WILLIAM O’ NEAL
As an FBI informant in the Black Panther Party, William O’Neal provided information that helped the Chicago police kill Fred Hampton in 1969.
As far as the Black Panther Party was concerned, William O’Neal was one of their most loyal brothers in arms. As the head of security for the Black Panthers in Chicago, he was tasked with an enormously important job: guarding the group’s leader Fred Hampton.
But little did the Panthers know that O’Neal had infiltrated the organization on behalf of the FBI. A car thief by trade, O’Neal had been arrested in 1966 for driving a stolen vehicle across state lines. Authorities had offered him a deal: Infiltrate the Black Panther Party — or rot in prison.
Not only did O’Neal successfully join the Black Panthers, he also gained the trust of Hampton, the beloved chairman of the Illinois chapter. But behind the scenes, O’Neal was secretly providing the FBI with a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment. This allowed the Chicago police to raid the building — and murder Hampton in his sleep on December 4, 1969.
The brutal attack sent shockwaves across Black America. It had only been a year since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And now, a beloved Black Panther was dead at the hands of the police. Tragically, police brutality had been one of the main issues that Hampton had been fighting against.
While the story of Hampton’s death is fairly well known, O’Neal’s involvement in the matter is often oddly overlooked. As chronicled in HBO’s Judas And The Black Messiah, O’Neal’s role was only revealed in 1973.
Placed in witness protection under an assumed name, O’Neal would later say that he felt no remorse for being an informant. However, he also admitted that he was not a “happy man.” And in 1990, O’Neal took his own life at age 40 — on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
How William O’Neal Became An FBI Informant
William O’Neal was born on April 9, 1949. From a young age, the native Chicagoan lived a life of crime as a car thief on the city’s West Side. And when he was about 17 years old, he was caught stealing a car and driving it across state lines in 1966.
If he had been arrested by local police, he might’ve languished in prison for years. But instead, he was tracked down by FBI Agent Roy Martin Mitchell. And this moment would change O’Neal’s life forever.
As O’Neal would later reveal to his uncle Ben Heard, his criminal experience was far more extensive than simply stealing cars. By 1966, he’d already been in trouble for everything from home invasion to kidnapping. The stolen car charge was just the cherry on top. But William O’Neal soon learned from Mitchell that all would be forgiven — if he was willing to work for the FBI.
Around this time, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had made it his mission to prevent the “rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant Black nationalist movement.” This fear largely stemmed from the fact that the Black Panthers were becoming more and more popular. But Hampton in particular stood out among the pack.
Born on August 30, 1948 in the Chicago area, Hampton got involved in civil rights activism early on. When he was just a young teenager, he pushed his school to allow Black girls to compete for homecoming queen and rallied for an integrated pool and recreational center. Before long, he’d joined the NAACP and was marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
But after experiencing violence from anti-civil rights protesters, Hampton became disillusioned with King’s non-violent approach and began to lean more toward Malcolm X’s message of self-defense. From there, he entered the Black Panther Party in 1968 — quickly assuming a leadership position.
The FBI feared that Hampton could become the next Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. — and unite America’s impoverished citizenry against the status quo. And so Mitchell made William O’Neal a deal. If he joined the Black Panthers as an FBI informant and provided the bureau with information on Hampton’s activities, he wouldn’t get in any trouble for his crimes.
The Betrayal Of Fred Hampton
Since the FBI had struggled to stop the Black Panthers from organizing, infiltration seemed more imperative to them than ever. And since Hampton appeared to be quickly rising in the ranks of the organization, they paid especially close attention to him.
But Hampton was just one of many Black leaders victimized by COINTELPRO— the FBI’s secret and illegal program that disrupted movements like the Black Panther Party. The fact that Hampton was campaigning so hard against police brutality and corruption made his treatment all the more tragic.
While Hampton was establishing free breakfast programs for children and negotiating a truce between Chicago’s street gangs, William O’Neal was tracking his every move — and reporting everything back to the FBI.
Although the FBI was initially interested in disrupting the breakfast program — as they claimed it was “indoctrinating children” — their attention quickly turned to the group’s supply of weapons. They were also very interested in whether Hampton was on any drugs.
Hampton didn’t know that his head of security was spying on him and undermining his work. He also had no idea that O’Neal was providing the FBI with a floor plan of his apartment — so that authorities could break in on that fateful night in 1969.
Perhaps most shocking of all is that William O’Neal reportedly drugged Hampton with a barbiturate on the night of December 3, 1969 — so that he wouldn’t wake up during the raid. The floor plan that O’Neal had given to the FBI had already been handed off to Chicago police — who were instructed to raid Hampton’s home and seize the illegal weapons inside.
That night, Hampton was in a deep sleep beside his pregnant fiancée, Deborah Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri). At about 4:45 a.m. on December 4, 1969, 14 plainclothes officers stormed the apartment. Armed with pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and the floor plan, they barged into the home and quickly headed toward Hampton’s bedroom.
Around this time, Njeri remembers someone shaking Hampton, saying, “Chairman. Chairman. Wake up. Pigs are vamping.”
