Bounty hunt for US cop killer on Cuba
From The Sunday Times
May 27, 2007
Bounty hunt for US cop killer on Cuba
Tony Allen-Mills in Newark, New Jersey
SHE is a convicted cop-killer, an escaped fugitive and for part of her
extraordinary life she was the glamorous godmother to a rap music
legend. Yet an American police net is closing on Assata Shakur,
previously known as Joanne Chesimard, and the sanctuary she found in
Cuba more than 20 years ago no longer looks so secure.
The prolonged illness of President Fidel Castro has revitalised US
interest in at least 60 American fugitives who have fled to Havana over
the past 40 years and were granted asylum by the Cuban dictator.
At the top of the wanted list is Shakur, a former Black Panther and
member of the ultra-militant Black Liberation Army (BLA). Sentenced to
life imprisonment for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper,
Shakur was freed in a daring raid on her women's jail in 1979.
She reached Havana in the mid-1980s and was embraced by Castro as a
victim of American racism and injustice. She became a counter-culture
heroine to a new generation of black radicals when her godson, the late
Tupac Shakur, became a prominent hip-hop singer.
Yet police in New Jersey have kept her file open and in 2005 a $1m
bounty was placed on her head. Castro's illness has electrified state
troopers who have never given up hope that their colleague's murderer
would be returned to an American jail.
"We are not going to forgive or forget," said Sergeant Stephen Jones of
the New Jersey state police last week. "We are not trying to encourage
anyone to harm her, but if she was back on US soil she would certainly
The Shakur case adds an intriguing twist to the tortured history of
US-Cuban relations amid widespread speculation that Castro's death will
lead to a relaxation of travel and business restrictions between
Washington and Havana.
The $1m reward for Shakur's return appears likely to encourage bounty
hunters to attempt to snatch the 59-year-old radical as soon as
political conditions permit. New Jersey police hope that enterprising
Cubans may also be tempted to bundle her onto a fast boat to Miami.
"If some independent, freethinking Cuban could arrange for her to take a
boat ride to international waters, we would not be averse to it," said
Lieutenant Kevin Tormey, who was in charge of the Chesimard/Shakur file
for 17 years.
Any attempt to snatch her would be certain to provoke political uproar
among radical African-Americans, who have made repeated efforts in
recent years to portray Shakur as a black revolutionary heroine who fell
foul of racist police.
Shakur was arrested after a shoot-out when she and two well-armed BLA
companions were stopped on the New Jersey turnpike by a pair of state
troopers who noticed that their car had a broken tail-light.
At the time, the BLA openly advocated the killing of police officers and
the overthrow of the US government. According to evidence at Shakur's
trial, she produced a gun and opened fire after the driver of the car
was frisked. It has never been clear exactly how Trooper Werner Foerster
was killed, but prosecutors alleged that Shakur, who was wounded twice
in an exchange of fire, had crawled over to him as he lay wounded and
shot him in the head with his own gun.
An all-white jury found her guilty of murder, prompting years of black
radical complaints that she had been tried by a "kangaroo court".
Just two years ago, Charles Barron, a New York city council-lor and
former Black Panther, introduced a council resolution calling for
clemency for Shakur, despite her escape from jail with the help of four
armed friends who took two prison guards hostage.
Last December New York newspapers revealed that a local university had
named a student centre after Shakur. Police unions were outraged and
officials ordered the centre to be renamed.
Castro, 80, has described the case against Shakur as "an infamous lie".
For years she was able to live openly in Havana, and she even listed her
number in the phone book when she changed her name from Chesimard to Shakur.
Yet she was obliged to drop out of sight under increased Cuban security
after the announcement of the bounty two years ago. A visiting US
official reportedly stuck a new wanted poster on the fence outside her
house to let her know she had not been forgotten by the American
Shakur is believed to have become a grandmother, but her present marital
status is unknown. In any event, Jones and his fellow New Jersey
troopers remain determined to avenge their fallen colleague.
"She was involved in the murder of one of our troops," he said.
"The case will remain open until she is brought back or proven to be