Bounty Doubled on Escaped Convict Whose Trial Was Held in New Brunswick 35 Years Ago

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On the 40th anniversary of a gunfight that killed a New Jersey State Trooper in East Brunswick, the FBI announced that the woman convicted in the case is now the first woman to be placed on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist List.

Authorities also announced that the bounty for information leading to Assata Shakur's capture has been doubled to $2 million, the highest bounty on any individual in New Jersey's history.

Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard, was accused of shooting and killing Trooper Werner Foerster after a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, near the border of East Brunswick and New Brunswick.

Her high-profile 1977 trial took place in the Middlesex County Courthouse in downtown New Brunswick.  Shakur was a member of the Black Liberation Army, a group noted for shooting police officers, and suspected of planting bombs in locations where police gathered.

Shakur was arrested at the nearby Joyce Kilmer Rest Area, and, as she was badly hurt and her arms were bloodied, she was arrainged and interrogated at Middlesex General Hospital, which was later re-named Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

After a contentious court case where jury members came from Morris County due to trouble finding "impartial" jury members in Middlesex County, Shakur was found guilty of eight charges, six counts of assault and two counts of murder, by an all-white jury.

According to the fifteen jury members, five of whom were personally connected to state troopers, Shakur was guilty of first and second degree murder, assaulting an on-duty police officer, assault with intent to kill, assault with a deadly weapon, atrocious assault and battery, illegal possession of a weapon, and armed robbery.

Shakur's supporters argue that the conviction was based on flimsy evidence.  The debate about Shakur's case only grew after she was broken out of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in 1979.

Shakur had been sentenced to a mandatory life term for the killing of Foerster, plus 26 to 33 years for the non-murder charges, to be served in state prisons.

Also, Shakur was also required to spend 30 days in the Middlesex County Workhouse for contempt of court, because she had refused to rise for the judge when he entered the courtroom during her trial.

Shakur was bounced around from prison to prison over the next few years, eventually ending up at the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County. 

Three Black Liberation Army members, including Shakur's brother, managed to break her out of that prison in late 1979.

The resulting manhunt turned into a competition between the FBI and Shakur's supporters, with the FBI posting wanted posters and supporters proclaiming that Shakur was welcome in their homes.

Residents in the neighborhoods where Shakur's friends and family lived typically refused to cooperate with police.

Shakur made it to Cuba by 1984 and subsequently wrote a few books, including an autobiography.

The controversy over Shakur is both deep-seated and long-lasting, with points of contention revolving around police brutality accusations, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI's widespread spying, the soundness of the evidence against Shakur, Shakur's jailbreak, racial profiling, terrorism, and the idea of police as authority figures.

Among Shakur's most vocal opponents are law enforcement officers and organiztions, as well as American and New Jersey government figures.  In 1973, Middlesex County residents were mostly opposed to Shakur: 83% knew who she was, and 70% thought her to be guilty.

Werner FoersterThe shootout that involved Assata Shakur is a classic gunfight, that is still a part of New Jersey State Police academy classes.  The shootout and subsequent investigation are taught to recruits on a regular basis, according to Colonel Rick Fuentes, who currently leads the State Police.

The intended lesson for recruits is that "there is no such thing as a routine motor vehicle stop." 

Shakur's group included three members of the Black Liberation Army.  They were traveling southbound on the NJ Turnpike at 12:45 a.m. on the morning of May 2, 1973, when their white two-door Pontiac LeMans was pulled over by State Trooper James Harper.

Trooper Werner Foerster arrived to back up Harper.

The group had just passed what was then NJ Turnpike Authority headquarters and the main post of State Police Troop D.

The traffic stop was executed, according to police, because the car had a broken taillight and was slightly speeding.  James Harper ordered the driver, Zayd Shakur, out of the vehicle, after finding inconsistencies in his driver identification.

It was at this point that the testimonies of the four surviving witnesses to the crime, three of whom were participants and one of whom drove by and only briefly saw what went on, diverge.

The only undisputed facts related to the ensuing gunfight are: Werner Foerster was shot twice with his own gun, in the head, and killed; Zayd Shakur was also killed, Trooper Harper was wounded, and so was Assata Shakur.

According to the initial police account, at least one Black Liberation Army member shot at police with a semiautomatic weapon, and Trooper Foerster let off four shots of his own before being shot dead.

At the trials of Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, James Harper said that the fighting started promptly upon Foerster's arrival.

In a version of the story, which Harper later retracted, Foerster reached into the white Pontiac LeMans and took out a semiautomatic pistol and ammunition magazine.  According to Harper's official police reports, Foerster had been looking for the vehicle registration.

Foerster looked at Harper, who was behind the car with Zayd Shakur, and announced, "Jim, look what I found!"

He then promptly ordered Acoli and Assata to put their hands on their laps and not to move.

Shakur, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, reached down to the red pocketbook sitting on the floor on her right, and pulled out a gun, and then shot Harper in the shoulder, whereupon Harper ducked behind his own police car.

Shakur, according to Harper, then got out of the Pontiac and crouched, and she and Harper exchanged gunfire.

Harper said, under questioning, that he saw Foerster getting shot by Acoli just as Harper was shooting Assata Shakur. Acoli then shot Foerster in the head with a semiautomatic and used Foerster's own gun to finish him off.

