>Published Sunday, October 22, 2000 > ><http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/alameda/oakland/stories/sjpratt_20001022.htm> > > >Inside an FBI frame-up: story of a Black Panther >'Geronimo ji Jaga' Pratt served 27 years for a Santa Monica murder committed >while he was in Oakland >By Dan Reed >SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS > >MORGAN CITY, La. -- Amid the worn shanties and shops in this humid, buggy >bayou town lives a revolutionary and future multimillionaire -- a man once >accused of such vile crimes as the Charles Manson-led "Helter Skelter" >massacre, of the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, of conspiring >to hijack a school bus and behead the children on board, and of the >cold-blooded killing of a woman on a Santa Monica tennis court. > >His name is Elmer Pratt, now Geronimo ji Jaga. The highly decorated Vietnam >veteran spent 27 years -- just over half his life -- in a penitentiary, where >he withstood years of abuse. > >He was a Black Panther, a group labeled "the greatest threat to the internal >security of the country," in a memo by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI >when Pratt was arrested. > >And, he was framed. > >The story of how Pratt became the victim of a secret government >"counterintelligence" campaign is told in a just-published biography, "Last >Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt," by the noted writer >Jack Olsen. > >In July, the Los Angeles City Council approved its share of a $4.5 million >settlement for his wrongful incarceration in the tennis court case. The rest >came from the FBI, which hid evidence as it waged a now-well-documented >campaign against players in the civil rights, anti-war and other movements >considered politically radical in the late '60s and early '70s. Pratt has yet >to see the money, although it will come. > >Now, three years after winning his release, the former officer in the >Oakland-based Black Panther Party is back home in swampy Morgan City, caring >for his frail 97-year-old mother, who had prayed daily for his release, and >trying to build a social center from the town's old "colored" high school and >denouncing injustice as he sees it. > >These days, he often longs to slip away into the bayous for a calming day of >bass fishing, trying to make bad memories fade. But always, he's under >pressure as a spokesman, as a symbol of the fight against government >injustice. > >"He went into prison a revolutionary and came out a revolutionary," said >Olsen, who spent long hours with Pratt while researching his book. > >Johnnie Cochran, the attorney for O.J. Simpson who represented Pratt for >years, said recently it was his most important case ever. > >If the U.S. Supreme Court had not temporarily suspended capital punishment as >unconstitutional in the early 1970s -- the era in which Pratt, originally >accused of a death penalty offense for the tennis court killing, was tried -- >the government likely would have executed an innocent man, said several >observers. > >On this day in Morgan City, Pratt is particularly agitated, fuming into his >cell phone about an apparently racially motivated fire bombing in Selma, >Ala., the site of the "Bloody Sunday" voting rights march. "It's the same old >racism, the same thing as in 1965," he said. > >Soon, he and his coterie -- like-minded friends in the civil rights movement >-- would be on a flight there, talking to locals, trying to buoy their >spirits. A few days later, he would be off to Washington, D.C., testifying >before the Congressional Black Caucus about the FBI's dirty tricks campaign >called Cointelpro -- counterintelligence programs -- to determine whether >others are wrongly still behind bars because of it. > >In Pratt's case, the FBI tried to undermine the Black Panthers by planting >letters that convinced the group's already-paranoid leaders -- namely the >Huey Newton faction -- that Pratt was against them. So, they refused to >testify he was in Oakland -- he was there for a leadership meeting -- the >night of the tennis court murder. The FBI wiretapped Panther meetings, >documents later released under the federal Freedom of Information Act show, >but the logs for that one night are mysteriously missing. > >Yet Wes Swearington, a former FBI agent interviewed by Olsen, remembers >seeing the transcripts, and says they proved Pratt was in Oakland -- not >Santa Monica -- the night of the killing. > >Though Olson refers to him as a "peaceful" revolutionary, Pratt was never >much a supporter of the aggressive non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. >Instead, he took to the teachings