After he was caught driving a stolen car across state lines in 1966, 17-year-old William O'Neal was given the option of spending time in jail or infiltrating the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant. William O'Neal chose the latter option and became an FBI informant.
To other Black Panther Party members, William O'Neal was a royal brother in arms in every possible way. The young man also had a critical role in the group: protecting Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, the head of the party's Chicago branch.
O'Neal had risen through the ranks from being a handyman and a flunky to attain one of the most sensitive roles in the organization.
As an informant, O'Neal also mapped Hampton's house to help the police during their raid. When Chicago police finally raided the home on December 4, 1969, they killed Fred Hampton in his sleep by shooting him multiple times.
The gravity of William O'Neal's role in the visionary leader's death weighed so heavily on him that he eventually killed himself. Here is the whole story.
Why Were The Authorities So Determined To Kill Fred Hampton?
J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director, was especially opposed to the Black Panther Party because it grew increasingly popular within the country. He was afraid that a "messiah" could rise and unify the nationalist movement.
Hampton had been fighting for the rights of Blacks from a very young age. When he was just a teenager, he managed to make his school let Black girls take part in the homecoming queen competition.
Soon afterward, he was marching beside Martin Luther King Jr. Eventually, he lost faith in King's policy of non-violence. This was after he experienced violence from anti-civil rights protesters.
Hampton started to favor Malcolm X's idea of self-defense, which led to his decision to join the Black Panther Party in 1968. Before long, he was a leader in the civil rights movement.
He also became an FBI target because the authorities feared that he would be the next Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. The bureau feared that he could unite the poor citizens against the political establishment.
The FBI had been unsuccessful in their attempts to stop the Black Panthers from organizing, and they were particularly worried about Hampton since his popularity in the party was growing so fast.
The fact that he often spoke out against the police made him an even more important target, which might have played a role in his tragic death.
Who Was William O'Neal?
Since the authorities had decided the Black Panther Party was a problem, they wanted William O'Neal to infiltrate the party and inform them of Hampton.
Roy Martin Mitchell, an FBI agent, told O'Neal that he would be free from the consequences of his crimes if he agreed to be an FBI informant.
O'Neal took the deal. After all, he didn't have much of an option.
O'Neal, born on April 9, 1949, had been a criminal since he was young. In 1966, when he was around 17, he was caught stealing a car.
This was the case awaiting him when the FBI offered him a deal that could keep him from spending time in prison. In fact, on top of stealing a car, he had also been involved in home invasions and kidnappings, which meant the informant role was especially beneficial to him.
Once William O'Neal got into the movement, he kept tabs on Hampton as he was setting up free breakfast programs for children. The FBI had plans to disrupt the program because it was "indoctrinating children."
Nevertheless, they focused on the supply of weapons within the movement. They were also interested in finding out if Hampton was using drugs.
Hampton was also trying to make peace between street gangs in Chicago. He had no clue that his right-hand man was sabotaging his work and informing on him so that the police could capture him.
In fact, on December 3, 1969, a day before the police killed Hampton, William O'Neal had drugged him with a barbiturate so that he would sleep through the raid. He did this while Hampton was talking to his mother on the phone.
His map of Hampton's house had also been passed to the FBI, who had given it to the police to carry out the raid.
The "Heroic" Police Raid On Fred Hampton's House
Under the orders of Edward Hanrahan, the Cook County state attorney, the police raided Hampton's home in the early morning hours of December 4, 1969. Hanrahan claimed that the Black Panthers had done a surprise attack on the officers as they were executing a search warrant for illegal weapons.
However, that is not what had happened.
When 14 police officers stormed into Fred Hampton's house at 4:45 am, he was deep asleep beside his fiancee Deborah Johnson, who was eight months pregnant.
Deborah, who later changed her name to Akua Njeri, remembered someone trying to wake Hampton up, saying, "Chairman. Chairman. Wake up. Pigs are vamping."
Then the police badged into the bedroom and started shooting. This went on for about 10 minutes while someone kept saying, "Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We got a pregnant sister here."
Even after the police stopped shooting and saw Njeri's pregnancy, they dragged her to the kitchen before they started shooting again.
She soon realized that the officers had already killed 21-year-old Hampton. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed less than two years earlier. Black Americans were shocked by Hampton's tragic death.
The police had fired almost 100 times, and the Panthers had only fired once. The only Panther who had fired, Mark Clark, had been shot in the heart and killed.
After the bloody ordeal, seven Panthers were arrested for attempted murder, armed violence, and weapons charges.
The police were praised for their restraint because they had not killed all the Panthers in the building. The police insisted that the Panthers had started the battle.
William O'Neal went to Hampton's apartment with his uncle the morning of the night he was killed. Several Panthers had been wounded and charged with serious crimes.
The Official Story Started To Fall Apart
It did not take long for the "heroic" story the police gave to start falling apart. The media revealed that the alleged "bullet holes" caused by the Panthers' firing were nailheads.
The jury later found that all the empty shells at the scene were from police weapons.
The Panthers arrested during the raid were released from the charges against them by a grand jury.
Still, the deaths of Hampton and Clark were ruled to be "justifiable homicides."
Nevertheless, the Justice Department paid Hampton and Clark's families $1.82 million but still insisted that they were not admitting to any guilt. The families had filed a $47 million civil lawsuit over the deaths of the two.
During his years of activism, Hampton often spoke out against police brutality.
The Public Later Learned Of William O'Neal's Involvement
William O'Neal's involvement in Hampton's death was only revealed a few years later, in 1973. At this point, he went into witness protection under the name William Hart.
The Black community was furious when it learned of William O'Neal's role in Hampton's death. Nevertheless, after some time, he was able to return, in secret, to Chicago. He started working for a lawyer.
Over time, William O'Neal had divorced his wife and remarried. He also had no actual friends.
In 1984, more than a decade after Hampton's death, he spoke to the media about his role in Hampton's death. He claimed he was just a small part of a massive plan, although he was proud to be on the law enforcement's side.
O'Neal also said that the Black Panthers had started to impress him a little more than the FBI did and that he had started to admire Hampton and the Panthers. What they were fighting for made sense to him.
Even though he did not abandon his role as an informant, he got into an argument with Mitchell about the Black Panthers and what they were trying to achieve.
He did not appear remorseful over his role as an informant, but he was angry and sad that Hampton had been killed.
William O'Neal alleged that he had no idea that the police would kill anyone during the raid. Nevertheless, he realized that his information had made the invasion possible.
O'Neal also claimed that if anyone asked him if he was happy, he would say he was not pleased or even content.
William O'Neal Eventually Committed Suicide Over The Guilt He Felt
In 1990, when he was 40, William O'Neal killed himself on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
He had been acting strangely before he made the tragic decision. Those with him noted that he kept going to the bathroom and spending about 10 to 15 minutes there.
At one point, he came out, brimming with fury, and tried to jump out of the living room window but was stopped by his uncle, who held him by the ankles.
After the daring rescue, O'Neal ran off and across the Eisenhower Expressway, where a car hit him. The driver said he had tried to avoid him by swerving but without success.
People believe that O'Neal killed himself over his guilt at being involved in Hampton's death. According to Hampton's brother, William O'Neal tried to live with the reality of what he had done, but he could not.
O'Neal felt that if Hampton's life had not ended so tragically, he would have had a much larger impact on society. That made him sad because his role as an informant had extinguished a promising career in activism.
William O'Neal's role was explored in the movie Judas and the Black Messiah.
In the film, he can be seen struggling with his role as both informant and member of the Black Panther Party. Hampton is shown as a charismatic and lovable leader who sometimes advocated for violence as a way to achieve equal rights for all.