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The FBI Agent and Informant Behind Fred Hampton’s Murder

Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell was recognized in the FBI for his skill in developing informants in “the racial field.” Now we know the extent of Mitchell’s activities — including how they aided the killing of the Black Panther Party’s Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton and Benjamin Spock at a protest rally outside the Everett McKinley Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago, Illinois, October 1969.,AP Wirephoto / Chicago Tribune via Wikimedia Commons

In the predawn hours of December 4, 1969, fourteen Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers, claiming they were searching for illegal weapons, raided a first-floor apartment on Chicago’s Monroe Street. Inside, nine members of the Illinois Black Panther Party (BPP) were in various phases of sleep. While police claimed they were fired on, the fusillade of over ninety bullets hit only Black Panthers. Two of them — Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Panthers, and Mark Clark, who had organized the group’s Peoria chapter — were fatally wounded.

Initially, the raid was seen as a success for the police, epitomized by the picture of grinning cops carrying Hampton’s body out of the apartment, which circulated widely in the press. However, the one-sided nature of the attack quickly gave rise to questions. In this, not only were the Chicago police under scrutiny, but questions arose about the role of the FBI, which had been keeping close tabs on the Chicago Panthers. What would later be discovered was that the bureau had a well-placed informant within the group. That informant had passed along a floor plan of the apartment to the CPD, by way of his FBI handler, to facilitate their raid.

To the degree most people today know the story of Fred Hampton, it is through the 2021 film Judas and the Black Messiah, a fictionalized account of the incident. The film, while dramatically riveting, is in important ways factually dubious. This is made clear in the movie’s opening when it has J. Edgar Hoover, portrayed by Martin Sheen, proclaiming the Black Panthers “the greatest single threat to our national security, more than the Chinese, even more than the Russians.” In reality, Hoover never said such a thing, nor would he, given how the bureau and the US government viewed China and the Soviet Union at that phase of the Cold War. Considering the power of such a statement, however, it is worth exploring how a variation of it found its way to becoming common knowledge.

In July 1969, Hoover talked to the media about the bureau’s annual report, where he highlighted the current threats as seen by the FBI. In turn, United Press International ran a short piece titled “J. Edgar Hoover: Black Panther Greatest Threat to US Security.” As the article reported,

The Black Panther Party represents the greatest threat among the black extremist groups to the internal security of the United States, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover said today.

Hoover said in his fiscal 1969 annual report the increased activity of ‘violence-prone black extremists group’ had put more investigative responsibilities on the FBI.

‘Of these,’ Hoover said, ‘the Black Panther party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.’

Given the headline, one could be forgiven for thinking Hoover was saying the BPP was the greatest threat to the United States, as a whole — and it is the case that story has been the basis for the claim that the group was the FBI’s preeminent target, rather than one of many challenges the bureau confronted, in that period.

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FBI agent Roy Martin Mitchell developed and handled the informant William O’Neal, who helped lead the Chicago Police to Fred Hampton on the night of his death. (Meltdown Expected by Aaron Leonard)

This, unfortunately, has had the effect of obscuring other matters also worthy of attention. In that respect, two characters who intersected with the Chicago Panthers, but also others, are worth a deeper look: FBI informant William O’Neal and his handler, Roy Martin Mitchell. William O’Neal was recruited by the FBI in 1968 after he had been arrested by Chicago police. O’Neal had been caught driving a car he had stolen. Nineteen at the time, he told the arresting officer that he was an FBI agent and flashed a phony ID. The police, in turn, referred the matter to the FBI who dispatched Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell to meet with him. According to O’Neal, Mitchell told him: “‘I know you did it, but it’s no big thing.’ He said, ‘I’m sure we can work it out.’ And, um, I think a few, few months passed before I heard from him again, and one day I got a call and he told me that it was payback time. He said that ‘I want you to go and see if you can join the Black Panther Party, and if you can, give me a call.’” O’Neal went on to infiltrate the Panthers, first becoming the Chicago chapter’s head of security and later chief of staff for Illinois.

O’Neal’s success within the BPP was intimately bound up with his work with his FBI handler. In the ranks of the FBI, Mitchell was considered an agent of impeccable quality, as this report from April 1969 affirms: “MITCHELL is a young Agent who has been extremely successful in the racial field particularly in the development of informants. He has developed and is handling an informant in the Black Panther Party who is furnishing extremely valuable information to the Bureau, and his work in this area has absolutely nothing to be desired.”

