N.J. cop killer Chesimard living as a ‘ghost’ in Havana
Kelly: N.J. cop killer Chesimard living as a ‘ghost’ in Havana
LAST UPDATED: SUNDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2015, 7:22 AM
BY MIKE KELLY
HAVANA — More than three decades after she broke out of a New Jersey
prison and fled to Cuba with a promise of political asylum from Fidel
Castro, Joanne Chesimard finds herself ensnared in a captivity of an
altogether different sort.
Hers is not a prison with walls or guards. Friends here in Cuba’s
capital, where Chesimard, 68, has lived since the 1980s, portray her as
a hostage to her own growing fear — some say her omnipresent paranoia —
that the renewed diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States will
lead to her return to a New Jersey prison cell to finish serving a life
sentence for murdering a state trooper in 1973.
Related: Suspected bomber Morales keeps a low profile in Cuba
A few associates even suggested that Chesimard, who goes by the name
Assata Shakur even as the FBI refers to her by her birth name, also
worries that she might be kidnapped by ordinary Cubans seeking the $2
million bounty for her capture.
Such is the portrait of one of America’s most notorious and mysterious
radicals — a key figure in the militant Black Liberation Army — who
emerged in recent interviews with associates in Havana, where she has
led an increasingly furtive, cloistered existence in recent years. One
acquaintance likened her to a ghost, noting her knack for abruptly
disappearing from any setting that made her nervous.
“In terms of what she’s doing, who she sees — I have no idea,” said
Cheri Laverne Dalton, a fellow Havana-based fugitive from American
justice who has been linked to Chesimard’s prison escape. “Two million
dollars will make you private.”
Chesimard, who remains a revolutionary icon to many in America’s
ultra-left and among some black activists and hip-hop artists, is the
only woman on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists. In the past
year, she also has emerged as a nettlesome political issue for the Obama
administration, which sees improved ties with Cuba as a significant
foreign policy accomplishment.
Several Republican presidential candidates — including Governor Christie
and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida — along with
New Jersey’s Democratic senior senator, Bob Menendez, have demanded that
Chesimard be returned to prison before the United States even considers
lifting its half-century-old economic embargo against Cuba.
The White House, meanwhile, has declined to say whether Chesimard’s
status — and that of other Cuba-based fugitives such as Guillermo
“Willie” Morales, a Puerto Rican nationalist linked to the 1975 murder
of a Fair Lawn man — will be part of upcoming talks with Cuba on a
variety of economic, political and social issues.
For now, Cuban officials, citing Chesimard’s guarantee of political
asylum from Fidel Castro himself, say that she, Morales and the others
will not be a factor in any negotiations with the United States.
But Chesimard reportedly assumes that any open door between Cuba and the
United States will not be good news for her.
A variety of her friends and acquaintances interviewed in Cuba and in
the United States described Chesimard as intensely secretive now about
her comings and goings in Havana. Only her closest confidants know her
exact address and phone number.
She reportedly fears strangers and has refused numerous media requests —
including The Record’s — to be interviewed and photographed. And when
she leaves her home, those who have come into contact with her say she
wants to know beforehand exactly who she will be meeting and why. One
report said she travels with Cuban government security guards, but that
could not be confirmed.
In a sense, this is Chesimard’s third journey into a hidden life of
rampant suspicion. Her first was as a gun-toting militant with the Black
Liberation Army in the early 1970s. Then she lived as a fugitive in
America’s leftist underground after escaping from the state women’s
prison in Clinton, in Hunterdon County. Now, friends say, she is a
virtual captive of her own fear in Cuba, a country that she may once
have considered a revolutionary haven.
Capture, trial, escape
The renewed interest in Chesimard harks back to a period in the 1970s
when a number of militant groups, including the Weather Underground, the
Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, and the Black
Liberation Army, all supported violent action against the U.S. government.
One of the most violent incidents of that period occurred just after
midnight on May 2, 1973.
