Fred Hampton’s Death: How Did the Black Panther Leader Die?

fred hampton death

Wikimedia Commons Fred Hampton and a crime scene photo

The new movie Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of the FBI’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party and the subsequent death, at the hands of law enforcement, of BPP leader Fred Hampton.

What is the true story? Was Hampton assassinated by the police in real life? Was the FBI involved? Over the years, many have claimed that law enforcement’s official version of the raid is false. They say that Hampton was assassinated as part of then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s war on Black revolutionary groups, an effort called COINTELPRO.

Hampton was shot in the head during an early morning police raid by a unit affiliated with a state’s attorney. Another Black Panther leader, Mark Clark, also died. Over the years, the accounts of law enforcement and the Black Panther survivors differed sharply, and some investigations exonerated the police; however, family members later obtained a large settlement and officers and the state’s attorney were indicted for obstruction of justice (but then acquitted). The forensic evidence bore out the Black Panthers’ claims; officers fired all but one of the bullets that day. That bullet came from the gun of Clark, but after he was shot through the heart.

In 1970, The New York Times reported that “a special Federal grand jury in Chicago reported today that the police there had grossly exaggerated Black Panthers’ resistance in a shooting incident last Dec. 4 in which two of the militants were killed and four others wounded.” The Times story says that “the police had riddled the Panthers’ apartment with at least 82 shots, while only one shot was apparently fired from inside” by a man already wounded with a bullet to the heart. The jury didn’t indict them, though, finding the officers “could have been returning one another’s fire.” Others have argued the shootings were deliberate. The grand jury said the surviving Panthers refused to offer testimony, tying its hands. Twenty-three of its members were white.

You can see a crime scene photo later in this story, but be forewarned that it’s graphic. According to STMU History Media, Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend, who tried in vain to shield him from the officers’ bullets, claimed to hear officers saying,

First Voice: “That’s Fred Hampton.”

Second Voice: “Is he dead? Bring him out [of his bedroom].

First Voice: “He’s barely alive; he’ll make it.”

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Fourteen Chicago Police Officers in a Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Unit Conducted the Raid that Led to Hampton’s Death

The Times article says that the initial tip that the Black Panthers “were thought to be stockpiling weapons in Chicago” came from the FBI.

An appellate court decision in a civil suit filed against law enforcement gives these details of the raid that took Hampton’s life and that of Clark.

According to those court documents:

The appellate court document describes the raid as “a gun battle which occurred in Chicago during the early morning hours of December 4, 1969. Two Black Panthers were killed and four other Panthers were injured by the gunfire.” However, evidence has disputed that the Panthers were firing guns at the cops, making the term “gun battle” a misnomer.

The court documents say the raid occurred at 4:30 a. m. on December 4, 1969, and it involved 14 Chicago police officers, “detailed to the Special Prosecutions Unit of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.” They “arrived at an apartment building located on the near west side of Chicago.”

The documents give the following names of officers involved in the raid:

Shooters: Daniel Groth, James Davis, Joseph Gorman, George Jones, Raymond Broderick, Edward Carmody, and John Ciszewski.

Nonshooters: William Corbett, Lynwood Harris, Fred Howard, Robert Hughes, Philip Joseph, William Kelly, and John Marusich.

They had obtained a search warrant authorized by a judge to search and seize “sawed-off shotguns and other illegal weapons,” at the first floor apartment, 2337 West Monroe Street, where Hampton was staying.

Nine members of the Black Panther Party were inside. The court documents say:

Seven officers took ‘cover’ positions at the front and rear entrances of the apartment; seven entered the apartment. Immediately upon the police entry there was an enormous burst of gunfire. Two of the occupants, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, died as a result of the gunfire and four others, Ronald Satchel, Blair Anderson, Brenda Harris, and Verlina Brewer, were wounded. Louis Truelock, Deborah Johnson, and Harold Bell escaped without physical injury.

