Deceased former federal agent Thomas Sledge of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division is suddenly the subject of a mystery, following the recent disclosure of the Midwest 22 conspiracy investigation conducted by the Omaha, Nebraska ATF office. Sledge, a former Omaha policeman, is older brother to James Sledge, one of the responding officers injured at the August 17, 1970 bombing ambush that claimed the life of Patrolman Larry Minard, Sr.
The mystery will not be a happy one for relatives of Sledge that still treasure the memorabilia of his career as an ATF agent. Was Thomas Sledge an honest agent or a rogue cop that planted dynamite particles in clothing pockets of two men to assure their conviction?
Black Panther leaders Edward Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (then David Rice) were Midwest 22 targets and following their conviction for the murder of Minard became known as the Omaha Two. Both men, serving life sentences, deny any role in a bombing conspiracy or the death of the policeman.
Dynamite particles allegedly found by an ATF chemist in the clothing of the two Black Panther leaders had always been questionable given that both men tested clean for dynamite on swab tests. In Mondo’s case, the Omaha World-Herald published a photo of Mondo, hands deep in pants pockets, just moments before he was tested at the Douglas County Jail. Mondo’s hands were clean but the pockets dirty with explosive particles according to the ATF version of the case.
Ed Poindexter’s dynamite particles were found in a shirt pocket. Poindexter was actually arrested twice for the crime about a week apart. Released for lack of evidence, the head of the National Committee to Combat Fascism, Omaha’s affiliate chapter of the Black Panthers had to depart the jail in his underwear after the first arrest because Thomas Sledge and Deputy Chief of Police Glen Gates were carrying Poindexter’s clothes for analysis to the ATF Laboratory.
Glen Gates filed a report on his trip explaining he wanted a preliminary report to “enhance the investigation”. Gates got what he wanted, a preliminary finding of dynamite traces in Poindexter’s shirt.
Glen Gates may have placed dynamite particles in Poindexter’s shirt without Sledge’s knowledge, assuming they both had access to the garment on the flight to Washington, D.C. Gates was already conspiring with Paul Young, the Special Agent-in-Charge of the Omaha FBI office, to withhold a laboratory report on the identity of the anonymous 911 caller that lured police to a deadly trap.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was engaged in a massive clandestine and illegal counterintelligence operation against thousands of American citizens because of their political beliefs code-named COINTELPRO. Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa were both COINTELPRO targets that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover marked for elimination.
The FBI at the time was a bureaucratic pyramid with Hoover directing actions by the field offices while the ATF operated quite differently. The fragmented history of the ATF created a decentralized agency with considerable discretion and autonomy in the field offices. There was no national COINTELPRO program at ATF like that run by Hoover at the FBI. Individual ATF offices pursued their own investigations with uneven outcomes.
The two federal agencies were involved in a bitter rivalry for jurisdiction over bombings. The Omaha Two case was somewhat unique in that both the FBI and ATF worked with the Omaha Police Department on the case. However, because the FBI role was corrupted by COINTELPRO directives on the withholding of a FBI Laboratory report, the agency stayed in the background uncharacteristically letting ATF get the public attention.
One of the lead ATF agents in Omaha was Thomas Sledge. Sledge’s role in the Omaha Two case is a matter of record save for his possible tampering with evidence on the trip to the ATF Laboratory. Sledge investigated the crime, was allowed to interrogate Duane Peak, the confessed teen bomber, transported evidence and testified at trial. Sledge’s role in the Midwest 22 conspiracy investigation is less clear but he may have been in charge of the case.
So far there has been no official admission that the Omaha ATF office sought a show trial against twenty-two alleged conspirators in four states but were rebuffed by United States Attorney Richard Dier. The reluctant Dier refused to prosecute Omaha’s list of suspects and explained the “trend in the judiciary is away from major complex conspiracies.” The Midwest 22 investigation came to light last month when a court researcher found an ATF case closure note buried in a file.
Thomas Sledge was definitely the prime mover against the Black Panthers in the Omaha ATF office. In July 1970, Sledge went to U. S. District Court and sought a search warrant for the NCCF headquarters. Sledge used a twelve year-old girl as the basis for his search warrant. Although an Omaha magistrate issued Sledge a search warrant the Justice Department called off the search while Sledge briefed the raiding party. A Justice Department official later said Sledge’s informant was unreliable.
James Moore, a retired ATF agent from Kansas City, Missouri blamed the cancelled raid on the rivalry with the FBI. Moore offered details from behind the scenes in his book Very Special Agents based on “contemporaneous conversations and subsequent interviews” with Thomas Sledge and others.
Moore wrote: “Sledge summoned ATF agents, Omaha police and U.S. marshals to plan a raid. While Sledge briefed the task force, prosecutor Dier telephoned the FBI.” Richard Dier called the FBI to determine if they had information about matters inside the NCCF headquarters.
Dier shortly thereafter got a call from the Justice Department with orders to cancel the search. Moore wrote: “While the task force cooled its heels in the federal building, FBI agents went door to door in the Panthers’ neighborhood asking everyone whether there were weapons or explosives inside the headquarters.”
Moore’s view is that the FBI did not want to get scooped by the ATF and scuttled the search to avoid ATF agents finding explosives. Under J. Edgar Hoover’s dictatorial leadership of the FBI, agents that were embarrassed by ATF rivals were candidates for disciplinary measures. Paul Young had already received a stern letter from Hoover in December 1969 telling him to get “imaginative” about eliminating Omaha’s Panther leadership.
Thomas Sledge was trying to piece together a conspiracy case and wanted inside the NCCF headquarters where he believed bombings throughout the Midwest were planned. Sledge stated in an affidavit that an FBI agent, Sidney Pruitt, told him a FBI informant claimed the Black Panthers had bought machine guns from a convicted felon.
Sledge’s twelve year-old informant purportedly told him she had seen ten boxes of machine guns and “fifteen more or less bundles of twelve sticks” of dynamite at NCCF headquarters. Sledge claimed Mary Clark, his young informant, also witnessed the construction of the bomb which damaged the Components Concepts Corporation building in Omaha on July 2, 1970. The Components Concept bombing was never solved and no arrests were made for the explosion despite Sledge’s sworn affidavit which said in part: “Frank and William Peak, Calvin Drake, Melvin Collins, and Calvin Drake’s brother put together a bomb of dynamite.”
Sledge’s search warrant was part of the Midwest 22 investigation and places him at the center of the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney William Gallup was so angry that Sledge had been stopped and the search cancelled that Gallup resigned as a federal prosecutor and went into the private practice of law. The frustrated Sledge stayed on at ATF despite the reversal and ended up handling dynamite evidence in the Omaha Two case.
Thomas Sledge’s role, if any, with dynamite particles and pockets has gone to the grave with him. However, Sledge’s cancelled search warrant by the Justice Department and declined prosecution by the U.S. Attorney in the Midwest 22 case do put Sledge and his access to critical evidence in a new light. Thus, an unanswerable question, did Thomas Sledge cross the line by allowing Glen Gates to “enhance the investigation” on the trip to Washington, or did Sledge conduct his own COINTELPRO-type operation by dusting the clothing of Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa with dynamite?
For further information see Crime Magazine