by Larry Harnisch
December 23, 2008
'Lie down and pray'
Gunshots on a Santa Monica tennis court reverberated across legal landscape.
Note: Edward J. Boyer, now retired, covered the Elmer Gerard
"Geronimo" Pratt case for The Times.
By Edward J. Boyer
On a clear, chilly December evening 40 years ago, Kenneth Olsen, head
of the English department at Belmont High School, and his wife,
Caroline, drove to Santa Monica's Lincoln Park tennis courts to meet
another couple for a friendly doubles match.
The courts on Wilshire Boulevard at 7th Street were dark when the
Olsens arrived about 8 p.m. Caroline went to the light meter to
deposit a quarter. When she had trouble getting the meter to work,
Kenneth went to help.
Just as the lights came on, the Olsens noticed two men walking toward
them. As the pair drew closer, Kenneth Olsen realized both men were
The men ordered the Olsens to put their hands up.
"We want your bread, man," Kenneth Olsen remembered one saying. "Give
us your money. Where is it?"
He directed the robbers to his tennis bag and his wife's purse. They
ordered the couple to the ground and started to leave.
Suddenly, they turned and opened fire.
Kenneth Olsen survived the fusillade; his wife did not. And those
shots fired on Dec. 18, 1968, reverberated across Los Angeles' legal
landscape for nearly three decades.
Just over three years later, former Black Panther Party leader Elmer
Gerard "Geronimo" Pratt was sent to prison for the robbery and
murder. Pratt had maintained at his trial that he was in Oakland, 341
miles away, attending Black Panther Party meetings when Caroline
Olsen was killed.
Even by the standards of those turbulent times, it was a crime
remarkable for its chillingly random and wanton character.
Describing the shooting at Pratt's trial, Kenneth Olsen said: "It
came as a complete surprise to me that they actually fired. I didn't
think they would."
He was hit five times--in the forehead and right hand, little finger,
forearm and hip. Caroline Olsen was struck in the back and hip.
Olsen, then 31, checked on his wife as blood poured out of the wound
in his forehead.
"Are you OK? Can you move?" he asked his wife.
She could not. And there was no one else around.
"I realized I had to get help for her and that I wouldn't last too
long the way blood was flowing," Olsen testified.
He stumbled across Wilshire, barely avoiding an oncoming car, and
made his way into the Broken Drum restaurant, where a waitress called for help.
Caroline Olsen, 27, a teacher at Stoner Avenue Elementary School,
died later from her wounds.
The thugs who murdered her netted about $18.
Santa Monica police made little headway in their investigation of the
coldblooded assault on the Olsens. But events within the Black
Panther Party and efforts by a secret FBI counterintelligence program
called COINTELPRO intersected in 1969 to change that. Pratt was
convicted in what his defenders still call one of the most overtly
political trials in Los Angeles' history.
A month after Caroline Olsen's murder, Panthers in Los Angeles
themselves were left reeling by violence. Their charismatic leader,
Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, and his close aide, John Huggins, were
killed Jan. 17, 1969 in a shootout on the UCLA campus.
Carter's death left a void, and Julius C. "Julio" Butler, a
35-year-old former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy turned
Panther, saw himself as Carter's logical successor. But party leaders
in Oakland tapped Pratt, 20, a decorated Vietnam veteran, who had
been a Panther for only about four months.
A bitter rivalry developed between Pratt and Butler. Pratt and other
Panthers accused Butler of being a police informant, while Butler
accused them of threatening his life.
By May 1969, Butler had begun talking to the FBI. On Aug. 5, he was
expelled from the party, according to former Panthers and FBI
documents obtained after Pratt's conviction. He says he quit.
Five days later, he gave a letter to Los Angeles Police Sgt. DuWayne
Rice, naming Pratt as Caroline Olsen's killer.
Butler had written on the outside of the sealed envelope that it
should only be opened in the event of his death. He called it his
"insurance letter," and prosecutors at Pratt's trial argued that
Butler never intended for it to be made public, likening the
envelope's contents to a deathbed declaration.
Information disclosed after Pratt's conviction, however, revealed
that Butler's insurance letter was anything but a secret. FBI agents
approached Rice on the street immediately after Butler gave him the
sealed envelope. They demanded that the sergeant turn it over and
referred to it as "evidence."
Rice refused, but later recalled that he wondered how the agents knew
the envelope contained a letter since it was sealed, and how could
they have known it was evidence.
More than a year later, in October 1970, Butler gave Rice permission
to give the letter to his LAPD superiors. Butler explained to Rice
that the FBI was "jamming" him and that he had told agents about the letter.
