When Rita Montero was conducting her campaign for the Denver Public Schools board this spring, voters in northwest Denver heard all about her qualifications for the job and her ideas for educational reform. Montero pledged to cut wasteful spending at DPS, boost parental participation and overhaul the district's bilingual-education program. She won the endorsement of the Rocky Mountain News, which called her a "standout" candidate whose ideas were "right on target." When the May 2 election rolled around, Montero had little trouble defeating her opponent, capturing 55 percent of the vote.
What voters didn't hear about during the race was Montero's ties to a group of Chicano radicals killed in a pair of mysterious car bombings in Boulder 21 years ago. Though Montero's relationship with the blast victims--who authorities believed died in a terrorist act gone awry--was widely publicized at the time, it never resurfaced publicly during the recent school-board campaign.
Montero, 44, denies involvement in the bombings, which left six people dead, pointing out that neither she nor anyone else was ever charged with a crime. And some observers say she seems to have mellowed somewhat politically in the years since. "What's the rationale for raising it at this point?" she asks when questioned about the incidents.
But news reports and interviews with law enforcement officials indicate that Montero had a more than peripheral connection with the case.
For example, Montero admits she was a close friend of several of the bombing victims, who police theorized blew themselves up accidentally while assembling timed explosive devices in their vehicles. The day after the second bombing, Montero tried to bluff her way into the hospital room of the lone survivor, claiming she was his sister. The day after that, police arrested Montero after a high-speed chase on the Boulder Turnpike; a subsequent search turned up an egg timer in the back of her car. And later she refused to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the bombings.
Montero says today that she's sure the people killed in the blasts were innocent--not the feckless revolutionaries state and federal authorities made them out to be. She faults police for focusing primarily on the victims themselves and not pursuing the possibility that they may have been murdered by someone else.
"They [the police] were only looking at those of us who were friends and family" of the victims, Montero says. "That was it...We felt that they were biased, and they had already made up their minds."
But law enforcement officials who remember the case say they remain convinced that Montero's friends had plans to use the bombs to conduct a campaign of political terror.
"There was never any question in my mind that they carried those bombs in," says Dave Stolz of the University of Colorado-Boulder campus police. Another law enforcement source familiar with the case says the idea that the victims were murdered "was never a credible theory."
The car bombings occurred against a backdrop of fear and racial tension in Boulder and throughout the metro area. The year before, Denver police killed a man in a confrontation at the headquarters of the Crusade for Justice, a left-wing Hispanic political organization. In February 1974, a bomb went off at Boulder's Flatiron Elementary School, causing thousands of dollars' worth of damage. The following month, dynamite blasts rocked the CU police department and the Hall of Justice on Boulder's Courthouse Square.
The first of the two car bombings took place the night of May 27, when a blast obliterated a car at Boulder's Chautauqua Park. Killed in the explosion were 25-year-old Reyes Paul Martinez, an Alamosa attorney; 20-year-old CU junior Neva Romero; and Una Jaakola, a 24-year-old CU graduate who was Martinez's girlfriend. Martinez was the younger brother of Franke "Kiko" Martinez, a then-fugitive Chicano lawyer who'd been charged with sending a series of mail bombs the previous year. (Franke Martinez was later acquitted of some charges; the others were dismissed.)
The second bomb exploded two days later inside a station wagon parked near a liquor store on 28th Street in Boulder. Three of the car's four occupants--32-year-old Florencio Granado, 22-year-old Francisco Dougherty and 24-year-old Heriberto Teran--died in the blast. The fourth, Antonio Alcantar, survived but suffered severe injuries, including the loss of his left leg.
"I had been good friends with all of them," Rita Montero acknowledges. Montero, who'd attended CU but left in 1972, says she'd met many through a campus organization called United Mexican-American Students (UMAS). Granado, a former president of UMAS, had been charged in the 1973 shooting of Richard Castro, director of Denver's West Side Action Center, and was out on a $10,000 bond at the time of the bombing. Teran had worked with Montero at the Colorado Pinto Project, a jobs program for ex-convicts.
A number of circumstances prompted police to scrutinize the group.
Survivor Alcantar, for instance, told authorities he didn't know any of the other occupants of the station wagon destroyed in the May 29 blast. According to old news reports, he said he'd been hitchhiking on U.S. 36 and had been picked up by the group. Witnesses, however, told police that Alcantar and Teran were "very close friends" and that the pair had been seen together in Denver earlier in the day.
And a search of the victims' homes turned up a slew of incriminating evidence, including a wiring diagram for a bomb, batteries that had been taped together and some heavy-gauge wire.
"I cannot accept the idea that the people in the vehicles were innocent victims," says Kirk Long, the former head of the detective division for the Boulder County Sheriff's Department. Long, now a criminal-justice instructor at Arapahoe Community College, recalls that tests showed that in both explosions, the occupants of the cars were in the process of arming the bombs when they went off by mistake.
