[News] Assata Shakur: Flight from justice

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Mon Nov 22 08:53:05 EST 2004

New York Daily News - <http://www.nydailynews.com>http://www.nydailynews.com
Flight from justice
Sunday, November 21st, 2004

A nondescript Pontiac sedan with Vermont tags tooled south along the New 
Jersey Turnpike just after midnight on May 2, 1973.

The car stood out in a single detail: a bum taillight.

Trooper James Harper noticed the defect in East Brunswick, not far from the 
Turnpike Administration Building. He could not let the safety infraction pass.

He flipped on chase lights and directed the Pontiac to the side of the 

This would not be a routine pullover.

Harper had no way of knowing, but the occupants of the car - Clark Squire, 
James Costan and Joanne Chesimard - were at war with the United States.

They were soldiers in the Black Liberation Army, an East Coast group that 
had fractured away from the Oakland-based Black Panthers. Their stated goal 
was "liberation and self-determination" for American blacks.

They chose to use robbery, violence and terrorism in a quixotic, 15-year 
trip toward achieving those goals. Their trophy targets were "pigs" - law 
enforcement officers.

Trouble afoot

Harper sensed trouble and radioed for backup. Squire, the driver, got out 
of the Buick and walked back to speak with the trooper.

When Trooper Werner Foerster arrived, Harper left Squire with him and went 
to the car to seek identification from Chesimard, riding shotgun, and 
Costan, in the backseat.

Foerster found a gun clip while frisking Squire. As the trooper shouted a 
warning to his colleague, Chesimard pulled a gun and began shooting, 
hitting Harper in the left shoulder.

Amid the bedlam, Harper ran for cover behind his radio car. He said he saw 
Squire and Trooper Foerster wrestling on the ground as both Chesimard and 
Costan fired handguns. Harper shot both passengers, then ran for help to 
the police office in the Turnpike Building, one-tenth of a mile away.

The radicals scrambled into the Pontiac and fled south.

Authorities rushed back to the shooting scene. Trooper Foerster, 34, a 
husband, father and Vietnam veteran from Old Bridge, was found shot dead. 
Evidence would reveal he took four bullets, including two in the head from 
his own gun.

Meanwhile, Squire bailed out of the Buick 8 miles south of the shooting, 
leaving his gravely wounded comrades behind. He fled into woods at the edge 
of the turnpike and was captured the next day after a manhunt.

Troopers found Chesimard and Costan in the escape car. She was bleeding 
from gunshot wounds to the right arm and shoulder, and he was dead. 
Foerster's pistol was found in the car.

Squire, a former NASA engineer, and Chesimard, born in Brooklyn and 
attracted to radical politics at Manhattan Community College, were charged 
with murder. At separate trials, they made the case they were victims of 
conspiratorial government harassment orchestrated by the FBI.

They said they were set up in the traffic stop. Both denied shooting 
Trooper Foerster.

Prosecutors made a much simpler case: They were cop-killers. The jury agreed.

Each was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, with add-ons 
designed to keep them locked away forever.

Squire, now 67 and known as Sundiata Acoli, is still in prison, 31 years 
after the shooting. He was denied parole in 1993, when he declared he was a 
prisoner of war and an advocate of revolution.

He softened his rhetoric this year in a new parole gambit. He announced 
regret and accepted responsibility for the death of Foerster, although he 
continued to deny that he shot the trooper.

The state parole board turned down his application.

In a sense, Acoli is serving time for two.

In 1979, Joanne Chesimard was housed at the Edna Mahan Correctional 
Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J. The prison had medium security, but 
Chesimard and seven other women were housed in a separate, secure cell 
block for offenders considered high risks for violence or escape.


Chesimard was undeterred.

"I was like Houdini," she would later tell Essence magazine. "I plotted day 
and night. There was no way I was going to spend the rest of [my] life in 
prison for something I didn't do."

That October, three men used fake IDs to request visits with Chesimard on 
the same day, Nov. 2. The prison had four weeks to verify the identities of 
the prospective visitors but failed to do so.

When the date arrived, the three men were registered as visitors and driven 
by van to the visiting room at Chesimard's secure cellblock. Although 
prison policy called for body searches of visitors, the men were allowed 
into the heart of the prison without so much as a cursory pat-down.

The men pulled pistols and took guards hostages. Using hostages as shields, 
they hustled Chesimard outside to the van, then raced across a field to the 
nearby Hunterdon State School, where two women were waiting at the wheels 
of getaway cars.

The embarrassing escape made Chesimard the FBI's No. 1 female fugitive - 
and a radical icon.

She disappeared into the underground, which further burnished her 
reputation as the woman who managed to make a mockery of American criminal 

As a final insult, she turned up in Cuba in 1986 as a special resident 
guest of Fidel Castro.

And there she sits 18 years later, a piece of unfinished business from a 
troubling era that most Americans would rather forget.

But Trooper Foerster's colleagues have not forgotten. A furious 
letter-writing campaign led by New Jersey State Police helped keep Squire 
in prison during the parole-hearing process earlier this year.

And the state police keep Chesimard at the top of their most-wanted list, 
with a $100,000 reward.

"This will never be a closed case as long as Joanne Chesimard is not 
incarcerated," a New Jersey State Police spokesman said recently.

Name change

Chesimard, now 57 and known as Assata Shakur, wrote a biography and works 
occasionally as a translator, although she told Essence she has "tried as 
much as possible to avoid the standard 9-to-5 thing."

Until recently, Chesimard freely gave interviews to visiting American 
journalists. She was easy to find: Her name and number were in the Havana 
phone book.

New Jersey cops gnash their teeth at her pronouncements and euphemisms. She 
describes herself as a political exile and escaped prisoner of war.

In one recent canard, she said, "How dare they call us terrorists when we 
were being terrorized? Terror was a constant part of my life....We lived 
under police terror."

She says she was persecuted in the United States for being a "political 
person." Cops point out that she was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 
life in prison because she caused the death of another human being.

Politics, they say, had nothing to do with it.

Chesimard's profile has been much lower in Cuba for the past year. Some 
believe Castro was miffed after she gave too many interviews in which she 
groused about living conditions in Havana.

Like some 70 other fugitives from American justice, Chesimard lives in Cuba 
at the whim of Castro, who has faced modest pressure from the United States 
to turn her over.

Before she clammed up, Chesimard told a reporter that a regime change in 
Cuba "will be devastating for people worldwide who believe in justice."

And, she added, "I'll be up a creek without a paddle."

The Freedom Archives
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