This Is the First Woman on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist List
This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List

Trista - February 15, 2017

Born JoAnne Deborah Byron on July 16, 1947, she was the first woman ever to be named a domestic terrorist by the FBI. Americans may recognize her face or known her by her married name, JoAnne Chesimard, but the world would remember her as Assata Shakur.

Her Childhood

Native to Jamaica, Queens, New York, Shakur lived with her parents, her aunt, and grandparents until she was three years old. In 1950, her parents divorced, so she followed her grandparents, Frank and Lulu Hill, to Wilmington, North Carolina. Although African-Americans were forbidden from utilizing the public beaches at the time, Mr. and Mrs. Hill owned property and operated an ocean-side restaurant complete with changing rooms and lockers for the beach-goers; it was an ideal place for tourists.

Naturally, JoAnne equally played at the property. She also enjoyed reading books her grandfather got from the colored-only library.

Elementary School Experience

Mr. and Mrs. Hill felt the racially segregated schools in North Carolina were providing an inferior education to JoAnne. When she was eight years old, she moved back to New York to live with her mother and stepfather.

She went from going to an all-black, southern public school to a nearly all-white, heavily Jewish, middle-class community. In third and fourth grade she was the only African-American student in her school. By fifth grade, there was one other black student. The teachers ignorantly thought she needed special education based on her race.

While in New York, she also attested that history was taught slightly different; it was sugar-coated to undermine the oppression of African-Americans in the South and throughout history in general.

Sadly, she dropped out of high school and ran away from home. JoAnne’s aunt, Evelyn Williams, found her on the streets. Ms. Williams would later become part of her defense group. She took her niece to museums, theaters, and other cultural events; her aunt encouraged her to earn her GED when she turned 16 years old.

Attending College

It was the late 1960s when JoAnne attended Borough of Manhattan Community College with the intent to study business administration; however, she became immersed in the student activities and black studies programs. As the civil rights movements were on the rise, she educated herself by reading about politics, black history, and different ideologies. JoAnne passionately took part in meetings, discussions, protests, and sit-ins.

The Society of the Golden Drums was the first black students’ group she joined while in college. Louis Chesimard also belonged to the organization. The two wed in 1967 but divorced just four years later. JoAnne Chesimard went by a Muslim name, changed her hair style, and dressed to reflect her African heritage. She was determined to fight for the liberation of black people and dedicated her life to it.

She was first arrested in 1967 for trespassing. She and 100 other students from the Borough of Manhattan Community College protested the lack of black faculty and black studies by locking the entrance to one of the buildings.

The Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army

In 1970, at the age of 23, Shakur graduated from City College of New York and joined the Black Panther Party (BPP). She proudly led the Harlem branch and was in charge of organizing a school breakfast program. JoAnne Chesimard was in charge of the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party. She organized a breakfast program.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
JoAnne Chesimard was in charge of the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party. She organized a breakfast program. IBTimes UK.

Despite the positive influence, she left the BPP for a couple of different reasons. She did express some concern with male chauvinism, but mostly criticized the party’s lack of black history education. Shakur felt the BPP lacked a unified philosophy, which made the group ineffective and weak. She joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA). It was more organized, and the members were more informed. However, it was also more radical; they believed they could create change through a revolutionary movement.

Over the next couple years, the BLA would be held responsible for bank robberies and sniper shootings across New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Missouri. For those that tuned into local news, the media outlets were still referring to her as JoAnne Chesimard, and she was painted as the driving force of the organized chaos.

The New Jersey Turnpike Shootout

On May 2, 1973, at 12:45 a.m., Shakur was a passenger to Zayd Mailk Shakur, born James F. Costan. Sundiata Acoli, born Clark Edward Squire, was in the backseat directly behind Shakur when the two-door vehicle was pulled over in East Brunswick on the New Jersey Turnpike. State Trooper James Harper was in the first patrol car and Trooper Werner Foerster drove a backup vehicle. The initial stop was because of a broken tail light and slight excessive speed.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
Trooper Werner Foerster was just 32 years old when he was shot and killed on duty in 1973 during the New Jersey Turnpike shootout. Home News Tribune.

