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Judge Delays Hearing on Extradition of SLA Fugitive

James W. Kilgore appears in a South Africa courtroom filled with supporters as his attorney negotiates on plea.

November 12, 2002|Gorrel Espelund and Eric Bailey | Special to the Times

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — After a quarter-century spent dodging a dark past, James W. Kilgore appeared in a courtroom Monday as U.S. authorities sought his return to face charges from his days with the radical Symbionese Liberation Army.

Kilgore, 55 and balding, smiled and gave a thumbs-up to weepy and applauding supporters, who knew him as C.W. "John" Pape during his stint as a senior researcher at the University of Cape Town.

"He is well, he is healthy and he is strong and bearing up," Michael Evans, Kilgore's lawyer, said after the hearing.

U.S. officials are seeking Kilgore's extradition on pipe-bomb charges and accusations of participating in a 1975 Sacramento bank robbery and slaying with the SLA, the violent anti-government group best known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst.

A judge put off the extradition hearing until Friday so Kilgore's New York attorney could continue plea bargain negotiations with federal officials on the explosives case. County prosecutors in Sacramento appear to be set to offer Kilgore a six-year sentence in a deal similar to the ones two other SLA members got last week. They pleaded guilty in the murder.

In addition, Kilgore's lawyers in South Africa are waiting to review the formal extradition request from the U.S.

"By Friday, things will be much clearer," Evans said.

He refused to discuss whether Kilgore's family was aware of his past with the SLA.

Terri Barnes, Kilgore's wife, tearfully hugged her husband as he emerged from the holding cells beneath the courtroom. One spectator called out: "Viva John!"

After the brief appearance, Kilgore left the courtroom as he had entered it -- to applause from dozens of supporters. Kilgore will remain in custody at Bellville police station.

Defense attorneys who represented the other SLA members said Kilgore was ready to turn himself in last Friday when South African police made the arrest, one day after the other SLA defendants pleaded guilty in the killing of Myrna Opsahl.

"My understanding is, he was ready, willing and able to surrender on his own, and was in the process of purchasing plane tickets," said Charles Bourdon, a San Francisco defense attorney. "The irony is, if they had left it alone, he probably would have been in federal custody in San Francisco today."

Instead, U.S. officials will have to pursue the more cumbersome route of filing a formal extradition request. One defense attorney said the process -- an arcane, formal effort that must meander through multiple agencies in both countries -- could take three to eight weeks.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, Brian Penn, said an extradition application for Kilgore was being prepared in the United States and would be sent to South Africa after being checked by the Justice and State Departments.

One initial obstacle was concern in South Africa that Kilgore might face the death penalty, which is banned under Pretoria's constitution. But U.S. officials have assured their South African counterparts that Kilgore is not charged with a capital offense.

A police spokeswoman, Mary Martins-Engelbrecht, said Kilgore had been arrested by South Africa's Interpol unit after more than a week of surveillance.

"The Americans sent us pictures and a fingerprint, which we matched before approaching him," she said. "We had to have proof of who he was before we alerted him or he could have left the country with us unable to stop him."

Martins-Engelbrecht said police had acquired Kilgore's fingerprints to match against the sample sent from the United States. She declined to say how.

FBI officials, likewise, wouldn't go into detail about how they had found Kilgore, who had been out of sight for decades. They chalked it up to hard gumshoe efforts.

Neighbors, colleagues and friends expressed shock over the arrest.

"The only thing I can say is that John Pape was a good man," said Uta Lehmann, who questioned why someone could still be held responsible for crimes committed 27 years ago. "Times have changed, but it's not for me to decide. I am very worried about his wife and children."

Kilgore lived in Claremont, a middle-class suburb. The family's home, on a narrow street that ends in a cul-de-sac, is well kept, a cream-colored single-story house behind a wooden fence. Kilgore had lived there five years with his wife and two boys, ages 12 and 10.

Friends said he used to go bicycling a lot and played soccer and cricket with his boys.

Kilgore's wife, also an American, is a history instructor at the University of Western Cape. Kilgore was employed, under his South African pseudonym, on a yearly contract basis as a senior researcher at the International Labour Resource and Information Group at the University of Cape Town.

Shireen Sedres, a university spokeswoman, said colleagues had been shocked when they learned of Kilgore's past.

"People were stunned and saddened," Sedres said. "His reputation was that of an outstanding researcher and a warm individual."

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