Thanking their saviors
Family, police recall 1968 KKK bombing attempt
— Michael Scott knew something was wrong the instant he arrived at his family’s Red Toad Road home near North East in the early evening of Aug. 16, 1968.
There was an “official looking” car parked in the driveway. Once inside the home, Scott, then 15, noticed a man in a dark suit seated at the kitchen table and his mother, Margaret, who seemed nervous, standing a few feet away.
“He said, ‘ Are you Michael Scott?’ and when I said, ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘ Get what’s important to you. They plan on blowing your family off this hill tonight, and we’re taking you away,’” recalled Scott, now 62, of Havre de Grace. “I don’t remember who he was, but I could tell he was with the government.”
The “they” referred to the Ku Klux Klan, which
had been targeting Scott’s father, McKinley, who was president of the Cecil County Chapter of the NAACP and was running for state delegate in the upcoming election amid the national civil unrest that marred 1968. (His bid would be unsuccessful.)
The attempt to kill McKinley Scott at his North East-area home occurred some four months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., and about two months after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles.
Scott and the rest of his family, however, were saved by intervening Maryland State Police troopers and FBI agents — all of whom had been working covertly for about three weeks, ever since a partially botched firebombing at the Scott home shattered nine windows but failed to kill or injure anyone.
The intricate operation involved a confidential informant inside the KKK, who revealed to investigators the group’s plan to blow up the Scott family inside their home with 15 sticks of dynamite. That confidential informant accompanied the Klansman when he tried to execute the plan in the early morn- ing hours of Aug. 17, 1968.
On Wednesday morning, some 48 years later, Scott and his niece, Margo Scott
Lowe, 49, of Dover, Del., were introduced to three retired MSP troopers who had participated in the mission.
Scott and Lowe were the special guests during the Retired Maryland State Police Troopers’ monthly breakfast meeting at the Pier 1 Restaurant in North East. They also were able to thank the adult son of another trooper who had helped save their family. Bob Estes, who served with MSP from 1962 to 1992, died on April 2, so his son, Mike Estes, 45, of North East, represented his late father.
“I always knew who McKinley Scott was, ever since I was a kid. Every time my dad drove by that house, he’d tell me the story. I think my dad was staked out in the woods during the operation. He was proud to be part of it, and he was proud to be a trooper. It’s like family,” Estes said.
Others who helped save the Scott family that night also have since passed away, as did the Scott family patriarch, McKinley Scott, who died in July 2012 after a long illness, and his wife, Margaret, who died in 2002.
“This is very humbling. I would just like to thank you for protecting and serving,” Michael Scott said Wednesday, standing in front of approximately 20 retired MSP troopers, including the three who had participated in the secret mission.
Referencing a quote he once heard, Scott said, “A cure to a lot of the world’s problems is a little recognition,” before emphasizing, “This is important to me. But this isn’t about me, other than me saying, ‘Thank you.’ This brings everything full circle.”
Meeting their heroes The investigation into the KKK’s plot to kill McKinley Scott and his family started shortly after 2 a.m. on July 25, 1968, when a presumed Klansman hurled an explosive device at the sleeping family’s modest cinderblock home on Red Toad Road.
The Scotts lived on an elevated patch of land known by locals as “Summerville,” which is on the snippet of Red Toad Road closest to North East, and McKinley Scott had built the house himself.
“I heard a high-pitched whistle and then the house shook. I heard glass falling down the Venetian blinds. It sounded like chandeliers. The explosion blew out nine windows in our house, but no one was hurt,” Scott recalled.
Investigators determined that the perpetrator had meant for the explosive device to land closer to the home, but it rolled down an embankment and came to rest in the driveway.
The lead MSP investigator — the late Rodney Kennedy, who was with the agency for 28 years and later served as Cecil County sheriff — had identified the explosive device as a stick of dynamite, police reported at the time.
“It left a hole in the driveway that was 10 inches deep and 8 inches across,” Scott said, estimating that the bomb detonated about 20 feet from his bedroom, where he was stirred from slumber.
After that close call, Scott and the rest of his family felt like investigators weren’t making a strong enough effort to identify and catch the person or people responsible for that bombing.
“We felt like they just went back to business as usual,” Scott said, adding that family members paid visits to MSP’s North East barrack to confront detectives.
Unbeknownst to Scott and the rest of his family, however, MSP detectives and FBI agents were entrenched in a covert investigation that ultimately would pinpoint a date and time when the KKK would try to bomb the family’s home yet again.
Scott remembers coming home about 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1968, after spending the day at Hershey Park on a Sunday School class trip and then receiv- ing terse instructions to gather his crucial belongings from that official-looking stranger in the kitchen.
“I had a metal box in the my bedroom, and I grabbed my savings account book. I also grabbed my New Testament,” Scott recalled.
Then Scott and his mother were whisked to the North East Barrack, where other family members were waiting.
“I didn’t expect my home to be standing when I returned. I expected to hear an explosion from the barrack that night,” Scott said, recalling the scene at the barrack and adding, “There were officers in helmets and full riot gear standing at attention. They were holding shotguns and they had German shepherds with them. The body language was serious.”
Scott and his family spent that night on the second floor of the barrack.
“I can’t remember if we slept or not. I didn’t feel trepidation. I felt relief. I felt like we had been spared by the grace of the Lord,” he said.
Scott and his family were amazed by the precision with which MSP and the FBI handled the mission.
“My father was fond of order, blueprints and discipline. He often talked about how impressed he was with the military-style operation that night,” Scott said.
