[Pnews] Watani Stiner - freed 46 years after UCLA murders

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Feb 4 11:19:25 EST 2015

*Legendary black revolutionary freed 46 years after UCLA murders*

By Tammerlin Drummond Oakland Tribune Columnist



On the morning of Jan. 11, Watani Stiner, 68, was released from San 
Quentin on parole. Almost no one knew.

It was a far cry from the last time he left prison -- as an escapee 
convicted of murder. On that adrenaline-fueled flight in 1974, Stiner 
and his brother, George, escaped to South America, where Watani Stiner 
lived as a free man for 20 years, married a woman in Suriname and 
fathered six children.

But the worsening political and economic conditions in his host country 
made him fear for his family's safety. He turned himself in at the U.S. 
Embassy. In exchange for Stiner returning to finish his sentence, the 
U.S. government agreed to transport his new family out of Suriname.

Stiner had been in prison ever since. His release comes 46 years after 
his involvement in the murders of Black Panther Party leaders John 
Huggins and Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter on the UCLA campus.

Stiner granted this newspaper an exclusive interview, his first since 
his release. I met with him at the Men of Valor Academy in Oakland, a 
Christian-based re-entry program.

I asked him what it felt like to be free after all these years.

"In San Quentin you know every step, every crack in the wall, you know 
all the bars and all the faces," Stiner said. "Out here, I was into 
looking at everything around me. It's quite a feeling."

The absence of publicity around Stiner's parole is in sharp contrast to 
the media frenzy that surrounded the Huggins and Carter killings and the 
trial that sent Stiner and his brother to prison for seven years to life 
on charges of second-degree murder and conspiracy -- though neither man 
fired a weapon. Stiner has steadfastly maintained his innocence. He has 
also refused to say anything about the whereabouts of his brother, who 
is still a fugitive. Stiner was denied parole eight times despite 
receiving positive prison evaluations, before it was finally granted in 

A quiet strength

Stiner is a tall slender man who uses a cane. He is soft-spoken yet 
exudes a quiet strength. Over the last two decades he has become a 
mentor to younger inmates.

Ericka Huggins, John Huggins' widow and a Black Panther Party leader for 
14 years, said she supported Stiner's release. Huggins, now a professor 
of sociology and African-American studies at Merritt College, was 20 
when her husband was killed. Her daughter was 3 weeks old.

Stiner wrote her from prison asking if she would participate in a 
restorative justice dialogue at San Quentin.

"He wrote a beautiful letter saying that he would often think of me and 
my daughter -- he had his own children -- and would wonder about my 
daughter who had no father," she said. "He asked for my forgiveness."

The two exchanged letters for 2½ years, then had an emotional four-hour 
meeting at San Quentin. Huggins said the process helped her in healing 
and gave her an opportunity to get answers to questions she had for so 
long about her husband's last hours.

Stiner's story is a riveting tale that spans nearly a half-century.

It begins Jan. 17, 1969. It was a time of major social upheaval, 
particularly on college campuses. Martin Luther King Jr. had been 
assassinated nine months earlier, sparking widespread rioting. There 
were massive protests against the Vietnam War. Stiner, who was from 
Watts in Los Angeles, was an African-American student at UCLA. Like many 
young black people, he got deeply involved with activist organizations 
that emphasized black pride and identity. Stiner joined US, a black 
nationalist organization run by Maulana Karenga, the creator of the 
holiday Kwanzaa.

The group was competing for power with the Black Panther Party. Behind 
the scenes, according to the U.S. Senate Church Committee report, the 
FBI's COINTELPRO used covert tactics such as sending anonymous letters 
and caricatures to the Black Panthers ridiculing the leadership "for the 
express purpose of exacerbating a gang war between the two groups."

At a meeting of African-American students at UCLA's Campbell Hall, a 
shootout erupted. Most accounts say the trouble began with a 
confrontation between Black Panther Elaine Brown and a male US member. 
Claude Hubert pulled a gun and shot Huggins and Carter. Stiner was 
wounded in the shoulder. He and his brother were later convicted and 
sent to San Quentin.

On one occasion Truman Capote interviewed Watani Stiner in prison. He 
gave Capote the names of guards that Stiner said were conspiring to kill 
inmates. Soon after that, he said an inmate tried to stab him. Another 
inmate who intervened was stabbed to death.

Fearing for their lives, the brothers arranged to escape after a family 
visit in a low-security trailer.

The brothers hid out for almost two months in Oakland and San Francisco. 
With the help of black revolutionaries, they were smuggled to Memphis, 
Tennessee, in the back of a U-Haul truck. They disguised themselves as 
preachers, then made their way to Miami for a flight to Guyana.

Watani Stiner had left behind two young sons in Los Angeles.

But Watani Stiner soon became disillusioned with the Guyanese 
government. He began, naively he said, to get involved with opposition 
groups. One day, a high-ranking Guyanese government official summoned 
him and issued a warning.

"'You realize that if your body would show up on the shores of this 
country, the U.S. wouldn't even claim your corpse,'" he said. "That sent 
a chill up my spine. I said it's time to get out of here."

Flight to Suriname

Stiner went on to Suriname, where he spent the next 16 years. He made a 
living selling coffee, sugar and other products over the border in 
Guyana, where goods were scarce.

But the situation in Suriname was rapidly deteriorating under a coup 
regime. Military officers seized Stiner's home and forced his family out 
at gunpoint, he said. They moved into a cinder block house in the bush 
with no water or electricity.

Stiner felt he had no options but to get his family to the United 
States. Which meant surrendering.

The embassy put him on a plane back to the U.S. and agreed to send his 
family after him.

Yet once he was back behind bars, Stiner said the State Department 
notified him that since he was in prison he couldn't care for his 
children. They would remain in Suriname for another 11 years.

Stiner said his wife suffered a mental breakdown and was no longer able 
to care for their children. They were put in foster care.

"I felt like I was suffocating," Stiner said. "I was in this cell and my 
family was over there."

In the midst of his despair, Stiner got an unexpected godsend.

Larry Stiner Jr., the son he had left behind when he was 3, saw a story 
about his father's return on the TV news. Stiner Jr., then 23, contacted 
him. Stiner Jr. and his wife began sending money to Suriname to take 
care of his half-siblings. Eleven long years later, Stiner Jr. got a 
call informing him that the children were being sent to Los Angeles from 
Suriname. If there was no one there to meet the minors, they would be 
split up and put into foster care. Stiner Jr. and his wife took in all six.

"We already had two kids of our own and then we went to having a house 
full of teenagers, and we didn't even speak their language," Stiner Jr. 
said. "He wasn't there for us, so I hoped to fill some of that void of 
not having a father for them."

Now that Stiner has been released, he and his children from Suriname and 
from the U.S. are looking forward to this new chapter.

Latanya Stiner, now 28, said she has been waiting for this moment for 20 
years. Her father left Suriname when she was 8, and she had no idea 
where he was until another child in the neighborhood taunted her by 
saying her father was a murderer in prison.

Now a Fresno resident, she said she got her bachelor's degree in 
criminal justice because her father's case inspired her to want to 
reform the judicial system.

"Even though it's been long and hard and a lot of bad stuff has happened 
along the way, this is good enough for me," she said of his release. 
"Before, I would be more angry than happy. Now I can be happy."

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her 
column runs Thursday and Sunday. Contact her at 
tdrummond at bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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