The Burglars Who Broke Into the FBI

YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images
YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images

All that stood between Keith Forsyth and the thousands of confidential papers belonging to the Federal Bureau of Investigation was one simple door.

It was early 1971, and war protestor Forsyth had been tasked with picking the lock that kept the FBI’s satellite office in Media, Pennsylvania, secure. Inside was believed to be evidence that the organization had been engaging in unlawful surveillance of private citizens, infiltrating civil rights groups, and spreading a message of paranoia. Forsyth’s allies, an informal assembly calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, planned to offer proof by disseminating the papers to media outlets all over the country.

A cab driver, Forsyth had rallied against the Vietnam war, but his activism had been limited to demonstrations. He was not a skilled locksmith. He took a correspondence course on lock picking, practiced, and waited until the world was busy watching Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier to break into the bureau’s offices. What he and the “Commission” found would lead to congressional hearings and widespread changes over the FBI’s alarming conduct.

But first, Forsyth had to deal with the lock—one the FBI had changed just before he snuck in.

Movieclips via YouTube

The idea to steal J. Edgar Hoover’s secrets originated with William Davidon, a well-known activist and physics professor at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Davidon had participated in his share of rallies, but felt no significant change would be effected until the general public could see for themselves what he and other protestors had long suspected—that the FBI had been engaging in unchecked surveillance and sabotage of any group they considered subversive.

In fall 1970, eight men and women had been caught attempting to enter an FBI office in Rochester. All eight were tried and convicted, but the incident led Davidon to pursue a similar plan. How could it be different? For one thing, his group wouldn’t attempt to infiltrate a field office in a major city. Philadelphia was out. But Media, with its quaint FBI arm in an office building that kept banker’s hours, was low on security.

Davidon enlisted John and Bonnie Raines, a married couple, for the plan; he also brought in Forsyth, who had some mechanical knowledge and would make for a quick study when it came to breaching the door. The group was joined by four co-conspirators; all of them spent months learning about the comings and goings of the various office residents.

To case the interior, Bonnie Raines tucked her long hair under a cap and posed as a college student looking to know more about opportunities for women in the FBI. While there, she noticed the filing cabinets were kept unlocked, and that the office only had two entry doors.

On March 8, 1971, Forsyth stepped quietly through the halls of the building. When he bent over to inspect the lock, he found it had been changed since he had last passed through. He went over to the second entrance door and used a crowbar to slowly pry it open. Because the door wasn’t in use, a filing cabinet had been moved against it; when Forsyth began to push against the door, the filing cabinet started to tip over. Realizing that if it hit the ground it would wake the entire building, he ran to his car and grabbed a jack stand (later he told CSPAN, “thank goodness this was 1971 ... when they had real jacks in cars”) that he used as a pry bar. For the next 20-plus minutes, he pushed the cabinet slowly along the floor until he could finally get in.

The Citizens Commission ransacked the offices, filling up as many briefcases as they could with documents and being careful not to leave any fingerprints. Driving to a farmhouse an hour away, they spent days combing through the files, occasionally stopping to hold up a piece of incriminating paper. While the Commission suspected the FBI was abusing its powers, the world was about to be surprised by how far that unchecked privilege had gone.

Movieclips via YouTube

Betty Medsger was one of several journalists to receive a semi-anonymous package on March 23. A reporter for The Washington Post, Medsger noticed the return address was Media, Pennsylvania. Inside were 14 pages of photocopied documents detailing the FBI’s impropriety. One brief read that the common goal of the Bureau should be to “enhance the paranoia” and to make dissenters believe “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

The mission statement was mild compared to their actions. As Medsger and other journalists from the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times would learn, the FBI had been persistent in keeping tabs on “militant negroes,” mandating that every agent have at least one informant leaking information about civil rights groups; anyone who had written and signed a letter to a newspaper protesting the war was pegged for investigation; even a Boy Scout troop in Idaho was under surveillance because the scoutmaster may have been planning to take the troop to the Soviet Union.

Then-Attorney General John Mitchell implored the Post not to publish information from the papers, insisting they were stolen property and a matter of national security. After hours of deliberation, the newspaper’s staff ran with the story the following day. Before long, the national news media had been blanketed with irrefutable proof the FBI had overstepped its bounds.

The Citizens Commission had only stumbled across the proverbial iceberg tip. In 1973, NBC News reporter Carl Stern became intrigued by a small stub that referred to a project called COINTELPRO, Hoover’s name for the agency’s covert domestic spy operations. After a legal struggle, the FBI released 50,000 pages of files that were even more incriminating. Among them: an anonymous letter sent to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964 advising him that his alleged infidelity would be revealed if he continued his activism.

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do,” the note read. “You know what it is.” The message, which was implying King should take his own life, had been a product of the FBI.

In 1976, Congress held hearings to discuss the leak, the first to ever explore the inner workings of a government intelligence agency. Expressing outrage at Hoover's behavior—in which they noted legal restrictions had been ignored—the hearings eventually resulted in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 that required a warrant to monitor a private citizen.

Despite Hoover putting more than 200 agents on the case, only one member of Davidon’s crew was even considered a possible suspect. When the crime’s statute of limitations ran out in 1976, the group still swore to keep the operation a secret, fearing some unknown retribution might still be possible. It wasn’t until Medsger met with the Raineses in 1989 that the couple confessed their involvement, and it wasn’t until 2014 that most of the others went public, in part to support the actions of document leak target Edward Snowden.

With no arrests made, the FBI officially closed the case on March 11, 1976. They had compiled over 33,000 pages relating to their investigation of the break-in. Presumably, they bothered to lock their filing cabinets this time.

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

Buy it: Amazon

2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

Buy it: Amazon

2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!