Joanne Chesimard, who killed a New Jersey cop 40 years ago today, then escaped prison and fled to Cuba, has been labeled a terrorist and had a $2 million bounty put on her by the FBI, authorities said Thursday.
Chesimard was serving a life term for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 when she escaped prison. After hiding out in a New Jersey safe house for several years, Chesimard managed to flee in 1979 to Cuba, where she has been living for decades under the name Assata Shakur.
"Joanne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist," Aaron T. Ford, special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark division, said at a press conference Thursday. "She absolutely is a threat to America."
Chesimard, a member of the radical Black Liberation Army, shot and killed New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster execution-style on May 2, 1973, after she and two others were pulled over for a routine traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, about an hour south of New York City.
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 York.
After being 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 trooper James Harper. 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 5 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.
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 safe house in East Orange, N.J., where she hid for five years. In 1984 she surfaced in Cuba, where she was granted political asylum.
On the 40th anniversary of Foerster's killing, the FBI announced that Chesimard has been placed on the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorist List." She is the first female to be placed on the list.
"She was a leader, activist and a soldier in the movement," Ford said of Chesimard's involvement in the Black Liberation Army, adding that authorities believe she has made connections over the years with other terrorist networks.
Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, who spoke alongside Ford, said Chesimard continues to live safely in Cuba, where she "flaunts her freedom in the face of this horrific crime."
"To this day, from her safe haven in Cuba, she been given the pulpit to preach and profess," Fuentes said. "She has been used by the Castro regime to greet foreign delegations visiting Cuba."
Jeffrey S. Chiesa, New Jersey's Attorney General, announced that the reward for Chesimard's capture has been doubled to $2 million.
"Justice has no expiration date ... This killer continues to be free," Chiesa said, adding that the FBI remains committed to bringing Chesimard back to the U.S.
Anyone with information that helps authorities capture Chesimard is urged to notify authorities at 1-800-CALL-FBI.