Mary Alice Willey McGregor [above] disappeared some time after August 29, 1971. Here, the young southern California native can be seen wearing a pin that signified her strong belief in the Black Power movement in the early 1970s, in the form of the "black power fist" pin worn on her sweater.
No one knows exactly what happened to Mary Alice Willey McGregor. Until last year, in fact, the question of whether she was dead or alive remained as unanswered as it had been nearly 37 years before, when she disappeared. What made McGregor's disappearance from San Francisco in September 1971 more nuanced than a typical, tragic, young-girl-gone-missing tale all-too-frequently repeated in California - particularly during the period in which McGregor disappeared - was one thing: McGregor was believed to be an accessory to murder. And not just any murder, either. Only the most notorious police killing of the 1970s, the so-called 'Black Liberation Army [BLA]' (a violent offshoot of the Black Panthers) assassination of San Francisco police Sgt. John V. Young on August 29, 1971.
Like McGregor's disappearance immediately after that murder, the crime of Sgt. Young's death remains unpunished - although that may change shortly. While evidence at the time indicated that the killing of Young was in retaliation for the death of BLA activist George Jackson in a San Quentin prison riot on August 21, 1971, charges in the Young killing never went through until 36 years later. Investigators did track some of the suspects to New Orleans and extracted incriminating statements from them, but in 1975 that evidence was thrown out by an apparently delirious judge after it was alleged that New Orleans police used torture to get the information. The one suspect they could not track, though, was Mary Alice Willey McGregor.
The Young murder case languished for decades until 1999, when San Francisco police made one last effort to investigate it. Apparently, a re-examination of a cigarette lighter found at the station [why do killers always do something stupid like leaving something like that behind?] yielded a thumbprint belonging to a member of the BLA. In addition, a BLA member apparently agreed to testify against his former associates. Eight men, all former BLA members, were arrested in 2007. Authorities charged them with murder and conspiracy, but a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on some of the conspiracy charges. On June 8th, seven suspects [one of those arrested had only been charged with the now-dismissed conspiracy charge] will go on trial in San Francisco Superior Court for Young's murder.
Who was Mary Alice Willey McGregor? By all accounts, she was a nondescript typical white southern California girl growing up as an only child with parents significantly older than her peers' mothers and fathers. As such, she became detached from her parents to the point of leaving Anaheim at some time in 1969 for the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. There, she apparently became enamored of the Black Power movement. She became particularly won over to the cause of the BLA, and its founder George Jackson.
Jackson himself had been the victim of an archaic early 1960s California law that sentenced him to "one-year-to-life" in 1961 for robbing a gas station of $70. Jackson read widely in prison and became a Marxist. By the end of the decade, Jackson was an internationally known militant prison inmate and best-selling author who had become a powerful voice for prison reform and civil rights during his years behind bars at Soledad State Prison in Monterey County.
As Jackson's reputation grew among those on the Left, the Black Panthers - as good at marketing as Madison Avenue - decided to capitalize on his popularity by making him a "field marshal" in their organization. In 1970, Jackson and two other inmates were accused of beating and hurling a white prison guard to his death from a Soledad tier, apparently in retaliation for the exercise yard slayings of three black inmates. Known as the Soledad Brothers, the three were transferred to San Quentin for trial. In October 1970, Jackson published a collection of letters called Soledad Brother, a searing indictment of the prison system. The book turned Jackson into an international celebrity, especially among the new Left.
And he had become an especially strong magnet for McGregor. According to McGregor's second husband - she had married once at 17, divorced, and then married Patrick Warren McDowell in a hastily arranged union designed to allow McGregor to complain about prison conditions in which McDowell was suffering while awaiting trial on an armed robbery charge - McGregor fully believed in Jackson's plan, which involved a violent breakout from San Quentin and then, "the start of the revolution!"
The set of related circumstances that ended in the violent death of Sgt. Young began on August 21, 1971. A young lawyer named Stephen Bingham visited George Jackson at San Quentin. Shortly after that visit, Jackson somehow had a gun in his possession. At the time, authorities said that - inexplicably - Bingham had smuggled the gun into the visiting room and gave it to Jackson, who allegedly hid it under an Afro wig that Bingham had also brought in. [Editor's Note: Bingham fled the country and lived in Europe for 13 years before choosing, in 1984, to return to the United States to stand trial. In 1986, Bingham was acquitted on charges that he smuggled the gun to Jackson. Bingham at the time and to this day believes that guards smuggled the gun to Jackson in exchange for cash and the promise that the planned uprising would not occur during their shifts]. As Jackson was being led back to his cell, a guard noticed the gun. Jackson drew the weapon and, paraphrasing Vietnamese lunatic Ho Chi Minh, declared: "This is it, gentlemen. The dragon has come."
What happened next was the most violent day in California prison history. Inmates freed from their cells murdered three guards and two white inmate trustees. They tried to kill several others. As the prison went to lockdown, Jackson and another inmate ran across the prison yard. A guard in the tower fired twice and - in a literal burst of good taste - Jackson was dead before he hit the ground.
