On the Lam
Cuba Protects America’s Most Wanted
Cop-killers, hijackers, and bomb-makers are living in tropical paradise 90 miles from justice. Will they ever be tried for their crimes?
With the prisoner exchange and the normalizing of relations with Cuba arises the question of the dozens of American fugitives enjoying asylum there—including a cop-killer on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List with a $1 million reward offered for her capture.
Assata Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard, escaped from prison in 1979 after being convicted of murdering state trooper Werner Foerster. She had been in a car with two fellow members of the Black Liberation Army when Foerster and another trooper pulled them over on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Shakur was on the run for five years after her prison break before managing to reach Cuba, where she was granted asylum in 1984.
In 1997, the New Jersey State Police wrote to Pope John Paul II asking him to raise the question of Shakur with Fidel Castro on an upcoming visit to Cuba.
Whether the pope did or not, Shakur continued to live undisturbed in Cuba despite a 1998 resolution by the U.S. Congress asking that she be returned. She was joined by her daughter, who was conceived while Shakur was in a New Jersey prison and initially raised by Shakur’s own mother in New York.
Cuba also granted asylum to three black militants who hijacked an airplane from Albuquerque while being sought for the 1972 murder of New Mexico State Trooper Robert Rosenbloom during a traffic stop.
One of the three, Ralph Goodwin, is said to have drowned while swimming at a beach outside Havana. Michael Finney died of cancer. Charlie Hill continues to live in Cuba. Hill told a Washington Post reporter in 1999 that he had no regrets about killing Rosenbloom, who had a wife and two young daughters.
“I have never felt guilty about that cop,” Hill was quoted saying. “I never think about that dude.”
For her part, Shakur denied actually firing the bullets that killed trooper Foerster, who was murdered with his own gun. The FBI continued to consider her so dangerous that it offered the $1 million reward in 2005 and put her on the Most Wanted Terrorists List last year.
Among the roughly 80 other American fugitives in Cuba is Ishmael Ali LaBeef, who hijacked an airplane after he and four buddies murdered eight innocents during a robbery at a Virgin Islands golf course in 1972.
There is also Victor Gerena, who is wanted in connection with a $7 million armored car robbery in Connecticut in 1983.
And then there is William Morales of the Puerto Rican independence group the FALN. He lost most of both hands while assembling a device in an FALN bomb factory in 1979, but managed to escape from a hospital ward where he was being fitted for prosthetic hands after being convicted of weapons charges and sentenced to 99 years.
Morales made his way to Mexico, where an effort to capture him led to a shootout, which ended with a local cop being killed. He served five years in a Mexican prison but then was allowed to board a plane for Havana despite American efforts to extradite him.
The most wanted of the fugitives is still Shakur, who remains in Cuba 17 years after the New Jersey State Police’s entreaty to Pope John Paul II.
The present pontiff, Pope Francis, was reportedly a major force in the surprise change in relations between the United States and Cuba, urging the Castro regime to release the imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross.
Gross and an unnamed American intelligence agent were freed Wednesday in exchange for three Cuban spies. One of the spies, Gerardo Hernández, was doing time for a murder conspiracy that led to the downing of an anti-Cuban activist pilot whose private plane was lured toward Cuban airspace.
In announcing the end of the embargo, President Obama was clearly happy to announce that Americans visiting there will even be able to use their credit and debit cards.
The question is whether we will be doing so in a country that continues to shelter cop-killers and a terror bomber and a mass murderer.
The FBI did not immediately seem interested in pushing the matter, publicly anyway.
“At this time the FBI does not have any comment on the reports from today,” a spokesman said. “I do not believe we have a current count of fugitives for publication, but will inquire.”
Retired Det. Tom Nerney, formerly of the NYPD Major Case Squad, investigated Shakur. He reports that a small bridge near the spot on the New Jersey Turnpike where Foerster was murdered has been named after the fallen trooper.
“That’s about all he got,” Nerney said Wednesday.
Nerney fears that Foerster has otherwise been largely forgotten except by his family and fellow cops.
“When you’re dead, you’re dead,” Nerney said.
Shakur remains very much alive, along with Hill, Morales, LeBeef and the others.
Unless Cuba sends them back, you might consider following the now lifted embargo with your own personal boycott.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Finney died of cancer.