By Gavin Evans
Gavin Evans, a South African-born journalist who was part of the ANC underground structures during the liberation struggle, interviewed James Kilgore for the London Times in early 2010, a little less than a year after James was released from prison. Below is the text of the article that ran on February 10, 2010 as a result of the interview.
It’s a perfect early winter’s afternoon in the American Midwest and James Kilgore seems very much at home in a suburban study that opens on to a leafy garden. He also comes across as surprisingly well-adjusted for a man wearing a parole ankle bracelet after nearly seven years in jail — and 27 years on the run before that.
Kilgore was one of the FBI’s “most wanted” fugitives for the part he played in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a militant organisation that caused terror in 1970s America, carrying out bank robberies, murder — and kidnapping 19-year-old Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst.
Clues to the unusual trajectory of his life on the run come from the pictures on his study wall. There’s a huge “Mandela for President” poster, a framed bill from the Cape Argus of November 11, 2002, saying “Kilgore: Hero of Poor”, and several pinboards packed with photographs and postcards he has received from African friends while in prison. Then there’s the old Zimbabwe T-shirt he’s wearing, set-off by cut-off blue denims, which the 62-year-old happily acknowledges “make me look like I’m trying to be 20 years old”.
Perhaps that’s a fitting image, because his eclectic CV suggests the energy of a younger man. His prime focus is to market his first novel, We Are All Zimbabweans Now. He is also working on a trilogy of crime novels, while advising a prisoner education project, learning sign language and delivering lectures on Southern Africa. As we talk about his new life, it’s hard not to wonder what might have become of him had he not foolishly joined a ragtag group of left-wing militants 35 years ago. At the time, he was a student whose only fanatical interest was sport, but the prospect of being drafted prompted a rethink.
“In less than a year I went from being an athlete to somebody who read books and went on demonstrations,” he says. “It forced me to reflect on the nature of the Vietnamese War. Plus, there was a lot of activity that emerged at University of California Santa Barbara in 1969-70 that culminated in the burning down of the Bank of America branch there.” He catches himself and laughs: “In which I did not participate or have anything to do with! We ended up with a state of emergency with troops and armoured personnel carriers.”
Left-wing politics began taking on a shriller edge. One of the groups that emerged was the SLA, formed by an escaped prisoner, who entertained the idea that he could inspire revolution in America. The group made its name by kidnapping Hearst, in February 1974. After a period of what she later called “brainwashing”, she became one of them, the gun-wielding “Comrade Tanya”.
Three months later, six members were killed in a fire-fight and the gap was filled by new recruits, including Kilgore’s girlfriend, Kathy Soliah, who persuaded him to join her in backing the SLA’s campaign to “destroy the system of the capitalist state”.
Patty Hearst, who served 21 months of a 35-year sentence (she was eventually pardoned by President Clinton in 2001), has portrayed Kilgore as a “calm, reasonable, level-headed” member in a group of egocentric hotheads. In her autobiography, Every Secret Thing, she said that he specifically argued against using a favoured hair-trigger shotgun on their missions. Still, Kilgore, Soliah and Hearst were part of the group that robbed the Crocker National Bank in Sacramento, California on April 21 1975, when SLA founder member Emily Harris discharged the shotgun, killing a customer.
Years later, when on trial, Kilgore apologised for his role in the fatal bank robbery, but the question intriguing me is when he came to regret joining the SLA. “Pretty well immediately,” he says without hesitation. “As soon as I got to Seattle and started reading history and could see everything we’d done when we were running around had come to nothing positive and had done a lot of harm. It’s a futile way of operating.”
Soon after the bank raid, and a failed attempt to bomb a police car, Hearst and five others were rounded up. A warrant was issued for Kilgore’s arrest (a pipe bomb was found in the apartment that he rented), but he fled north, and followed the “old routine of getting the birth certificate of a child who died”. And so he became Charles William “John” Pape, his name for the next 27 years (his wife, Terri, and close friends still call him “John”), and moved to Minnesota, where he linked up with activists campaigning against minority rule in South Africa and what was Rhodesia.
Kilgore shrugs when I profess astonishment that the FBI never traced him. “They’d won their victory by then. The Left of the Sixties was pretty well defunct. In the US when you’re a left-wing activist you’re off the radar.” That was certainly the case for Kathy Soliah, who also evaded capture for years, until she was finally tracked down in St Paul, Minnesota, where she was living as “soccer mom” Sara Jane Olson — a celebrated cook and pillar of the local community.