of Malcolm X, believing armed struggle may >be necessary to rebuff racial oppressors. He has killed, firing in heavy >combat in his two tours in Vietnam. He is only now talking about how he put >his military training to use back home -- secretly traveling to cities, >teaching black groups how to use weapons in case they came under attack. > >Now, given the perspective of years, the man with skin the color of buffed >oak -- African, Indian and white blood -- is nearly at peace. His face is >marked by two distinguishing chicken pox scars. At 53, his body is compact >and powerfully built. Each morning he jogs five miles. > >Today, he's wearing a T-shirt and baggy shorts. He fumbles with Wal-mart >reading glasses; on the top of one lens is a strip of tape that says, >"office." > >"Everyone keeps borrowing them," said Pratt, chuckling at the explanation. He >laughs easily at himself and is astonishingly philosophical about his time in >prison, which included eight years in "the hole," a concrete box, as he >describes it, about four feet by seven feet. No bunk, no window, no sunshine, >no sink. A hole for a toilet. > >Now, a free man, he stands as a martyr for the wrongly accused and spends >many days attempting to make up for time lost. > >"I've been trying to be there for my mother, who I wasn't there for for 27 >years ... to give her birthday presents, to take her out to dinner," he said >as he sat in the office dedicated to his new cause, the Kuji Foundation. It >was created to turn the old Morgan City Colored High School, his alma mater >and now a jail, into a social center. > >"I've asked the (civil rights) movement to please give me a minute with my >mother, and everybody says, 'Sure, that's beautiful,' and then they turn >around and call me the next day. 'I need you here, I need you there.'" > >He and his mother, Eunice, share a stately antebellum house in Morgan City, >painted yellow with white trim. Columns support a front-and-side deck. It's >not so far from where he grew up, a shotgun house in a neighborhood near the >Atchafalaya River called Across The Tracks, then the Negro section of town. > >Even though the Ku Klux Klan had outposts in the region, his upbringing was >generally idyllic. Pratt's father was a junkman, who enlisted his boys -- >Elmer was the baby in a family of seven -- to haul his findings to New >Orleans, 99 miles from home. > >He remembers one frightening encounter with the Klan. On a Halloween night, >he, his brother Timothy and a friend, at the time about 10 or 11 years old, >were trick-or-treating -- Geronimo, dressed as the pirate Jean Lafitte. >Unknown to them, some black kids had jumped some white kids and taken their >candy. A Klan family went riding, looking for revenge on the first blacks >they could find. > >"We got to running, and they caught my brother Tim," beating him badly, Pratt >recalled. > >He said Tim still suffers epileptic seizures brought on by injuries to his >brain. > >As a boy, Geronimo was a crack shot, and that helped scratch up extra cash. >"When I was young," he said, "I'd come back with 75 rabbits, 20 or 30 coons. >Man, that's good money. I'd sell them to the markets, and they would take >them to New Orleans. Or sell them to people in the community -- two dollars >clean, dollar-fifty unclean." > >A star quarterback in high school, he dreamed of going to Grambling State >University. But the community's elders -- senior, respected men who looked >out for the black population -- had other ideas for their young men. It was >the mid-1960s; the country was in ferment. The elders felt they needed a new >generation trained in the ways of war, in case the already bloody civil >rights movement took a turn for the worse. > >"They said it wasn't time to go to college right now," Pratt recalls. "There >was a lot of things happening." > >He didn't expect Vietnam, but he fought there valiantly, earning 18 medals, >two of them Purple Hearts. "Those are the ones that hurt," he says, lifting >his arm to show where a piece of grenade shrapnel still pushes its way from >under his skin. > >After two tours, Pratt believed he'd get a cushy military job. But the elders >said no. > >"When they killed Martin Luther King, the elders said to get out. Not only to >me, but all across the nation, black people were getting out of the army, >coming to their communities, arming themselves." > >On a trip to Los Angeles, he hooked up with fellow Louisianan Alprentice >"Bunchy" Carter, founder of the Black Panthers' local chapter. The pair >quickly became friends. It was Bunchy who gave him the nickname Geronimo. >Pratt adopted the name ji Jaga while he was in prison. > >After