Butler's letter said Pratt had told him of a "mission" he was about
to undertake on the night the Olsens were shot. The next day, Butler
said, he pointed to a front-page story in The Times about the robbery
and shooting. Pratt, Butler said, indicated that was the mission he
had spoken of. Pratt's defenders have always dismissed as ludicrous
Butler's contention that Pratt, who was extremely suspicious of
Butler, would have confessed to him.
Butler's letter became the tool prosecutors needed in December 1970
to convince a grand jury to indict Pratt for Caroline Olsen's murder.
The LAPD's Criminal Conspiracy Section had taken over the
investigation from Santa Monica police. Pratt, who was being held on
other charges, would be tried in June 1972.
Butler's letter also implicated a "Tyrone," and police arrested
William Tyrone Hutchinson in 1970. In a sworn statement given in 1991
to investigators working on Pratt's behalf, Hutchinson said he told
police in 1970 that two men, Larry Hatter and Herbert Swilley, had
bragged at a Panther office about being present at the tennis court
when the Olsens were attacked.
Hutchinson said he had known Swilley and Hatter since childhood and
knew them to be Butler's friends. Officers told him not to discuss
what he heard Swilley and Hatter say, if he knew what was good for
him, Hutchinson said.
Explaining why he had not come forward with the information earlier,
Hutchinson said he took the officers' comments "to be a threat on my
life, and I still do."
Pratt's defenders maintain that LAPD investigators did not pursue
evidence pointing to other suspects because their primary objective
was to "neutralize" Pratt and cripple the Panthers.
Friends of Swilley and Hatter have described both as heroin addicts
who committed robberies to pay for drugs. Swilley was also known as a
particularly violent killer. He was shot to death in 1972 during an argument.
Hatter was found dead in 1978 on the Pacific Tennis Court grounds in
Santa Monica. He apparently fell while attempting to enter or leave a
building during a burglary, impaling his skull on a fence.
The key evidence against Pratt consisted of Butler's testimony that
he had obliquely confessed the crime, Kenneth Olsen's eyewitness
testimony, ballistics tests from a .45-caliber pistol and the car
allegedly used in the robbery/murder.
Although Butler denied on the witness stand that he had ever been a
police informant, FBI files released after Pratt's conviction showed
that Butler had been providing information on the Panthers to the
bureau for three years before the trial.
Kenneth Olsen identified Pratt as one of the men who committed the
murder. He told the Pratt jury that "one of the most distinguishing
things about Mr. Pratt is his intensive eyes," calling them "very
piercing and very penetrating."
Neither the jury nor Pratt's lawyers knew at the time that Olsen
earlier had identified another suspect as his wife's killer. The
public defender who had represented that suspect recalled after
Pratt's conviction that Olsen had said after that earlier
identification: "The voice did it."
In fact, the first man Olsen identified as the assailant had been in
jail the night the couple was attacked.
Had the jury known about Olsen's earlier identification, "I think
that alone would have changed our mind," said Jeanne Hamilton, a
juror at Pratt's 1972 trial.
LAPD criminalist DeWayne Wolfer testified at Pratt's trial that
firing pin marks on shell casings found on the tennis court matched
those on shells fired from a .45-caliber pistol seized from a Panther
house. In an earlier trial, a California appellate court ruled that
Wolfer had "negligently presented false demonstrative evidence in
support of his ballistics testimony." Another forensic scientist has
characterized Wolfer's testimony as lacking "credibility in the minds
of most forensic scientists."
The only other person to tie Pratt to the .45 was Butler.
The presence of Pratt's car at the murder scene is a point even some
of his defenders acknowledge. A witness saw the gunmen flee in a red
and white Pontiac GTO convertible with out-of-state plates--a
description matching Pratt's 1967 car.
Several witnesses, however, testified that Pratt's car was used not
only by other Panthers, but by any number of people associated with
the party--including Butler on several occasions. Pratt, his
defenders said, had no idea who used his car on the day of the murder
because he was in Oakland, where he had gone earlier in the week.
Pratt always has insisted that he was in Oakland attending Black
Panther Party meetings when the Olsens were attacked. Years later,
retired FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen said the bureau knew Pratt was
in the Bay Area then because the Panthers were under surveillance and
phones at their party headquarters were tapped.
Pratt's defense presented several witnesses who placed him in Oakland
during the party meetings. But they could not--3 1/2 years
later--specifically place Pratt in the Bay Area on Dec. 18, the day
of the crime.
What turned out to be one of the most damaging pieces of evidence
against Pratt was introduced by the defense. Olsen had described his
assailants as clean shaven, but several other witnesses--including
Butler--said they always had seen Pratt with facial hair.