Then, on August 29th, a bomb went off at the Bank of America branch at Stonestown mall, and all but one of the available officers from San Francisco's Ingleside Station rushed to investigate, leaving Sgt. Young and a civilian aide to man Ingleside station during the incident. A short time later, a young white woman entered the station to report a missing purse. After she finished filling out a report, she walked out shining a flashlight toward the street. With that, a car pulled up. Several black men got out and walked into the station. One shoved a shotgun into the voice grate of the station's bulletproof glass and fired. Sgt. Young was hit in the chest and died on the station floor. The civilian aide was wounded, but survived.
Two days afterward, the San Francisco Chronicle received an anonymous letter from a group calling itself the "George L. Jackson Assault Squad of the Black Liberation Army." The note said that Ingleside Station was attacked to retaliate for Jackson's death. Police at the time - through investigation of Jackson's private letters and other clues - believed that Mary Alice Willey McGregor was the woman who had come to the station to report her stolen purse; that she was a lookout connected to the BLA; and that she was there essentially to confirm to the gunmen that most of the police force at Ingleside had not yet returned from the bomb explosion that apparently had been a diversion to draw them away from the station. Young's murder was an assassination in that the BLA wanted to target one San Francisco policeman in response to Jackson's death on the prison grounds of San Quentin a week before.
McGregor's sighting - by witnesses who identified her as the woman who shined the flashlight after leaving the station - was the last time anyone saw her alive. Throughout the next 37 years, as the Young murder investigation would ebb and flow, there was an assumption that McGregor had eluded capture, perhaps fled to Canada, or - like many other radicals of the day - assimilated back into the cultural norm, where she was probably somebody's mother, or a Girl Scout troop leader.
No one, it seems, ever considered the possibility that McGregor hadn't willingly disappeared, but that - as a key witness who could identify Young's killers - she had been brutally murdered herself shortly afterwards. Even after Modesto, California police found an unidentified body floating in a canal on September 11, 1971, and with the biggest manhunt on in California history for Sgt. Young's killers, unbelievably no one in the San Francisco police force was told about the finding of the body. McGregor's body was found wearing only a handmade blouse and an earring when she was pulled from the water. The coroner said she had been dead for 12 to 24 hours.
She had 65 stab wounds, most of them defensive, but at least 10 were considered fatal. One stab wound entered under her left breast and hit her spinal column. One wound penetrated her skull and entered her brain. Her throat was cut. An autopsy indicated that someone - apparently trying to make identification of the body impossible - had tried to cut off her hands and failed. Her killer then tried to cut off a couple of fingers and failed at that, too. One thumb was removed with much hacking. But she had no identification. Investigators couldn't determine who she was. For 37 years, she lay in a grave marked only by a large stone that said "Jane Doe."
As in most instances in these cases, however, there was one investigator at the time who could not put the Jane Doe body out of his mind. Over the years, on his own investigation, he had determined that Jane Doe was Mary Alice Willey McGregor. The problem, though, was that McGregor was not the typical girl-gone-missing: she was a suspect in one of the most notorious murders in California history. If the body was McGregor, she certainly couldn't help police identify Sgt. Young's killers. In that case, not too many police were all that concerned about finding out if Jane Doe was McGregor.
The stereotypical persistent detective - in this case Detective Ken Hedrick of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department - kept on pushing. Finally, in the spring of 2008, Hedrick convinced authorities to see if new technologies could help identify the woman found dead in the canal back in 1971. He had the body exhumed, a forensic anthropologist made a facial reconstruction, and technicians tried to get a DNA sample for a match. In late summer, a cousin of McGregor's stumbled upon a short newspaper story explaining the detective's interest in solving the case. The cousin, Corey Oisen of Santa Cruz County, called Hedrick, and the two compared notes. Oisen arranged for a DNA test. It was a match. Finally, the body in the canal had a name, and Mary Alice McGregor's story - or the story's ending - was now known. On Oct. 31, 2008, a small ceremony for McGregor was held at the Patterson cemetery. She now has a proper gravestone. In it is carved her real name and the dates of her birth and death.
It can never be known the extent of Mary Alice Willey McGregor's involvement in Sgt. Young's murder. It is always possible that McGregor - who had never before been known to actually participate in violence, although she clearly supported the theory of violence in support of 'black liberation' - had no idea why she was asked by BLA associates to report a missing purse that day. It would seem folly, though, to think she had any doubt that some violence was pending, even if the actual murder plan was unknown to her. Still, if she was a dupe, and had no idea that she was setting up a young police sergeant for his murder, then her own murder takes on an even sadder tone. If - as seems more likely - she at least knew she was assisting in the perpetration of violence, then many reading about her murder will have little to no sympathy for her case. Still, she was someone's daughter. Her parents went to their graves never knowing what happened to their only child; never understanding where they went wrong, or why she abandoned them in a real-life version of The Beatles' She's Leaving Home. An argument can be made that even the most heinous criminals - guilty of far more than McGregor may have been - deserve a proper burial.
Now, Mary Alice Willey McGregor has had hers.
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