The 14 officers met at the State’s Attorney’s office for a 4 a.m. briefing the morning of the raid. They learned the apartment layout and brought with them “a machine gun, a sawed-off shotgun, a semi-automatic .30-caliber carbine, and other weapons.” When they arrived at the apartment, seven officers were told to guard the exterior and four – Groth, Jones, Gorman, and Davis – approached the front while three – Broderick, Carmody, and Ciszewski – “circled to the rear door.”

The Panthers, Clark, Truelock, Bell, and Harris, “were in the living room on chairs and mattresses scattered around the room. Satchel, Anderson, and Brewer were asleep in the front bedroom which was located directly south of the living room. The rear bedroom of the apartment, directly south of the front bedroom, was occupied by Hampton and Johnson.”

An article by STMU History Media says that it was noted during a federal grand jury investigation that “the whole concept of going on a raid in a high crime density area to obtain weapons from known militants—led by a convicted felon believed to be dangerous—with only fourteen men in plainclothes, in the dead of night, with no sound equipment, no lighting equipment, no tear gas, and no plan for dealing with potential resistance—seems ill-conceived.”

2. The Black Panthers Described a ‘Violent, Well-Armed, Unprovoked Attack’ on Hampton’s Apartment

Chicago police photoFred Hampton’s body

The law enforcement and Black Panthers’ stories differ sharply, but forensic evidence later determined that only one of 90 bullets fired that day came from a non law enforcement gun, according to the Huffington Post.

The media coverage in the earliest stages after the raid has been sharply criticized. The article states that what the Chicago Tribune called bullet holes later turned out to be nail heads in the wall.

The appellate court document in the civil case says the Black Panthers described “a violent, well-armed, unprovoked attack on the apartment. Plaintiffs testified that the officers did not announce their purpose when they arrived at the apartment.”

Here’s what the documents say the Panthers described next:

After hearing a knock at the apartment door, Truelock and Bell ran to the rear bedroom to awaken Hampton. Davis burst through the door into the living room and began firing into the darkened room. Clark, in the northwest part of the room about three or four feet from the door, was struck in the heart by a bullet from Davis’ rifle. According to Harris, Clark’s gun went off as he fell. Groth also began firing into the living room from the apartment doorway. Harris was shot as she lay in bed. She testified at trial that she neither fired nor handled a gun during the raid.

After the first burst of gunfire, other officers entered the apartment. The documents give their roles this way:

Carmody broke through the back door and entered the kitchen. Using a .38 revolver, he fired five times. Corbett, Ciszewski, and Broderick followed him into the kitchen, the latter two firing into the two bedrooms from the dining room area. Bell, Truelock, and Johnson emerged from the back bedroom during a pause in the shooting. Meanwhile, Gorman had entered the living room and began firing his machine gun into the south wall toward the bedrooms. Davis also began firing into the south wall. Carmody entered the back bedroom and found Hampton lying on his bed.

This is when Hampton was shot, the court documents say:

Carmody went to the head of the bed clutching a revolver in his right hand. During the course of the firing, Hampton was shot several times in the body and the head. The bullets which went through his brain were never found. Carmody emerged from the bedroom dragging Hampton’s body by the left wrist. In Carmody’s firearms report, he indicated that he had critically wounded a suspect. He recorded that his first shot was fired from a distance of ten feet and noted the distance of his second shot by a question mark.

More gunfire erupted.

The officers testified that they were fired upon. They said that Clark fired a shotgun blast, which led to other officers opening fire. Groth, who led the raid, claimed, according to The Nation, “There must have been six or seven of them firing. The firing must have gone on ten or twelve minutes. If 200 shots were exchanged, that was nothing…. It’s a miracle that not one policeman was killed.”

Contrary to the law enforcement statements, though, survivors said the Black Panthers didn’t fire their weapons. The court documents note that Robert Zimmers, a ballistics examiner with the FBI crime laboratory “examined the weapons seized from the apartment, the shooters’ weapons and their bullets, bullet fragments, and shotgun casings and cartridges found in the apartment.:

The documents note:

He also analyzed impact points on the walls and furniture in the apartment. On the basis of this examination and his analysis, he concluded that there was no evidence of a shotgun blast coming from the corner of the living room where Harris was during the raid. He also concluded that there was no evidence of shotgun shots exiting from the front bedroom where Satchel, Anderson, and Brewer were sleeping, and found no evidence of a shot being fired from within the rear bedroom where Johnson, Hampton, Truelock, and Bell were located.

