Jim Dey: In plain sight
When Champaign County officials began exploring solutions to their jail problems, James Kilgore volunteered to participate. He won appointment to the county board's Justice Task Force, co-authored a commentary on the issue in The News-Gazette and publicly argued that citizen input is a must when it comes to the criminal justice system.
When one-time fugitive Angela Davis visited here last fall, Kilgore was prominent among those who welcomed the radical scholar to Champaign-Urbana. He escorted her to speaking engagements, including one at the University YMCA on "Abolishing the Prison-Industrial Complex."
And when Nelson Mandela died in early December, Kilgore helped organize the campus memorial to the South African leader, whose death, he said, was cause for mourning not only abroad but locally as well. "Please come and help us honor this wonderful leader and symbol of universal humanity and freedom," Kilgore wrote in his invitation.
So, just who is James Kilgore?
He is an author of both academic works and mystery novels; a faculty member and research scholar at the UI's Center for African Studies; a former Cal-Santa Barbara economics major who received his doctorate from a university in Australia.
He is Charles "John" Pape, the alias he assumed for more than 20 years while living in hiding from the FBI — as a University of Cape Town professor who loved cricket — until his arrest by South African police in 2002.
He is the 60-something-year-old man described as a "splendid fellow" by Champaign County Board member Astrid Berkson, who appointed him to the jail advisory committee.
He is a convicted murderer, bank robber, ex-convict and terrorist who was linked to a string of California bombings that targeted, among others, police officers.
He was the last member the Symbionese Liberation Army to be arrested.
A rag-tag band of violent 1970s revolutionaries, the SLA was made up of a small group of middle- and upper-middle class whites led by Donald DeFreeze, a black career criminal who called himself "General Field Marshal Cinque."
The SLA was best known for the November 1973 assassination of Oakland, Calif., school superintendent Marcus Foster and the February 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who subsequently converted to the cause and took the revolutionary name "Tanya."
After her arrest, Hearst claimed she had been brainwashed by the SLA. But she was convicted of a series of crimes, including bank robbery, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Carter later commuted her sentence, and President Clinton granted her a pardon.
The SLA carried out a months-long crime wave highlighted by a May 1974 televised shoot-out with police in Los Angeles. Rather than surrender, six members of the group went up in flames after the house they were in caught fire.
The shoot-out closed the first chapter of the SLA's violent history. But it opened the way to a second chapter that may not have happened if Kilgore and then-girlfriend Kathleen Soliah had not assisted the three surviving SLA members (Hearst and Bill and Emily Harris) and introduced new members into this criminal organization.
It's a long and complicated tale and the subject of considerable reporting. Google the name James W. Kilgore, and you'll find hundreds of links to old news stories about his criminal history — from reviews of Hearst's memoir to the FBI news release announcing Kilgore's arrest.
The record reflects that Kilgore was a middling, but still important, character in the SLA who helped Hearst and the Harrises rob banks, carry out bombings and, until September 1975, elude arrest. Released from a California prison in 2009, Kilgore's parole was transferred to Illinois, where his wife, Teresa Barnes, is on the UI faculty. The couple, who have two children, live in Champaign.
Kilgore declined to talk with The News-Gazette for this story.
It may surprise some that the UI hired a person of Kilgore's background for classroom and research duties. But universities have provided welcoming environments to other violent revolutionaries with criminal pasts — from the UI-Chicago, which employed Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers, to New York University, where convicted murderer Kathy Boudin is on the faculty.
UI officials were not interested in discussing the issue. Publicists for both UI President Robert Easter and Chancellor Phyllis Wise said neither had any comment about Kilgore.
But internal UI documents obtained by The News-Gazette through open records requests indicate that officials were aware of Kilgore's criminal history when he was hired. And even if they hadn't known, Kilgore's cleverly crafted resume includes references that might have raised concerns.
One footnote states: "All degrees at Deakin (University in Australia) granted under the name Charles Pape." (Kilgore obtained the alias from the death certificate of a child in the state of Washington).
His employment history includes a multi-year gap. From 1999-2002, his resume states, Kilgore was the "co-director" of a labor research group at the University of Cape Town. The next section reads: "Present: Self-employed writer."