Njeri said, “They just stormed the entranceway to the rear bedroom and they were shooting. It seemed like forever. I understand it only lasted 10 minutes. They were shooting into the mattress. The plaster was flying off and the mattress was vibrating and then the person that had come in to wake Fred up kept saying, ‘Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We got a pregnant sister here.’”
Eventually, they did stop and Njeri left the room. Despite her visible pregnancy, an officer reportedly dragged her over to the kitchen area. And then, the officers started shooting again.
Njeri continued, “I remember someone saying that Fred was barely alive or he might not make it and then they started shooting again and then it stopped. Someone said, ‘He’s good and dead now.’ I knew they had killed Fred at this point.”
Hampton was just 21 years old when he died.
Soon afterward, seven Panthers in the building were arrested and indicted by a grand jury on charges of attempted murder, armed violence, and weapons charges. But these charges were eventually dropped during a later investigation when it was revealed that the police had fired nearly 100 shots in total. And the Panthers had only shot once.
Mark Clark was the only Panther to fire a single bullet — and the 22-year-old was fatally shot in the heart as a result.
The Disappearance Of William O’Neal
William O’Neal and his uncle visited Hampton’s apartment that same morning after he had been shot.
“There was papers strewn all over the floor, blood all over,” said Heard. “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.”
Unfortunately, it had. Clark and Hampton were dead, while several other Panthers had been wounded — and charged with serious crimes.
Meanwhile, the Chicago police shared news of their success and praised their officers for their “bravery” and “professional discipline in not killing all the Panthers present.” They claimed that “the Panthers opened the battle by firing a shotgun blast through the apartment door,” and even filmed a reenactment of the supposed incident to appear on television.
But the story from the police quickly began to fall apart. A report by the Sun-Times revealed that the so-called “bullet holes” that police showed to back up their claims were actually nail heads. And sure enough, a 1970 grand jury investigation found that nearly all of the empty shells and bullets at the scene had been fired by police weapons — not Panther weapons.
Nonetheless, a coroner’s jury ruled that the deaths of Hampton and Clark were both “justifiable homicides.” And O’Neal’s involvement in the attack came to light in 1973 — much to the fury of the Black community.
Quickly whisked into witness protection, William O’Neal lived as William Hart in California for several years after being outed as an informant. But he secretly returned to Chicago in 1984 and worked for an attorney.
Just two years prior, the Justice Department, the city of Chicago, and Cook County had settled a $47 million civil suit filed by the families of Clark and Hampton for $1.82 million. Even then, a Justice Department attorney insisted that this settlement did not mean an admission of any wrongdoing.
As for O’Neal, he had divorced his wife, remarried, and had no real friends at that point. In 1984, he spoke of his past for the first time with the Chicago Tribune — and admitted that he had been “just a pawn in a very big game.” He would later appear in a public television series called Eyes on the Prize, in which he’d talk a little more about his role.
While he didn’t express remorse for his role as an informant, he did express sadness — and anger — over Hampton’s death.
“I knew it would be a raid, but I didn’t feel like anyone would get killed, especially not Fred,” he said. “It was blood everywhere, and it was holes in the wall, and… I just began to realize that the information that I had supplied leading up to that moment, had facilitated that raid.”
He once reflected, “I think if I look back at myself… I say if I had never met Mitchell, I would probably be in jail or dead.” But he also said, “If you ask me if I’m a happy man — I’m not happy. No, I’m not even content.”
In 1990, William O’Neal killed himself — on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He spent his final hours at his uncle’s home, where he acted out of sorts.
“We were just sitting around drinking beer, talking to some friends of mine,” said Heard. “We had company. The company left and that’s when he started acting kind of strange [and repeatedly going to the bathroom].”
“He’d stay in there 10 or 15 minutes,” he said. “The last time he stayed 20 minutes. He came out in a rage and he tried to jump out my living room window [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,” said Heard. “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!’”
Indeed, around 2:30 a.m., O’Neal had run across the Eisenhower Expressway — and he was hit by a car in the process. By the time Heard caught up to O’Neal, his nephew’s eyes were wide open and his pulse was slowly fading away. He was 40 years old when he died.
The traumatized driver who hit O’Neal swore he had tried to swerve and avoid him, but wasn’t able to do so in time.
Though O’Neal never explicitly expressed regret for his work as an informant, he did admit that he felt awful that Hampton died. So it was widely believed that O’Neal committed suicide due to the guilt he felt about playing a role in Hampton’s death. Hampton’s brother Bill agreed, and said it was “something [O’Neal] tried to live with and couldn’t.”
As explored in Judas And The Black Messiah, the story of William O’Neal betraying Hampton is a tragic and complicated one. After all, O’Neal was quite young when he was pushed into his controversial role as an FBI informant. But he never backed out of the job, even in the face of tragedy.
And even though Hampton made a huge impact on people while he was alive, he missed out on the chance to live a long life — and perhaps make an even bigger impact. O’Neal was clearly aware of this, as he once mused that Hampton might’ve been a successful politician if he’d lived.
“I think he was sorry he did what he did,” said Heard. “He thought the FBI was only going to raid the house. But… they shot Fred Hampton and made sure he was dead.”