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COLUMN ONE : Past Haunts Ex-Panther in New Life : Julius Butler’s testimony helped convict Geronimo Pratt of murder. Now, the First A.M.E. Church official’s prominence upsets some who say Butler was an FBI informant--a claim he denies.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As hundreds of worshipers filed into the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Los Angeles’ oldest and most prominent black congregation, several dozen protesters stood across the street, waving picket signs.

One read: “The snitch got to go. Free Geronimo.”

The demonstrators were an unsettling challenge to a venerable institution, and their target on that Sunday in January was no less than the 61-year-old chairman of First A.M.E.'s Board of Trustees: Julius C. (Julio) Butler.

Butler’s route to that prominent position has included a series of sharply contrasting stops. He has been a Marine sergeant, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, a hairstylist known as “Mr. Julio,” a Black Panther, a City Council aide, an early campaign volunteer for former Mayor Tom Bradley and a legal aid attorney.

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But the demonstrators were focusing on another role Butler played, one that is rooted in the political turbulence of the 1960s.

He was the linchpin in the murder case against Elmer G. (Geronimo) Pratt, a former Los Angeles Black Panther Party leader. Pratt, who was convicted in 1972 and sentenced to life in prison, maintains that the FBI knows he is innocent because agents had him under surveillance in Oakland when the murder was committed in Santa Monica.

Butler testified that Pratt had confessed to him that he shot a teacher and her husband during a 1968 robbery. Butler said Pratt discussed “the mission” with him before the crime, admitted later that evening that he had shot the couple, and confirmed his role the next day. The woman died days later. Her husband, who was critically wounded, recovered.

The jury, however, did not know what documents released more than seven years after the trial would disclose: Butler was not merely a disgruntled former Panther associate of Pratt’s. He was giving information to the FBI.

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Butler, who denies he was an informant, gave testimony so critical that three jurors who convicted Pratt say they would have regarded Butler’s account as less credible and would have held out for acquittal if they had known of Butler’s relationship with the FBI.

In addition, a retired FBI agent has maintained for years that Pratt is innocent, and that he was framed by the bureau as part of the FBI’s infamous and now-defunct Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO)--covert efforts to “neutralize” organizations the bureau called “black hate groups.”

Despite a stack of FBI memos that spell out the information he provided to agents beginning in 1969, three years before Pratt’s trial, Butler insists he was not an informant and has steadfastly refused to comment on his apparent relationship with the FBI.

At Pratt’s trial, he testified that “the connotation (of) informant means a snitch, and I have never been in the world a snitch.”

“I still say I stand by the testimony,” Butler said in a recent telephone interview from his office at Bet Tzedek legal services in the Fairfax district. He declined to comment further.

The FBI consistently has maintained there was no conspiracy to frame Pratt.

Pratt’s conviction has long been a cause celebre for political and social groups that say it symbolizes a legal system that was twisted to prosecute a political enemy.

To have Butler near the helm of First A.M.E., which has gained citywide prominence since the 1992 riots, troubles some in the 9,000-member church.

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“How can a church that is a beacon in the black community have this person with this history as chairman?” asks one member.

Clearly, that question does not disturb many others. Shortly after the January demonstration, the church’s 3,500-member men’s group rallied behind Butler, expressing its support in a formal vote of confidence.

First A.M.E.'s charismatic pastor, Rev. Cecil L. (Chip) Murray, did not respond to requests for an interview. He was made aware of Butler’s role in the conviction, according to a knowledgeable church source. He approved the elevation of Butler, a member since 1987, to the church’s board, then to the chairmanship.

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of Pratt’s early defense lawyers, said Butler is “passing himself off as this pillar of the community. An innocent man is in jail. If you’re a real Christian, I don’t know how you can live with that. And I don’t think you can just stonewall it forever.”

Recent efforts to free Pratt have drawn new attention to Butler’s role in the trial. Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti is reviewing the case, prompted by crusading lay minister Jim McCloskey, who submitted a detailed report arguing Pratt’s innocence.

McCloskey, who heads New Jersey-based Centurion Ministries, drew national attention in 1992 after he helped gain the release of Clarence Chance and Benny Powell, Los Angeles men who spent 17 years in prison after they were wrongfully convicted of murdering a sheriff’s deputy.

The Pratt controversy has created ironies for First A.M.E. Murray was one of several Los Angeles clergymen who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in 1980 supporting a new trial for Pratt. Early this year, after FBI agents foiled a skinhead plot to foment a race war by launching an armed attack on First A.M.E, Murray and other church officials held a Sunday service to thank the agents.

Among those expressing gratitude was Butler.

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The FBI’s work, Butler told a reporter afterward, “has given us the beginnings of a new relationship with the current administration of the FBI.”

*

The story of Geronimo Pratt and Julio Butler goes back a quarter-century, to an era when the Black Panthers frightened and outraged much of Middle America. Clad in their signature black berets and black leather jackets, the Panthers openly armed themselves and marched through the streets shouting: “Off the pigs.” They reveled in their image as urban guerrillas defending the black community from police abuses. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled them “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

A U.S. Senate committee on intelligence activities found that the FBI’s COINTELPRO effort originally targeted organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. But by 1967, the bureau had made the Panthers its primary target, the committee reported.

