Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The terrorist mind—a look back at a 1972 plot to poison Chicago

Posted By on 09.25.12 at 06:46 AM

Pera and Schwandner
  • Pera and Schwandner
Wendy: We should call tomorrow, call the airport. Find out what's what.

Eddie: Yeah, because if you're going to do your thing Friday or so . . .

Schwandner: No, but we're giving you enough time to get out and get to another state.

This is Recycling Week on the Bleader, and I want to contribute. But I'm not dusting off something I wrote once upon a time for this website; I'm looking back 40 years to a story I originally covered for the Sun-Times.

The "thing" Allan "Lonnie" Schwandner had penciled into his schedule for Friday was to release into the water and air a bacterial cocktail that would kill by the millions across a five-state area. Schwandner, 19, and his fellow conspirator, Stephen Pera, 18, planned to survive the scourges of of typhoid, meningitis, botulism, anthrax, diphtheria, and the bubonic plague by inoculating themselves, as well as close friends like Edward and Wendy.

The list of pathogens comes from Edward and Wendy, who both testified against Schwandner and Pera at a preliminary hearing after their arrest in January of 1972. That's why I'm only using Edward and Wendy's first names.

When they were hauled in, Schwandner and Pera had yet to come up with most of the pathogens on their list. They also had lowered their sights considerably, their original plan having been to wipe out almost everyone on earth. Nevertheless, they were moving forward. I still have my transcript of the conversation secretly recorded between Edward, Wendy, and Schwandner in Schwandner's apartment on North Fairfield the night of January 17. Pera was there too, but in another room, apparently getting the inoculations ready. The talk came to a screeching halt when the police busted in.

At the time it was hard for anyone else to take their scheming as seriously as they did. They were goofballs. In particular, Chicago officials ridiculed their idea of contaminating the city's water supply, pointing out that whatever bacteria they dumped into the water would be killed by the chlorine. Today reactions would be different. First of all, the waterworks wasn't their only target—they also intended to release their pathogens in an aerosol mist at a variety of locations. Secondly, we have all since learned that goofballs can be lethal. I imagine taps on the conversations of Adel Daoud, 18, arrested September 14 and accused of plotting to blow up a Jeep Cherokee outside a downtown Chicago bar in order to achieve "massive" casualties—"I want something that's gonna make it in the news like tonight," he allegedly told undercover FBI agents—would portray someone just as goofy. Even so, I'm glad that Daoud was actually doing his boasting to the FBI.

Eddie: "I don't know how quick we're going to leave. It depends on how quick I get my bread together. You know, my funds aren't as elaborate as yours. I'm having difficulty getting my funds together you know.

Wendy: I'd like to leave with Eddie. I'd feel much better if we left together.

Eddie: So I don't know. When is the latest time possible I have to leave? The latest possible time, you know, so I can make arrangements. You're really hungry. You're really eating them. (referring to potato chips)

Schwandner: I really am. I'm sorry.

Eddie: Didn't you eat anything today?

Schwandner: Yeah, three sandwiches . . .

...

Eddie: Is that typhoid the same bottle you used last time?

Schwandner: Yeah.

Eddie: Tomorrow we're getting the meningitis shot? And that's all—the typhoid and meningitis?

Schwandner: That's it.

Wendy: That's all we gotta worry about until later.

Eddie: Well, I don't understand how—you're going to get in touch with us wherever you're going. You're still going to Wisconsin?

Schwandner: Probably.

Eddie: Do you know how you're going to do it?

Schwandner: It's not that good warm. (referring to the wine)

Wendy: That's the way you like it.

Schwandner: Sometimes. When it's cold outside.

Eddie: You're a hard man to please.

Schwandner: No, I'm just hungry and excited.

...

Eddie: I'm going to take my folks out to dinner.

Schwandner: Eddie, please.

Eddie: If they're going to be knocked off by Saturday, Sunday, Monday, somewhere around there, you know—

Wendy: I don't even think I'm going to say any good-byes. I think that's the easiest way to do it, or even think it, you know.

...

Eddie: That meningitis shot. Is that going to be a special thing or a straight meningitis shot? I don't understand where the complication involves.

Schwandner: Where?

Eddie: If it's going to be a straight meningitis vaccination and a straight typhoid vaccination.

Schwandner: Oh, well that's the mutant bacteria. You're asking if it's anything besides typhoid and meningitis.

Eddie: Those are the only two things you're going to spread here is typhoid and meningitis?

Schwandner: And one poison.

Eddie: One poison? Am I going to be immune to that too?

Schwandner: Just don't drink water.

...

[Eddie has left the room]

Wendy: You know my room is like this cold. My bedroom, I can't sit in there unless I'm under my covers it's so cold. If it was just like maybe 10 degrees colder you could maybe see your breath 'cause I've got like three outside walls. There's only one inside wall.

Schwandner: How much is the flight fare?

Wendy: I don't know. I don't remember. It depends. Like I don't have a student card or anything. If we get student passes, those are standby flights though. You know we just have to take whatever we can get. It's cheaper.

Schwandner: Don't forget to leave me your telephone number.

Wendy: I'll have to call you and give you my number tomorrow because I forgot. I know my address right off hand though. Here, I'll give you my address. I'll write it down. I'll have to give you—are you going to want the zip code there too?

Schwandner: Your address, telephone number. Look, if anything goes wrong maybe you'll see me down there with Kim. Either there or Cuba.

