As he now begins a 21-year sentence for selling heroin, onetime Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member Robert Vickers remains a prime suspect in the assassination of two New York City police officers more than four decades ago.
The drug case brought by the Albany County district attorney in upstate New York involved two informants equipped with hidden miniature video cameras, and investigators had hoped Vickers would also incriminate himself about the murder of Police Officer Rocco Laurie and Police Officer Gregory Foster on the Lower East Side in 1972.
But Vickers correctly suspected that the first informant was trying to get him to say things that were better for him to leave unsaid. He seems to have been equally circumspect with the second informant, though apparently less out of suspicion than because of a long-held personal rule.
“I don’t talk about certain things that I done did because it’s open, you know what I mean?” he was recorded telling the second informant. “There’s no statute of limitations on certain things and I don’t talk, I don’t say nothing to nobody, not even my closest friends.”
Vickers did speak freely and in considerable detail to both informants about an April 1971 shootout with the police for which he had been tried and found not guilty.
“How I got acquitted, I don’t know what was in the jury’s mind,” he told the first of the two informants who visited him in his home near Albany.
In describing the shootout, Vickers said he and two members of “my crew”—Harold Russell and Anthony White—had just left a Black Panther office in Harlem. They had been wearing long black leather coats and had not escaped the notice of two cops in a radio car.
“What did Bob Dylan call it? We looked shadier than a lady with a moustache,” Vickers told the first informant.
Vickers said he and his comrades became worried when the cops ordered them into a narrow tenement hallway rather than just stopping and frisking them in the street. White began to tussle with the cops, and shooting erupted.
One of the cops, Officer Anthony Plate, was shot in the face.
“Knocked his eye out,” Vickers recalled to the second informant.
The other cop, Sgt. Howard Steward, was shot in the leg. White was shot four times in the chest, Russell once in the left buttock. Vickers was hit twice in the upper body. He remembered that the hallway was choked with gun smoke as he stepped into the street.
“Oh God, it was terrible. I would never, ever want to go through that again,” Vickers told the second informant. “I had cotton in my mouth. I was scared, but it was too late to be scared. I was in another world. It was robot-like, robotic. I can’t describe the world I was in. I could never describe it. I think about that sometimes.”
Vickers recounted seeing figures approaching.
“I saw the police coming, backup,” he recalled.
He resisted an urge to flee. He decided to charge straight at the oncoming cops instead.
“I said, ‘I’ll take the fight to them,’” he recalled.
He sounded still stunned as he recounted what happened next.
“When I went to go toward them, they went right by me,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Oh shit.’”
He continued on to the corner and stopped a taxicab.
“I got in, pulled a gun on him,” Vickers remembered. “I said, ‘Drive!’”
The cabbie did as instructed until Vickers told him to pull over. Vickers slipped through an alleyway and caught another taxi.
“I paid for it,” he reported.
He had this cab drop him by a phone booth.
“I made a call,” he remembered. “They told me to go to Fordham University.”
He said that two co-eds hid him in a women’s dorm for two days. A comrade then picked him up and drove him to a safe house in the Bronx.
“I was hit real bad, I was shot,” he told the first informant.
He reported that his comrades snuck him into the same hospital where the two shot cops had been taken. Both cops had survived, including the one who had been hit in the face. White had also survived, despite the four wounds to his chest. Russell had succumbed to the single wound to the buttock, the bullet having ricocheted off a bone and torn into his spleen.
“When your time’s up, your time’s up,” Vickers told the first informant.
Vickers got X-rays but still had a bullet in him when he was spirited out of the hospital, avoiding a shootout that no doubt would have erupted had the police discovered him.
“We had machineguns, grenades,” Vickers recalled. “We said, ‘Lord, it’s a good thing they never noticed us because there would have been all hell in that hospital.’”
Vickers found refuge at another safe house. The police bullet still in him constituted a threat not just to his health but also to his freedom, as evidence that he had been in the shootout.
“Joanne Chesimard, she worked on taking it out,” Vickers reported to the first informant.
Vickers’s account shifted to the name Chesimard adopted as she became known as the soul of the Black Liberation Army.
“Assata Shakur, she took the bullet out,” Vickers said.
Vickers recalled convalescing for a time in New Jersey and continuing on to Philadelphia.
“Then I was ready,” Vickers told the first informant. “We started some more shit.”
Police believe that this included the assassination of Foster and Laurie, who had served together with the Marines in Vietnam only to be gunned down in the streets of New York. A duffel bag was found at the murder scene containing a number of items, one a bomb-making manual.
“When those cops got killed down in the Village, my fingerprints showed up on some stuff that was laid behind on a couple of books,” Vickers told the second informant. “My fingerprints show up on a couple of books, but they couldn’t get me on nothing.”
A month later, Vickers was arrested for the non-fatal shooting of a cop in Newark, New Jersey. The fingerprints from the scene of the double assassination in New York proved only that he had handled the bomb-making manual at some time, and he was not charged. He was indicted for the earlier shootout in Harlem in which two cops were wounded, but a mistrial was followed by the acquittal that made even Vickers wonder about the jurors.
Vickers’s luck ended when he was convicted of the Newark shooting. He was sentenced to 10 years.
“I did my time,” Vickers said.
Meanwhile, Assata Shakur was convicted of the 1973 killing of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. She escaped from prison in 1979 and was on the run for five years before she managed to reach Cuba. The Cuban government granted her asylum in 1984.
By then, Vickers had finished his term and moved to upstate New York. He began using drugs and then started selling them.
The police had not forgotten their assassinated brothers and sent two informants his way in succession with the hope of making a murder case as well as a drug case against Vickers. Both informants brought along books about the era when the BLA declared war on cops. Vickers reminisced as the investigators hoped, but he stopped short of incriminating himself in any killings. The investigators had to settle for six counts of selling heroin.
At the trial late last year, the evidence included recordings in which Vickers advised an informant on the best way to kill, as well as how to make bombs and silencers.
“You can take a potato, a nice Idaho potato, and just stick it on there and that makes a good silencer,” Vickers suggested.
The prosecution also played the recording in which Vickers asked what that long-ago jury had been thinking when it acquitted him. The present jury made clear what it was thinking by repeating the same word six times.
“Guilty... Guilty… Guilty… Guilty... Guilty… Guilty.”
At the sentencing, the prosecutor reminded the judge of something Vickers had said in the recordings.
“It’s easy to kill someone,” Vickers had said. “The hard part is getting away with it.”
One person who continues to get away with it is Shakur. The so-called normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States cannot rightly be called anything close to normal as long as she continues to enjoy Cuban refuge from American justice.