Lowe, who is the late McKinley Scott’s granddaughter, was just shy of 2 in the summer of 1968. She was inside the home when the July 1968 bombing occurred, but she had moved with her mother to Baltimore before the August 1968 incident took place.
She has no recollection of the harrowing events, which she learned about from her mother, Joan Scott-Cruise.
“My mother said that, in one night, she could have lost her entire family — parents, siblings and children — but the police saved our lives,” Lowe said. “It’s incredible to be here 48 years later and meet some of those police officers who helped save our lives.”
A covert operation Joseph Saunders, who served with MSP from 1960 to 1985 before retiring, was lead detective on the covert investigation.
Saunders, who was assigned to the North East barrack, worked closely with Harry Sarazin, a local FBI agent, during the intense three weeks leading up to the intricate detail to save the Scott family.
The mission hinged on a confidential informant, one so confidential, in fact, that Saunders remains in the dark to this day as to that person’s identity.
“All I know is he was an informant for the FBI. I don’t know if he was an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the KKK or if he was in the Klan and turned,” Saunders, 78, of Ocean City, explained on Wednesday.
That informant told investigators that a Klansman — Johnnie Charles Johnson — was going to blow up the Scott’s home shortly after midnight on Aug. 17, 1968, according to Saunders.
He also described the car that Johnson would be driving and reported that Johnson would make two slow passes by the targeted home, before returning a third time to position the dynamite near the home and light the fuses.
Saunders, the FBI agent and MSP superiors crafted a plan to evacuate Scott family members, to saturate the targeted area with heavily armed surveillance officers and to position other heavily armed officers on the outer perimeter — in case the suspect couldn’t be contained on the Scott’s property.
“It was very hush-hush. We called everyone (troopers) that night and told them to report to the barrack at a specified time (that same night), but we didn’t tell them why. When we were all together at the barrack, that’s when we told them what was going on, assigned them to their different posts and told them what action to take,” Saunder said.
Bill Jacobs doesn’t recall that briefing at all.
Jacobs, who joined MSP in 1966 and retired in 1990, believes that his assigned partner for the operation, a corporal, attended the briefing and then relayed the information to him in calculated increments.
“I was just a lowly trooper and they didn’t tell me anything. The corporal said, ‘Get in the car. You’re driving.’ I asked where was I driving to, and he said, ‘I’ll tell you as we go,’” recalled Jacobs, 71, who also lives in Ocean City.
They pulled into a driveway down the street from the Scott’s home. As instructed, Jacobs backed down the driveway and then beyond it, stopping after traveling about 75 feet down a sloped backyard, near the woods.
“I turned off the headlights, like I was told. I asked what’s going on,” Jacobs remembered.
That’s when the corporal armed himself with a shotgun, handed Jacobs a shotgun, told him about the planned bombing and described the suspect vehicle — which, from their vantage point, they would see make two slow passes.
About a dozen troopers were involved in the operation and all manned stationary posts in the woods, up in trees, inside parked cars and on surrounding roads, except Saunders and the FBI agent. They roamed in and around nearby North East in an unmarked vehicle, keeping tabs on the suspect vehicle’s movements.
When they witnessed the suspect vehicle heading toward the Scott’s home after it had made two slow passes, they radioed all the stationary units to be prepared. The plan was to swarm the suspect after he exited his vehicle and before he could light the dynamite fuses.
But according to Saunders, “Someone jumped the gun a little bit. It was the excitement of the moment.”
When the suspect car pulled into the Scott’s driveway, one of the staked-out officers emerged from his nearby surveillance post too soon and was spotted by the suspect, who backed out and sped away.
Troopers stationed on the outer perimeter re- ceived radio alerts about the fleeing suspect.
Michael Heise, a retiree who served with MSP from 1966 to 1988, and his partner, Lee Upperco, a retired MSP trooper who lives in Charlestown, were positioned on Route 7, a short distance from the Scott home.
When Heise and Upperco saw the suspect vehicle headed their way, they maneuvered their cars to block the road, forcing it to stop.
“The confidential informant was in the car with him (the suspect). He got out and ran into the woods. He (Upperco) fired shots over his head, which was all planned to make it look like he tried to stop him. I fired a shot into the ground,” recalled North East-area resident Heise, 72.
Heise then arrested Johnson at the vehicle.
“I found a loaded .38-caliber handgun on the floorboard and several sticks of dynamite under the seat, ready to go,” Heise recalled.
Saunders inventoried the confiscated evidence and, during a phone interview Thursday, he described it as as being “two bundles of dynamite — 12 sticks taped together and three sticks taped together.” Contrary to popular myth, the fuses had not been lit, he noted.
The Scotts returned to their untouched homes later that morning.
However, Johnson was never tried for the attempted bombing.
“We were on the courthouse steps. We were ready to go. But there was no trial because the FBI decided it didn’t want to give up its informant,” Saunders said, explaining that the case against Johnson hinged on that informant’s testimony.
But the dismissed criminal case did not detract from that secret operation conducted in August 1968.
“Everybody did their job and did it perfectly. I give everyone who took part kudos,” Saunders said. “Because of it, no one was killed, no one was hurt. There wasn’t even any property damage. We accomplished our mission.”
Michael Scott (in dress suit) and his niece, Margo Scott Lowe, are flanked by, from left, retired Maryland State Police troopers Joseph Saunders and Bill Jacobs and (far right) Michael Heise.
Maryland State Police investigators examine a bomb made of dynamite that was to be used in a thwarted attempt on McKinley Scott’s life by the Ku Klux Klan in 1968.