Wendy: Can you read this? This belongs over there.

Schwandner: 9381 East Bay Harbor.

Wendy: Right.

Schwandner: Bay Harbor Drive. Bay Harbor Island.

Wendy: That's supposed to be a ritzy ritzy schmitzy.

Schwandner: If anything goes wrong—I don't think it will but if it does you may find me and Kim down there on our way to Cuba.

Wendy: Lonnie, I'd be more than happy to see you.

Schwandner: We have things that are not so cool. Like the FBI and other things you don't know about.

Wendy: What?

Schwandner: Like where everything was moved. It's just a matter of who moves quicker and who gets who, and that's why we're moving so quick. Don't say a word to Eddie.

Wendy: Oh Lonnie, I'm afraid.

Schwandner: First we find out, you know, if anything goes wrong I'll send damn Kim down there on our way to Cuba. Because I've got three and two felonies and a misdemeanor makes three. And I'm going to go to jail for ten years at least if this doesn't go through, if I don't get out of the country. So, like I said, you know, if something goes wrong—

Wendy: Man, I'm uptight about it as it is and you're coming on telling me all this shit.

A lot of what I know now about Schwandner and Pera's scheme comes from a 2000 book Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, a collection of case studies. W. Seth Carus, author of the chapter on the Chicago plot, describes Schwandner as the big-picture guy and Pera as the master scientist. Schwandner was an adopted child, on the outs with his parents, who "spent time in a psychiatric hospital and was sentenced to reform schools," Carus wrote. Pera was the son of a suburban school principal and was considered by friends, including Schwandner, to be a genius. Keenly interested in microbiology, in the summer of 1971 he became an unpaid member of a team of researchers at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital "exploring the possible involvement of a specific microorganism in the cause of the autoimmune disease lupus erythematosus." Lab technicians would describe him as an "extremely gifted" novice.

Schwandner and Pera met at Mayfair College (predecessor to Truman College) and organized something they called R.I.S.E. Carus wrote that years later no one was sure what R.I.S.E. stood for, but an informant thought the R was for Reconstruction, the S for Society and the E for Extermination. The I was a mystery. Schwandner wrote a six-page manifesto that did not survive, but according to court testimony it began "with an assertion that mankind was destroying itself and the planet, and that the only way to preserve the environment was for the human race to be wiped out except for a select group of people who would live in harmony with nature." Schwandner was thinking along the lines of eight men and eight women.

Schwandner: We don't have anything to worry about. I'm just telling you that because we're definitely going to pull this off. Either we get them or they'll get us cornered, trapped, spotted, or whatever they'll get us. That's why you don't have anything to do with this. If it doesn't work they can't crack anybody but me and him and they're not taking us to jail.

Wendy: That's all I need.

Schwandner: I'll have this lead box, one with plutonium and the other one with the other thing and I'll open the fucking lid and let them react and blow half of this fucking country off the map.

Wendy: I don't know.

Schwandner: We can hold them off indefinitely with bacteria. They don't dare blow us up.

Wendy: I'm just lucky my mother split tonight. She trusted me. I snuck out.

...

Schwandner: Do you know what that is?

Wendy: It's a birth certificate.

Schwandner: Yeah, it's mine.

Wendy: Yeah?

Schwandner: That's how deeply we're into this thing, because there is no fucking turning back. We'll either do one of three things. Destroy these five states. Go to Cuba. Or die. That's it. All or nothing.

Wendy: There's a song like that. "All or nothing at all."

Schwandner: I swear to God, before they get me I'll cut them down. With machine guns, atom bomb, or whatever I have in my possession. I've been pacing back and forth, climbing walls.

Wendy: I know. I see a little—you're wearing a thing through the carpeting here.

Schwandner: I always wear a thing through.

Eddie returns. They all watch Dick Cavett on the TV for a little while.

Wendy: What's your status with the draft?

Schwandner: Now? I-A.

Wendy: That's bad.

Schwandner: It won't make any difference.

...

Schwandner: He's ready.

Eddie: He's ready? Am I going to go first?

Schwandner: Doesn't make any difference.

Eddie: Should I roll up my sleeve? I'll roll up my sleeve.

Wendy: Should I go in there too?

Enter the cops.

It is a measure of those more innocent times that when Schwandner and Pera were charged, in state court, with conspiracy to commit murder, bond was set that they could actually meet. Both immediately flew to Jamaica, hijacked a small plane, and had it take them to Cuba. They were arrested and locked up. Schwandner died in 1974, by one account beaten to death in a drunken rage by his prison's director. Pera, in poor health, was sent back to the States in 1975. He pleaded guilty to jumping bail and got off with five years' probation.

Would prosecutors be so lenient to any accused terrorist today? Not likely. In a way, Schwandner symbolizes the road ahead. Accused of a terrorist plot against Americans, he eventually died in prison in Cuba.

Read more from Recycling Week, this week's Variations on a Theme:

"All week long, revisiting old Bleader writing," by Tal Rosenberg
"Chicago Gourmet: a look back," by Julia Thiel
"Have the NFL and referees finally come to an agreement?" by Jerome Ludwig
"Revisiting working hard and playing hard, but not 'work hard, play hard,'" by Steve Bogira
"Regrets, I've had TKHOWMANY," by Sam Worley
"Pathos in a shit storm," by Kate Schmidt

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