Chesimard and two other BLA operatives were stopped by a pair of New
Jersey state troopers in the southbound lanes of the New Jersey
Turnpike, near Exit 9 in East Brunswick. Almost immediately, a gunbattle
broke out. BLA operative James Coston was shot to death, and Chesimard
The troopers at the scene, James Harper and Werner Foerster, were both
wounded. Harper tried to summon help from a nearby state police
barracks. As Foerster lay on the ground, bleeding from gunshot wounds to
his right arm and abdomen, authorities say either Chesimard or another
BLA militant, Clark Squire, grabbed Foerster’s gun and killed him with
two point-blank shots to the head.
Chesimard and Squire were later captured and put on trial, with each
receiving a life sentence for Foerster’s murder. Squire continues to
serve his prison sentence, while Chesimard is considered the most
notorious figure from that period of revolutionary upheaval in America
who is still on the run from law enforcement.
In various statements since the turnpike shooting and in her 1987
autobiography, Chesimard contends she did not play any role in
Foerster’s death and that the first shots were in fact fired without
provocation by the state troopers. Law enforcement authorities, however,
say Chesimard and her BLA companions were armed and fired first.
Her story still resonates among many African-American activists. During
marches last year in Ferguson, Mo., to protest the police shooting of an
unarmed black man, protesters cited Chesimard’s case as an example of
unfair treatment of African-Americans. She also has been the subject of
several songs by hip-hop artists in recent years.
After turning up in Cuba in the early 1980s, Chesimard lived openly for
a time in Havana. But her recent concern about avoiding the clutches of
U.S. law enforcement has caused her to cut back on what had been a
fairly active life during the 1980s and 1990s as a part-time teacher,
seminar leader, author and mentor in Havana’s black community and among
the city’s fledgling hip-hop artists.
For a time, Chesimard was even reportedly listed in the Havana telephone
book, under the name Assata Shakur, as living in a two-story stucco
house on 90th Street in the city’s fashionable Playa section not far
from a cluster of foreign embassies.
The house — surrounded by an 8-foot-high chain-link fence with a green
tarpaulin blocking the views of passers-by — features an elaborate lock
on the main gate and driveway.
On a recent morning, a woman who now lives in the house declined to give
her name when she answered the doorbell. She said Chesimard abruptly
left a decade ago — a move that would have coincided with the FBI’s
announcement that it had set a $1 million bounty for her capture. That
bounty was increased to $2 million in 2013 when the FBI added Chesimard
to its list of most-wanted terrorists.
“She lived here years ago,” the woman said, adding that Chesimard did
not leave a forwarding address.
“I think she wanted to be alone,” the woman added.
A neighbor, who also declined to give her name, said she did not know
why Chesimard left.
“I can’t say anything,” the woman added, quickly turning and heading
back inside her home at the mention of Chesimard’s name.
Chesimard’s U.S. attorney, Lennox Hinds, a professor of criminal justice
at Rutgers University, declined to say whether he knew where she lives
now in Havana. Hinds also declined a request by The Record to arrange an
interview with Chesimard.
“Obviously, there is a manhunt for her,” Hinds said. “There are private
bounty hunters who are out there in addition to the official government
“If I travel to the island, I’m monitored,” he added. “It is a very,
very serious security issue. And it’s a matter of life and death for her.”
Afraid of strangers
That sense of fear extends even to old associates in the Black
Several months ago, Chesimard telephoned Dalton, who fled to Cuba in the
mid-1980s after she was accused of participating in Chesimard’s prison
escape. Dalton also was indicted by federal authorities for allegedly
helping leftist militants, including members of the BLA and the Weather
Underground, steal $1.6 million from a Brinks armored truck at the
Nanuet Mall in Rockland County in October 1981. Two Nyack police
officers were killed along with a Brinks security guard in the gunbattle
that followed the robbery.
Dalton, 65, who goes by the name Nehanda Abiodun, said in a recent
telephone interview in Havana that the call from Chesimard came as
something of a surprise. Dalton said she had not heard from her old
revolutionary colleague in some time.
While she worried about Chesimard’s whereabouts and status, Dalton said
she tried to never ask too many questions about her friend’s living
situation. Dalton said she had come to learn from other contacts that
Chesimard was deeply fearful of being returned to the United States.
In that phone call, Dalton said the two women did not discuss their
lives on the run. Instead, they talked about something far more personal
— and hardly revolutionary.
