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SLA Fugitive Found a Place to Hide and Live Openly

In South Africa, one view of James Kilgore was, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'

November 25, 2002|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — For a radical leftist accused of murder and terrorism in America, southern Africa was a good place to hide. In a society making a transition from apartheid, it was easy to blend into a world where lots of people had pasts they'd rather not discuss.

Here James Kilgore, a former member of the anti-government Symbionese Liberation Army and a fugitive for 26 years, left behind his radical militancy for a robust career as a neo-Marxist researcher and activist.

While on the run, he taught school in Zimbabwe, married an American woman and earned a doctorate through correspondence courses. At the birth of post-apartheid South Africa, Kilgore settled in Cape Town under an assumed name, but otherwise lived an active public life.

The man South Africans know as John Pape has a national profile among unionists. For more than a decade, Kilgore held seminars for union members and published books and essays and sent letters to the editors of newspapers on poverty, union activism and global capitalism. He worked for a prestigious, left-leaning university think tank in the Cape Town community of Woodstock.

In this relatively affluent, seaside resort town, Kilgore found a lifestyle very much like what he had had as a youth in Northern California. He raised his family in the comfortable suburb of Claremont, rode in an annual long-distance bicycle race, doted on his two sons, now 8 and 12, and became an avid soccer and cricket fan.

He joined the once-outlawed African National Congress and counted among his friends some of the most powerful people in the country: academics, politicians and national union leaders in a society where Marxism is still credible and labor shares power with government.

After his arrest Nov. 8 on charges of possessing a pipe bomb and participating in the 1975 killing of Myrna Opsahl during a botched Sacramento bank robbery to fund SLA activities, a number of Kilgore's friends showed up for two court hearings to support him and his family. They have even set up a John Pape Legal Fund to pay for lawyers here and in New York as they negotiate with U.S. prosecutors over his impending return to America. The search for Kilgore had intensified in 1999 after federal investigators arrested another SLA fugitive, Katherine Ann Soliah, who had changed her name to Sara Jane Olson. She was charged with planting two pipe bombs underneath Los Angeles police cruisers in 1975.

Investigators later learned that she had hidden in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and began to suspect that Kilgore -- her former boyfriend -- had also been there. But he did not emerge until a few weeks ago, after Olson and three other former SLA members pleaded guilty to the Sacramento crimes. Kilgore's attorney has suggested he is prepared to also plead guilty to those state charges, but it is unclear if a deal can be reached on the federal pipe bomb allegation.

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Militancy to Activism

More than disappointment, South Africans who know Kilgore -- and many who don't -- see in the former SLA leader's story their own national narrative: from brash militancy to mature activism, then to resignation and contrition.

"South Africa is a nation full of secrets," said Rick De Satge, a rural development consultant to the government and a family friend for 20 years.

"If you go down to a suburb or to a township and start pulling people out of homes and ask them, 'What is your history?' you're going to find people who were in the defense forces and committed civil rights abuses. You're going to find people in the townships who executed suspected collaborators with very little evidence. You're going to find government officials involved in forced removals of people from their homes, decisions that resulted in the deaths of thousands.

"There's a lot of blood on the hands of South African people," De Satge said. "You could almost describe South Africa as a nation of fugitives."

Despite their close friendship, De Satge said he did not know anything about Kilgore's SLA past until several weeks ago, when Kilgore contacted U.S. authorities about returning to America to face the charges against him.

Still unclear is whether Kilgore will return under a quick agreement between the United States and South Africa or whether he will go through full extradition proceedings -- a process that could take two months.

South African law prohibits jailhouse interviews, and Kilgore's wife, Theresa Barnes, declined to comment when approached at home. Kilgore's friends and co-workers say they were surprised by the news of his alleged involvement in the SLA murder, but not dismayed.

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