A former captain of the Black Panther Party, who was convicted of killing a park ranger near San Francisco 31 years ago, has been granted parole, despite a last-ditch attempt by law enforcement officials to block his release.
Veronza Leon Curtis Bowers Jr., 59, is expected to leave a federal prison in Coleman, Fla., on June 21, said U.S. Parole Commission officials.
"If he gets into trouble, he could be kept in," said Tom Hutchison, a spokesman for the Maryland-based commission. But most inmates close to their release date, he said, "just bide their time" and wait to be freed.
Bowers was convicted in 1974 of killing Kenneth Patrick, 40, the first National Park Service ranger to be killed in the line of duty. Patrick was shot three times while tracking poachers at Point Reyes National Seashore in August 1973. He left a wife and three children.
"Allowing this killer back in the streets puts the public and police officers at risk," said Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "We will exhaust every legal avenue in an effort to keep Bowers where he belongs -- behind bars."
The association, which describes itself as the largest law enforcement labor group in the nation with more than 318,000 members, also released a letter that was sent Tuesday to U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales.
Calling Bowers an "unrepentant murderer and career criminal," Canterbury asked Gonzales to have the National Appeals Board review the commission's decision.
Bowers' many supporters have long maintained that he was unjustly imprisoned and that his release was long overdue. His lawyer, relatives and other supporters declined to comment, alleging media bias against Bowers.
Under federal law, Bowers became eligible for release after 30 years, and his supporters expected that he would be paroled April 7, 2004.
But the commission refused to permit his release.
Bowers challenged the decision. Commissioners eventually set a parole date of Feb. 21, 2005. His release was delayed when Patrick's widow, Tomie Patrick-Lee, protested.
The five-member commission decided May 17 that he should be released in June.
Patrick-Lee, who has since remarried, could not be reached for comment.
In a March interview, she recalled the harrowing day when her husband's colleagues came to tell her that he was dead. Patrick had gone out that foggy summer morning to look for deer poachers at the national seashore, about 20 miles north of San Francisco.
As investigators would later report, the ranger spotted a car on a remote road between Point Reyes and Mount Vision.
Bowers was in the car with Jonathan Shoher and Alan Veale, who in a signed confession said Bowers was 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.
In prison, Bowers founded a nondenominational spiritual organization devoted to healing meditation through the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. He composes music and is a member of a prison reggae band.
He has maintained that he was asleep at his Mill Valley home when Patrick was shot.
Bowers' supporters said Veale was a paid informant, who lied in return for reduced sentences in other federal crimes. Investigators acknowledged that charges were dropped against Veale in return for his confession. Shoher got 10 years.
At his sentencing, Bowers denounced his conviction as "American fascism," according to news reports at the time. His supporters have maintained that his political activities made him a target of the FBI.
The FBI considered the Panthers a nationalist hate group and launched an operation to infiltrate it, monitor its activities and destabilize it, Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University professor of history, has said.