The day after the second explosion, the 23-year-old Montero tried to bluff her way past security guards posted outside Alcantar's hospital bedroom. According to news reports at the time, she falsely represented herself as Alcantar's sister.
Today, Montero explains she was just trying to get into the heavily guarded hospital to see her injured friend.
"I don't think it was a lie," Montero says. "I felt he was my brother. We called each other carnal and carnala--brother and sister. It wasn't a family thing, but in terms of our relationship as friends, that's how we referred to each other."
The next day, a Colorado state police officer pulled Montero over in what news reports described as a "routine traffic stop." After talking briefly with the patrolman, she jumped in her car and fled toward Boulder on U.S. 36. Police caught and arrested her at the Baseline Road exit. When they searched her car, they found an egg timer in the back, which they said could be used in the manufacture of a homemade bomb.
Montero, whose picture appeared on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News after her arrest, was charged with eluding police and other violations, according to news reports. She later pleaded guilty to speeding, and the other charges were dropped.
Montero says there was nothing sinister about the egg timer. Two weeks before the bombings, she says, she'd been working at a community center for migrant farm workers in Fort Lupton and had met two young boys who were using the timer in a card game they were playing. The boys told her they'd borrowed it from a cook in the town and asked Montero if she would return it for them. Montero agreed, she says, but then neglected to run the errand, and she carried the timer around in her car until the day of her arrest.
Authorities launched a massive investigation into the two bombings, which involved investigators from the Boulder police, the Boulder sheriff's department, the CU police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"Our best recollection is that we had insufficient evidence to consider filing charges against any living person," says Bill Wise, first assistant district attorney in Boulder. "Any persons that we might have had sufficient evidence to charge were deceased."
Many law enforcement officials involved in the case say they don't remember why Alcantar was never charged in the second bombing, since he was in the station wagon at the time of the blast, gave an allegedly false story to police and had suspicious material recovered from his home. "I don't recall why," Long says. "I just can't give you an answer."
But one source, speaking on condition of anonymity, says authorities had a number of reasons for not bringing any charges against him. Alcantar had already suffered the loss of a limb in the blast, the source says, and the evidence against him was far from ironclad. And authorities worried that a trial in the politically charged case might turn Alcantar into a "martyr," exacerbating already strained relations between whites and Hispanics in the area.
Alcantar could not be reached for comment. But Montero says the fact that he was not arrested shows how flimsy the police theory of the case was. "If they had anything substantial, I think they would have pressed charges," Montero says. "They never did anything."
In July 1974, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver convened a federal grand jury to investigate the bombings. Several witnesses, including Montero and the widows of two of the bombing victims, were subpoenaed to testify.
But Montero and the others refused to cooperate with the investigation. Claiming the grand jury probe was an illegal attempt to harass and intimidate Chicanos, they filed suit to block it in U.S. District Court. Joining the suit were UMAS, the Crusade for Justice and a group called the Denver Chicano Liberation Defense Committee. Federico Pena, the future mayor of Denver and now U.S. Secretary of Transportation, was one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.
The day the witnesses appeared in court, about 200 Chicano protesters picketed outside the federal courthouse. According to news reports, Montero and the others declined to answer any questions before the grand jury.
Montero says today that the reason she wouldn't cooperate was that the authorities were conducting a one-sided investigation. Police, for instance, never pursued a report that two white men were seen throwing an object into the car destroyed in the second explosion, Montero says.
"People believed--and I was one of them--that we had put a number of other issues in front of them to investigate," Montero says. "They made no attempt to do that. Their focus was entirely on the friends and family of people who were the victims. We weren't going to cooperate with that."
Montero says she doesn't think the wiring diagram for a bomb discovered in police searches of the victims' homes was a compelling reason to focus on the group.
"They could probably find bombing manuals in a lot of people's houses," Montero says. "That's something you can get out of the public library. We wanted a full investigation, and they never gave it to us."
Montero's connections to the 1974 incidents have long been well-known in Denver's Hispanic community. But they were never raised by the media during her two recent campaigns for the school board.
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Montero ran unsuccessfully for the board's at-large seat in 1993. In May she beat Jose Soliz, a college administrator, in the race for the school board's District 5 seat, which represents voters in northwest Denver.
Montero, married and the parent of a DPS second-grader, is a paralegal with the National Lawyers Guild, a voluntary association of lawyers and others that promotes social justice through pro bono legal work.
Those who know Montero say her political views remain well left of center but that she is not the militant radical she once was. The fact that she ran for the school board post, they say, shows she has chosen to work within the system rather than outside it.
Asked if she thinks the American system is fundamentally fair or corrupt, Montero says: "I think the government is inadequate. If you want to call it `corruption,' that's your word.