James Kilgore spent a more than a quarter of a decade on the run and
time in jail for being part of the terror group that kidnapped Patty
Hearst. Now he has plenty of regrets
February 10, 2010
It's a perfect early winter's afternoon in the American Midwest and
James Kilgore seems very much at home in a suburban study that opens
on to a leafy garden. He also comes across as surprisingly
well-adjusted for a man wearing a parole ankle bracelet after nearly
seven years in jail and 27 years on the run before that.
Kilgore was one of the FBI's "most wanted" fugitives for the part he
played in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a militant
organisation that caused terror in 1970s America, carrying out bank
robberies, murder and kidnapping 19-year-old Patty Hearst, the
granddaughter of the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst.
Clues to the unusual trajectory of his life on the run come from the
pictures on his study wall. There's a huge "Mandela for President"
poster, a framed bill from the Cape Argus of November 11, 2002,
saying "Kilgore: Hero of Poor", and several pinboards packed with
photographs and postcards he has received from African friends while
in prison. Then there's the old Zimbabwe T-shirt he's wearing,
set-off by cut-off blue denims, which the 62-year-old happily
acknowledges "make me look like I'm trying to be 20 years old".
Perhaps that's a fitting image, because his eclectic CV suggests the
energy of a younger man. His prime focus is to market his first
novel, We Are All Zimbabweans Now. He is also working on a trilogy of
crime novels, while advising a prisoner education project, learning
sign language and delivering lectures on Southern Africa. As we talk
about his new life, it's hard not to wonder what might have become of
him had he not foolishly joined a ragtag group of left-wing militants
35 years ago. At the time, he was a student whose only fanatical
interest was sport, but the prospect of being drafted prompted a rethink.
"In less than a year I went from being an athlete to somebody who
read books and went on demonstrations," he says. "It forced me to
reflect on the nature of the Vietnamese War. Plus, there was a lot of
activity that emerged at University of California Santa Barbara in
1969-70 that culminated in the burning down of the Bank of America
branch there." He catches himself and laughs: "In which I did not
participate or have anything to do with! We ended up with a state of
emergency with troops and armoured personnel carriers."
Left-wing politics began taking on a shriller edge. One of the groups
that emerged was the SLA, formed by an escaped prisoner, who
entertained the idea that he could inspire revolution in America. The
group made its name by kidnapping Hearst, in February 1974. After a
period of what she later called "brainwashing", she became one of
them, the gun-wielding "Comrade Tanya".
Three months later, six members were killed in a fire-fight and the
gap was filled by new recruits, including Kilgore's girlfriend, Kathy
Soliah, who persuaded him to join her in backing the SLA's campaign
to "destroy the system of the capitalist state".
Patty Hearst, who served 21 months of a 35-year sentence (she was
eventually pardoned by President Clinton in 2001), has portrayed
Kilgore as a "calm, reasonable, level-headed" member in a group of
egocentric hotheads. In her autobiography, Every Secret Thing, she
said that he specifically argued against using a favoured
hair-trigger shotgun on their missions. Still, Kilgore, Soliah and
Hearst were part of the group that robbed the Crocker National Bank
in Sacramento, California on April 21 1975, when SLA founder member
Emily Harris discharged the shotgun, killing a customer.
Years later, when on trial, Kilgore apologised for his role in the
fatal bank robbery, but the question intriguing me is when he came to
regret joining the SLA. "Pretty well immediately," he says without
hesitation. "As soon as I got to Seattle and started reading history
and could see everything we'd done when we were running around had
come to nothing positive and had done a lot of harm. It's a futile
way of operating."
Soon after the bank raid, and a failed attempt to bomb a police car,
Hearst and five others were rounded up. A warrant was issued for
Kilgore's arrest (a pipe bomb was found in the apartment that he
rented), but he fled north, and followed the "old routine of getting
the birth certificate of a child who died". And so he became Charles
William "John" Pape, his name for the next 27 years (his wife, Terri,
and close friends still call him "John"), and moved to Minnesota,
where he linked up with activists campaigning against minority rule
in South Africa and what was Rhodesia.
Kilgore shrugs when I profess astonishment that the FBI never traced
him. "They'd won their victory by then. The Left of the Sixties was
pretty well defunct. In the US when you're a left-wing activist
you're off the radar." That was certainly the case for Kathy Soliah,
who also evaded capture for years, until she was finally tracked down
in St Paul, Minnesota, where she was living as "soccer mom" Sara Jane
Olson a celebrated cook and pillar of the local community.