An excerpt from an internal report on FBI agent Roy Martin Mitchell, noting his talent for developing informants in “the racial field.” (Meltdown Expected by Aaron Leonard)

Mitchell’s file, released in December 2020 after a Freedom of Information request by the author, runs nearly nine hundred pages. While the names William O’Neal and Fred Hampton never appear in the file, there is abundant corroborating evidence that makes clear it was O’Neal who was the informant supplying the “extremely valuable information.”

The Hampton Trials

In the wake of the murder of Fred Hampton, the case became a cause among the Left and the wider progressive community. This in turn led to several cases that wound their way through the courts throughout the ’70s. In 1972, Illinois state’s attorney Edward V. Hanrahan and twelve others were brought to trial for attempting to stop the prosecution of the police in the case. They were cleared in a trial before a judge.

That, however, was not the end of their trouble. In 1970, a civil suit was initiated by a group of activist attorneys in the People’s Law Office (PLO) who represented Iberia Hampton, Fred Hampton’s mother. That case involved twenty-eight defendants, including Hanrahan, three assistant state’s attorneys, the Chicago police officers who conducted the raid, and the FBI’s Marlin Johnson, Robert Piper, and Roy Martin Mitchell. The case went to trial in 1976 and lasted eighteen months. The judge, who was belligerent toward the plaintiffs throughout, ended up throwing out the cases against twenty-one of the defendants before the jury deliberated. The remaining defendants had their charges dismissed when the jury deadlocked on their cases. However, in April 1979 an appeals court reversed the judge’s decision and called for a new trial. In light of that, the government settled the case, and the Hampton family was awarded $1.8 million in damages.

In the course of the obstruction of justice trial and throughout the first few years of the civil suit, the identity of William O’Neal remained a closely held secret. However, developments in an unrelated 1973 case thrust him into the limelight. In that year, Chicago police sergeant Stanley Robinson was arrested for the murder of twenty-two-year-old Jeff Beard. Robinson, as was revealed at trial, was the leader of a gang of corrupt Chicago cops who, among other things, carried out murder-for-hire. The government had built a solid case against Robinson and had established that in May 1972 he, with the help of another man, abducted Beard — under the pretense of arresting him — outside a Chicago pool hall. The two then drove the captive to Indiana where he was shot, stabbed, and beaten to death.

Unfortunately for Robinson, his accomplice was also a government informant. His name was William O’Neal. While this meant a strong case for the government, for the bureau and O’Neal it signaled the end of his role as a confidential informant. It also, when word came out in February 1973, alerted the attorneys in the PLO then pursuing the Hampton civil case that they needed to examine O’Neal’s role in the Hampton killing. While they knew O’Neal had been Hampton’s bodyguard, they had not known he was also working for the FBI.

With the revelation that O’Neal was an FBI informant, the PLO was able to push for disclosure in the course of its civil suit. One thing it learned was that the FBI had paid O’Neal a bonus of $300 for his work on the raid that killed Hampton. Not known at the time — that would take the release of Roy Mitchell’s FBI file — was that Mitchell, too, had been paid a bonus, of $200. As J. Edgar Hoover noted in a commendation letter to Mitchell, “Through your aggressiveness and skill in handling a valuable source, he is able to furnish information of great importance to the Bureau in this vital area of our operations. I want you to know of my appreciation for your exemplary efforts.” While Hoover was careful not to spell out exactly what the “vital area of our operations” was, a notation at the bottom of the letter reads “Re: Black Panther Party.” The timing, six days after Hampton’s killing, makes clear what the award was for.

A letter from J. Edgar Hoover commending Roy Martin Mitchell on his role in the killing of Fred Hampton, and enclosing a financial reward. (Meltdown Expected  by Aaron Leonard) 


J. Edgar Hoover, however, would not be the only FBI director to commend Special Agent Mitchell for a killing in which his informant was a key player. In 1975, Eloise Beard, the sister of Jeff Beard, filed a lawsuit against Mitchell. The case argued that Mitchell had deprived her brother of his civil rights because of his “reckless training and use of an informant.” Mitchell, in other words, was culpable for Jeff Beard’s death because of the way in which he had trained and handled William O’Neal. Mitchell, however, was ultimately not held to account. In August 1978, a court cleared him of any responsibility.

