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PART 2: Convicted BPA tower bomber accomplice returns my call

Beaneath Wy'east


In last month's column I recalled how, 40 years ago — in a fantastic act of criminal derring-do — someone dynamites three of those giant steel Bonneville Power Administration high-voltage towers right here in Brightwood’s backyard.

Paul KellerNext, this BPA tower bomber demands $1 million in ransom from the BPA. If this extortion money isn’t received, the bomber promises to blow up even more BPA towers, decimate the power grid and black out the entire Portland metropolitan area. He also threatens to burn up the Bull Run Watershed — source of Portland’s pristine drinking water.

The bomber signs his ransom letters “J. Hawker,” a reference to the Civil War-era anti-slavery guerillas known as “Jayhawkers,” who terrorized Kansas and Missouri.

At his behest, he starts communicating his demands with the FBI via CB radio in his moving vehicle.

To avoid voice recognition, he blurts out his messages in Morse code using a duck call.

This is better than Hollywood.

Three weeks later, the FBI arrests Beavercreek residents David and Sheila Heesch, both 34. They are caught together driving their blue 1968 Plymouth in Southeast Portland while making yet another CB radio call to the FBI.

The federal agents used a “direction finder” to hone in on their radio signal.

They confess. They have no previous run-ins with the law. And they immediately plead guilty — avoiding a trial. David makes a full explanation to the public. He says he doesn’t want people worrying that there might still be dynamite out there.

By the next week, David is sentenced to 20 years in prison; Sheila initially gets 10 years.

‘Call of the Wily’

As I explained last month, as the slow march of the years trudged forward, I often wondered about this unemployed truck driver and his wife, these parents of two young children.

In the news accounts following their arrest, we learned how the neighbors of this seemingly “normal” “all-American” couple from rural Clackamas County said they were good people.

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: SHIELA HEESCH - Shiela Heesch visits her husband, David, at McNeil Island Penitentiary where he served out his sentence for bombing BPA towers near Brightwood.David and Sheila Heesch — a United Press International reporter covering their 1974 federal court arraignment described him as “handsome” and she as “a trim brunette” — have always perplexed me.

The reporter inside me longed for more information. I wanted to know the story behind the story.

So, in October — on the 40th anniversary of their infamous caper — I set out to find this notorious couple who once rocked our local, regional and national headlines.

In 1974, even Time magazine covered this Brightwood-born spectacle and this couple’s brazen extortion attempt in an article titled: “Call of the Wily.”

Would they even be willing to talk with me?

My fear, of course, was that they would not. As far as I could tell, they had never before shared their “inside” story with the press.

Then, ironically, 40 years to the day from when she and her husband were sentenced, Sheila Heesch, now 74, a grandmother of two and great-grandmother of one, returns my call. That’s where we left off last week. Here’s what I learned:

David died of leukemia in 2006—four days before their 40th wedding anniversary.

“I still miss him very much,” Sheila tells me. “The kids miss him, too.”

She says her husband was extremely intelligent. “David was an exceptional oil painter and guitar player. He was an avid hunter and fisherman. Whatever he did, he did it well.”

For the record, that ended up including dynamite demolition work. I always figured this “BPA Bomber” must have had explosives training during his 1960s active military service.

Nope.

Sheila informs that prior to triggering their extortion plot, David learned everything he could about explosives on his own.

“He knew what he was doing with that dynamite,” she vouches. “He knew which direction he wanted those towers to fall — and they did.”

In fact, Sheila explains that the bomb squad personnel who interviewed David in jail told him he was “brilliant.” They even alluded to the fact that it was too bad he wasn’t working for them.

No one gets hurt

More than once on the telephone, Sheila underscores how when they blasted those remote BPA towers, their overriding objective was to absolutely ensure that no one got physically hurt. No one did.

She says that, unquestionably, her biggest regret is that their children — their son was 7 and their daughter was 4 — were suddenly without parents.

“That’s the really sad part of it all,” Sheila laments. “David’s mom and dad, who are great people, took the kids” (until Sheila got out of prison).