After seven years on the run in the US, Kilgore went to live in Zimbabwe, a country whose fraught politics he captures in his novel. The most vivid passages describe arriving in the country in the early 1980s — written in prison from memory.
To fill in the gaps he wrote a “sensory diary”, and it was the smells, sounds and sights of Harare that came back most strongly. “When I arrived I was totally wide-eyed about everything so I took all that in and my senses were on high alert, and I also had the good fortune of living with Zimbabweans who oriented me towards the culture and the language in a way very few expatriates experienced.”
Kilgore’s We Are All Zimbabweans Now is the tale of an idealistic US academic who lands in Zimbabwe full of admiration for Robert Mugabe, only to find disillusionment setting in when he see the violent duplicity of the state. But unlike his protagonist, Kilgore was sceptical from the outset. “I didn’t arrive with grand illusions. Sure, I didn’t expect Mugabe to descend to the level he reached in 2009, but I didn’t see him as this monolithic hero by any means. I didn’t have a high regard for him.”
Kilgore’s experiences prompted him to extend his critique of violence to include revolutionary organisations such as Mugabe’s Zanu (PF). He stresses that the military is, by its nature, autocratic. “Zimbabwe is not the only country where an armed liberation movement took power and ended up becoming undemocratic because of the military structure they operated under.”
After Nelson Mandela was released in South Africa, Kilgore took up an offer to teach at Khanya College, in Johannesburg. He became director of the college and then moved to Cape Town where he worked on education and research for trade unions.
Meanwhile, the FBI was at a loss at how to trace him. Its spokesman, Andrew Black, admitted in January 2002: “He may have left the country — likely to Canada — and returned with a different identity, but we don’t know, to be honest.” It offered a $20,000 reward, listed 13 aliases on its website, and produced a bust of his head and computer-enhanced photographs to show what he might look like. Patty Hearst took one look at these images and remarked: “This is part of the reason I think the Government is not serious about ever catching these people.”
Kilgore might well have remained undetected had it not been for Kathy Soliah’s arrest in 1999 , which prompted her to join three of her former SLA comrades in cutting a plea-bargained deal with Californian prosecutors. Kilgore decided to do the same and retained lawyers for this purpose. Today, he remains uncertain how the FBI traced him, but speculates it might have something to do with the negotiations. “I’ve never really found out — and they don’t tell me,” he says, laughing.
On November 7, 2002, two young South Africans knocked on his door and said they were doing a survey about the shape of wine bottles. “They held up two bottles and said, ‘Which one do you like better?’ I looked confused and they said, ‘Here, just touch it and feel it’ and the minute I touched that bottle I felt, ‘These people are getting my fingerprints’.” At 7.15pm the next evening he was arrested.
I ask him whether there was any relief in no longer having to live under an assumed identity. This time, he hesitates: “Um, I suppose there was a certain relief,” he says before reminding me that his fugitive life was “more ordinary than you’d expect”.
Kilgore was extradited to the US, where he pleaded guilty in two trials (a federal charge relating to the pipe bomb and a state charge of second-degree murder, relating to the bank robbery). He apologised for what he had done, but stresses that words are never enough. “No matter how many times someone says they’re sorry, it doesn’t satisfy those who have suffered. My more than 20 years working as a teacher provide stronger evidence that I am genuinely sorry, that I recognise that I took a wrong and destructive path.”
His main job in prison also involved teaching, tutoring prisoners in maths and computer science. “I enjoyed it,” he says. “There was a small core who were extremely dedicated and very receptive.”
He also settled on the idea of writing his novel, a process that involved a manual Olivetti typewriter with an ancient ribbon (revived after he took an inmate’s advice of treating it with baby oil). Kilgore jokes about the habits of prolonged confinement that still linger, such as repeating “excuse me” whenever people approach. “I’m not paranoid, but you don’t want people to think you’re cutting them off.” It also took him a while to get used to turning off taps. “In prison, they automatically switch off, so every time I went to the bathroom I’d leave them running.”
Kilgore says the process of adjustment to US suburban life has been eased by the success of his novel. “There’ve been a few disconnects in terms of personal relationships but things are going pretty well.”
He pauses for a few seconds and points the pinboard behind him, plastered with pictures of his friends from his 20 years in Africa. “You see I wasn’t as isolated as some prisoners. It was their support that helped me to survive. They helped me stay sane.”