From 2002-09, Kilgore was either in jail or prison. His resume contained no explanation about the missing years in the jump from 2002 to "present."
UI officials also took what limited steps they could to head off negative publicity in the aftermath of 2009 reports that Kilgore would be moving to Champaign to join his wife, Barnes.
"(Barnes') college has been alerted, and they're going to let her know that she might receive calls from the media. I've instructed them that I'm happy to handle those calls," UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said in an email to former UI Police Chief Barbara O'Connor. "... In light of the recent protest associated with Bill Ayers' visit, I thought you ought to be in the loop on this."
Kales also brought then-Chancellor Richard Herman and former Provost Linda Katehi into the loop, writing "u had better see this" in an email subject line.
In response to news stories about Kilgore, Barnes received email communications that expressed disdain for Kilgore's background and her choice of a husband, and her complaints were sent up the chain of command.
"This is the second email along these lines that I have received at work," Barnes said in an email to then-history department chairwoman Antoinette Burton. "I'm not asking for any particular action to be taken, but I would like there to be an official record of the incident. That said, I am anxious to avoid any/all publicity."
The reticence displayed by Kilgore's wife is understandable. After all, the SLA crime wave was one of the most bizarre stories of the 1970s. Kilgore came late to the party, but he threw himself into it with revolutionary zeal. It's a chilling tale of murder and mayhem.
After the Los Angeles fire in which their comrades died, Hearst and Bill and Emily Harris took refuge in the San Francisco area.
It was there that Kilgore's girlfriend, Kathleen Soliah, organized a memorial service for close friend Angela Atwood and the other dead SLA members, who were characterized as murder victims of police. Seeking assistance, the trio contacted Soliah, leading to a lengthy meeting in a car at a drive-in movie theater between the three fugitives and Kilgore and his girlfriend.
Kilgore is thick and bald now. But in her memoir "Every Secret Thing," Hearst described him as "the typical intellectual, unkempt Berkeley student, with wire-rim spectacles, six-feet tall with medium-brown long hair." She recalled that Soliah "wanted us to know that she and Jim were ready now to do anything" to help.
"They had been part of the radical movement in Berkeley for three years and they knew lots of people who they thought would want to help also," Hearst wrote.
Historical accounts indicate Kilgore was a graduate school dropout who had moved to the Bay Area with Soliah. He and her brother, Steve Soliah, earned money as house painters.
During that meeting, Kilgore said he could arrange through an intermediary for the three to escape the heavily policed Bay Area to safer quarters.
Afterward, Bill Harris, the SLA's new field marshal, was "positively euphoric" about the group's future, Hearst wrote. "The SLA was back in business."
Kilgore's intermediary was Jack Scott, a well-known leftist academic and sports enthusiast. Scott was delighted to help, arranging through clandestine means for the new SLA members to be moved to a Pennsylvania farmhouse. They spent a quiet summer there as California authorities and the FBI continued their intensive search on the West Coast. The FBI didn't catch up to the Pennsylvania hideout until months after it was vacated. They might never have found it if Scott's brother hadn't gone to the police.
Hearst recalled that Kilgore and Soliah said they would look out for the SLA until they got back. That included "holding our weapons in safekeeping," and trying "to save money from their house painting to finance future military actions."
When Hearst and the Harrises returned to California, they decided the Sacramento area would be a safer place from which to wage revolution.
It was just 90 minutes from San Francisco, Hearst wrote, and "its great advantage was that neither we nor our new recruits" were well-known there.
But SLA revolutionaries were no longer interested in having their names and notorious logo — a seven-headed cobra — linked to their criminal activities. Shortly after the group re-formed in Sacramento, a string of bombings occurred in the San Francisco and LA areas, the credit for which was claimed by a heretofore unknown organization calling itself the New World Liberation Front.
Hearst told the FBI after her arrest that the SLA "used the NWLF signature for the dozens of bombings in 1974 and 1975," according to Vin McLellan's 1977 book about the SLA, "The Voices of Guns." No one was ever charged or convicted in the bombing campaign, although Hearst identified SLA members, including Kilgore, as participants in individual efforts to bomb squad cars and kill police officers.
The group spent much of its time in Sacramento engaging in petty crime to support themselves while planning bank robberies to obtain the money needed to support the revolution.
