WILMINGTON – Last week the Superior Court Clerk of New Hanover County was ordered by a judge to cut a check for $15,351.39 to Assata Shakur, aka Joanne Deborah Chesimard, a convicted cop-killer, fugitive, and one the FBI’s most wanted terrorists.
The county payment to Shakur was made as part of a long-sought land deal between a private LLC and descendants of the Freeman family that owned land near Freeman Park in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. Under the terms of the deal, the Superior Court of New Hanover County helped negotiate selling prices for the Freeman heirs. The court also held the buyer’s cash in trust to pay out to individual heirs.
Assata Shakur is one of the last Freeman heirs to sell, as the LLC now owns over a 90 percent share and, apparently, no other heirs have come forward. The process was delayed until now because Shakur has been in Cuba. According to court documents, Shakur is unable “to return to the United States from Cuba, due to an outstanding warrant for her arrest in the States for murder charges.”
But according to the FBI, Shakur isn’t just wanted for murder charges, she’s an escaped prisoner, a felon and domestic terrorist who remains one the Bureau’s top priority 40 years after her crime. The FBI still considers Shakur’s case active, and has offered up to a $1 million reward – along with up to an additional $1 million offered by the state of New Jersey – for information leading to her recapture.
According to the FBI: “The FBI and the New Jersey State Police continue to follow leads as part of an active investigation to locate convicted murderer and ‘Most Wanted Terrorist’ fugitive Joanne Deborah Chesimard. These law enforcement partners are offering a combined reward of up to $2 million for information that leads directly to the apprehension of Chesimard. Investigators welcome any and all information from the public to assist us to get Chesimard back into custody so that justice can be served. Trooper Werner Foerster’s family and the New Jersey State Police deserve to see the woman responsible for his death, back behind bars for the rest of her life.”
The FBI is looking into the issue, consulting with the Office of the U.S. Attorney to determine if any laws were broken.
On FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ list
Shakur was born Joanne Deborah Byron in New York City but, according to her autobiography, moved to Wilmington to live with her grandparents when she was three. Both Shakur’s mother Doris Johnson and aunt Evelyn Williams were heirs to land that are part of the current land deal.
Shakur later returned to New York, briefly marrying – taking the last name Chesimard – before adopting the name Assata Shakur. She became involved with the Black Panthers and then the Black Liberation Army – during which time she befriended the family of rap artist Tupac Shakur and became his godmother. As part of the BLA, Shakur was allegedly involved with a string of violent crimes between 1971 and 1973, including kidnappings, armed robberies, the attempted murder of two police officers and others.
The murder that sent Shakur to prison was committed in 1973. According to the FBI:
“On May 2, 1973, Chesimard and a pair of accomplices were stopped by two troopers for a motor vehicle violation on the New Jersey Turnpike. At the time, Chesimard—a member of the violent revolutionary activist organization known as the Black Liberation Army—was wanted for her involvement in several felonies, including bank robbery.
“Chesimard and her accomplices opened fire on the troopers. One officer was wounded, and his partner—Trooper Foerster—was shot and killed at point-blank range. One of Chesimard’s accomplices was killed in the shootout and the other was arrested and remains in jail.
“Chesimard fled but was apprehended. In 1977, she was found guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and other crimes and was sentenced to life in prison. Less than two years later, she escaped from prison and lived underground before surfacing in Cuba in 1984.”
Listen: The FBI adds Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, to its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list.
Shakur was given political asylum by Fidel Castro, and has apparently resided in Havana, Cuba, since 1984.
In 2013, the FBI named Shakur one of its “Most Wanted Terrorists.” She was the first woman added to the list, and only the second domestic terrorist elevated to the “most wanted” level.
Assata Shakur and the land deal
The land deal originated with court filings nearly 10 years ago. At the time, both the attorneys for the LLC and the Superior Court made efforts to contact not only Assata Shakur but also her daughter Kakuya Shakur, and her aunt, and former defense attorney, Evelyn Williams – who passed away in 2009.
Court documents from early in the proceedings note that Shakur’s whereabouts were unknown. The Superior Court assigned attorney Mathew Dixon as her Guardian Ad Litem, acting as her representative in her absence.
In 2015, H. Clifton Hester – the lead attorney for the LLC – prepared a power of attorney document for Shakur. The document, included in the court record, states that Shakur appeared in person in New York County – Manhattan – on May 27, 2015. The meeting and power of attorney was notarized by Lennox Hinds, a New York attorney who had represented Shakur during her murder trial.
Hinds did not respond to emails asking for comment. When asked about Shakur, Hester said he was aware of her criminal history, but said he didn’t believe he had ever been contacted by the FBI about her. Hester said he was unsure if Shakur had come to the United States or if Hinds had traveled to Cuba in order to complete the power of attorney forms.
The power of attorney document gave legal rights to Beverly Goins, Shakur’s sister. Subsequent court documents note that Shakur is “in Cuba.”
Throughout February and early March of 2016, the LLC ran a notice in the Wilmington Star News of the Superior Court proceedings, including the names of the Freeman heirs involved – including Shakur; the courts require this before they can dismiss the claims of heirs who have not responded to court summons.
On Aug. 30, 2017, Shakur signed a client statement of representation, dismissing the services of Dixon as Guardian Ad Litem, and retaining Lennox Hinds as her attorney. Hinds apparently began the process of securing Shakur’s payment “by and through” her sister as “attorney in fact.”
By early 2018, Lisa H. Bell, assistant clerk of Superior Court, had prepared two issues for hearings in Superior Court. The first, and more routine, motion would allow Hinds to practice law in North Carolina. It would also address the more serious question:
“Whether Assata Shakur, heir to Freeman Beach, LLC, should be allowed to receive either directly or through her appointed power of attorney, funds currently being held by the Clerk of Superior Court as part of an heir distribution in this partition proceeding, due to her inability to return to the United States from Cuba, due to an outstanding warrant for her arrest in the States for pending murder charges.”
The motion was heard on April 2, 2018, by Judge Joshua Willey, a Craven County Superior Court Judge elected in 2016.
According to the court order signed by Willey, “the Court is aware of no legal reason for the Clerk of Superior Court for New Hanover County, North Carolina not to pay the $15,351.39 to Ms. Shakur, directly or through her appointed power of attorney.”
The check was signed the following day.
According to Valerie Jordan, trial court coordinator for New Hanover County Superior Court, records do not show any other judge handling any aspect of the case other than the April 2 order signed by Judge Willey.
Willey has not responded to repeated calls about the order. The clerk’s office also did not respond to questions about the order to pay Shakur.
Reporter Michael Praats contributed to this story.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.