Wednesday, October 08, 2008
By Michelle Maskaly
This is a weekly series that profiles America's most wanted criminals.
To a few die-hard militants, Joanne Deborah Chesimard — aka Assata
Shakur — is a courageous victim of a vast government conspiracy, a
modern-day Harriet Tubman fighting for the rights of African-Americans.
But to American law enforcement, the 61-year-old New York City native is
a cowardly, dangerous, cold-blooded cop killer who has been living
openly and defiantly for nearly a quarter of a century in Cuba.
Chesimard, a member of the radical Black Liberation Army, has a
prominent place on the FBI's Most Wanted list for the May 2, 1973,
murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.
But unlike most of the criminals on the FBI's list, authorities know
exactly where she is — a point that has frustrated law enforcement for
more than three decades.
"Ultimately, Cuba doesn't honor the extradition that has been in place
since 1940," said Lt. Kevin Tormey, chief detective on the Chesimard
case for the New Jersey State Police and a member of the FBI's Joint
Terrorism Task Force in Newark, N.J. "When Castro's administration came
to power, they no longer honored it."
Chesimard, who is the godmother of slain hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur,
has been heralded as a hero among some in the hip-hop community and
political activist groups.
On her Web site, www.assatashakur.org, Chesimard claims she is innocent.
"I have been a political activist most of my life, and although the U.S.
government has done everything in its power to criminalize me, I am not
a criminal, nor have I ever been one," she says.
But authorities see things differently, and point to Foerster, the New
Jersey state trooper who went to work on May 2, 1973, and never came
home to his wife and kids.
Foerster and fellow trooper James Harper pulled Chesimard and two others
over for a routine traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike about an hour
south of New York City, unaware that the three were carrying
semi-automatic handguns and fake identification.
Chesimard, 26 at the time, was already known by the FBI for her
involvement in the Black Panther movement. She had changed her name to
Shakur and was now a leader of the Black Liberation Army — one of the
most violent militant black organizations of the 1970s. She was wanted
in connection with a string of felonies, including bank robberies in New
Pulled over by the troopers, Chesimard, who was in the passenger seat,
pulled out her semi-automatic pistol and fired the first shot. The
passenger in the rear seat, James Coston, then fired multiple shots
before he was killed by a bullet from Harper's gun. As Harper sought
cover, Chesimard stepped out of the car and continuously fired at both
him and Foerster, who was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Clark
Squire, the driver.
Foerster was shot in the abdomen and right arm. According to police
accounts, Chesimard picked up Foerster's gun and put two bullets in his
head, execution style, as he lay along the side of the turnpike.
Authorities say her jammed handgun was found next to Foerster's body.
Chesimard, Coston and Squire fled and abandoned their car five miles
down the road. It didn't take long for police to locate the car and
Coston, who was found dead near the vehicle. A half hour after the
shooting, state police arrested Chesimard. Squire was arrested a mile
from the car about 40 hours after the incident.
Chesimard denied that she shot at anyone and claimed that the militant
and cop-killer labels made her a target. But four years later, she was
convicted of first-degree murder, assault and battery of a police
officer, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault with intent to kill,
illegal possession of a weapon and armed robbery.
Her supporters, however, believed she was framed. She received letters
of support while awaiting trial and even released a radio address to her
In a 1997 documentary about her, Chesimard painted herself has a
political prisoner who was beaten in jail and treated like a slave while
in the U.S., even comparing herself to Harriet Tubman, the runaway
American slave who helped deliver dozens from bondage along the
On Nov. 2, 1979, Chesimard escaped from prison in New Jersey. Police
believe a group of black and white domestic terrorists approached
Chesimard while at a maximum security prison in West Virginia, but
waited until she was transferred to a minimum security prison in New
Jersey before plotting the escape.
Three members of the group who were visiting Chesimard ordered a
corrections officer at gunpoint to open three gates that eventually led
out of the prison. They escaped in a jail van.
Police say Chesimard was taken to a safehouse in East Orange, N.J.,
where she hid for five years. In 1984 she surfaced in Cuba, where she
was granted political asylum.
Over the years, her legend has grown as her supporters continue to
proclaim her innocence. Curious college students travel to Cuba to meet
with her, family members send her goods, and she is paraded about during
political events there. She reportedly has been pursuing a master's
degree and living in a government-paid apartment in Havana.
All the while, U.S. authorities have been trying to bring her back to
serve out her life sentence.
"We've tried everything you can think of," Tormey told FOXNews.com.
"It's frustrating. Our goal isn't to combat that front [the Web sites
and reports that claim she is innocent] as much as having her in a U.S.
Jacuma Kambui, one of her supporters, told FOXNews.com in a telephone
interview, "I describe her as a mother, grandmother, auntie, sister,
daughter, a regular person that became the victim of a wicked system."
Kambui, who refers to Chesimard as Shakur, described himself as one of
6,700 members of The Talking Draw Correctives — an organization of Web
sites that try to promote the will of the African people.
"There are a lot of people convicted of crimes they never committed,"
Kambui said. "One of the reasons [I continue to support] Assata is
because she resisted the system and put herself in harm's way."
But the FBI, which has placed a $1 million bounty on Chesimard's head,
says she is a convicted cop killer and remains a threat to others. She
is considered to be armed and dangerous.
And despite what's known about her whereabouts, authorities say they
won't stop working to capture her.
"We will talk to anyone, anytime, anyplace," Tormey said.