"Jim (Kilgore) and Kathy (Soliah) did not go out shopping as much as they went out shoplifting. They were masters at it. They came back with steaks and chops and fancy desserts," Hearst wrote.
She also said that Kilgore and Soliah visited health spas and city parks where they could "filch wallets, money and credit cards" from unattended pocketbooks in locker rooms, tennis bags and people's jackets.
"The money involved was not much," Hearst wrote, but stealing credit cards and checkbooks "allowed at least one major buying spree," where they bought, clothing, food, "even ammunition."
Hearst's and McLellan's books both state that the group began meticulous planning for a Feb. 25, 1975, robbery of the Guild Savings & Loan, which was selected because it was located outside the Sacramento city limits. That meant there would be a slower police response.
Although Kilgore was never prosecuted in connection with the Guild heist, reports indicate that two men — one of whom Hearst identified as Kilgore — entered the S&L, announced a robbery and made off with $3,700. Hearst said that Kilgore, who was armed with a sawed-off shotgun, kept a watch on the people in the bank while his partner cleaned out the drawers. Afterward, they jumped into a getaway car Hearst said was driven by Steven Soliah.
It took many months before authorities connected the Guild robbery to the SLA.
The Guild robbery whetted the group's appetite. Next, the SLA targeted the Crocker National Bank, located in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael.
But this time, all eight SLA members pitched in, either as robbers, getaway drivers or drivers of switch-cars used after abandoning the getaway vehicles. They used four vehicles — two rented and two stolen.
In a fit of feminist consciousness-raising, Emily Harris argued that it was sexist for the male SLA members to exclude the women from entering the bank.
So, joining Kilgore and ex-convict Michael Bortin on April 21, 1975 were two women, Kathy Soliah and Emily Harris. All were heavily armed, but in an effort to throw off investigators, the women were disguised as men.
They conducted what's called a "takeover" style robbery — rushing into the bank with guns waving, shouting threats, ordering customers to the floor and telling employees to turn over cash.
"This was not a robbery," Hearst told CNN's "Larry King Live" in 2002. "It was an expropriation. It was a combat operation."
Emily Harris fired a fatal shotgun blast into 42-year-old Myrna Lee Opsahl, a mother of four who was in the bank to deposit funds from her church. A doctor's wife, Opsahl was transported for treatment to the hospital where her husband worked. By the time Dr. Opsahl got to his wife's side, she was dead.
The gunmen made off with $15,000 in their multiple escape cars, one of which was driven by Hearst. She recalled that after the shooting "no one was bragging about the success of the venture." Hearst said she saw Kilgore about an hour later and remembers him being enraged that Harris had fired her weapon.
Calling Harris "nervous and incompetent," Kilgore complained bitterly that he was standing directly behind the shooting victim when she fired and that, "if he had been a bit out of alignment with (Opsahl), he would have caught some of the buckshot."
Although Opsahl's death was initially a source of angst among the group, it wasn't long before SLA members were laughing about her death and justifying it, Hearst wrote.
"The woman who was killed was a bourgeois pig — her husband was a doctor," Emily Harris is reported to have said, though she claimed the shotgun went off by accident.
Kilgore and his crew were charged in connection with only one death stemming from the robbery, but they actually snuffed out two lives that day. Court documents allege that during the robbery, Kilgore's girlfriend, Soliah, kicked a pregnant, non-resisting bank teller in the stomach, causing her to lose her unborn child through a miscarriage.
Authorities did not initially link the sensational crime to the SLA. They did, however, recover the getaway cars and process unidentified fingerprints of two suspects from the stolen license plates.
Months later, those prints would be linked to Kilgore and Steve Soliah. Steve Soliah was later tried in connection with the robbery. He was found not guilty.
Despite their shared revolutionary zeal and lust for violence, Hearst said the SLA members were not a happy group.
Hearst wrote that she, Kilgore and Soliah "were the first to leave Sacramento, relieved to get away from there and the Harrises." The "romance of being a revolutionary lost its glitter" for the so-called Berkeley group, she wrote, "at least for the time being." Eventually, they all moved back to the Bay Area, living in different safe houses.
Because Hearst and the Harrises were known fugitives, they had to lay low. But Kilgore and the others hadn't come to police attention. So they resumed normal activities, Kilgore and Steve Soliah returning to their painting business.
