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PART 1: The 'BPA Bomber' and a small-town yahoo - me

It is late on that unforgettable Wednesday afternoon — 40 years ago last month.

Weary and a bit bedraggled, I arrive back home to my Brightwood cabin after getting another week’s edition of the Sandy Post successfully onto the presses.

Despite my friends’ protests, I purposely do not have a telephone. I don’t want Alexander Bell’s darn invention messing with my treasured, tranquil downtime at home.

Paul KellerA car suddenly roars to a screeching, gravel-busting stop. I look out to see a friend, who happens to be one of the managers for the Zigzag Ranger District, and his wife sprinting toward my house.

Semi-stunned, I open my front door.

My ears fill with those six terrified words I will never forget: “Somebody’s blown up the BPA towers!”

Up beyond the locked gate at the top of Brightwood’s Larsen Road — near the off-limits Bull Run Watershed — three of those giant steel Bonneville Power Administration high-voltage towers have just been spectacularly toppled like Tinkertoys.

Portland media swarm our ranger station

You must remember that this is light years before social media. It is 1974, there is no Internet. No cellular phones. No Facebook. No Twitter. We are still back inside those dark ages when Google was just a big number and Apple was a fruit.

My friends inform me that the Portland media are descending en masse onto the Zigzag Ranger Station grounds. Even though this U.S. Forest Service district office had closed for the day, the reporters know that the head honchos have gathered inside this impromptu emergency command post.

Photo Credit: SANDY POST ARCHIVE - The Oct. 24, 1974, Sandy Post shows the Brightwood-area BPA high-voltage transmission towers dynamited by the mysterious bomber/extortionist who signed his extortion letters to the FBI: J. Hawker. This was an apparent reference to Jayhawker, a term for Civil War-era anti-slavery guerillas who terrorized Kansas and Missouri. The revolutionary type rhetoric that accompanied this bombers demands, however, turned out to be camouflage. He and his wife, parents of two young children, had only one motive: Money.Of course, in the chaotic hubbub of the moment, there’s no way that these “official” agency folks are about to make any public statements. Thus, the ever-increasing throng of media (minus me) stubbornly stakes claim in the parking lot. (The next day I learn that one of the Portland TV reporters, under the veil of darkness, had crawled through the rhododendron bushes beneath the District Ranger’s office window — where, inside, an emergency meeting was taking place — and surreptitiously placed a stethoscope up onto the bottom of the glass. Amazed, I remember thinking that I must have somehow missed that particular reporting tactic in journalism school.)

Young yahoo gets the eyeball

I thank my friends for informing me about this unbelievable breaking news. But I explain how I just got the paper out; my deadline for the next paper is six long days away. No need for me to go jostle with all those big city journalists whose deadlines are most likely only hours away.

And, as fate would have it, I already had an appointment to go to the ranger station that very next morning to meet with this same friend. I was going to do a story about how the Welches Grade School students had helped replant a logging site near Rhododendron.

Sixteen hours later, when I pull into the ranger station’s parking lot for my benign “kids plant trees” feature, it is still jammed with media-owned vehicles occupied by frustrated reporters and photographers who have been banned from the building. Rumors are flying. They are therefore all hungry for any tidbit of “real” information they can discern on the bombings.

They all eyeball this young yahoo exit his vehicle. They undoubtedly observe how he is packing his reporter’s notepad with a telltale camera slung around his neck. I’m sure they all think: Good luck, fella. You ain’t getting in! No way you — whoever you are — are beating us to this story.

I pass through the main door.

The front desk receptionist smiles, says: “Hi, Paul.”

I smile, say: “I’ve got an appointment with Ron.”

And down the hall I go. (Small-town yahoos rule.)

Next, the FBI stink eye

I have no idea that, by now, the FBI commanders have set up their makeshift office right there in Ron’s room. At that moment, they are gathered around a table examining various maps. When I enter — looking a whole lot more like some civilian bearded journalist than a Forest Service employee — they all look up. And freeze.

It was one of the most intense instances of infuriated group “stink eye” that I have ever received in my life.

Ron quickly jumps up and greets me — and off we go.

Where? Why, directly to “Ground Zero” of course. With Ron in his Forest Service uniform, driving his Forest Service pick-up, we are able to pass right through the official blockades. I was the first journalist in. As I take pictures of the crumpled towers, it is impossible to imagine why and how someone would plot to pull-off such dynamited devastation.

Entire Bull Run Watershed threatened

Two days later, the “bomber” escalates to “extortionist”. In a letter to the FBI — warning “We mean business” — he demands $1 million. If the feds don’t pay up, he promises to blow up even more BPA towers, decimate the power grid and black out the entire Portland metropolitan area.

In his next letter, he threatens to burn up the Bull Run Watershed — source of Portland’s pristine drinking water. There’s an inference that if he doesn’t get his money, he might even poison Bull Run Lake.

This is not a Batman movie, folks. It is all too real.

About this time, locals at many of our mountain-area bars notice an unmistakable onslaught of curious, never-before-seen strangers. They all seem to have a preference for brand new flannel shirts and brand new blue jeans. They are, sorry fellas, obviously undercover FBI agents. “Play a game of pool, bud?”

Meanwhile, up in the remote, closed-to-the-public, 102-square-mile Bull Run Watershed, the Forest Service, as well as FBI and BPA, are coordinating around-the-clock surveillance.

While this is absolutely no joking matter, humor, as always in life, manages to bring us levity — especially when we need it most.

An employee of the Columbia Gorge Ranger District is one of the many assigned the graveyard shift patrol —driving his vehicle throughout the night, penetrating the sprawling Bull Run Watershed’s complex private road system.

Just as the sun is coming up on his piece of out-of-the-way woods, an FBI agent, who has also been prowling these miles and miles of lonely narrow roads all night, pulls up in his vehicle. He motions for the Forest Service vehicle to stop. They are literally out in the middle of Cascadian nowhere.

The FBI agent rolls his window down. He rubs his tired eyes. In what sounds like a New England accent, he asks: “Where can a guy buy a cup of coffee around here?”

Trying to suppress his laughter, our local Forest Service employee — ever so courteously — hands this poor man his thermos.

Husband and wife are desperate

Let’s cut to the chase (literally).

Three weeks later, David and Sheila Heesch are arrested for this crime. The FBI slyly snags them by honing in on the couple in their moving vehicle as they send yet another extortion message via CB radio. (To avoid voice recognition, David uses a duck call to blurt out Morse code.) David and Sheila immediately confess. They have no previous run-ins with the law.

This husband and wife, both 34, fellow Clackamas County residents, live with their two young children on five acres in rural Beavercreek. Their neighbors have only good things to say about them.

David had recently lost his truck driving job. He can’t find work. They are desperate.

David enters a guilty plea and makes a full explanation to the public. He says he doesn’t want people worrying that there might still be dynamite out there.

David is sentenced to 20 years in prison; Sheila gets 10 years.

Story doesn’t stop here

For me, this story doesn’t stop here.

Ever since this uncanny episode temporarily impacted us hereabouts four decades ago, I have often wondered about David and Sheila. After their arrest, I always got the impression that they were two good people who made a tremendous error — and paid for it.

So, two weeks ago, I contacted Sheila.

Next month in this column I’ll share with you what I learned. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his “Beneath Wy'east” column once a month.

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