By Mike Kelly, Record Columnist -The Record [Bergen County, NJ]
Years before Joanne Chesimard was placed on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists and the bounty for her capture was increased to $2 million, federal authorities secretly reached out to their Cuban counterparts with a plan to bring the convicted cop killer back to New Jersey.
It was the fall of 1998. The FBI drew up a proposal to trade five captured Cuban spies for Chesimard, who had been convicted two decades earlier of killing a New Jersey state trooper in a turnpike gunfight but had broken out of jail and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum.
Cuban authorities refused to discuss the proposed deal.
Three of those spies were sent back to Cuba in December in exchange for American contractor Alan Gross and a CIA operative. The two others had returned earlier after serving their U.S. prison terms.
The proposed 1998 trade, which has never been publicly acknowledged by either the United States or Cuba, was described in detail in two recent interviews with The Record by one of its originators, former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Why the plan failed may offer insight about the obstacles facing the state police, the FBI and a host of political figures as they renew efforts to bring back Chesimard. The story also illustrates the legacy of suspicion that permeates U.S.-Cuban relations.
In New Jersey, however, the renewed discussion of Chesimard’s fugitive status has reopened old wounds that date to an unsettling time in America — a time that was punctuated by a horrific confrontation on the New Jersey Turnpike between state troopers and members of the Black Liberation Army who were calling for an armed revolution.
Just before midnight on May 2, 1973, Chesimard, then 25, was traveling south with two male compatriots when two troopers stopped their car. Within minutes a wild gunbattle broke out, leaving Trooper Werner Foerster dead and his partner wounded.
Chesimard, who also was wounded, was later caught, charged with murder and sentenced to a life term. But in 1979, she escaped from the state women’s prison in Clinton and disappeared, only to turn up five years later in Cuba.
Chesimard, 67, and reportedly living in the Havana area under the name Assata Shakur, is regarded as a criminal by U.S. authorities. Cuba has never shown any inclination to rescind her political asylum, which was granted by Fidel Castro in the mid-1980s.
In the fall of 1998, however, Freeh thought he saw an opening for U.S. authorities to get their hands on Chesimard.
Feature continues here: Chesimard deal