After a discrepancy in receiving identification from the driver, Trooper Harper asked him to step out of the vehicle and questioned him at the rear of the car. The accounts of what happens next differ regarding witness testimony, medical evidence, and other factors. Nevertheless, Trooper Foerster and Zayd Shakur were killed. Trooper Harper and Assata Shakur were both wounded during the shootout. Uninjured, Acoli attempted to escape with the injured Assata Shakur and the dying or already dead Zayd Shakur by fleeing in their white Pontiac.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
The 1965 white Pontiac with Vermont plates that was involved in the New Jersey Turnpike shootout. Stolen license plates, fake IDs and documents, guns, and ammo were all recovered from the vehicle. Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.

A police chase ensued, and the toll booths along the turnpike were notified of the pursuit. Three patrol cars finally halted the young revolutionaries about five miles away. Trooper Robert Palentchar was the first officer on the scene. He unloaded his gun toward Acoli as he chased him into the woods.

Assata Shakur raised her arms in surrender according to Trooper Palentchar, which were apparently bloody from her own wounds. Zayd Shakur’s body was recovered from a gully along the roadside. It took 36 hours and 400 people including state police helicopters and bloodhounds to capture Acoli.

With gunshot wounds in both arms and one of her shoulders, Shakur was transported to Middlesex General Hospital. Likewise, Trooper Harper was shot in the left shoulder.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
JoAnne Chesimard (aka Assata Shakur) was taken in custody at the hospital after the New Jersey Turnpike shootout. Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.

The New York Times reported the very next day that the FBI wanted JoAnne Chesimard on charges related to murdering police officers, bank robberies, and a hand-grenade attack.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
JoAnne Chesimard’s mugshot picture in 1973. Daily Mail

Criminal Charges

The New Jersey shootout would not be the only criminal case Assata Shakur was involved in. In fact, between 1973 and 1977, she was indicted ten times in New York and New Jersey for two bank robberies and eight felonies stemming from the New Jersey shootout.

While three were dismissed altogether without going to trial, seven of the indictments reached criminal proceedings. Of these, Shakur received three acquittals, one hung jury, one change of venue, one mistrial, and one conviction.

As the trial for the New Jersey Turnpike shootout began, Shakur was pregnant, which resulted in a mistrial. Shakur gave birth to a girl in September 1974. Kakuya Amala Olugbala Shkaur was born at Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens, New York. As a criminal, Assata Shakur was returned to Rikers Island a few days later. The baby’s father was Fred Hilton.

The trial for the shootout incident was to be moved because polls at the time revealed the residents in Middlesex, which is where Acoli had already been found guilty three years earlier, showed that over 80 percent knew her identity and 70 percent felt she was guilty already. As a result, the jury was chosen from Morris County. Shakur’s trial proceedings remained in Middlesex under Judge John E. Bachman.

The Trial Finally Takes Place

Three years later, Shakur was retried for the New Jersey Turnpike shootout in 1977 even though Acoli had already been convicted of Trooper Foerster’s murder on the notion that he fired the bullets.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
JoAnne Chesimard is escorted in handcuffs from Rikers Island prison in New York City to Middlesex County jail to await trial in 1976. NY Daily News

Again, Shakur attempted to unsuccessfully move the trial to the federal court on the basis of her Muslim religion. However, her petition was denied. She attempted to withhold trial proceedings on the Muslim Sabbath, which is Friday but this was denied, too. The trial lasted nine weeks; hundreds of civil rights activists gathered at the Middlesex County Courthouse every single day.

Shakur was called as a witness on March 15, 1977. As she was questioned by her own defense team, she denied shooting either trooper. She claimed she did not handle a gun the entire night. Upon cross-examination, she was unable to explain how 16 live shells and three magazines of ammunition fell into her shoulder bag. Although known as JoAnne Chesimard and Assata Shakur, her I.D. card said Justine Henderson the night of the murders.

She testified in detail that Trooper Harper shot her only after she raised her hands in the air to comply with his demand. A second shot then struck her in the back because she turned to avoid it. Shakur claimed she then fell to the road for the remainder of the shootout. After everything was clear, she crawled back into the Pontiac and Acoli drove them about five miles down the turnpike.

Initially, Trooper Harper testified at Acoli’s trial; he claimed that the suspects began firing immediately as soon as the second police car came on the scene, but during Shakur’s trial, Trooper Harper recalled a different story. He said Trooper Foerster found a pistol and magazine clip and forced Acoli and Shakur to put their hands up and not move. Rather than complying, he testified that she pulled out a gun from a pocketbook and shot him in the shoulder. Ultimately, Acoli’s gunned jammed and, after a short struggle, Trooper Foerster was shot with his own gun by Acoli.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
Sundiata Acoli, born Clark Edward Squire, in 1976. S.P. Sullivan

With all of the back and forth, it is hard to keep track of what really happened on that fatal night. Official reports show what Trooper Harper said happened: after the vehicle was stopped, Acoli was ordered to the back of the vehicle. Trooper Foerster arrived on the scene by now and was set to examine Acoli’s driver’s license; statements report that he complied.

