Widow of 1973 Murder Victim Fights Parole Bid

Times Staff Writer

For the 30 years and 11 months that he has spent in prison, a former Black Panther has stuck to his story: He was home asleep when a U.S. park ranger was shot and killed at Point Reyes National Seashore.

And for all that time, the ranger's widow has lived with the painful memory of a foggy morning when her husband's boss and his wife showed up unexpectedly at her house. She intuitively knew they brought bad news.

"One part of me was just screaming inside, 'Let him just be hurt,' " Tomie Patrick-Lee recalled. "But I knew. He was dead."

Kenneth Patrick, 40, was the first National Park Service ranger killed in the line of duty. He had been shot three times. It was Aug. 5, 1973.

His killer, Veronza Leon Curtis Bowers Jr., now waits to learn, possibly this month, whether he will be set free.

Bowers, 59, was expected to be paroled Feb. 21, but his release from federal prison in Coleman, Fla., was halted by last-minute appeals by Patrick-Lee and law enforcement officials.

The case pits the widow and her supporters, who believe Bowers' seeming lack of contrition should keep him behind bars, against a self-described converted faith healer who continues to declare his innocence.

Patrick-Lee learned of Bowers' planned release through the U.S. Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police just last month, and she immediately protested to the U.S. Parole Commission.

"I wrote that I had not been notified," said Patrick-Lee, 61, who now lives in Alaska. "I believe there should be a hearing so those who had been involved and harmed should have the ability to address the commission. And I told them there are facts that the commission did not know.... I don't think [commissioners] would consider letting him go if they knew the facts."

She would not disclose that information.

"Our stance is that we want to have enough time to prepare written and oral statements to the parole board so that they can have a full airing of the side of brother officers, the widow and the family," said Randall Kendrick, executive director of the U.S. Park Ranger Lodge.

Bowers was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Under federal law, Bowers became eligible for release after serving 30 years, and his supporters expected he would be paroled last April 7. But the Parole Commission refused to permit his release.

Bowers challenged the decision, and a federal judge ordered the board to release him or hold a hearing on his case. Commissioners then determined that Bowers was an appropriate candidate for release and set a parole date for Feb. 21.

Bowers is expected to face the Parole Commission again this month. His lawyers have declined to comment.

Bowers has continued to proclaim his innocence and describe himself as a political prisoner. He denounced his conviction as an example of "American fascism," according to news reports at the time, saying his conviction was part of a government campaign to destroy the Panthers.

Patrick-Lee objects to Bowers' calling himself a political prisoner, saying, "He went to prison for committing a coldblooded murder."

Until now, Patrick-Lee has never talked publicly about her husband's killing. But her recollections, along with accounts by police and news reports from the time, provide a chronology of what happened.

A fellow park service worker was supposed to join Patrick on patrol that morning but called in sick, so Patrick set out alone at 5 a.m., much earlier than usual. He was looking for deer poachers at the national seashore, about 20 miles north of San Francisco, and was expected to return home by 8 for breakfast.

Shortly into his patrol, Patrick spotted a Pontiac on a remote road between Point Reyes and Mt. Vision.

Bowers was in the car with Jonathan Shoher and Alan Veale, who in a signed confession later identified Bowers as the triggerman.

When Patrick approached the car with a flashlight, Bowers shot the ranger in the chest with a 9-millimeter handgun, according to Veale's statement.

A strapping man -- 6 feet 1 and about 230 pounds -- Patrick staggered from the car. A second bullet then whizzed through his thumb and into his wrist. He came crashing down. According to Veale, Bowers pumped a third round into the ranger's chest.

By 8 a.m., Patrick-Lee was surprised that her husband had not returned for a breakfast of pancakes -- his favorite -- and she tried to reach him on the park service radio. There was no reply.

She fed their three sons -- ages 20 months, 5 and 12 -- and then tried again. Still no reply.

There was a flurry of radio traffic before the voices went silent. "I knew then that something very, very bad had happened," she said.

Her husband's body was found just before noon. It lay face-up in wet brush, enveloped in thick morning mist, about 150 feet from his patrol car. The engine was still running. Patrick's gun was still in its holster.

Investigators also found a box of short orange-white bolts used in crossbows -- typical weapons for deer poachers.

Bowers would later insist he was home with his wife in Mill Valley at the time of the killing.

But in a confession given while in jail on a bank robbery charge, Veale provided "specific things about the murder that no one else could know unless they were there," a former FBI agent familiar with the case said.

Bowers was tried in federal court in San Francisco.

Jurors deliberated 9 1/2 hours before convicting him April 23, 1974.

"I would think a life sentence would be little enough punishment for such a coldblooded murder," news reports quoted U.S. District Judge Leo Brewster as saying. "A life sentence is the least you ought to have."

Charges were dropped against Veale in return for his confession. Shoher, who admitted cutting up the gun and throwing it in the ocean, got 10 years, investigators said.

Supporters of Bowers have argued that Veale lied in return for reduced sentences for other federal crimes.

Those who know Bowers today say he is a kind and good-natured man who has sobered in prison.

"He has been a caring human being with a very warm personality, almost Zen-like in his nature -- very calming," said Gilda Sherrod-Ali, past chairwoman of the criminal justice section of the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

Photos on his website show Bowers, who has long dreadlocks, kneeling and playing the traditional Japanese shakuhachi flute. He is the founder a group dedicated to promoting healing through meditation and music.

Thelma Sherrod, Sherrod-Ali's mother and a resident of Ocala, Fla., said she and Bowers have often prayed together. "Whatever changes I need to make, I'm ready," she quoted him as saying, adding, "I think he's rehabilitated."

Parole Commission officials would not comment on Bowers' case.

But Tom Hutchison, a spokesman for the Maryland-based agency, said a prisoner could be kept locked up after his parole date if the commission determined that the person had seriously and frequently violated prison rules or might commit another offense after being released.

The commission also must consider relevant information about a prospective parolee by interested people.

The ranger's widow and law enforcement officials are not convinced of Bowers' rehabilitation.

"Rehabilitation would require some remorse for shooting and killing a human being, don't you think?" said Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"If this man truly had admitted so much as his guilt, if he wasn't the same person as when he went into prison, I wouldn't feel so bad about him being released," Patrick-Lee said. "I still believe the hatred and the rage is there."

Her husband of seven years was buried in Grand Canyon National Park, where he once served.

The visitors' center and a park trail are named for him.

"He was a living, breathing human being who had his faults," Patrick-Lee said. "He was far from perfect. But he was very charismatic. People liked him. He had an unbelievable zest for life."

She struggled to hold her life together after his death.

She was obliged to move out of her home, which belonged to the park service. When she decided to return to college in Arizona, Point Reyes residents took up a collection for the trailer to haul her possessions.

Patrick-Lee remarried in 1981 and now works in Alaska as superintendent of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Gustavus.

"Even though the pain itself is still very fresh, I think most of us in the family have been able to move beyond the ideas of revenge," Patrick-Lee said, her voice breaking.

"It's normal in the beginning that you just want the person apprehended and punished, and no punishment is too great.

"But time changes things. It doesn't change the pain or the loss. It makes it possible to put it aside. You never forget. Time doesn't heal. Time just makes it possible to live through things."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday June 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction Ranger killings -- Articles in the March 15 and May 27 California section said that Kenneth Patrick, who was gunned down in August 1973, was the first U.S. park ranger killed in the line of duty. In fact, he was the third. In 1927, James Alexander Cary, 31, was killed by bootleggers in Arkansas, and in 1938, Karl A. Jacobson, 22, was shot and killed in Maine by a man who said he mistook the ranger for game.
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