Remembering ‘The Minnesota Eight’

Anti-war activists went to prison for draft board raids

Minnesota Historical Society 

Seven of the Minnesota Eight in 1970. Front row (from left): Chuck Turchick, Mike Therriault (with book), Brad Beneke (head turned), and Don Olson. Back row (from left): Pete Simmons, Bill Tilton and Frank Kroncke. Missing: Cliff Ulen. Used with the permission of Cheryl Walsh Bellville.

Around midnight on July 10, 1970, four teams of two or three people each broke into Selective Service offices in Little Falls, Alexandria, Winona and Wabasha, intending to destroy as many military draft files as possible – acts of protest against the war in Vietnam.

They mostly failed. Eight of them were arrested and charged with federal crimes. They became known as the Minnesota Eight.

Resistance to the war in Vietnam, in Minnesota and elsewhere, took many forms. One of them was destruction of files in the offices of the Selective Service system (a draft eligibility agency).

It is ironic that in Minnesota the least successful of such actions – that of the Minnesota Eight – is the best remembered.

The first draft-board raid in the state, and possibly the first nationwide, took place in Elk River when Barry Bondhus poured two buckets of human excrement into the Selective Service files there in February of 1966. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In the next three years similar acts took place in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis, where hundreds and sometimes thousands of files were destroyed.
In January 1970, Brian Wells burned 2,400 files at the Nicollet County Selective Service office in St. Peter and received a sentence of up to six years of federal supervision.

By far the most successful such action took place in St. Paul and Minneapolis the weekend of Feb. 28, 1970, when anti-war activists destroyed thousands of files held in the St. Paul central post office and an office building in downtown Minneapolis. No one was ever arrested for these crimes.

After this, another group began planning break-ins in greater Minnesota.

On July 10, 1970, it went into action. Chuck Turchick, Bill Tilton and Cliff Ulen went to Alexandria; Don Olson, Peter Simmons and Brad Beneke went to Winona; and Francis Kroncke and Michael Therriault went to Little Falls. Another team headed for Wabasha, while a fifth canceled its action.

Around midnight the raiders all broke into the Selective Service offices, prepared to destroy files. They concentrated on those of citizens designated 1-A – that is, subject to call-up at any time.

In Alexandria, Little Falls, and Winona, FBI agents were waiting. The men, soon known as the Minnesota Eight, were arrested without incident. The Wabasha team succeeded in destroying files, and no arrests in that case were ever made.

The men were charged with the federal crime of interference with the Selective Service. They and their lawyers made the trials, like the raids, political acts aimed at informing and persuading the public of the evils of the war in Vietnam.

There were three trials: two before Judge Edward Devitt, the third before Philip Neville.

Rancor broke out before the first trial even began. At Brian Wells’s trial Brad Beneke called Devitt “a pompous ass.” Devitt sent him to jail for 10 days.

At his arraignment, Turchick said he could not expect mercy from a court that “jails people because they refuse to kill.”

At the first two trials (Turchick and Tilton, then Olson, Simmons and Beneke), Devitt positioned armed sentries in the courthouse and kept many defense supporters out of his courtroom. Some supporters refused to stand for the judge and were ejected. A bomb threat and then a jury-misconduct mistrial marred the second trial. All five defendants were quickly convicted.

Judge Edward Devitt

The third trial, before Judge Neville, was completely different. He kept an open courtroom, used no armed guards, and allowed the defense to bring witness after witness to condemn the war in Vietnam. But in the end Neville ordered the jury to disregard all such evidence; Therriault and Kroncke were also quickly convicted.

Rancor resurfaced at sentencing. Tilton called Judge Devitt “a good German” who was “helping fascism come into this country.”

Devitt told the defendants that they were worse than ordinary criminals because their conduct struck “at the very foundation of government.”

Five of the seven got the maximum sentence of five years in federal prison; the two youngest, Beneke and Simmons, received indeterminate terms. All appeals were denied.

They served between 14 and 20 months, mostly in medium security prisons, and were released in July 1973. Cliff Ulen, the lone defendant to plead guilty, got no prison time.

Chronology

1964: Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, thus authorizing a vastly expanded US military presence in Vietnam.

1966: On February 23, Barry Bondhus dumps human excrement into the files at the Selective Service office in Elk River.

1968: US troop levels in Vietnam reach their peak: 536,000.

In Catonsville, Maryland, anti-war protesters steal 387 draft files on May 17 and burn them in a public demonstration.

A group known as the Milwaukee Fourteen destroys some 10,000 draft files in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 24.

1969: On May 25, a group later known as the Chicago Fifteen destroys thousands of draft files in Chicago.

A group calling itself Beaver Fifty-Five destroys the files of forty-four local Indiana draft boards in Indianapolis on November 1.

A new draft lottery begins on December 1, signaling the end of student deferments. Male college students are now subject to the draft.

1970: In January, Brian Wells, a student at Mankato State University, sets fire to 2,400 files in the Selective Service office in St. Peter.

From February 28 to March 1, a group calling itself Beaver Fifty-Five, not affiliated with the Indianapolis group, destroys thousands of draft files in simultaneous actions in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Eight are arrested on July 10 while attempting to carry out file destruction at Selective Service offices in Little Falls, Alexandria, and Winona.

Defendants Bill Tilton and Chuck Turchick are convicted on November 5.

Defendants Don Olson, Brad Beneke, and Peter Simmons are convicted on December 3.

On December 28, Judge Edward Devitt sentences Tilton, Turchick, and Olson to five years in prison, Beneke and Simmons to indeterminate sentences as youthful offenders.

1971: Defendants Michael Therriault and Francis Kroncke are convicted on January 18.

Judge Philip Neville sentences Therriault and Kroncke to five years in prison on March 12.

1973: All seven of the imprisoned Minnesota Eight are released in July.