He counted a very large amount of firepower, including 48 bullet holes from the livingroom into a front bedroom and 33 bullet holes in the south wall of the front bedroom. That’s just for starters.

Zimmers believed that the Panthers had fired only one bullet. “Only one shot shell was identified with the seized weapons and that this shell corresponded with a hole of exit in the living room door; further, he stated that a bullet removed from the body of Hampton was fired from the .30-caliber carbine carried on the raid by Davis,” the court documents say.

3. Some Investigations Exonerated the Officers But Some Officers Were Later Indicted & Acquitted by a Special Prosecutor; the Families Won More Than a Million Dollar Settlement

Outrage continued to erupt over the deaths. At first, investigations exonerated the officers and the State’s Attorney.

According to an old article by the Chicago Sun-Times, a coroner’s jury returned verdicts of justifiable homicide in the deaths of Hampton and Mark Clark.

The Hampton family and Panther party members “insisted that the police deliberately murdered Hampton and Clark, the article says. The verdicts found that the police used firearms to “prevent death or grave bodily injury to themselves.”

Hampton’s mother Iberia Hampton told the Sun-Times, “I want to say that I don’t think we’ve been treated fair. We didn’t get a fair deal.” An attorney for the Hampton and Clark families called the inquest a “well-rehearsed theatrical performance designed to vindicate the police officers.”

The seven surviving Panthers refused to testify at the inquest and lawyers for the deceased men’s families “did not introduce any witnesses during the proceeding,” the news article states.

According to the Huffington Post, State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan “charged the survivors of the raid with attempted murder of the police.”

The officers were cleared by an internal police investigation as well and a federal grand jury refused to indict them.

The grand jury did issue “a report containing damning evidence that the police shooting was unprovoked by the Panthers.” according to Huffington Post.

The State’s attorney had given the following statement right after the raid, according to The Nation: “The immediate, violent and criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party. So does their refusal to cease firing at police officers when urged to do so several times.”

This was not true, according to the Nation, which said a grand jury found that “if the Panthers fired at all, it was one shot that Mark Clark fired–apparently after he had been shot in the heart.”

The charges against the survivors were eventually dismissed. This was because, in part, only one of the 90 bullets did not come from officers. “Hampton had been shot at close range, with two bullets to the head,” Huffington Post reported, adding that years later, the police and DA were indicted by a special prosecutor for obstruction of justice. They were acquitted, although Hanrahan was defeated in an election.

The families filed a civil suit and won a $1.85 million settlement after unearthing evidence of the FBI’s COINTELPRO unit against the Black Panther Party, the Huffington Post article states.

4. The FBI’s COINTELPRO Infiltrated the Black Panther Party & Used Deceptive Techniques

The FBI’s COINTELPRO efforts became a big part of the Hampton death story, and it’s a big part of the movie, Judas and the Black Messiah, which features an FBI informant named William O’Neal who infiltrates the Party and feeds authorities the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment.

What was COINTELPRO? It did really exist. The court documents say:

In August 1967 the FBI initiated a national covert counterintelligence program called ‘COINTELPRO’ which was designed to neutralize a variety of political organizations including those which the Bureau characterized as ‘Black Nationalist Hate Groups.’ Directives from Washington ordered the Chicago office of the FBI to implement the program in the Chicago area. While the Black Panther Party was not an original target of this program, it was included within the ambit of COINTELPRO’s scrutiny by September 1968.

A court summary described the “purpose of the counterintelligence program, as it was implemented in Chicago as to the Panthers was to prevent violence,” but the court documents say the Black Panthers presented “damning evidence indicating the COINTELPRO was intended to do much more than simply ‘prevent violence'” in the form of a 1968 FBI memorandum, which described the COINTELPRO goals as:

1. Prevent a coalition of militant black nationalist groups . . . .

2. Prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement . . . Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position . . . .

