Cop's slayer fled N.J. prison in '79
Mar. 7, 2009
By JASON NARK
Philadelphia Daily News
SOMETIME IN 1984, convicted cop-killer Joanne Chesimard surfaced in
Cuba, about 1,200 miles from the New Jersey prison from which she had
escaped five years earlier.
As her exile hits the 25-year mark, a changing political landscape in
both countries and the $1 million that dangles over her head have
kept authorities in New Jersey hopeful that a break will come.
It's not clear how Chesimard - who now goes by the name Assata Shakur
- made it to the Caribbean island, but as long as there's no
collateral damage, New Jersey authorities say they don't really care
how the former Black Liberation Army member is returned home.
"If she's healthy and walking and talking and there's no carnage in
the wake, I don't think there would be issues," said New Jersey State
Police Lt. Kevin Tormey, who has been assigned to the case since 1989.
The hefty reward, which jumped from $50,000 to $1 million in 2005,
has spurred a slow but steady stream of calls, Tormey said - from
bounty hunters, former Cubans and even some anonymous officials
within the country itself. Tormey has traveled to at least a dozen
countries to conduct interviews.
So far, nothing's panned out.
"We've done more than most people would think, and a lot of it's
classified. We'll talk to anyone, anyplace, anytime," he said.
"There's only one home run, and we've had triples and doubles."
Former Cuban president Fidel Castro welcomed Shakur and spoke on her
behalf when the reward was raised. Tormey said there's never been any
productive dialogue between Castro's government and authorities in New Jersey.
"I think he has said that she was mistreated," Tormey said of Castro.
"I don't think he has the information of her guilt."
Shakur was one of three passengers in a 1965 Pontiac pulled over by
State Trooper James Harper on the New Jersey Turnpike in East
Brunswick, Middlesex County, for a faulty taillight on the night of
May 2, 1973.
Trooper Werner Foerster, 34, arrived on the scene as backup.
During questioning, authorities said, Shakur and one of the men
opened fire with automatic weapons. Both Foerster and Shakur were
hit. Shakur then took Foerster's gun and fatally shot him as he lay
on the ground, authorities said.
Shakur's brother-in-law, James Coston, was killed in the gun battle,
and the third passenger, Clark Squire, also known as Sundiata Acoli,
eventually was arrested and sent to prison.
According to a New York Times article after the shooting, the two
other men in the car were transporting Shakur to a hideout in
Philadelphia at the time because she was wanted on numerous offenses.
Shakur eventually was convicted by a jury in 1977 and escaped two
years later from the Clinton Correctional Institution for Women, in
Hunterdon County, with the help of three gunmen acting as visitors.
Over the years, New Jersey elected officials have pleaded with
federal and international governments to demand Shakur's return. The
state police even asked Pope John Paul II to intervene when he
visited Cuba in 1998.
During the 2005 U.S. Conference of Mayors in Chicago, Trenton Mayor
Douglas Palmer spoke of not normalizing relations with Cuba until
Shakur was returned.
That stance riled the large international contingency of Shakur
supporters active on the Internet, earning Palmer the nickname "Black
Bounty Hunter" by one Shakur supporter.
"I just think that certainly we need to make sure she comes back for
justice," Palmer told the Daily News in an interview this week.
Earlier this week, Cuban President Raul Castro ousted some of his
ailing brother's longtime appointees, furthering the rumor of
sweeping changes in the communist country. Meanwhile, the world waits
to see if President Obama will open lines of communication between
the U.S. and Cuba.
Now in her early 60s, Shakur has stopped giving interviews, but has
said publicly that a "regime change" in Cuba would send her "up the
creek without a paddle."
Tormey said the Obama administration has bigger concerns than Cuba at
the moment, but he'd love to have Shakur return through diplomatic
channels rather than bounty hunters.
The U.S. State Department did not return a phone call seeking comment.
A Google search for Joanne Chesimard or Assata Shakur shows many Web
sites created on her behalf, and the support she has engendered from
all walks of life, including law professors, celebrities and Mumia
Abu-Jamal, himself on death row for the murder of Philadelphia Police
Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Tormey said Shakur has used time to her advantage and has cast a
distorted veil over the truth.
"The facts are that this woman was part of a violent black-separatist
group that wanted to overthrow the U.S. government and viewed police
as soldiers of the government," Tormey said. "She started the
shooting on the turnpike. Her weapon shot both troopers and she had
an all-star defense team."
Shakur's version of the story - on the Web site www.assatashakur.org,
in excerpts from her autobiography, and from information on other
sites - is that she had been pulled over and had tried to surrender
but was shot with her hands raised.
Shakur also claimed she had been beaten at the hospital and kept in
bug-infested cells, even while pregnant with her daughter.
In a "Statement of Facts in the New Jersey Trial of Assata Shakur,"
Evelyn Williams, Shakur's aunt and former attorney, claims, among
other things: that Trooper Harper lied under testimony, that Shakur's
fingerprints were not found on any weapon, and that several members
of the all-white jury were either friends or relatives of
"Assata is an innocent woman. Not only should the bounty be lifted,
but she should receive some type of compensation," said Mukasa
Afrika, founder of Laying the Foundation, a Philadelphia-based
organization devoted to African-culture education.
"It's a hunt. That's all it is, and the fact that she continues to
inspire people angers police."
Even after her 25 years in Cuba, police in New Jersey certainly remain angry.
"She's been compared to Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King on some
site," Tormey said. "She had nothing to do with peace."