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Sterling Hall bombing

Coordinates: 43°04′27″N 89°24′19″W / 43.074278°N 89.405408°W / 43.074278; -89.405408
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Sterling Hall bombing
Part of the opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam
Sterling Hall
LocationMadison, Wisconsin, United States
Coordinates43°04′27″N 89°24′19″W / 43.074278°N 89.405408°W / 43.074278; -89.405408
DateAugust 24, 1970
3:42 am (UTC-5)
TargetArmy Mathematics Research Center, Sterling Hall, UW–Madison
Attack type
Car bombing of a school building
WeaponsCar bomb (ammonium nitrate)
PerpetratorsKarleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt
MotiveProtest against the Vietnam War

The Sterling Hall bombing occurred on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus on August 24, 1970, and was committed by four men as an action against the university's research connections with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. It resulted in the death of a university physics researcher and injuries to three others.


Sterling Hall historical marker

Sterling Hall is a centrally located building on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. The bomb, set off at 3:42 am on August 24, 1970, was intended to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC) housed on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors of the building. It caused massive destruction to other parts of the building and nearby buildings as well. It resulted in the death of the researcher Robert Fassnacht, injured three others and caused significant destruction to the physics department and its equipment.[1][2][3][4] Neither Fassnacht nor the physics department itself was involved with or employed by the Army Mathematics Research Center.

The bombers used a Ford Econoline van stolen from a University of Wisconsin professor of Computer Sciences. It was filled with close to 2,000 pounds (910 kg) of ANFO (i.e., ammonium nitrate and fuel oil).[5] Pieces of the van were found on top of an eight-story building three blocks away and 26 nearby buildings were damaged; however, the targeted AMRC was scarcely damaged.[6] Total damage to University of Wisconsin–Madison property was over $2.1 million ($15.3 million in 2023)[7] as a result of the bombing.[8]

Army Mathematics Research Center

Sterling Hall after the bombing

During the Vietnam War, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors of the southern (east-west) wing of Sterling Hall housed the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC). This was an Army-funded think tank, directed by J. Barkley Rosser, Sr.[citation needed]

The staff at the center, at the time of the bombing, consisted of about 45 mathematicians, about 30 of them full-time. Rosser was well known for his research in pure mathematics, logic (Rosser's trick, the Kleene–Rosser paradox, and the Church-Rosser theorem) and in number theory (Rosser sieve). Rosser had been the head of the U.S. ballistics program during World War II and also had contributed to research on several missiles used by the U.S. military.[citation needed]

The money to build a home for AMRC came from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) in 1955. Their money built a 6-floor addition to Sterling Hall. In the contract to work at the facility, it was required that mathematicians spend at least half their time on U.S. Army research.[citation needed]

Rosser publicly minimized any military role of the center and implied that AMRC pursued mathematics, including both pure and applied mathematics. The University of Wisconsin student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, obtained and published quarterly reports that AMRC submitted to the Army. The Cardinal published a series of investigative articles making a convincing case that AMRC was pursuing research that was directly pursuant to specific U.S. Department of Defense requests, and relevant to counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam. AMRC became a magnet for demonstrations, in which protesters chanted "U.S. out of Vietnam! Smash Army Math!"[citation needed]

The Army Mathematics Research Center was phased out by the Department of Defense at the end of the 1970 fiscal year.[9]


FBI wanted posters published shortly after the bombing

The bombers were Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt. They called themselves the "New Year's Gang", a name which was derived from an exploit on New Year's Eve 1969. In that earlier attack, Dwight and Karl, with Karl's girlfriend, Lynn Schultz (who drove the getaway car), stole a small plane from Morey Field in Middleton. Dwight and Karl dropped homemade explosives on the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, but the explosives failed to detonate. They successfully landed the plane at another airport and escaped.

Karleton “Blackman" Armstrong


I still feel we can't rationalize someone getting killed, but at that time we felt we should never have done the bombing at all. Now I don't feel that way. I feel it was justified and should have been done. It just should have been done more responsibly.[10]
—Karleton Armstrong, in a 1986 interview

Karl was the oldest of the bombers. He had been admitted to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1964 but left in 1965, working odd jobs for the next couple years. He was re-accepted into the University in the Fall of 1967. Karl witnessed violent confrontations between protesters and police on October 18, 1967 when Dow Chemical Company held job interviews on campus, which many students protested by blocking the building where interviews were being held.[3]

Before the Sterling Hall bombing, Karl had committed other acts of anti-war violence, including setting fire to an ROTC installation at the University of Wisconsin Armory (the Red Gym), and bombing what he thought was the State's Selective Service headquarters but turned out to be the University of Wisconsin Primate Research Center. Karl also attempted to plant explosives at a Prairie du Sac electrical substation that supplied power to the Badger Ammunition Plant but was frightened off by the night watchman.[3]