3. Prevent violence on the part of black nationalist groups . . . .

4. Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting them . . . .

5. . . . prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth.

According to the appellate court document, “The national COINTELPRO program adopted a variety of tactics which seemingly were aimed not at preventing violence, but at neutralizing the BPP as a political entity. These tactics included efforts to discredit the BPP among ‘liberal’ whites, the promotion of violent conflicts between the BPP and other groups, the encouragement of dissension within the BPP, and the disruption of the BPP’s Breakfast Program for Children.”

Enter O’Neal, the former car thief who became an FBI informant. “One of the key figures in the Chicago FBI’s program to disrupt the Panthers was William O’Neal,” the court documents say. “O’Neal was a paid FBI informant…O’Neal walked into the BPP office at 2350 West Madison Street the day it opened in November 1968 and joined, soon becoming the local chief of security for the Panthers.” He did this at the behest of the FBI.

Tensions had increased between the FBI and BPP before Hampton’s death; “Shooting incidents involving Chicago police and Panthers occurred at the BPP headquarters in July and October. On July 21 and October 3 the BPP headquarters was ransacked by Chicago police,” the documents say. “And on November 13, 1969 two Chicago policemen were killed in an ambush-shootout with Jake Winters, who was closely associated with the BPP. Winters also was killed and seven other Chicago police officers were wounded.”

O’Neal then provided the FBI with information about Hampton’s apartment’s floorplan. “The floorplan included the layout of the rooms, the placement of doors and furniture, the identity of the apartment’s occupants and frequent visitors, and the location of the bedroom which Hampton shared with Deborah Johnson. And, either on the basis of this or previous conversations with O’Neal,” the document says. Authorities also believed there was a cache of weapons in the apartment, including a stolen police gun.

O’Neal died of suicide in 1990 by running in front of a car in Chicago. You can read more about his death here. He spoke at length about his activities in an Eyes on the Prize interview.

Asked what he later regretted, he said in part,

The information, the, the, the, the, the information leading up to the raid, the, the, the attitudes and the, the whole thing, I mean, you just felt it in the wind. You know something bad was gonna, gonna happen. I felt like it would be a raid, I mean, I knew it would be a raid, I mean, two police officers had got killed. I knew it would be a raid, but I didn’t feel like anyone would get killed, especially not Fred, you know.

He added,

I didn’t feel like I had done anything. I didn’t walk in there with guns. I didn’t shoot him. FBI didn’t do it. I felt somewhat like I was betrayed. I felt like if anyone should have known it was going to be a raid that morning, I should have known, also. I felt like I could have been caught in that raid. I was there that night, and I felt like if I’d have laid down I probably would have been a victim, so I felt betrayed.

5. Was Hampton Drugged Before His Death? A Grand Jury Discussed That Issue & Problems With the Crime Scene Evidence Collection

Wikimedia CommonsWilliam O’Neal.

There was a dispute over whether Hampton was drugged before his death, possibly by O’Neal.

The Times article stated that the grand jury found that “Hampton’s body had not contained huge amounts of the drug seconal, as reported by a pathologist who performed an autopsy on his body. Later tests on the body by F.B.I. experts showed that the drug report was a mistake, according to the jury’s report.”

The report also excoriated the Chicago police lab for not conducting a thorough crime scene investigation to favor the cops. “Because the laboratory did not test‐fire or fingerprint the policemen’s guns, it attributed several of the officers’ shots to the Panthers,” and this led to them being criminally charged (but the charges didn’t stick), according to the Times. The internal police investigation was described by the grand jury as “so seriously deficient that it suggests purposeful malfeasance,” the Times reported.

The Times said the grand jury also slammed the news media saying “improper and grossly exaggerated stories” appeared regularly in Chicago media.

READ NEXT: The Death of William O’Neal.