News that the U.S. and Cuba want to normalize diplomatic relations could also open the door for federal officials to finally capture the first woman ever to be included on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Joanne Chesimard was convicted in the shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 but later escaped from prison and fled to Cuba. In a statement released Wednesday morning, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police said any improvement in relations between the two countries should improve the chance of her being returned to prison in the U.S.
"We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States to finish her sentence for the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973,” Col. Rick Fuentes, head of the state’s largest law enforcement agency, said. “We stand by the reward money and hope that the total of two million dollars will prompt fresh information in the light of this altered international relationship."
Chesimard, whom the FBI has described as a member of the Black Liberation Army and a domestic terrorist, is the first woman to be placed on the FBI list. She was added in May 2013, the 40th anniversary of the shootout, and is the only person on the list known to be residing in Cuba.
Chesimard, who also goes by the name Assata Shakur, was suspected in several bank robberies when she was pulled over with two accomplices on the New Jersey Turnpike in May 1973. A shootout followed and Foerster was killed. The FBI has said he was shot “execution-style at point-blank range.”
Trooper James Harper was seriously injured in the shooting. Chesimard was convicted of first-degree murder in 1977.
Chesimard’s escape from prison in 1979 was orchestrated by a group of “armed domestic terrorists” who broke into the facility where she was being held and assaulted several guards, law enforcement officials have said.
In a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times, Fuentes said he has already discussed the president's announcement of improved U.S.-Cuba relations with federal law enforcement officials, but noted that Chesimard is not the only wanted fugitive who fled to Cuba.
“Chesimard isn’t the only fugitive down there wanted for a violent crime, and she’s already been convicted, so it’s a matter of bringing her back and sending her back to jail," he told The Times. "There’s other people that surround her that Castro has taken a liking to and it’s been very, very difficult in their particular cases to have discussions to get them out.”
Asked whether the State Police or FBI knew exactly where Chesimard was in Cuba, Fuentes declined to offer specifics. The FBI's joint terrorism task force, based in Newark, N.J., and the State Police have kept a detective investigating Chesimard's case since her prison break.
"This case constitutes an open wound in our organization, and open wound in the Forester and the Harper families, and we have tried to take advantage of every opportunity," he said.
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