After the bombing, Karl went into hiding for 18 months until his capture in Toronto on February 16, 1972.[11] He was sentenced to 23 years in prison but served only seven.[10][12][13] After his release, Armstrong returned to Madison, where he operated a juice cart called Loose Juice on the library mall. In the early 2000s, he opened a deli called Radical Rye on State Street near the UW–Madison campus, which he operated until it was displaced by the development of the Overture Center.[14][15]

Dwight Armstrong


Dwight Armstrong, Karl's younger brother, was 19 at the time of the bombing. After the bombing, he lived in a commune in Toronto under the name "Virgo". After a few months, he left the commune, traveled first to Vancouver and then on to San Francisco, where he connected with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) which was holding Patty Hearst at the time. It is believed he was not active in the SLA. He returned to Toronto where he was arrested on April 10, 1977. He pleaded guilty to the bombing, was sentenced to seven years in prison, of which he served three before being released.

In 1987, he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison for conspiring to distribute amphetamines in Indiana.[16] After being released from prison, he returned to Madison and worked for Union Cab until January 2001 when he purchased the Radical Rye Deli with his brother.[15][17]

Dwight Armstrong died from lung cancer on June 20, 2010, at age 58.[18][19]

David Fine

An early 1960s Ford van, similar to the van used in the bombing

18-years-old at the time of the bombing, David Fine was the youngest of the four bombers. He came to UW Madison as a freshman in 1969. He wrote for the campus newspaper The Daily Cardinal, and associated with other writers including Leo Burt. He met Karl Armstrong in the summer of 1970.

On January 7, 1976, he was captured in San Rafael, California, and sentenced to seven years in federal prison for his part in the bombing, of which he served three.[3]

In 1987, after passing the Oregon bar exam, Fine was denied admission to the bar on the grounds that he "had failed to show good moral character". Fine appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Oregon which upheld the decision.[20]

Leo Burt


Leo Burt was 22 years old, and worked at the campus newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, with David Fine. Burt came to Wisconsin following his interest in rowing, and joined the crew.[21] He introduced Fine and Karl Armstrong to each other in July 1970.

After the bombing, Burt fled to Canada with Fine,[22] and as of May 2023, still has not been seen.[23][24][25] Over the years, there had been new leads on his possible whereabouts, none of which panned out.[26][27]


A plaque reads: "In memoriam. This is the site of the Sterling Hall Bombing, which occurred at 3:40 AM on August 24, 1970. An outstanding research scientist, Dr. Robert Fassnacht, was killed in the bombing while working in his laboratory on a physics experiment studying a basic mechanism for superconductivity in metals. Three others were injured. Dr. Fassnacht was 33 years old, married, and had three young children."
Plaque on the south side of Sterling Hall. Dedicated on May 18, 2007.

Robert Fassnacht was a 33-year-old postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. On the night and early morning of August 23–24, 1970, he went to the lab to finish up work before leaving on a family vacation.[26] He was involved in research in the field of superconductivity. At the time of the explosion, Fassnacht was in his lab located in the basement level of Sterling Hall. He was monitoring an experiment when the explosion occurred.[28] Rescuers found him face down in about a foot of water.[29]

Injured in the bombing were Paul Quin, David Schuster, and Norbert Sutler. Schuster, a South African graduate student,[30] who became deaf in one ear and with only partial hearing in the other ear,[31] was the most seriously injured of the three, suffering a broken shoulder, fractured ribs and a ruptured eardrum; he was buried in the rubble for three hours before being rescued by firefighters. Quin, a postdoctoral physics researcher, and Sutler, a university security officer, suffered cuts from shattered glass and bruises.[2] Quin, who became a physics professor at UW–Madison, always refused to discuss the bombing in public.[31]

