Prison to Freedom: The Story of Howard Mechanic, Part 2


Howard Mechanic, 2023. Courtesy of Howard Mechanic.

Mikall Venso , Military & Firearms Curator

Howard Mechanic was a young, Jewish Washington University college student (1966-1970) from Cleveland, Ohio. The following is published in partnership with the Missouri Historical Society. Check out Part 1 here.

Howard Mechanic turned himself in to US Marshals on February 10, 2000, and was quickly transferred to the prison at nearby Florence, Arizona. There he began serving his 5-year sentence that had been handed out in 1970. His lawyer, Tom Hoidal, negotiated plea agreements for new charges involving the government documents he had obtained. Hoidal helped navigate the tricky legal and political waters while working to secure a presidential commutation (reduction of Mechanic’s sentence) as friends and supporters assisted with those efforts and worked toward a potential full presidential pardon, which would clear his record.

One of the first to act was the late Wayne Goode, then chairman of the Missouri Senate Appropriations committee, who independently wrote to President Bill Clinton a week after Mechanic surrendered, requesting the president pardon Howard as soon as possible. Mechanic did interviews with the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Dateline NBC that painted less than flattering portraits of him, but still aided his cause. Many of Mechanic’s roommates and classmates from his days at Washington University were quick to lead the effort to help an old friend, also acting out of a sense of duty because they felt Howard’s story could have been their story.

In 30 years, many of the activists of the 1960s and 1970s had become successful business people, built networks of well-connected and influential leaders, or were themselves able to influence the public and the politicians in an era far removed from the political climate of the Vietnam War era. Washington University in St. Louis (WASHU) alums like Phillip Koch, a filmmaker in Chicago; St. Louis native Bruce Roger, who saved Mechanic’s bar mitzvah Haftorah and other spiritual items as requested for 30 years; and former student body president and herbal tea entrepreneur Ben Zaricor of California took the lead in assembling a vast array of supporters from St. Louis, Arizona, and across America.

They developed a strategy to target President Clinton, who had his own history with opposing the war in Vietnam, with a letter-writing campaign that included some famous names with WASHU connections. Hollywood writer, actor, and director Harold Ramis (known for National Lampoon’s Animal House and VacationCaddyshackGhostbusters, and Groundhog Day) and popular TV pitchman and Men’s Wearhouse president George Zimmer joined the movement. They garnered support from politicians like retired US Senator Thomas Eagleton; Senators Dick Durbin, Diane Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer; as well as Congressmen William L. Clay, Sr., and newly elected Representative William Lacy Clay, Jr.

President Bill Clinton delivering a campaign speech at the Gateway School Complex alongside Governor Mel Carnahan and other officials, 1996. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Most importantly, stakeholders from the events of the 1970s like WASHU Chancellor Emeritus Dr. William H. Danforth and Chancellor Mark Wrighton; the City Council of University City, whose firefighters were the target of the activists that night in May 1970; and Bobby Muller, founder and president of Vietnam Veterans of America, all recommended commutation or a pardon.  Even Carter Revard, WASHU emeritus professor of English, who nearly lost his house when it was used as collateral for Mechanic’s bail in 1970, wrote the president in support of Howard’s freedom.

As these advocates and others wrote about the transformation of America from 1970 to 2000 and the need to close the divide and heal the wounds of the nation, other events competed for the president’s interest. Clinton was preparing for a trip to Vietnam to open more trade relations with the communist country and much of the correspondence arrived amid the presidential campaign that featured his own Vice President Al Gore, and the Republican candidate, Governor George W. Bush of Texas. Coincidentally, the two met in a presidential debate on the WASHU campus on October 17, 2000.

Tragically, the night before the debate, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, his son, and a campaign aide were killed in a plane crash that stunned the nation. Four days later, a memorial service held in Jefferson City brought President Clinton and his wife Hillary, and Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper, back to Missouri. Rabbi Susan Talve of St. Louis’s Central Reform Congregation was asked to deliver the closing prayer at the service. When Talve gathered with dignitaries in a room in the State Capitol before the service, she spoke with the president and found a way to connect the values that Gov. Carnahan had championed with the plight of Howard Mechanic.

Letter from Rabbi Susan Talve, one of many written in support of Howard Mechanic’s campaign for clemency, 2000. Courtesy of the National Archives Records Administration’s William J. Clinton Presidential Library.

In a recent interview she said, “Many of us involved in modern movements cut our teeth in the Vietnam efforts. There’s a line, a thread, that goes from then to now. I feel very connected to that thread.” Many of her congregants are lifelong activists and several were working for Mechanic’s release. “We felt then and still do now that we can make a difference,” she said. “It was a bold thing that he did because of his values. He wanted to change the world. I’m reminded of what Dr. (M. L.) King taught us, ‘Until all of us are free, none of us can be free.’”

This chance meeting with the president was among several interactions that the “Free Howard” campaign had made with Clinton directly. An attorney friend of Howard’s in Scottsdale used a connection he had with the US ambassador to England, who happened to be a longtime friend of Clinton, to get information to the pardon attorney and the president. An employee of Zaricor’s company had an aunt who was politically connected to the Clintons and mentioned Howard’s story to the president at a White House Christmas party.

The biggest breakthrough came in early November when Zaricor attended a campaign event for his friend and congressional representative, Mike Honda, where Zaricor managed to speak with the president for a few minutes and deliver a packet of information and copies of all those letters from supporters that had been sent to the White House. It seems that Howard Mechanic, who had fallen off most radars for 28 years, was suddenly everywhere and right where his name needed to be.

The team assumed nothing would happen until after the election. However, things were anything but over on election night. For weeks, the whole world focused on “hanging chads” in Florida and the battle of Bush v. Gore, which was ultimately decided in Bush’s favor by the US Supreme Court in mid-December. Traditionally, the president issues several pardons around Christmas, but the holidays came and went with no commutation or pardon for Howard Mechanic.

Mechanic received a certificate authorizing a full and unconditional pardon from President William J. Clinton, signed by Pardon Attorney Roger C. Adams and dated January 20, 2001. Courtesy of Howard Mechanic.

In the final hours of Clinton’s presidency, he issued 140 pardons. About 10am on January 20, 2001, with no access to any media in a prison in California he had been transferred to, Howard tried calling his girlfriend, his brother, and finally his sister, Marilyn. She answered and replied, “You got a full pardon!” Surprisingly, word traveled quickly and within hours Howard was being released from federal prison on a Saturday afternoon. He connected with his brother in Los Angeles before reuniting with his girlfriend Janet in Arizona as a free man, a truly free man.

Now living in Prescott, Arizona, for more than two decades, Howard continues to run his health-food business and champion various causes. He also often reflects on his journey, just how lucky he was, and how grateful he is for friends and strangers whose actions made a difference. “It was worth what I went through,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a thing, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.”