Before long, however, the old revolutionary spirit returned, Hearst wrote. Kilgore and Kathy Soliah began to press for some action — "bombings."
Years later, when Kilgore pleaded guilty to federal explosives charges, court documents alleged that he helped plan multiple bombings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and helped prepare a communique warning police "the next bomb may be under the seat of your car."
"Death to the Fascist Insect that Preys Upon the Life of the People," it concluded, reprising the SLA's famous slogan.
In addition to carrying out bombings at police stations, Hearst wrote, Bill Harris and Kilgore decided to bomb a San Francisco convention of the Veterans of Foreign War. "They walked into the convention meeting carrying a bomb in an attache case." But after becoming concerned that a security guard was watching them, they "decided to leave and try it again later," Hearst said.
The whole terror campaign was drawing to a close because the FBI had come up with the names of Kilgore and the Soliahs. They'd learned from Soliah's father that his son was involved in a painting business, and began running down contractors. They ultimately located an apartment complex where Kilgore and the Soliahs worked. They set up surveillance and followed them to separate apartments, where the Harrises and Hearst were staying.
Authorities arrested the Harrises when they returned from jogging. They arrested Hearst at her apartment on September 18, 1975.
"Incredibly, on the day of the arrest, the FBI had not thought to cover the apartment complex in Pacifica where they had first sighted the Soliahs on their painting jobs. So when our arrests were announced on radio and television, (Kilgore, Kathy Soliah and two others) took off and went underground," Hearst wrote.
Kilgore's days in the SLA were over. His 27-year life as a fugitive had just begun.
By the time Kilgore was arrested in 2002, he'd spent more than half his life on the run from the FBI.
Never completely free of fear that he'd be caught, Kilgore lived under an assumed name, lived in multiple countries overseas, obtained advanced degrees, held a series of academic jobs and, for the most part, hid in plain sight.
For most of that time, the FBI had no idea where he was. Its trail went cold in Seattle, where Kilgore picked up his alias.
According to a 2003 story by the British newspaper The Observer, Kilgore's first stop was Australia, where he launched his academic career — as John Pape, African history major at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Kilgore's resume includes a huge gap for that period.
In 1980, he left Melbourne — "suddenly" — for Zimbabwe, according to the Observer. It was the same African nation where Kathleen Soliah and her physician husband had lived, and reports suggest Kilgore may have picked it because of Soliah.
In Zimbabwe, Kilgore — as Pape — adopted an open, law-abiding lifestyle. He was active in radical campus politics but careful to avoid attracting police attention.
According to his resume, Kilgore remained in Zimbabwe until 1991, when he took a job as an economics lecturer in Khanya College in Johannesburg, South Africa. If his resume is to be believed, his responsibilities at Khanya quickly expanded to include "overall management and planning" of the college.
Ironically, it was at Khanya that Kilgore learned what it was like to be receiving end of acts of violence. According to The Observer, one of his teachers was assassinated in 1993, prompting Kilgore to do what he could to assist the man's friends and family.
His stay ended in 1998, when he accepted a new position at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
Kilgore was the co-director of the International Labour Research and Information Group for four years. But just a year into his tenure, his secret life as a fugitive began to slowly unravel.
On June 16, 1999, in an upscale neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn., a doctor's wife who called herself Sara Jane Olson hopped into her car to run errands and quickly found herself pulled over by police.
"I couldn't think of anything I had done," Olson later told the media.
But of course she could. Olson's real name was Kathy Soliah. Kilgore's one-time girlfriend began her life as a fugitive 24 years earlier.
She'd moved to Minnesota, taken on the alias, married a doctor, had three children, become active in the local theater and political scenes, and closely guarded her secret life.
Publicly, she kept up the act, expressing indignation over her arrest and describing herself "just an average American woman" as family and upper-crust friends put up a large sum of money to secure her release on bond.
Behind the scenes, however, Soliah's lawyer started negotiating two separate-but-interelated plea agreements for his client.
Soliah had the obvious incentive to deal. She faced decades in prison for the bombing spree, bank robbery and murder.
Prosecutors were also motivated to work out a plea, knowing that the passage of time had cost them witnesses and weakened their cases.
