Jackson Brigade when his friend and fellow inmate at McNeil Island, Ed Mead, came by his Renton home to ask his advice. Mead helped found the brigade in 1975 with other radicals, including Rita Brown, her friend Therese Coupez, Black Panther member Mark Cook, and Bruce Siedel. Brown and Cook were ex-convicts who joined political movements after prison; Siedel was a student at the University of Washington who helped produce a radical newspaper.
After placing a bomb in a Capitol Hill Safeway store in September 1975 to support a boycott on California table grapes, the George Jackson Brigade was looking to do something that would engender more support in the leftist community. Sherman suggested bombing a substation to bring attention to striking Seattle City Light workers.
If it was intended to impress the radical left, the bombing had mixed results. Most observers roundly condemned the use of violence. Others said they understood the motivation. “All that violent stuff seemed strange,” says John Gilbert, who was an actor at Intiman Theatre and the Rep in the mid-1970s. “But it was an important critique of society. You can’t justify the violence, but there was a general feeling that they may have been extreme, or even crazy, but they were right.”
Despite a condemnation of the bombing by union officials, members of the brigade thought they had achieved a stunning success; less than a month after the bombing, the City Light workers signed a new contract. Members of the brigade went underground, and plotted to survive by robbing banks. Sherman crossed the line between activist and criminal.
On the late afternoon of Jan. 23, 1976, Sherman, Mead and Seidel walked into the Pacific National Bank in Tukwila with ski masks over their faces. Less than an hour later, after a shootout with Tukwila police, Seidel lay dying, Sherman was hit in the jaw, and Mead threw his handgun out a window to surrender.
Sherman wouldn’t stay in custody for long. Another member of the brigade shot Sherman’s police escort when he was being transferred from Harborview Medical Center to the King County Jail. The officer, Virgil Johnson, underwent surgery and recovered. Sherman still refuses to name the person who assisted his escape, but Cook was arrested for the crime the following day.
After waiting for police pressure to subside, Sherman, Coupez and Brown drove to Portland, where they were joined by Janine Darcy Bertram, who gained some attention a few years earlier when she tried to form a local chapter of a prostitutes’ union.
Three months after the Tukwila shootout and Sherman’s jailbreak, the brigade started robbing banks and planting bombs throughout the Seattle area again, and they didn’t stop for the next two years.
If it looks as if he were following a plan, it is an illusion, Sherman says now. “When Bruce got killed and Virgil got shot, it didn’t matter that it didn’t feel right because I was in the midst of it, and to turn away, I don’t think I was even capable of considering it,” he says. “I thought that, with the bombings, maybe we were setting an example, by being true to what we believed, by being a voice to the those who were voiceless.”
When Special Agent Richard Mathers started tracking Sherman and the others, a photograph of Gerald Ford hung from the walls of the Seattle office of the FBI. Now, Mathers walks past a portrait of Bill Clinton as he carries a file marked “George Jackson Brigade.”
Thumbing through the yellowed pages, Mathers lays out photographs and still pictures from bank security cameras. Throughout the late 1970’s, the George Jackson Brigade was the FBI’s top priority, he says.
“They’re blowing up power stations and robbing banks and getting away, and that makes you mad. You want to show the rest of the criminal community that you can catch them. It’s a matter of pride.” Mathers and five other agents showed photographs to waitresses, mail carriers and bank employees. They also tracked down former roommates and friends.
In 1975, Ruth Sabiers moved to Seattle from Ohio and began volunteering at Left Bank Books in Pike Place Market. In the next two years, the brigade left many of its communiques on the bookstore steps, which made her and other volunteers the target of police surveillance, she says. While antiwar activists like Jo Mayne dismissed the brigade as violent criminals who polluted the peace movement, Sabiers says the group helped the left define its moral boundaries. “They caused people to think. If you believed there are ills in society, how do you go about changing things? Do you rob banks and make bombs? How do you make a point? It made you look at your own politics.”
The brigade couldn’t run forever, and Mathers knew it was only a matter of time before someone slipped them a critical tip. On Nov. 4, 1977, a bank employee in Northgate recognized Rita Brown in the parking lot. After Brown was arrested, police followed the rabies tags on her dog to the brigade’s rental house, but Sherman and the two others were listening to the police radio and slipped away.
In early March, a former guard at McNeil Island Penitentiary recognized Sherman’s voice when he ordered food at the Jubilee Hamburger Restaurant in Tacoma. Agents were waiting when Sherman, Coupez and Bertram returned on March 21. They were arrested without a struggle.
From the beginning, it wasn’t an ordinary day in court. Sherman was tried for 14 bank robberies and 11 bombings, and, later, in a separate trial, the Tukwila bank robbery. During opening statements at his first trial in September 1978, Sherman rambled on for more than an hour, lecturing about feudal agriculture, the Mexican-American War, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Safeway’s financial performance and the cost of living in the People’s Republic of China - all intending to prove that armed resistance to authority was righteous, necessary and warranted.
While the prosecution provided some 300 exhibits and 80 witnesses, Sherman sought to explain his political motivations and the careful tactics the brigade used after the Tukwila robbery to avoid confrontations with police. He hired a young woman - Marianne Pulfer, who happened to be a former Miss Walla Walla - to draw maps for his defense. In his closing statement, Sherman asked the jury to acknowledge his crimes, but set him free. “Capitalism excretes the violence and terror of unemployment, the violence and terror of war, the violence and terror of crushing poverty,” he told the jurors. “We’ve said from the beginning that we wanted to be judged not on the narrow issue of whether or not we robbed this bank or bombed this or that transformer, but on whether or not what we did was serving the interests of the vast majority of people.”