That ruling was cause for celebration in the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI. In a January 1979 letter from US Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan to the director of the FBI, William Webster, Sullivan was effusive in his praise of Mitchell: “In October of this year, this office had the privilege of defending Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell in a case in which Mr. Mitchell was alleged to have failed to supervise and train an informant being utilized by Mr. Mitchell and the F.B.I. As you are aware, after a three-week trial, the jury deliberated for approximately forty minutes and returned a verdict favorable to Mr. Mitchell. We perceive that verdict to be a total vindication of Mr. Mitchell’s actions and the F.B.I.’s authorization of informants.” The prosecutor continued: “Mr. Mitchell is a man of the highest character, impeccable integrity, and a model F.B.I. agent whose attitude and activities should serve as a model for all Special Agents to emulate.” Webster duly passed along the praise to the special agent — while the court decision clearing him essentially upheld an informant participating in murder.

While the FBI and government attorneys would praise Mitchell, some in the CPD appear to have been less enamored. In a scene that might have been written for a television police procedural, a report in Mitchell’s personnel file recounts his harassment at the time of the Stanley Robinson case.

Specifically, there is a report on an April 1973 “apparently unwarranted arrest” — two months before the start of the Robinson trial — of Mitchell by a Chicago police officer for “driving an unsafe vehicle and for driving while under the influence.” Mitchell, who is said to have had a flat tire after leaving a dinner with an assistant US attorney, was confronted by a Chicago police officer who demanded that Mitchell, who was not drunk, take a breathalyzer test. When he refused, he was arrested. As an FBI account of its investigation of the incident reports: “5 other Agents [were interviewed] who were engaged in an investigative assignment with him on the day in question. An AUSA [assistant US attorney] who had dinner with SA Mitchell that evening was also interviewed. There is no indication whatsoever that SA Mitchell’s version of the incident was other than factual.” The FBI then took the case to the CPD hierarchy. As a result, “the Commander, Chief of Detectives, and First Deputy Superintendent, Chicago Police Department (CPD), all apologized: and expressed regret over the arrest of SA Mitchell and advised that immediate steps would be taken to see that no further harassment was taken against him.” It also reported that “the arresting officer would be admonished for his action on this particular occasion.”

In an effort to de-escalate the incident, the report says that “the best way to handle this current situation in order to avoid allegations of ‘cover-up’ would be to let SA Mitchell appear in court and explain his story to the judge.” He was subsequently cleared in court of the DUI, but because of the flat tire he was made to pay a $25 fine for “driving an unsafe vehicle.”

While the episode was resolved amicably, it highlights how relations between the FBI and CPD were not without contention, and that neither was fully subservient to the other. This dispels a certain monolithic view often ascribed to the bureau in its relations with the CPD, including, it would seem, in regard to the Hampton case.

Mitchell and O’Neal’s Complicity

The FBI’s connection to the Hampton killing continues to carry a certain ambiguity — did it know the Chicago police were out to kill Hampton, or was it just happy to pass along information that would aid it in whatever suppressive plans it might undertake? True, they were pleased with the outcome, rewarding O’Neal and Special Agent Mitchell. Less clear, however, is O’Neal’s specific role — substantial as it is — beyond passing along the floor plan.

The Jeff Beard case, however, is less ambiguous on O’Neal’s participation. He drove to Indiana while Stanley Robinson guarded Beard in the car’s back seat; he kept watch over Beard when Robinson stopped to make a phone call; and he “helped throw Beard’s body over a fence” once he was dead. In short, his role in facilitating the murder was essential. This was the basis for not one but two lawsuits: one against Mitchell, which was quickly decided against the plaintiff, and the other against O’Neal, which garnered a similar outcome.

The failure to find William O’Neal or Roy Mitchell as having any responsibility for the Jeff Beard murder and the killing of Fred Hampton was part of a larger process playing out in the last years of the ’70s. Not only was there the legitimation of domestic spying offered by the Levi Guidelines and the establishment of the FISC (Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court), but a reaffirmation of the role of the FBI.

Aaron J. Leonard is a writer and historian. He is the author of A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration From the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union - 1962-1974 (Repeater Books, 2018).

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