After seven years on the run in the US, Kilgore went to live in
Zimbabwe, a country whose fraught politics he captures in his novel.
The most vivid passages describe arriving in the country in the early
1980s written in prison from memory.
To fill in the gaps he wrote a "sensory diary", and it was the
smells, sounds and sights of Harare that came back most strongly.
"When I arrived I was totally wide-eyed about everything so I took
all that in and my senses were on high alert, and I also had the good
fortune of living with Zimbabweans who oriented me towards the
culture and the language in a way very few expatriates experienced."
Kilgore's We Are All Zimbabweans Now is the tale of an idealistic US
academic who lands in Zimbabwe full of admiration for Robert Mugabe,
only to find disillusionment setting in when he see the violent
duplicity of the state. But unlike his protagonist, Kilgore was
sceptical from the outset. "I didn't arrive with grand illusions.
Sure, I didn't expect Mugabe to descend to the level he reached in
2009, but I didn't see him as this monolithic hero by any means. I
didn't have a high regard for him."
Kilgore's experiences prompted him to extend his critique of violence
to include revolutionary organisations such as Mugabe's Zanu (PF). He
stresses that the military is, by its nature, autocratic. "Zimbabwe
is not the only country where an armed liberation movement took power
and ended up becoming undemocratic because of the military structure
they operated under."
After Nelson Mandela was released in South Africa, Kilgore took up an
offer to teach at Khanya College, in Johannesburg. He became director
of the college and then moved to Cape Town where he worked on
education and research for trade unions.
Meanwhile, the FBI was at a loss at how to trace him. Its spokesman,
Andrew Black, admitted in January 2002: "He may have left the country
likely to Canada and returned with a different identity, but we
don't know, to be honest." It offered a $20,000 reward, listed 13
aliases on its website, and produced a bust of his head and
computer-enhanced photographs to show what he might look like. Patty
Hearst took one look at these images and remarked: "This is part of
the reason I think the Government is not serious about ever catching
Kilgore might well have remained undetected had it not been for Kathy
Soliah's arrest in 1999 , which prompted her to join three of her
former SLA comrades in cutting a plea-bargained deal with Californian
prosecutors. Kilgore decided to do the same and retained lawyers for
this purpose. Today, he remains uncertain how the FBI traced him, but
speculates it might have something to do with the negotiations. "I've
never really found out and they don't tell me," he says, laughing.
On November 7, 2002, two young South Africans knocked on his door and
said they were doing a survey about the shape of wine bottles. "They
held up two bottles and said, 'Which one do you like better?' I
looked confused and they said, 'Here, just touch it and feel it' and
the minute I touched that bottle I felt, 'These people are getting my
fingerprints'." At 7.15pm the next evening he was arrested.
I ask him whether there was any relief in no longer having to live
under an assumed identity. This time, he hesitates: "Um, I suppose
there was a certain relief," he says before reminding me that his
fugitive life was "more ordinary than you'd expect".
Kilgore was extradited to the US, where he pleaded guilty in two
trials (a federal charge relating to the pipe bomb and a state charge
of second-degree murder, relating to the bank robbery). He apologised
for what he had done, but stresses that words are never enough. "No
matter how many times someone says they're sorry, it doesn't satisfy
those who have suffered. My more than 20 years working as a teacher
provide stronger evidence that I am genuinely sorry, that I recognise
that I took a wrong and destructive path."
His main job in prison also involved teaching, tutoring prisoners in
maths and computer science. "I enjoyed it," he says. "There was a
small core who were extremely dedicated and very receptive."
He also settled on the idea of writing his novel, a process that
involved a manual Olivetti typewriter with an ancient ribbon (revived
after he took an inmate's advice of treating it with baby oil).
Kilgore jokes about the habits of prolonged confinement that still
linger, such as repeating "excuse me" whenever people approach. "I'm
not paranoid, but you don't want people to think you're cutting them
off." It also took him a while to get used to turning off taps. "In
prison, they automatically switch off, so every time I went to the
bathroom I'd leave them running."
Kilgore says the process of adjustment to US suburban life has been
eased by the success of his novel. "There've been a few disconnects
in terms of personal relationships but things are going pretty well."
He pauses for a few seconds and points the pinboard behind him,
plastered with pictures of his friends from his 20 years in Africa.
"You see I wasn't as isolated as some prisoners. It was their support
that helped me to survive. They helped me stay sane."