The Story of William O’Neal, the Man Who Betrayed Fred Hampton


Fredrick Allen Hampton, popularly known as Fred Hampton, was an American activist and revolutionary socialist.

He rose to fame for his activism and became the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and its deputy chairman at a very young age. Hampton was an active leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), leading their Youth Council of the organization’s West Suburban Branch.

But despite his revered portfolio and position, Hampton was assassinated by the FBI in a raid carried out at his house in the middle of the night four months after he turned 21.

The FBI acquired the services of William O’Neal – then a petty criminal, to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and aid them with the assassination of Fred Hampton. O’Neal successfully infiltrated the party, gained the trust of key figures, including Fred Hampton, and provided the FBI with a floor plan of the Chicago apartment where Hampton was assassinated in 1969.

For the rest of his life, O’Neal was hated by many for his role in the 1969 raid that killed Hampton. However, some believe that his guilt over his role as an FBI informant led to his death in 1990 when O’Neal walked in front of a speeding car that struck and killed him. His death was ruled a suicide.

During a rear interview before his death, O’Neal seemed to claim that he could play all the roles the FBI needed, and he had no choice but to take up such roles.

His journey to becoming an FBI informant began in 1966 when FBI Agent Roy Martin Mitchell tracked him after stealing a car and driving it across state lines to Michigan. Then in his teens, Mitchell told him he would forget about the stolen car charge if he agreed to work for the FBI and infiltrate the Panthers.

The American government and the FBI had branded the Black Panther Party as an organization known for brandishing guns, challenging police officers’ authority, and embracing violence as a necessary by-product of revolution. O’Neal agreed to infiltrate the party, and when he got accepted, he served as the group’s chief of security. Reports said he even became in charge of security for Hampton and had keys to Panther headquarters and safe houses.

Unknown to the Black Panther leaders, O’Neal was at the same time serving as an informant for the FBI, feeding it with information.

“I think he was sorry he did what he did. He thought the FBI was only going to raid the house,” Ben Heard, O’Neal’s uncle, said in 1990 after the news of O’Neal’s work with the FBI spread.

O’Neal hardly spoke of his undercover years, but in a 1984 interview with the Tribune, one of his last public interviews, he mentioned that he “thrived” on his work with law enforcement though, in the end, he realized he had been” just a pawn in a very big game.”

His undercover role did leave him “restless, but without remorse,” he said.” If you ask me if the gains outweigh the losses, I think so.”

” I think if I look back at myself . . . I say if I had never met Mitchell, I would probably be in jail or dead.

” If you ask me if I’m a happy man-I’m not happy; no, I’m not even content.”

“Generally, I was paid, paid in cash, and normal amounts would have ranged from three to five hundred dollars depending on my needs. If I requested a specific amount, I knew that I could get it,” O’Neal said in a 1989 interview.

“But the payments were very infrequent, I mean, Mitchell determined, even Mitchell determined very early on in the game that spending money was the quickest way to blow your cover. Also, I was living in the Panther environment; I was living in a Panther house, which they called a crib, I was eating with them and sleeping with them, and I was with them 24 hours a day, so I had very little need for money, so I was always assured that my money was being held in trust and that I could draw from it, draw down on it anytime I got ready, or any time I had a legitimate need that wouldn’t compromise my security. I suppose at any point if I needed a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars from the FBI, I couldn’t have gotten it.”

Before his death, O’Neal worked for an attorney in downtown Chicago after secretly returning to the area in 1984 from California. He had then parted with his first wife and remarried with a five-month-old son, but he kept to himself and hardly made friends.

William O’Neal spent the last few hours of his life with his uncle Ben Heard, a retired truck driver from Maywood. It was Martin Luther King Day.

The day before his death — a Saturday — O’Neal went to his uncle’s residence in Maywood to spend some time with him. On Sunday night,” he kept going to the washroom,” his uncle Heard recalled.” He stayed there for a long time. The last time he came out, he tried to go out the window. I pulled him back, but he broke loose and ran toward the expressway.”

“I just had my house shoes and pants on,” Heard said. “I couldn’t run after him like that. I couldn’t have caught him anyway. A woman was standing in front of the house, and she said, ‘Lord, it sounds like somebody got hit on the expressway!'”

And that was how a 40-year-old O’Neal breathed his last. Police said, “he ran down the embankment near 5th Avenue, crossed the eastbound lanes, and was struck by a car in the westbound lanes.”

That was the second time O’Neal had done that; he got injured the first time he did – in September 1989.” The act (of being an informant) he committed was unjust and ignorant,” Bill Hampton, a brother of Fred Hampton, said in 1990.”  It’s something he tried to live with and couldn’t.”

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