“She is a grandmother. So am I,” Dalton said. “We talked about our
Dalton said she did not press Chesimard for a phone number or address.
There was an unspoken understanding, she said, that that kind of
information was off-limits in light of Chesimard’s fear of being captured.
The call ended after only a few minutes. Chesimard did not say when she
might call again.
“You know she has $2 million on her head,” Dalton said, adding that
Chesimard “has to be extremely cautious.”
While not as well-known as Chesimard, Dalton nevertheless has a $100,000
bounty for her capture and she is listed as a “domestic terrorist” on
the website of the FBI’s New York field office, which is overseeing her
investigation. In the interview, she also declined to discuss her
alleged role in Chesimard’s escape from the Clinton Correctional
Facility — now the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women — in 1979.
Dalton was first linked to Chesimard’s escape almost a decade later in
testimony during the trial of one of the Brinks robbers.
“Do you think I would answer that question? Be logical,” said Dalton
when asked if she assisted in Chesimard’s escape. “If I did it, I
wouldn’t even tell my mother. If I didn’t do it, I’m proud to have been
accused to be associated with it. She needed to be out of prison.”
The FBI and the New Jersey State Police said last week that they
continue to try to monitor Chesimard’s activities in Havana, but both
declined to say how they do this. Sources at both agencies, however,
confirmed that Chesimard has assumed a much lower profile in the years
after the bounty for her capture was announced and then doubled.
“Joanne Chesimard continues to remain a fugitive wanted by the FBI,”
said Special Agent Celeste Danzi, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Newark
field office, which is leading the Chesimard investigation. “She is a
domestic terrorist. She murdered a law enforcement officer. Until she is
brought to justice to serve her sentence, we will continue to keep her
on the wanted list.”
‘Came and went’
Before the FBI bounty was announced a decade ago, Chesimard occasionally
met with members of Havana’s fledgling hip-hop community.
Cuban hip-hop, which became popular in the mid-1990s, began as something
of a social protest movement by Afro-Cubans against what they saw as a
Soandry Del Rio, a popular Cuban hip-hop artist who was featured in the
documentary “East of Havana,” said he met Chesimard three times, usually
in small groups of other hip-hop artists and Afro-Cuban activists. But
he quickly noticed that she often seemed skittish and fearful of coming
to any meeting in which she was not familiar with everyone who attended.
Sitting recently in a Havana restaurant, Del Rio, 39, described how
Chesimard abruptly left a meeting when she became uncomfortable in the
presence of an American.
“There was this argument between a Cuban and an American,” Del Rio said.
“The Cuban guy told the American guy, ‘Well, you come here all the time.
What are you after?’ During the argument, she just got up and left. They
were not discussing her. But it was just the subject of someone coming
to Cuba repeatedly and whose goal was not clear. So she got paranoid at
That sort of quick exit, said Del Rio, came to be seen by many in the
hip-hop community as part of Chesimard’s personality.
“Assata was like a ghost,” Del Rio said. “She came and went very suddenly.”
Terrence Jennings, a New York-based photographer who specializes in
portraits of hip-hop artists, said he ran into Chesimard on a Havana
street about a decade ago. Jennings approached Chesimard, who was alone.
Using her preferred name, he asked her in English, “Are you Assata Shakur?”
“No,” Chesimard said, responding in Spanish and walking on.
Jennings said he circled the block and approached Chesimard again. This
time, he said, she acknowledged — in English — that she was indeed
Assata Shakur. The two then ducked into a cafe and talked at length,
Jennings said. Chesimard, he said, even addressed the 1973 gunbattle on
the New Jersey Turnpike in which Foerster was shot and killed,
execution style, with his own gun.
“She said she was acting in self-defense,” Jennings said, adding that
“she never mentioned the bounty on her head.”
Today, Chesimard’s closest associates say she does not want to return to
the United States, though she fears she may one day be forced to go back.
Soandry Del Rio, the Cuban hip-hop artist, said he often wondered how
the African-American woman, who braided her shoulder-length hair and who
sometimes talked about racism back home in America, could ever truly
adjust to Cuba.
“She looked like somebody who accepted her own destiny,” Del Rio said.
“But I think that she was not happy here.”
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