Pratt's lawyers introduced a Polaroid photograph, supposedly taken
around Christmas 1968, showing Pratt with a goatee, which they argued
he could not have grown in the week after the murder.
"We took the word of Pratt's brother, Chuck Pratt, about this
picture," Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of Pratt's attorneys at his
original trial, said. "We didn't consider it really important. We
thought it was clear to everybody that Pratt had a goatee, that he
was not clean shaven as Mr. Olsen said."
But that photo was more important than Pratt's defense team could
have imagined. Prosecutors called a Polaroid representative who
testified that the picture could not have been taken in December
1968, because the film used in the photo was not manufactured until May 1969.
That testimony was devastating. One juror said it made him begin to
question other parts of the defense case. Another said jurors argued
during deliberations that if Pratt had lied about the photo, he could
have lied about other events.
The jury deliberated for 10 days before it returned its guilty verdict.
Pratt, who now uses the name Geronimo ji Jaga, served two years in
Los Angeles County Jail and 25 years in prison--the first eight in
solitary confinement--before Orange County Superior Court Judge
Everett W. Dickey overturned his conviction in 1997 and released him on bail.
The case was moved to Orange County after the entire Los Angeles
Superior Court bench was recused because one of its members, Judge
Richard P. Kalustian, who as a deputy district attorney prosecuted
Pratt, was to be called as a witness.
Dickey, by all accounts a conservative, law enforcement-oriented
judge, publicly branded Butler, the prosecution's key witness, a liar
and ruled that Los Angeles County prosecutors had suppressed evidence
favorable to Pratt's defense.
"The importance of Butler to the prosecution cannot be denied,"
Dickey later wrote in his decision. He noted that Pratt was never a
suspect until police learned the content of Butler's letter, and that
Kalustian "emphasized Butler's importance in argument both to the
trial judge and to the jury."
At Pratt's trial in 1972, Kalustian had summed up just how important
a witness Butler was: "Julio Butler has testified in this court under
oath and to the jury to a confession that Mr. Pratt made to him that
admits all of the elements of the offense. If the jury believes Julio
Butler, Mr. Pratt is guilty. The case is over if they believe that."
Butler had denied under oath that he had ever been an informant for
law enforcement, saying "the connotation (of) informant means a
snitch, and I have never been in the world a snitch."
But in the hearing before Dickey, prosecutors revealed that Butler's
name had turned up in a confidential informant file kept by the Los
Angeles County district attorney's office.
San Francisco attorney Stuart Hanlon, one of Pratt's lawyers, called
the informant card on Butler a "smoking gun," saying the district
attorney's office knew during Pratt's trial that Butler was an informant.
"The fact is that he was an actual informant, and no one said
anything about it in court," Hanlon said. "The informant status of a
main prosecution witness is always reversible error."
Three jurors, including Hamilton, told Jim McCloskey, whose Centurion
Ministries independently investigated Pratt's case, they would never
have convicted Pratt had they known Butlerwho went on to become a
lawyer and chairman of the board at Los Angeles' First African
Methodist Episcopal Church--was an informant.
In overturning Pratt's conviction, Dickey ruled that despite Butler's
denials, he had been an FBI informant for at least three years before
the trial. Dickey also ruled that Butler had been an informant for
the LAPD and for the very agency that prosecuted Pratt--the Los
Angeles County district attorney's office.
A detective in the district attorney's office gave Butler $200 to buy
a gun several months before Pratt's trial, Dickey noted, even though
Butler was a convicted felon who could not legally possess a firearm.
Several law enforcement officers knew Butler carried the gun, even
though doing so was a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison,
Pratt's defense lawyers, Dickey said, were not given information
needed to show Butler's motive for naming Pratt as Caroline Olsen's
killer. Had Pratt's lawyers known of Butler's activities, they could
have devastated his credibility on cross-examination, the judge said.
After Pratt's release, then-Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti
appealed Dickey's decision. But one veteran prosecutor said parts of
Garcetti's appeal were difficult for experienced trial attorneys to fathom.
"There appears to be a whole bunch of stuff out there that was not
turned over to the defense that should have been--like guys buying a
guy a gun," he said. "Had this been turned over, would it have
affected the outcome? That question doesn't pass the straight-face test."
Garcetti lost his appeal and Pratt settled a false imprisonment and
civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and the FBI for
$4.5 million. Pratt now splits his time between Morgan City, La., his
home town, and east Africa. He has used part of his settlement to
support projects for young people in Morgan City and a community
founded by former Panthers in Tanzania.