Both Sheila and David had their original prison sentences reduced. She ended up serving 11 months at Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary in Southern California.

After four years and eight months, David was released from McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington state.

Sheila believes that all the positive letters of support U.S. District Judge Robert C. Belloni received regarding her and her husband helped get them home to their kids more quickly.

When Belloni originally sentenced them, he did refer to the length of their incarcerations as “appropriate but lengthy” and indicated that their prison terms might be shortened.

Why did they do it?

“We certainly weren’t terrorists,” Sheila assures. “We were very patriotic.”

She adds that she’s voted in every election since getting out of prison 39 years ago.

Sheila tells me how, because David had lost his long-haul truck driving job, they were in more or less a desperate situation.

“David thought that if he could get that money, he would be able to spend more time with his kids,” she said.

Looking back today, Sheila says it all feels like it happened to someone else.

“We were young then. I suppose we were a little idealistic. I’m sure we rationalized that it would be OK. In a way, I never thought we’d actually do it.”

Sheila was charged with driving David to the place where he would dynamite the BPA towers, typing their six extortion letters from David’s initial longhand versions, and mailing them.

David told U.S. District Court Judge Otto J. Skopil Jr. that Sheila aided him “because I told her I would do it anyway and my chances of getting caught were 100 percent more than if she helped me.”

Not your typical criminals

“We always got along really well with the FBI agents and the federal marshals,” Sheila tells me.

After thinking about this, it makes total sense. You can tell that this woman is genuinely friendly and warm. And, despite his horrendously regrettable decision to put the entire Pacific Northwest region on pins and needles for three long weeks, I get the impression that David also was a good guy.

Let’s face it, this husband and wife from Beavercreek were not your typical “criminals.”

Think about all the scumbags who normally confront these FBI agents and U.S. marshals. From the moment they were arrested, David and Sheila admitted to their crime. They told their story. They told the truth.

Sheila shared something with me that I don’t believe has ever been revealed in prior press accounts.

On the day they were arrested — as previously arranged — they had planned to inform the FBI where to drop the money. Up until that time, the FBI just knew it was going to be somewhere up on Mount Hood.

Reflecting back today, Sheila believes their plan was to have the loot dropped off in a remote portion of the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Thus, Sheila remembers, when they were pulled over, the “always prepared” FBI agents were driving pickups and wearing backcountry gear and boots.

Another irony to this entire episode, back in 1974 David also had a brother serving inside the justice system — on the other side of the fence. He was a parole officer.

And while we’re on the subject of paradox, here’s one more funny take on this super-serious crime.

The man who had to scale and hang from those gigantic, reach-for-the-sky BPA towers to tote and set his dynamite charges suffered from acrophobia. Yep.

“Even though David had to climb those towers,” Sheila confirms with an endearing chuckle, “he was afraid of heights.”

What a guy will do for money.

Did you say ‘Hello’ to David Heesch?

If you happened to board a TriMet bus between 1981 and 2003, you might have said “Hello” to David Heesch.

That’s right, for 22 years the BPA Bomber ended up gainfully employed as a TriMet bus driver.

Of course, no one knew that this man behind the wheel was the infamous “J. Hawker.”

“After eight years of driving for TriMet, his bosses called him in one day,” Sheila recalls. “Someone had told them what he might have done back in 1974. They asked him if it was true. David said: ‘Yes.’ They said: ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ David said: ‘If I had, would you have hired me?’ And they admitted: ‘Probably not.’”

She apologizes to BPA administrator

When Sheila returned home from prison, she apologized — in person — to the top administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration.

“I basically wanted Don Hodel to know that we weren’t a couple of nuts,” Sheila tells me. “I thought it would be good to sit down and talk with him about everything.”

So she did.

Sheila confides that Hodel, who served as the BPA administrator from 1972-78 and went on to become the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, said her and her husband’s actions “actually did us a favor — we had no idea how vulnerable we were.”

So maybe this story has a happy ending for everyone.

My only regret is I never had the chance to talk with David.

Here’s a public thank you to Sheila for her openness and candor with me. I wish her the very best.

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

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