A retired Temple University professor and his wife are admitting publicly, for the first time, that they helped carry out a heist of nearly 1,000 documents from a suburban Philadelphia FBI office four decades ago.
John Raines, an 80-year-old former professor of religious studies, and his 72-year-old wife, Bonnie, tell NBC News they were part of an eight-member crew of anti-Vietnam war activists who pulled off the burglary at the bureau's Media, Delaware County office on March 8, 1971.
"We did it...because somebody had to do it," John said. "In this case, by breaking a law -- entering, removing files -- we exposed a crime that was going on....When we are denied the information we need to have to act as citizens, then we have a right to do what we did."
The group called themselves "The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI" and dubbed the heist "The Media Action."
Dressed in suits, the group -- which also included a cabbie from Philadelphia and Haverford College physics professor -- broke into the second office using a crowbar.
"I picked door B and busted the deadbolt off in one go with a crowbar,” said Keith Forsyth, the cab driver. "And I held my breath."
Once inside, they looked for intelligence documents focused on surveillance of domestic organizations which were critical of the government, the group told NBC News. They included orders to monitor who was visiting "Afro American bookstores" and try and recruit informants in the "Negro militant movement," NBC News reports. The documents also called for agents to dial up pressure on the "New Left" to instill fear and paranoia.
The documents also had some of the first references to COINTELPRO, a secret government intelligence program that an independent panel ruled carried out illegal surveillance of domestic activism groups.
Collecting nearly 1,000 papers, the group stuffed them all into a suitcase and simply walked away from the office near the Delaware County Court House -- undetected. The group chose to carry out the heist at the same time as the "Fight of the Century" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, figuring most people would be pre-occupied with the match up.
After leaving the office, the crew traveled to a Quaker farm nearby and poured over the documents. Selecting groups of what they felt were relevant information, they packaged them up and mailed the papers to journalists around the country. Drawing parallels to modern day whisteblower Edward Snowden, John Raines told NBC News he shares a kinship with him.
The group was never identified, despite former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launching a large investigation that ballooned to 200 agents strong. The case was closed on March 11, 1976 and the five year statute of limitations on the burglary has long passed, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia confirms to NBC10.
The admitted burglars chose to come forward as their story is detailed in a new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, written by former Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger. A documentary, 1971, will also detail the ordeal.
NBC10 reached out to the FBI's Philadelphia office for comment on the revelations and was provided with the same written statement given to NBC News.
"A number of events during that era, including the burglary, contributed to changes in how the FBI identified and addressed domestic security threats, leading to reform of the FBI’s intelligence policies and practices, including the creation of investigative guidelines by the Department of Justice," spokesman Michael Kortan said.