David Horowitz's Long March
On July 22, 1974, Huey Newton shot a young prostitute, after which he fled to Cuba. "I should have left [the Panthers] then," Horowitz says. In fact, many of his black friends in the party did depart at that very moment--a turn of events that enraged Newton's successor, a striking, charismatic and voluble young woman named Elaine Brown, who, according to Horowitz, said the party was under attack and "the rats were leaving the ship." Horowitz says he felt trapped. When Brown asked him to recommend someone to oversee the party finances, he suggested Betty Van Patter, a 42-year-old bookkeeper who had worked at Ramparts. Van Patter, who was white, eagerly accepted the position. On December 13, 1974, she vanished. A month later, her body, with a massive head wound, was discovered in San Francisco Bay.
It is a case, according to veteran Panther-watcher Kate Coleman, that has "haunted the Bay Area left for two decades." A lengthy investigation by Coleman revealed that Van Patter had discovered questionable activity--rackets, dope, prostitution--at a Panther-run bar in Oakland called the Lamp Post and had reportedly complained about it to Brown, who then fired her.
Van Patter's death plunged Horowitz into "a really clinical depression," he says today. "For a good year, I woke up in tears every day because of Betty." What inspired the guilt was not simply that he'd recommended Van Patter to the Panthers but that he'd been too frightened to warn her about the dangers she faced. But he was in a bind: Van Patter, delighted to be employed by the Panthers, was completely enamored of Brown and wary of Horowitz, whom she did not trust. So he let her proceed with the job.
"Today I can't even justify it," he says wearily. "I have no idea why I did it." Horowitz and I are seated in his office. The room is tense and completely silent, except for the sound of his hand nervously striking the table. His voice, normally firm and confident, sinks to a barely audible mumble.
"It was inconceivable to me that the Panthers would kill Betty Van Patter," he whispers. "I was nervous about what was going on there, but if I told Betty what I actually felt, I was afraid that she would tell Elaine, and that Elaine would harm me or my children. I was completely unprotected."
If he could do it over again, what would he say to Van Patter?
"I would tell her flat out--get out of there," he replies. "But the consequences for me would have been awful. I didn't have any money. How was I going to move my family?"
Today, Tamara Baltar, Van Patter's daughter, does not consider Horowitz in any way responsible for her mother's death. "David didn't kill my mother, and David didn't participate in the killing of my mother," says Baltar, breaking a long silence on the case. Is there something curious about the fact that he holds himself responsible? "No," she replies. "I think I would, too, if I were him." Not until 1984, however, did Baltar, who was a leftist and a supporter of the Panthers, accept the view that they committed the crime. "David Horowitz kept at it from the beginning," she says. "And I was mad at him for keeping at it. But he kept at it."
In the late seventies, relying on his old Panther contacts, Horowitz quietly began to reconstruct the crime, and he was a primary source for a lengthy exposé on Newton's criminal activities that Kate Coleman published in New Times in 1978.
"I stayed on the story," he says. "It's a minimal atonement."
For her part, Elaine Brown vehemently denies Horowitz's accusation that the Panthers were involved in the murder. "I didn't have anything to do with this woman's death," Brown insisted in a recent telephone interview, noting that no arrests have ever been made in the case. "White people," says Brown, "always want me to tell them about fucking Betty Van Patter, but not one person from The Nation has ever called to ask me who I think killed George Jackson." From her point of view, Horowitz and Coleman have waged a relentless vendetta against her. But the available evidence strongly suggests Panther involvement in the death of Betty Van Patter. In 1984, when Van Patter's family engaged the services of the renowned private detective Hal Lipset, he reported back, "You should have no doubt that your mother's death was Panther-related--that they killed her."