Because Soliah had hidden in Zimbabwe, authorities shifted their search for Kilgore to Africa.
It took months, then years to find him. But on Nov. 8, 2002, after more than a quarter-century on the run, Kilgore was taken into custody as he pulled up to his residence.
"Are you and James Kilgore the same person?" a South African police officer asked.
"Yes, that's me," Kilgore reportedly replied.
Kilgore's friends and neighbors were shocked to discover the truth. Friends and neighbors said "Pape," his wife and children were just a normal family. They showed up at his initial court appearance, cheering when he entered the room.
Kilgore smiled and gave the group a thumbs-up, according to news accounts.
The day before his arrest, four defendants, including Soliah, pleaded guilty in California state court to second-degree murder charges stemming from the bank robbery and death of Myrna Opsahl.
SLA members were concerned that they might face a "gas chamber prosecution." In the end, however, they were recipients of minimal prison sentences, considering their crimes. The plea agreement, however, also included a required public apology.
Emily Harris told the court, "I just hope by telling the truth that it brings some relief to the family, them knowing that I'm taking responsibility."
She was sentenced to eight years in prison. Bill Harris, her former husband, was sentenced to seven. Olson and Michael Bortin received six years each.
After being assured he would receive the same lenient sentence as his cohorts, Kilgore waived extradition and returned to California, where he pleaded guilty to explosives and passport charges in federal court and to second-degree murder charges in state court.
"I apologize with all my heart to the Opsahl family," Kilgore said at a May 2003 court hearing.
He said it was "never my intention" to see anyone harmed in the robbery carried out by him and his heavily armed companions. He was ordered to pay restitution to the Opsahl family and served about seven years for the state and federal violations.
When Kilgore was paroled in May 2009, news reports quoted California prison officials describing him as a model inmate who tutored others. He also wrote a novel in prison. Entitled "We Are All Zimbabweans Now," the political thriller was Kilgore's first publication released under his real name.
He has since published two other novels. "Prudence Couldn't Swim" is the story of an ex-convict who discovers his wife drowned in a swimming pool and suspects murder. "Freedom Never Rests" is a novel about the "complexities of post-1994 politics in South Africa."
Teresa Barnes, Kilgore's wife, joined the UI faculty in July 2008, holding dual appointments in the History and Gender and Women's Studies departments. Following his release from prison, Kilgore soon gained employment at the UI.
A spokeswoman said he started working at the UI in January 2010. Since then, he has held a variety of posts, including lecturer, and academic hourly positions in Urban and Regional Planning, International Studies and the Center for African Studies.
Kilgore currently teaches Global Studies 296, which concerns issues of "wealth and poverty in a globalized world."
In his private life, Kilgore joined Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Freedom, a leftist organization devoted to social justice. Another group he joined, Citizens with Conviction, aims to bolster the rights of formerly incarcerated people.
In his application to the county board's Justice Task Force, he contended that his criminal history would provide a useful perspective.
"... I have an insider's view of criminal justice by virtue of having served six and a half years in federal and state prisons, one year on parole with home confinement and two years on federal supervised release," Kilgore wrote on his Feb. 29, 2012, application.
Berkson, the county board member, said she has no regrets about appointing him to the jail advisory committee. She said she was aware of his criminal history and urged people to read Kilgore's novels, because "he's a good writer."
Berkson also expressed resentment about being asked about Kilgore's past.
"He has made the transition, and I think it's time we start letting felons make that transition," she said. "He's a scholar, a writer and a very bright fellow. He's helping people make the transition from prison to civic life."
Alan Kalmanoff, the county's jail consultant from the Berkeley, Calif.-based Institute for Law and Policy Planning, said that he, too, was impressed by Kilgore, calling him a "very intelligent guy."
"He's not a typical ex-con," said Kalmanoff, noting that Kilgore's criminal activities were motivated by his desire to overthrow the federal government.
Kalmanoff felt a personal link to the SLA crime wave. He was a student at Cal-Berkeley when gunmen broke into Hearst's apartment, beat her boyfriend into submission and carried her off.
"She was kidnapped five blocks from my house," Kalmanoff recalled.
Kilgore turned down The News-Gazette's request to discuss his personal history.
"I respectfully decline your invitation to discuss my past for a story," he said in an email.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.