Opinion

Leo Burt is 70 — maybe

Fate of famous fugitive still a mystery

I missed Leo Frederick Burt’s birthday the other day. It appears everybody did. At least I can find no public acknowledgment that on April 18, Madison’s most famous fugitive turned 70.

That’s assuming he’s alive, of course. Many in law enforcement believe Burt is long dead. They were telling me that 22 years ago, in 1996, when I wrote a cover story on Burt for Madison Magazine.One thing is certain: Of the four men suspected of planting a bomb in the Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall on the UW-Madison campus in August 1970 — the resulting blast killed a young researcher — Burt is the only one who was never captured.

Inevitably, as the years passed and Burt remained at large, his infamy grew. Whatever happened to Leo Burt is Madison’s great unfinished story. There have been sightings (all unconfirmed) and suspicions (was he an FBI informant?). But in the end, nobody knows. At least nobody willing to speak.

Of the various theories advanced over the years, none was more intriguing than Tom Bates’ assertion that Burt was the Unabomber, the domestic terrorist who mailed explosives that killed three and injured dozens more between 1978-1995.

Bates was then working for the Portland Oregonian newspaper, and he’d written earlier about Burt and the Madison bombing in “Rads,” a book published in 1992.

Bates found striking similarities between the Unabomber’s “manifesto,” which was published in major newspapers, and Burt’s own writing from the underground. A composite sketch of the Unabomber in dark glasses and a hoodie bore a resemblance to Burt.

I interviewed Bates (who died in 1999) and wrote a Madison Magazine story. Six months later, the actual Unabomber — Ted Kaczynski — was captured.

I felt a little sheepish, though my story was about more than the Bates theory. I wrote about Burt’s Pennsylvania upbringing and the shift that occurred when he left the Badgers crew team and began writing political stories for The Daily Cardinal.What writing that article really did for me was assure a sustained interest in the mystery of Leo Burt.

On Wisconsin, the quarterly magazine of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, asked me in 2005 to write an article about Burt on the 35th anniversary of the bombing.

I interviewed a Pennsylvania native named Joe Brennan who was writing a book about Burt titled “The Last Radical.” Brennan’s father had rowed with Burt in high school. Brennan said he had spoken to people who claimed to have seen Burt in Canada. His book remains unpublished.

My lasting memory from that 2005 article was interviewing a retired FBI agent who spent a decade chasing Burt. We spoke at his home in Middleton Hills. Early in the interview, he excused himself to use the rest room. When he came back he collapsed — a major heart attack. I phoned 911. The Middleton EMTs did remarkable work. It was touch and go for 24 hours, but he survived.

Since then? Well, in 2006 I had a chance to interview Bill Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground who spent 11 years on the run and wrote a book called “Fugitive Days.”

I asked Ayers about Leo Burt. He recognized the name but couldn’t immediately place it. Ayers was stunned when I elaborated and said Burt was still a fugitive (at that point it had been 36 years).

“That’s amazing,” Ayers said.

“You really didn’t know?”

“I remember who he is,” Ayers said. “I’ll be damned.”

I mentioned at the outset that many in law enforcement believe Burt is dead. It’s not just that he hasn’t been captured. When the third bomber to be apprehended, David Fine, received only a short prison sentence, some felt that if Burt was alive he would turn himself in rather than spend the rest of his life underground, unable to connect with family and friends.

That was in 1976.

There were numerous stories on the 40th anniversary of the bombing in 2010. In 2014, the Philadelphia Inquirer did a two-part series, focused on Burt, the home-state boy.

“Everybody has a theory,” Joe Brennan told me more than a decade ago.

Since August 1970, when it comes to Leo Burt, anything remains possible – even turning 70. 

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


Madison Magazine Subscription

Get Madison Magazine delivered to your office or home.

Gift subscriptions now available!

Subscribe Now

City Life

E-Newsletter Registration

This Week's Circulars