The prosecutor’s version: “What they were doing for the good of the people they were doing for the good of themselves, because they’re nothing more than common bank robbers espousing the use of some political philosophy that they think justifies their actions.”
In the jury room, the mood was anxious and thoughtful. President Carter had pardoned 10,000 draft evaders in 1977, a controversial move aimed at providing some sense of closure to agonies of the Vietnam era. Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was preparing for a presidential campaign. Young people were in discos, not demonstrations. But the crucible of the 1960s and early 1970s provided the 12 jurors with an appreciation of those who questioned the government. It wasn’t easy to condemn what you understood. “It was something I’ll never forget,” says Karen Marchioro, a former King County Democratic chairwoman who was a juror for Sherman’s trial. “It’s hard for people today to understand how you could feel sympathy for this guy, but here was a bright guy who believed in the same stuff we believed in. In the end, you realized that what he did was bad and hurt his causes.”
Both juries found Sherman guilty on all counts. It could have been the end of Sherman’s life as a free man. The prosecution wanted him to serve hundreds of years behind bars. Sentencing guidelines, if followed precisely, called for life in prison. Instead, judges at both trials chose differently. “Mr. Sherman is obviously a very intelligent man. He would have made a great lawyer,” said the Hon. W.A. Bottle, a visiting judge from Macon, GA, during sentencing. “I wish that I were more of a Solomon. I’m going to pronounce a sentence and, believe it or not, it’s about as light, fully light as my conscience will permit me to make it. I do have a conscience. I am concerned about poor people. I’m one of you, but I don’t rebel against society. I wish there was something I could say to cause Mr. Sherman to think, to rid himself of what he confesses to be his own biases and look more favorably on the justice under the law.”
Instead of 200 years in prison, Sherman was sentenced to a total of 20 for both convictions. And that was more than anyone could have done to make Sherman rethink the concept of “us” and “them.” “You’d have to have a heart of stone not to realize what an incredible dissonance that produced in the whole thing,” Sherman says. “You’d have to be a fanatic and close your ears and say, `No, I didn’t hear that, that didn’t happen.’ I left there saying, `Wow, what in the world is going on? What am I missing here? What’s happening here that isn’t quite clear to me?’ “ “In the end, I wish we all could have had a beer, and sat down and talked about this, and examined the right and the wrong.”
While the judge’s words rocked his beliefs to their foundation, something else happened in Sherman’s life that dwarfed political considerations: He fell in love. In a courthouse ceremony attended by dozens of armed federal agents, he married Pulfer. Four months later, in March 1979, she helped him escape by hiding an unloaded revolver in the bathroom of an eye-doctor’s office he was visiting outside the federal prison in Lompoc, California. The two eventually settled in Denver. Sherman was working as an organizer for the machinists’ union when he was arrested in 1981. The FBI had tracked a Christmas present the couple sent to Seattle.
Sherman and Pulfer divorced in 1983, and he joined the rest of the brigade behind bars. Rita Brown was sentenced to 25 years for bank robbery. Janine Bertram was sentenced to 10 years for bank robbery and conspiracy, and Therese Coupez was sentenced to 20 years for bank robbery, conspiracy and bombing. All were released early. For her part in Sherman’s escape, Pulfer served about six months.
In prison, Sherman discovered the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, a guru who preached that peace can be found only by looking within, and recognizing the rapture of just being conscious. After he was released to a half-way house in April 1998, Sherman began working for the Gangaji Foundation in Boulder, an organization dedicated to bringing Indian teachings to the West. In October, he bought a 1988 Saab and followed the foundation to its new office in Marin County.
Last June, Sherman married another member of the foundation, and says he has found complete joy. Having no contact with any of the members of the brigade is one of the conditions of his parole. That’s not likely anyhow, he says.
Ed Mead is a computer specialist for a San Francisco physicians’ association. Rita Brown works for the California highway department and is still active in radical politics. Darcy Bertram, according to Mead, married a former staff member of the Reagan administration. Therese Coupez is an acupuncturist in San Francisco. Mark Cook is currently being held in a minimal-custody unit at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. According to the state Department of Corrections, his earliest release date is Oct. 16, 2004.
Sherman missed the Reagan Revolution, the end of communism, and the sweeping technological changes that reshaped the country, but says the fundamental pursuit of happiness hasn’t changed since the days of protest marches and political violence.
“Now, the taste of the time is ‘me and my comfort.’ That’s the exact opposite of the 1960s and ‘70s, where there was a renunciation of material goods. But it’s still the same old business that something can be done, or undone, that will produce happiness. I don’t see very many happy people here today, nor did I see very many happy people in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Today, injustices no longer spark Sherman’s outrage. But he still carries a sense of restlessness, as if the energy that drove him to plant bombs and rob banks has been refocused on spiritual fulfillment. Sherman himself can’t answer if he has not simply replaced one with another. “My only goal is that, with the last breath of this life, I will feel that life is not wasted,” he says. “And to feel that a life is wasted is to take the last breath and say, ‘I’m still not satisfied. I still didn’t get it. Whatever it was, I didn’t get it.’ “
Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company. All rights reserved.