Assata Shakur After Her Capture on May 2, 1973 in New Jersey
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File
Monday, March 3, 2008
With the Assistance of the Pan-African News Wire
Convicted Black Panther Party veteran Assata Shakur may enjoy political sanctuary in Cuba, but for years she has been secretly monitored by a web of New Jersey State Police contacts that includes Cuban citizens.
The disclosure by state police investigators of their clandestine tracking of Assata comes as Fidel Castro recently turned over control of the Communist government to his brother, Raul.
In the wake of the Cuban power shift, state and federal authorities hope to extradite Assata Shakur and about 70 U.S. fugitives granted asylum in Cuba.
For New Jersey security elite, the big prize is Assata, a member of the militant Black Liberation Army. She was caught after a 1973 turnpike shootout that killed one state trooper and wounded another -- and left her wounded, too.
Chesimard, who changed her name to Assata Shakur, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Trooper Werner Foerster. With the help of fellow militants, she broke out of a New Jersey women's prison in 1979 and turned up four years later in Cuba -- celebrated as a revolutionary heroine by Fidel Castro.
In 2005, New Jersey authorities increased the bounty for her capture to $1 million.
"We are not going away," said state police Lt. Kevin Tormey, the chief detective on the Chesimard case since 1989.
State police officials have made no secret of their three-decade desire to catch Assata, now 60 and allegedly
living in the Havana area. But this is the first time officials have publicly agreed to describe how they have spied on New Jersey's most notorious, yet elusive, fugitive.
Tormey and others stress that their monitoring of Assata Shakur does not include covert U.S. agents or undercover state troopers on the ground in Cuba. But their system of contacts nevertheless offers a window into the murky world of tracking international fugitives and underscores the tenacity by the state police to bring Assata to New Jersey for incarceration and persecution.
State police say that for a brief time in the mid-1990s, they considered going beyond just monitoring Assata and arranging to kidnap her in Cuba or lure her to another country where she could be arrested and returned to New Jersey.
"We explored that but we never moved forward," Tormey said.
For Tormey, 45, and his 37-year-old assistant, state police Detective Michael Rinaldi, a graduate of Bergen Catholic High School, the Chesimard case has become a high-tech collection of information – including monitoring YouTube, where videos about her have been posted. At the same time, it's an old-fashioned police case that involves legwork and personal conversations with sources.
In his 19 years on the case, Tormey has traveled to almost a dozen nations to interview people who met Assata in Cuba or knew about her. He and Rinaldi also work on the Chesimard case with agents from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Newark.
In an interview at his office in the intelligence division of state police headquarters in West Trenton, Tormey said some of the most reliable information on Assata Shakur comes from Cubans who are potentially risking their lives by cooperating with American law enforcement.
The system of passing the information back to New Jersey is complicated, though.
Even though the U.S. government restricts travel to Cuba, phone conversations and e-mails are not as limited. Nonetheless, Tormey said, most Cuban informants fear calling him directly to talk about Assata.
"A lot of them don't want to talk over open lines," Tormey said.
One method, he said, is to pass morsels of information to relatives in America, who then relay it to the state police. Another is to pass information to foreign diplomats who then give it to U.S. contacts -- and then to state police.
Back in West Trenton, Tormey and Rinaldi then try to connect the dot-like snippets on Assata -- her comings and goings and observations on her health. Some is rumor; some is fact.
What results is a pointillist-like portrait -- with notable holes.
Detectives know, for example, that Cuban authorities are keeping a close eye on Assata now, especially since the reward for her capture was increased to $1 million. But detectives don't know whether she is under some sort of house arrest or has to ask authorities before she can go anywhere.
"She doesn't seem to have the same freedom on the island she once had," Tormey said.
Before 2005, Assata Shakur was seen strolling through Havana or driving a Volkswagen. Her phone number was even listed in a Havana telephone directory -- under the name Assata Shakur.
Chesimard also reportedly worked as a translator for a radio station. In some cases, she courted attention from the media–notably an interview on a New York television station.
But Tormey said she has not been seen in public as much in recent years. After the $1 million bounty was announced, Fidel Castro renewed his support for Assata and publicly accused the United States of portraying her "as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie."
One of the more tantalizing contacts, Tormey said, involved a secret operative in Cuba who was working with U.S. authorities to spy on Robert Vesco, a Boonton Township embezzler who fled America in 1970s after contributing to President Richard Nixon's reelection in the hope of shutting down a federal investigation of his finances.
After living in Costa Rica and the Bahamas, Vesco was granted "humanitarian refuge" in Cuba in 1982 and reportedly placed under the personal protection of Fidel Castro -- a status Assata received, too.
By the mid-1990s, Vesco fell out of favor with Cuban authorities and was eventually jailed in a fraudulent scheme to make an alleged miracle drug for such ailments as cancer and arthritis.
With Vesco in prison, the undercover Cuban operative working with U.S. federal agents contacted the state police about Assata.
"We started talking to this guy," said Tormey, who declined to say whether the operative was a Cuban citizen -- or where he is now.
But plans never went beyond the talking phase.
Tormey said he hopes Raul Castro will revoke Chesimard's protected status and send her back to New Jersey. But he has no illusions that will happen anytime soon.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride," he says. "But there is still a hole in the state police. We want to bring her in."
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Mike Kelly's blog at northjersey.com/freshjersey.