At this point, Trooper Harper checking the registration and looking inside the vehicle. Trooper Foerster yelled at Acoli and held up a magazine clip; Assata Shakur simultaneously retrieved a gun from her pocketbook and shot Trooper Harper. He ran for the rear of his car for recovery; Shakur also hit the ground and continued to fire from outside of the Pontiac. Despite having documented statements, Trooper Harper admitted at both Acoli’s and Shakur’s trials that he fabricated on these reports.

Shakur’s legal team provided medical testimony explaining that she was shot in her right arm at the median nerve. A neurologist claimed that she would have been unable to pull the trigger of a gun physically. No gunpowder residue was found on her fingers according to the neutron activation analysis that was administered the same day of the shootout. In fact, Shakur’s fingerprints were not on any of the guns used at the scene of the crime.

The Verdict

JoAnne Chesimard was convicted on March 25, 1977, on eight counts including two murder charges and six assault charges. The state prosecution did not need to prove that she fired the fatal shots or even had a gun at the scene. She was an accomplice of the murders of Trooper Foerster and Zayd Shakur, which carried a life sentence under the New Jersey law.

Not only was she sentenced to life in prison, but she also received 26-33 years on top of that because sometimes life sentences are shortened due to parole. This way, she would be forced to serve a full sentence.

During her time in prison, Assata Shakur was transferred to several different prisons including New Jersey State Reception and Correction Center in Yardville and Rikers Island Correctional Institution for Women in New York City among others. She was subject to cruel and inhumane conditions and was even forced to stay as the only female at an all-male facility.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights determined in 1979 that Shakur’s imprisonment was “totally unbefitting any prisoner.” Upon investigation, they discovered the abuse of her human rights was “one of the worst cases” and she was included in “a class of victims of FBI misconduct through the COINTELPRO strategy and other forms of illegal government conduct who as political activists have been selectively targeted for provocation, false arrests, entrapment, fabrication of evidence, and spurious criminal prosecutions.”

On the other hand, the Amnesty International did not agree that Assata Shakur was a political prisoner.

Assata Shakur escaped prison on November 2, 1979. While at the Clinton Correctional Facility in New Jersey, three visitors, who happened to be members of the BLA held two guards as hostages using concealed pistols. The hijackers took control of a prison van and helped Shakur flee. Mutulu Shakur, her brother, and Silvia Baraldini were charged with helping her escape. Three other people were also convicted for the escape.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
Mutulu Shakur sits with his son Tupac Shakur (right). Mutulu is Assata’s brother and helped her escape from prison. Truthabouttupac.com

A Wanted Fugitive

The FBI issued wanted posters throughout New Jersey and New York, while her supporters displayed ‘Assata Shakur is Welcome Here’ signs.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
A poster created by the New Republic of Afrika in support of Assata Shakur. Tomberg Rare Books.

The National Black Human Rights Coalition organized a demonstration with over 5,000 protestors just three days after her escape in support of Shakur. Although her family and friends, including her daughter, were strictly monitored, Shakur was never caught. For nearly five years, her relatives’ movements and phone calls were all recorded. An extreme group of radicals known as the Weathermen may have assisted Shakur as she hid from the police.

Fleeing to Cuba

In 1984, Shakur quietly snuck out of the United States and beyond its jurisdiction of law. She was granted political asylum in Cuba. Her mother and Aunt Evelyn have visited Shakur in Cuba. In 1987, her daughter moved to Cuba to live with her.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
Assata Shakur with her daughter Kakuya in Cuba. Atlanta Black Star.

The FBI named Shakur the first female domestic terrorist on the 32nd anniversary of the New Jersey Turnpike shootout. A $1 million reward, the largest at the time, was placed on her head. In 2013, the reward doubled as it was the 40th anniversary. She continues to live in Cuba.

This Is the First Woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List
On behalf of the FBI and the New Jersey State Police, the combined reward for the capture and arrest of JoAnne Chesimard is $2 million. FBI / New Jersey State Police.
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