See also



  1. ^ Donald Pfarrer (August 25, 1970). "Bomb in Stolen Truck Caused explosion at UW". The Milwaukee Journal. pp. 8–. Retrieved January 4, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ a b "The Injured Remember" Archived July 6, 2008, at the Wayback Machine; Wisconsin State Journal; August 23, 1971
  3. ^ a b c d Michael Fellner (May 18, 1986). "The Untold Story:Part 1". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved January 4, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ Reinke, Clifford (August 26, 1970). "Van's Blast at UW Center Kills One and Hurts Four". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on October 26, 2017. Retrieved October 26, 2017.
  5. ^ "Sterling Hall Bombing Engine Fragment". Wisconsin Historical Society. October 19, 2012. Archived from the original on August 25, 2019. Retrieved August 25, 2019.
  6. ^ "Sterling Hall bombing". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on January 16, 2006.
  7. ^ 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved February 29, 2024.
  8. ^ "Sterling Hall Toll Set at $2.1 Million" (PDF). Wisconsin State Journal. August 17, 1972. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 19, 2008.
  9. ^ Master Government List of Federally Funded R&D Centers Archived August 20, 2023, at the Wayback Machine. National Science Foundation.
  10. ^ a b Michael Fellner (May 25, 1986). "The Untold Story:Part 2". The Milwaukee Journal's Wisconsin Magazine. pp. 4–19. Retrieved January 4, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ Franzmann, Robert (February 18, 1972). "Karl Armstrong Arrested; No Clue to Others Found". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on October 26, 2017. Retrieved October 26, 2017.
  12. ^ Williams, Scott (May 11, 2019). "Attorney John O. Olson, who won first Sterling Hall bombing conviction, dies at 82". Wisconsin State Journal. Lake Geneva. Archived from the original on May 23, 2020. Retrieved November 14, 2020.
  13. ^ "Armstrong apologizes for 1970 campus bombing". United Press International. July 3, 1989. Retrieved November 14, 2020. 'There really was no way of carrying it out responsibly unless you go inside, search room by room and force whoever is there out,' Armstrong said of the building. Armstrong said he 'surveilled' a room with lights on before the explosion was set but found no one.
  14. ^ Samara Kalk (January 5, 2001). "Karl Armstrong Takes Over Radical Rye On State Street". Capital Times. Archived from the original on November 4, 2012.
  15. ^ a b John L. Pulley (July 19, 2002). "Radical Consequences". Chronicle of Higher Education. Archived from the original on June 11, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  16. ^ "Armstrong faces Prison Term". The Milwaukee Journal. September 6, 1988. Retrieved January 4, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  17. ^ Sharif Durhams and Peter Maller (August 20, 2000). "30 years ago, bomb shattered UW campus". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.[dead link]
  18. ^ Deborah Ziff (June 21, 2010). "Dwight Armstrong, Sterling Hall Bomber, Dies at 58". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on June 26, 2010. Retrieved June 22, 2010.
  19. ^ Margalit Fox (June 26, 2010). "Dwight Armstrong, Who Bombed a College Building in 1970, Dies at 58". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 5, 2017. Retrieved June 28, 2010.
  20. ^ In the Matter of the Application for Admission to the Oregon State Bar of David Sylvan Fine, Petitioner, 736 P.2d 183 (Supreme Court of Oregon April 29, 1987), archived from the original.
  21. ^ Doug Moe (Summer 2005). "The Last Fugitive" (PDF). On Wisconsin. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 28, 2008.
  22. ^ Katherine M. Skiba (June 1, 1986). "Where is Leo?". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved January 4, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  23. ^ Mungin, Lateef (August 24, 2010). "40 years later, FBI still hunts alleged bomber". CNN.com. Archived from the original on August 25, 2010. Retrieved August 24, 2010.
  24. ^ Fitzpatrick, Frank (September 23, 2014). "The Phantom Bomber's escape into the shadows". Philly.com. Archived from the original on October 3, 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  25. ^ "Leo Burt, the Unabomber and me". Channel3000.com. May 11, 2020. Archived from the original on May 17, 2020. Retrieved May 12, 2020.
  26. ^ a b Markon, Jerry (September 21, 2010). "After 40 Years, Search for University of Wisconsin Bombing Suspect Heats Up Again". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on May 26, 2012. Retrieved September 24, 2010.
  27. ^ "40-Year Fugitive Search Continues". FBI. Archived from the original on September 22, 2015. Retrieved November 14, 2020. Retired Special Agent Kent Miller, one of several agents to lead the hunt for Burt over the years, said the Bureau has run down hundreds of tips around the world—everything from Burt reportedly being homeless in Denver to working at a Costa Rican resort. But the fugitive has somehow managed to elude capture, leading some to believe he is dead.
  28. ^ Hague, Bob (May 19, 2007). "UW honors Robert Fassnacht". Wisconsin Radio Network. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007. Retrieved May 19, 2007.
  29. ^ Erickson, Doug (August 18, 2020). "When bomb tore through Sterling Hall 50 years ago, he was inside: 'I still have flashbacks'". University of Wisconsin–Madison. Archived from the original on January 21, 2024. Retrieved January 21, 2024.
  30. ^ "David Schuster". October 5, 2015. Archived from the original on May 10, 2015. Retrieved March 7, 2018.
  31. ^ a b "Sterling Hall Bombing: Seven Men Linked by a Moment in History". Wisconsin State Journal. August 17, 2010. Archived from the original on February 19, 2015. Retrieved October 19, 2013.

Further reading