I first met Elmer Robert Cecil when we were both teenagers. The introduction was by our mutual friend David Rice, just inside the city council chambers at Omaha City Hall. We were all there to attend a council meeting. Cecil was conservatively dressed, soft-spoken, and extremely polite. I would not see Cecil again for a half-century.
Robert Cecil broke decades of silence during my book tour for FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two story and stepped forward to declare the Omaha Two were really the Omaha Three. The Omaha Two were Edward Poindexter and David Rice, later Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa, who were convicted for the August 17, 1970 bombing murder of Patrolman Larry Minard. The Omaha Two were leaders of the National Committee to Combat Fascism, a Black Panther affiliate group and consistently denied any role in the crime.
Cecil was a Black Panther member in Omaha during the group’s brief existence in the Midwestern city. In 1969, when the local chapter was dissolved by the national office in Oakland, California. Cecil then joined up with the United Front Against Fascism, later renamed the National Committee to Combat Fascism, a target group of the FBI’s infamous counterintelligence operation code-named COINTELPRO.
Cecil had been an activist at Technical High School and a founder of the BANTU student group. Cecil gained notoriety in 1969 when the Omaha World-Herald published a photo of him emerging from the police station toting a shotgun and wearing an ammo bandoleer. Cecil and others had been picked up for openly carrying firearms but released because it was then lawful to carry unconcealed weapons.
Cecil entered the police investigation of Minard’s death when a search was made of NCCF headquarters shortly after the bombing. Cecil was on duty at the office and answered the door. Police Captain Bruce Hartford described the encounter.
“I pulled the door open and forced the hook in the lock and after someone told me, he has a gun in his hand, he has a shotgun, and we went in.”
“I seen the shotgun in Cecil’s hand after I entered the inside and there were rifles, numerous shells laying around in the front room and bandoleers or canvas belts and we proceeded then into the basement.”
Hartford described using Cecil as a human shield. “Right ahead of me when I went in the basement….Well, I figured if it was booby trapped, and it gave all this appearance, that I would sure as hell take him with me.”
The shotgun had a shortened barrel which led to federal firearms charges against Cecil. At a book talk at the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha the long-silent Cecil came forward to tell part of his story. Cecil described being held by Hartford as the police searched the headquarters.
“The Omaha Two was really the Omaha Three. I got two years for a quarter inch. I served two years in a federal prison for a sawed off shotgun. The legal length of the barrel was eighteen inches. They said my gun was seventeen and three-quarters in length.”
Cecil also explained the newspaper photo of him carrying a shotgun outside the police station. A group of Black Panthers was stopped in traffic with a car full of legal weapons. “They took us downtown and after they held us a while they had to let us go, we were breaking no law.”
At a pretrial hearing in March 1971, Robert Cecil was called to testify about the search of NCCF headquarters. Cecil denied having a gun in his hands when Captain Hartford broke the lock on the front door. Cecil testified he was handcuffed before being used as a human shield.
Prosecutor Arthur O’Leary explained the police actions were because it was an emergency search. “What I am trying to get at, there were weapons, there were signs in the house indicating danger and so forth and the police were in a hurry to do what they had to do.”
O’Leary then questioned Cecil about the term “racist pig” but Cecil turned the taunt back. “But we used fascist pig. We don’t use racist pig.”
In April 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld Cecil’s conviction for a sawed off shotgun seized during the raid of the headquarters in Omaha. However, the court was critical of police search tactics.
“Hartford pulled the screen door open, breaking the lock, and the officers entered in a rush….The search, subsequent to the seizure of the gun and the defendant’s arrest, is not pertinent here and we say no more in that regard than that we disapprove of the manner in which it was conducted.”
Circuit Judge Heaney dissented, arguing that police lacked probable cause to arrest Cecil and provided more details of the search which used Cecil as a human shield. “I fail to understand why a temporary seizure of the defendant and the weapon would not have sufficiently protected the officers.”
“Instead, the police handcuffed the defendant and used him as a human shield to protect them as they searched the house, on the theory that if any occupants of the house fired on the police, Cecil would take the brunt of it.”
Robert Cecil was well known to the Intelligence Squad of the Omaha Police Department and made it onto detective Jack Swanson’s list of 39 suspects in the Minard case. Before his death in prison in March 2016, Mondo wrote that the testimony and evidence at trial could have led to charges against four other individuals besides himself and Ed Poindexter. Mondo said that Raleigh House, Donald Peak, Jr., Robert Cecil and Frank Peak could have all been charged.
Duane Peak, the confessed bomber, testified that Raleigh House supplied the suitcase and dynamite to make the bomb. One of Donald Peak’s sisters identified the voice on the 911 tape, which lured Minard to his death, as Donald’s and put him and Duane with the suitcase together hours before the bombing. Frank Peak, a cousin of Duane and Donald, was purportedly at a planning session for the crime according to Duane. Cecil’s possible role came from reports of the crime laboratory at the Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms Division in Washington.
According to Maynard Pro, the assistant chief of the ATF laboratory, dynamite particles were found in the trousers of Cecil. ATF chemist Kenneth Snow testified at trial that hand swabs from Cecil tested positive for dynamite. Cecil declined to discuss the dynamite evidence beyond a short statement.
“I’m sure it was part of the fabrication of their evidence if the other two were found not guilty. I told you I was the lucky one. They wanted us off the street, one way or another.”
“I still feel that it is not time to talk about what has happened to me. I do not talk about those days, I am reluctant as to how I was treated by both sides. Perhaps in the future.”
Now there is no future for Cecil to unburden himself of the painful past. The time to talk has passed and longstanding questions have gone to the grave unanswered.
So how did dynamite traces show up on Cecil’s pants and hand swabs? Dynamite particles were also allegedly found in clothing of Poindexter and Mondo by the ATF lab. The clothing had been transported to Washington by ATF agent Thomas Sledge, along with three vials of dynamite particles, for testing. Sledge’s brother James, an Omaha policeman, had been injured in the bombing and Sledge is suspected of salting the clothing with dynamite particles. Sledge may have done the same with the hand swabs, cotton balls stored in a plastic bag. However, hand swabs from Poindexter and Mondo turned up negative for dynamite raising a question about Cecil’s swab test results.
Ed Poindexter, serving a life sentence at the Nebraska State Penitentiary for the fatal bombing, says he first learned of Cecil’s hand swabs from the witness stand at his trial. Poindexter, who steadfastly maintains his innocence, is quick to point out his hand swabs came out negative for dynamite.
Cecil’s name emerged again in 1980 during post-trial proceedings. Attorney William Cunningham, representing Mondo, disclosed that the Omaha ATF office sought conspiracy charges against twenty-two black activists in four states, including Cecil, for bombings in the 1970’s. United States Attorney Richard Dier refused to bring charges against the group, dubbed the Midwest 22, ending federal attempts to further imprison Cecil.
Robert Cecil did his time for the sawed-off shotgun and after prison returned to Omaha, abandoning the activism that marked his time as a Black Panther. The COINTELPRO program was terminated ten days after the Omaha Two trial ended in April 1971. Duane Peak, the confessed bomber, made a deal with the Douglas County Attorney and never spend a day in prison for the bombing death of Larry Minard. Ed Poindexter remains in prison, trapped by wrongs of the past that many do not want to correct or remember.
FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two story, in print edition at Amazon and in ebook. Portions of the book may be read free online at NorthOmahaHistory.com. The book is also available to patrons of the Omaha Public Library.