Was William O'Neal murdered? The mystery behind tragic death of FBI Informant inside the Black Panther Party

Who really was William O'Neal and what is the mystery behind his tragic death? Here's unraveling the real story


                            Was William O'Neal murdered? The mystery behind tragic death of FBI Informant inside the Black Panther Party
Real and reel: William O'Neal (Wikimedia Commons / HBO Max)

How did a petty criminal become the face of a horrific assassination? William O'Neal's story is just as tragic as it is infuriating. Directed and produced by Shaka King, the biographical drama ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ turns back the pages of history books to 1969.

Inspired by true events, it highlights how FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). A career thief, O’Neal revels in the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his handler, Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). 

But who really was William O'Neal and what is the mystery behind his tragic death? Here's unraveling the real story. 

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LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal (HBO Max)

Who was William O'Neal?

Born on April 9, 1949, O'Neal was a career criminal in Chicago doing “everything from car theft and home invasion to kidnapping and torture.” At 17, he was caught for stealing a car and driving it across Michigan. It was then that FBI agent Roy Martin Mitchell cracked a deal with him. In exchange to infiltrate the Black Panthers Party, O'Neal was let go of the felony he had committed.

For the rest of his life, O'Neal was loathed for his involvement in the raid that took Fred Hampton's life at the age of 21. Soon after his agreement, he gained Hampton's trust and was handed over the keys to several Panther headquarters and safe houses. 

Just before the raid, O'Neal handed over a layout of an apartment on Monroe Street in the West Side. On the evening of December 3, 1969, Hampton went to his apartment after a political education class at a local church and O'Neal cooked them a meal. According to reports, he slipped a sleep-inducing drug Secobarbital into Hampton’s drink. At around 1.30 am on December 4, Hampton fell asleep while talking to his mother. Half an hour later, the secret raid began and the heavily armed police team showered 99 bullets onto the group. Much later, O'Neal's involvement was revealed and he was relocated to California under the alias of ‘William Hart’ via the Federal Witness Protection Program.

William O'Neal (Archival Footage)

How did William O'Neal first become associated with the FBI?

Over the years, O'Neal kept his undercover past to himself. In a rare interview, he narrated how he chanced upon FBI agent Mitchell. “Well, it was probably 1967. I was with a guy one night, a friend of mine, one night and we were drinking beer and we decided to go joyriding, and we jumped in a car and stole it.” 

Describing how fun and games soon led to an accident, O'Neal added, “About three or four months later I got a call from this FBI agent by the name of Roy Mitchell, and he told me that he knew what I had done. He said something like, ‘Well, you know, ain't no — there's no need in you trying to bulls**t me. I know you did it, but it's no big thing.’ He said, ‘I'm sure we can work it out.’ And, um, I think a few, few months passed before I heard from him again, and one day I got a call and he told me that it was payback time. He said that, ‘I want you to go and see if you can join the Black Panther Party, and if you can, give me a call.’” 

Confused about the timeline, O'Neal recalled he was around “nineteen, eighteen, nineteen years old”. He also said that he knew it was “kinda serious”. He added, “Well, the game turned into reality when I saw him when I saw Fred Hampton's body. Yeah, when I walked through that house and saw those bullet holes and that blood laying on his mattress. Yeah, it hit home then, I knew we were, we were in the real world and that there were people out there that was going to kill us.”

The Black Panther Party (Archives)

Did William O'Neal regret what he did?

Calling Fred Hampton “pretty idealistic”, O'Neal said, “He was pretty dedicated to the Black struggle. I felt like he gave a lot. He gave his life, and, out of the 16 months that I knew him, I don't have anything bad to say about him. I, I'm sorry that he died as he did. He was, in my opinion, he was murdered by the Chicago Police Department, and I feel bad about that. I felt like he was a person that died for what he believed in. Had he lived today, he probably would be a politician, a successful politician.”

Did O'Neal regret his involvement? Stammering while recalling the horrific night, he said he regretted “the information, the, the, the, the, the information leading up to the raid.” He added, “I mean, I knew it would be a raid, I mean, two police officers had got killed. I knew it would be a raid, but I didn't feel like anyone would get killed, especially not Fred, you know. So, yeah, I was shocked, I felt a little —”

However, O'Neal denied he felt any remorse. “I didn't feel like I had done anything. I didn't walk in there with guns. I didn't shoot him. FBI didn't do it. I felt somewhat like I was betrayed. I felt like if anyone should have known it was going to be a raid that morning, I should have known, also. I felt like I could have been caught in that raid. I was there that night, and I felt like if I'd have laid down I probably would have been a victim, so I felt betrayed, I felt like, I felt like I was expendable,” he continued. 

In 1984, O'Neal was quoted as saying, “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.”

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ (HBO Max)

How did William O'Neal die?

The guilt, however, ate him inside and probably led to his death. 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. 

If reports are to be believed, O'Neal was 40 when he ran out of his uncle's apartment across the westbound lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway at 2.30 am. He was struck by a car and killed. The Cook County medical examiner's office ruled O'Neal's death a suicide, a Chicago Tribune report read. His uncle, Heard, said, I never thought he was suicidal and continued, I think he was sorry he did what he did. He thought the FBI was only going to raid the house. They shot Fred Hampton and made sure he was dead."

An official who knew him called him a “mysterious” guy. After his death, O'Neal's wife said through a friend, “She knows her husband loved her and loved their new son and was looking forward to life together.” In another mysterious coincidence, another man who lived in the same apartment complex apparently committed suicide in virtually the same place as O'Neal. Relatives said the two men did not know each other. Bill Hampton, his brother, was one of the few who speculated it was suicide. “The act (of being an informant) he committed was unjust and ignorant,” Hampton said. “It's something he tried to live with and couldn't.”

William O'Neal (Archival Footage)

The movie ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ will release in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, February 12, 2021. It drops at 12 am PT or 3 am ET and is available for streaming on HBO Max for 31 days. The subscription costs $14.99 a month.

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