Police investigators noted that two jammed semi-automatic pistols were found near Foerster's body.

However, cross-examination led Harper to admit that he had lied in the reports that told this story.

Harper said that he had lied about Foerster shouting and showing him an ammunition magazine, about seeing Shakur holding a gun or pocketbook inside the car, and about seeing Shakur shooting at him from the car.

His new version of events?  He had now never seen Shakur with a gun in possession, and Shakur now hadn't shot him.

Acoli then drove to the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, with three police cars trailing him, with Shakur and her mortally wounded brother aboard.  Acoli left the car, and ran into the woods, as an officer emptied his gun in a futile effort to stop him.

Police later arrested Acoli after a 36-hour manhunt.

Zayd Shakur was mortally wounded under unclear circumstances, and he was later found dead in a ditch along the Turnpike.

State Trooper Robert Palentchar, who had emptied the gun in the wild chase after Acoli, later said that Assata Shakur approached him from fifty feet away, her arms all bloody and raised in a surrender pose.

The raising of her arms is significant, as Shakur testified that she had been paralyzed in the arms during the gunfight and thus couldn't have shot Foerster.

Police asserted that Shakur was en route to a new hideaway in Philadelphia, and, eventually, to Washington, DC.

Opponents of Shakur tend to call her by her old married name, Joanne Chesimard. They consider her to be a revolutionary, much like her supporters, but they also often consider her a terrorist, a cop killer, and anti-American.

One opponent, Col. Fuentes, said Shakur's escape to Cuba gave her, "pulpit to preach and profess, stirring supporters and groups to mobilize against the United States by any means necessary."

The FBI asserts that Shakur is a "supreme terror" to the country.

The New Jersey State Attorney, Jeffrey Chiesa, said, "We want her to come back and face justice and serve out her sentence."  

Supporters of Shakur often consider her to be a revolutionary and an activist, who was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI in an unpopular counter-intelligence program called COINTELPRO.

The program was uncovered in the 1970s by a Congressional commission.

According to Assata Shakur's former lawyer, Rutgers-Livingston Campus professor Lennox Hinds, the FBI had wanted to prevent the rise of a "black messiah", someone who would start a "Mau Mau uprising", and so the FBI used a mix of legal and illegal methods to do so.

Targets included the Black Liberation Army, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panthers, and other African American activists. 

Shakur's supporters, not surprisingly, include many African-American celebrities and activists.

Shakur's side of the story asserts that Trooper Harper asked her and Sundiata Acoli to raise their hands and hold them up, not put them on their laps, and that Harper then shot at her twice, the second shot smacking into her back as she turned to avoid the shots.

Shakur then fell to the ground and lay there while the shooting went on, crawling into the back seat of the two door Pontiac LeMans after it was over, and being driven down five miles on the Turnpike. The police dragged her out of the car on the side of the road, rather than at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area. 

According to Shakur, she had been going to Baltimore to get a job as a waitress at a bar, not to Philly for a hideout. 

An eyewitness who testified in the case said he had been traveling northbound on the Turnpike, on the other side of the highway from the gunfight. He said that he saw a black man and a State Trooper struggling with each other between the Le Mans and one of the police cars.

The prosecution didn't need to prove that Shakur had fired the shots that killed Zayd Shakur or Warner Foerster.

Under New Jersey state law, if one was an accomplice to a murder, one got the same life sentence as a murderer. The jury, meanwhile, had to consider each charge separately, and they took 24 hours to debate the eight charges before returning the guilty verdicts.

Shakur and a defense lawyer considered the verdict, rendered by an all-white jury to be racist, and the prosecutor disagreed, saying that the verdict was based "completely on the facts".

The New Jersey state government and various police agencies have never given up on the idea of bringing Assata Shakur to justice.  NJ State Police superintendent Carl Williams asked Pope John Paul II to ask Fidel Castro about the idea of extraditing Shakur when he visited Cuba in 1998.

That same year, former NJ Governor Christie Whitman asked former US Attorney General Janet Reno to make every effort to get Shakur back to the United States.

Whitman lobbied Congress in that year, along with NJ Congressman Bob Franks, to push through a non-binding resolution through Congress asking Cuba to return Shakur.

Some congresspeople were uncomfortable with the resolution, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but had inadvertently voted for it anyway. The resolution had been fast-tracked using procedures intended for non-controversial motions.

The FBI first formally classified Shakur as a domestic terrorist on May 2, 2005, raising her bounty to $1 million.

Shakur is now one of the FBI's "most wanted terrorists," effective as of May 2 of this year, the same day authorities announced the bounty would double.

Reporter at New Brunswick Today

Richard researched transportation, land use, history, and other topics. Investigated site plans. Attended public meetings (planning board, zoning board, parking authority board of directors, City Council) to record and help determine what was discussed. Analyzed blueprints and site plans to determine what land uses sites would be put to. Photographed sites that would be affected by proposed projects, as well as sites involved in news events. Employed Sketchup CAD to visualize new land uses, such as buildings and structures. Critiqued and wrote articles in fast-paced work environment, writing before deadlines. Made judgments as to what constituted proper material to include in articles. Created a zoning map; am working on ways to show it to the public. Consulted vintage maps to determine historic land uses.