In Southern California, the report said, the FBI’s covert action exacerbated an existing “gang war” between the Panthers and US (United Slaves), led by militant black nationalist Ron Karenga. That war resulted in the killing of four Panthers by US members and in “numerous beatings and shootings,” the committee reported.

Butler joined the Panthers in the summer of 1968--a relatively late entry into radical politics for a man who had started his working life in the military and law enforcement.

Butler would not discuss his personal life in an interview. But according to court documents, he was born in Los Angeles, graduated from Jefferson High School in 1950, joined the Marines a year later and saw duty in the Korean War, where he was wounded. He was married that same year.

Butler was discharged in 1954, and he was divorced the next year. He studied criminology at Los Angeles City College and became a sheriff’s deputy in 1956. But he resigned in 1960, citing problems from a second marriage that also ended in divorce.

In 1964, state records show, he was issued a cosmetology license. Using the name Mr. Julio, he opened a shop on Adams Boulevard in 1966.

Two years later, he joined the Panthers, quickly becoming the party’s Southern California security chief.

Pratt, a decorated Vietnam veteran from Louisiana, became a Panther the same year. He enrolled at UCLA, where he was recruited by local Panther leaders Alprentice (Bunchy) Carter and John Huggins.

Three months after his arrival, an event occurred that would shape the rest of Pratt’s life: On Dec. 18, 1968, Caroline Olsen, 27, was fatally shot and her husband, Kenneth, 33, was critically wounded in a robbery that netted about $30 on a Santa Monica tennis court.

Soon after, the Panthers were thrown into turmoil. In January, 1969, gunmen belonging to Karenga’s US killed Carter and Huggins on the UCLA campus.

Pratt, then 21, succeeded the iron-fisted, charismatic Carter as local party head. That set in motion a rivalry with Butler, who later testified that he grew to “dislike” Pratt. Butler saw his authority for security reduced to a small area near the Crenshaw district.

By the spring of 1969, according to FBI documents, Butler had grown more dissatisfied with the direction the Panthers were taking. About that time, he began providing information to FBI agents, documents said.

Tensions between Pratt and Butler rose, and by Aug. 5 Pratt had “probably” expelled Butler from the party, an FBI memo said.

Five days later, Butler wrote an “insurance” letter that implicated Pratt in Olsen’s murder. In it, Butler said he had written the letter to protect himself against death threats by Pratt and other Panthers. He delivered the letter, to be opened “only in the event of my death,” to a man he described in testimony as a friend, Los Angeles Police Sgt. DuWayne Rice.

By January, 1970, the Los Angeles FBI office had sought permission from headquarters for a counterintelligence effort “designed to challenge the legitimacy of the authority exercised” by Pratt in the local Panthers, according to documents released later.

Another FBI memo dated five months later noted that the bureau was constantly considering counterintelligence measures designed to neutralize Pratt “as an effective (Panther) functionary.”

In the fall of 1970, Butler’s letter resurfaced under circumstances that seemed to show he had been in contact with the FBI.

Unknown to Rice, Butler had told agents about the letter three days after giving it to Rice, according to FBI documents and a sworn statement Rice made to Pratt’s attorneys. The letter contained information that could put Panthers in the gas chamber, Butler told agents, according to an FBI memo.

When agents asked Rice for the letter, he refused to turn it over without Butler’s permission.

In seeking that permission, Rice said in his statement, he asked Butler how the agents knew about the letter. Butler said he told agents about it because they were pressuring him, Rice said.

The letter implicating Pratt in Olsen’s murder became the cornerstone of the prosecution case against Pratt. Within two months, he was indicted.

*

In his defense and ongoing appeals, Pratt has contended that he was in Oakland at a weeklong series of party meetings when Olsen was killed.

Proving that should have been simple enough by having others who attended the meetings testify that Pratt was there. But by the time Pratt was tried, three years after the murder, he had been expelled from the party for siding with former Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, who had broken with Panther leader Huey P. Newton.

Newton forbade any Panthers from testifying on Pratt’s behalf, although several people in Oakland supported Pratt’s alibi. Cleaver’s wife, Kathleen, testified that Pratt was in Oakland. But three years after the fact she could not specifically place his whereabouts on the day Olsen was slain.

In sworn statements two years ago, Panther co-founder Bobby Seale and former Panther official David Hilliard did place Pratt in Oakland on the day of the murder.

Pratt has argued that on that day the FBI had a wiretap on phones at the Panthers’ Los Angeles headquarters. Wiretap logs would show that Pratt had several conversations from Oakland with the headquarters on Central Avenue, his attorneys say.

The trouble is that, despite the FBI’s history of documenting its wiretaps, no logs from that wiretap have been located. In 1985, the agent who had been assigned to Pratt testified at an appellate court hearing that he had no knowledge of a wiretap on Panther headquarters in 1968.

