William O'Neal spent the last few hours of his life with his uncle Ben Heard, a retired truck driver from Maywood. It was Martin Luther King Day.
"We were just sitting around drinking beer," Heard recalls, "talking to some friends of mine. We had company. The company left and that's when he started acting kind of strange."
At 2:30 AM the 40-year-old O'Neal ran out of his uncle's apartment, across the westbound lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway, and was struck by a car and killed. His death was ruled a suicide.
O'Neal achieved lasting infamy in 1973 when his role in the 1969 raid in which Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered was revealed. Though O'Neal was a Panther insider to the point where he was in charge of security for Hampton and possessed keys to Panther headquarters and safe houses, he was at the same time serving as an informant for the FBI. Among the information the teenaged O'Neal fed his FBI contact was the floor plan of Hampton's west-side apartment that was used to plan the fatal raid. After his cover was blown O'Neal entered the federal witness protection program, assumed the alias William Hart, and moved to California. He secretly returned to Chicago in 1984.
So not all who knew O'Neal will mourn. But Heard, who says he knew O'Neal as well as anyone, depicts his nephew as a young man who cooperated with the FBI to reduce his own potential jail time, then got in way over his head and was forever tortured by the guilt.
After their drinking buddies left in the early-morning hours of King Day, Heard became worried when O'Neal kept getting up to go to the bathroom. "He'd stay in there 10 or 15 minutes. The last time he stayed 20 minutes. He came out in a rage and he tried to jump out my living room window [which is on the second floor]. I stopped him. I grabbed him by the ankles. I wrestled with him but he broke free and he ran out the door.
"I just had my house shoes and pants on. I couldn't run after him like that. I couldn't have caught him anyway. There was a woman standing in front of the house and she said, 'Lord, it sounds like somebody got hit on the expressway!'"
Heard ran to the ridge of the grassy slope and looked below to the Eisenhower, where he saw a prone body and a car with a broken windshield parked on the shoulder. The state police were already on the scene. When Heard got a close look at the body with his flashlight, his worst fears were confirmed. "The impact had torn the back of his shirt and pants off. His eyes were open. I took his pulse and it was hardly anything." After O'Neal was taken away Heard sat in the trooper's car and listened to the deeply shaken driver tell how O'Neal had jumped out in front of him waving his arms. He tried to swerve, but it was too late.
Heard had seen O'Neal gripped by this rage once before. It was last September, when O'Neal ran out onto the Eisenhower and was struck but only injured. Heard says, "I ran out on the street but I didn't know which way he went. About 15, 20 minutes later I heard an ambulance and I said, 'I hope it's not Bill.' I called the emergency room and it was."
Heard said O'Neal never wanted to talk about the incident. He never said why he did it or if coming so close to death had taught him anything. "But I never thought he would do it again, since he came so close," Heard says. "I never thought he was suicidal."
Heard learned of O'Neal's secret shortly after Hampton's death. "I thought about some of the things he did and said. I asked him, but he denied it." But later O'Neal told his uncle that he'd been in trouble for everything from car theft and home invasion to kidnapping and torture. "He said they had someone tied up and they were pouring hot water over his head. They were trying to get him to do something." So an FBI agent told O'Neal he would take care of it all in exchange for his infiltrating the Panthers.
"I think he was sorry he did what he did. He thought the FBI was only going to raid the house. But the FBI gave it over to the state's attorney and that was all Hanrahan wanted. They shot Fred Hampton and made sure he was dead."
Heard says he was with his nephew the morning after the ambush when he saw the inside of Hampton's apartment. "There was papers strewn all over the floor, blood all over. There was a trail of blood from where they had dragged Fred's body. Bill just stood there in shock. He never thought it would come to all this."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.