Carter was fatally shot in a fight with a competing group -- documents >suggest the fissure might have been fostered by the FBI's Cointelpro -- >Panther leaders found a tape Carter left. It instructed them to turn over to >Pratt his role as deputy minister of defense, making Pratt one of the key >people in the chapter. > >It was 1968, King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, riots erupted at >the Democratic convention in Chicago, and Hoover stepped up his campaign >against so-called subversive groups. In one agency memo, dated Nov. 25 of >that year, Hoover ordered his agents to submit "imaginative and hardhitting >measures aimed at crippling the BPP," according to Hoover biographer Curt >Gentry. Such dirty tricks included anonymous mailings, paid informants, >burglaries, surveillances, taps, bugs and mail openings, Gentry wrote. > >And as soon as Los Angeles authorities realized Pratt's flashy, >red-over-white GTO belonged to a Panther, Pratt said, the harassment started. >He was one of about two dozen members arrested in a predawn police raid on a >Panther home that sparked a long shootout. When Charles Manson's "family" >slaughtered seven people, Pratt was picked up for the grisly killings, he >said. > >"They locked me in a cell and told me I was being investigated for a series >of murders," he said. "They did this a lot to get me out of commission -- >until the lawyers showed up." > >He figured his arrest in the 1968 tennis court slaying, a woman shot during a >robbery, was another setup that would quickly go away. > >It didn't. It went to trial. And the deck was stacked. > >Cochran was the young Los Angeles lawyer appointed to defend Pratt in 1971. >This year, he finally finished the job, settling Pratt's civil suit against >the government. He proved that authorities withheld information from the >defense, including that the key prosecution witness was a government >informant. Pratt insisted a conspiracy existed to convict him, but Cochran >didn't believe, then, the government would stoop to such dirty play. > >"He was right, I was wrong," Cochran says now. "There's no question about it. >I had no idea they were following him, wiretapping phones." > >The harassment continued even after he was imprisoned, he says -- beatings, >the hole. > >At one point, word was passed that he'd orchestrated from the hole a plan to >hijack a bus carrying the children of prison guards -- beheading one a day >until demands were met. No such hijacking ever occurred. > >Even though prison authorities later admitted Pratt had no role in the plan, >the accusation stayed in his prison folder for years, making him a target of >guards' wrath. Another time, as Cochran stood by, FBI agents offered him >$500,000 and free passage to Algiers, where Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver >was living in self-exile, if Pratt would tell them where his people had >stashed kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. > >"What about the lady I supposedly killed on the tennis courts?" Pratt asked, >according to Olsen's book. "Oh, everybody knows you're clean," one of the >agents replied. > >A radical young law student named Stuart Hanlon -- unencumbered by Cochran's >faith in the system -- then took up the case, sticking with it and working >with Cochran off and on all these years. A breakthrough came from the 1976 >Church Committee Senate hearings in Washington, which revealed the FBI's >Cointelpro program of dirty tricks. > >"I believed the FBI was framing people before Cointelpro ever happened," said >Hanlon, a Bay Area lawyer. "The Church Committee report came out and it all >started to make sense." > >Still, even as evidence pointing toward a frame-up mounted, the government >fought hard at every court hearing. To Hanlon and the army of volunteers >behind the swelling "Free Geronimo Pratt" campaign, it was clear: Pratt was a >political prisoner. "He was prosecuted and framed because he was a Panther," >Hanlon says. > >Given the radical politics, it was perhaps ironic that it finally took a >conservative judge from Orange County to order his conviction "reversed and >remanded for further proceedings." Los Angeles District Attorney Gil >Garcetti, much to the disgust of Pratt and his attorneys, dithered for months >before deciding to not pursue the case further. Garcetti did not answer a >phone message for comment. Neither did the FBI's San Francisco office. > >Freedom? "It was like surreal, whooooooooo! It was like, this is not real, >I'm going to be back in in a minute," Pratt recently remembered, laughing >hard.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : 10/23/00 EDT