However former agent M. Wesley Swearingen, who was once assigned to the squad that investigated the Panthers in Los Angeles, thinks Pratt “was deliberately set up . . . what we termed in the FBI to neutralize him.” Swearingen said he thinks the FBI destroyed the logs.

Swearingen, who retired in good standing in 1977, said he saw documents showing an FBI wiretap was in place at Panther headquarters on the day Olsen was killed.

Two staffers in the office of the late Charles Garry, an attorney who often represented Panthers, said they saw logs of an FBI wiretap showing Pratt was in Oakland the day Olsen was shot. But a Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed Pratt’s petition to have those alleged logs produced.

*

To a large degree, the case against Pratt may be a question of who is more believable--Pratt or Butler.

At Pratt’s trial in 1972, the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard P. Kalustian, now a Superior Court judge, summed up just how important a witness Butler was: “Julio Butler has testified in this court under oath and to the jury to a confession that Mr. Pratt made to him that admits all of the elements of the offense. If the jury believes Julio Butler . . . Mr. Pratt is guilty. The case is over if they believe that.”

Butler had testified that Pratt confessed only hours after the shootings. Kalustian likened Butler’s “insurance” letter to a deathbed declaration, saying “at no time did (Butler) desire to go to the police with the information and at all times intended to keep it secret.”

However, in the report he delivered to Garcetti’s office last June, minister-turned-investigator McCloskey argued that Butler had every intention of having the letter’s contents become known.

“Only three days after he wrote and delivered it to Sgt. Rice, he told the FBI what was in it,” McCloskey said in his report.

In Rice’s 1979 sworn statement, he said that as soon as Butler handed him the letter on a street corner, two FBI agents walked up and demanded the letter. Rice said that when he refused, the agents shouted after Butler, calling him “Julio,” but Butler kept walking.

McCloskey called it “preposterous” to believe that the FBI “just happened to pass by when their informant on Pratt and the (Panthers) was passing a letter to someone on the street corner in broad daylight that (could have) put Pratt in the gas chamber.”

The jury, knowing none of this, convicted Pratt after 10 days of deliberation. One juror, Jeanne Hamilton, said in a recent interview that she feels as if she had been “used by the government, by the FBI, by Kalustian, by everybody who had a hand in it. I feel betrayed by the justice system right now because nobody will listen.”

The jury also did not know that shooting victim Kenneth Olsen, who identified Pratt, had earlier identified someone else.

Had the jury known about Olsen’s earlier identification, Hamilton said, “I think that alone would have changed our mind.” She said she regrets she did not counter the jury foreman, a second-year law student, when he sternly looked her in the eye and asked: “If somebody shot your husband, wouldn’t you remember their face?”

*

After Pratt was convicted, Butler volunteered for former City Councilman David Cunningham’s 1973 election campaign.

A year or two later, Cunningham said in an interview, he hired Butler as a field deputy, adding that Butler was very effective in getting police to crack down on drug dealers in his district.

In 1981, Butler was arrested for allegedly threatening a man with a pistol and kicking him. He resigned from Cunningham’s staff and pleaded no contest to charges of carrying a loaded weapon and driving under the influence of alcohol. He was sentenced to probation and fined.

Two years later, Butler was hired as a paralegal at Bet Tzedek, a legal services program for the poor. He attended West Los Angeles College and then law school. He was admitted to the State Bar in 1989 and became a staff attorney at Bet Tzedek.

So far, Pratt’s lawyers have lost every appeal of his conviction. In 1980, the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled, in part, that Pratt failed to prove his contention that he was framed by FBI agents and Los Angeles police.

Periodic demonstrations demanding Pratt’s freedom continue. Butler’s name is prominently raised as a symbol of the alleged betrayal of Pratt, but he remains secure near the top of one of Los Angeles’ symbols of social justice--First A.M.E.

Earlier this month, some of the January demonstrators met with church officials, but both sides agreed not to publicly discuss the meeting.

However, a source close to the negotiations, who requested anonymity, said the church had offered to ask Butler to write a letter to the state parole board, urging that Pratt be released. Some of Pratt’s supporters say they would be satisfied with nothing less than a letter from Butler that recants his testimony and exonerates Pratt.

Pratt’s supporters say the church has repeatedly described their efforts to hold Butler accountable as an attack on First A.M.E.

“The church keeps putting (Butler) up front and trying to make the community accept him as some kind of new black leader or something,” said former Panther Roland Freeman, one of the January protest’s organizers. “That is not going to work. The issue is that Geronimo has been in jail for 23 years, and one of the persons who was instrumental in it is Julio Butler.”

Pratt’s only opportunity for freedom appears to rest with McCloskey’s report and Garcetti’s review of the case. The district attorney’s office says it has set no deadline for completion of he review. “The only decision now is to determine if there is anything in the material (McCloskey) has given us that would be worthy of an investigation,” said Assistant Dist. Atty. Dan Murphy.

Said former Pratt attorney Cochran: “I hope Garcetti will do the right thing--at least a hearing or a new trial.


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