international intrigue

These 5 American Fugitives Are Hiding in Cuba

Clockwise: Assata Shakur, William Morales, and Victor Manuel Gerena. Photo: Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Time Life Pictures/Fbi/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Wednesday’s announcement that Obama administration officials have brokered the release of an American citizen held in Cuba was heralded as a breakthrough in many corners of the world. But for one particular group of people, this development could mean the end of a long-held island refuge where they were able to escape the reach of American law.

As many as 70 Americans are currently fugitives in Cuba, part of a tradition that dates back decades. Among them are some of the most-wanted Americans ever, including suspects in the deaths of law enforcement agents. They have been able to live in relative quiet and comfort thanks to the distrust between the U.S. and their chosen home. (Indeed, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden was rumored to be considering Cuba as a permanent home as well — one certainly much warmer than the Russian capital.)

Almost as soon as the announcement about resuming diplomatic relations came down, New Jersey police officials began angling for the return and prosecution of Assata Shakur, who is wanted in the 1973 murder of a state trooper. “We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States to finish her sentence,” said New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes. “We stand by the reward money and hope that the total of $2 million will prompt fresh information in the light of this altered international relationship.”

Below, meet five of the fugitives who may finally be brought back to the U.S.:

1. Joanne Chesimard, a.k.a. Assata Shakur
Shakur was accused — and convicted — of murdering a New Jersey state trooper named Werner Foerster during a traffic stop. She was sentenced to life in prison for the 1973 incident, but later escaped and made her way to Cuba. A member of the Black Liberation Army, she had long been on law enforcement’s radar and the FBI has placed her on its most-wanted list. It is offering a $1 million reward for her capture — which is being matched by New Jersey. Shakur denies shooting the trooper, and was granted asylum in Cuba in 1984.

2. Charlie Hill
In 1971, a state trooper caught Hill and two other members of the Republic of New Afrika group transporting arms and explosives in New Mexico. One of the three killed the trooper (Hill will not say who), and they quickly hijacked a plane from the Albuquerque airport to Cuba. Now Hill’s friends are dead, and he’s still on the lam in Havana. He spoke to the New York Times in 2007 about a post-Fidel Cuba: “I don’t think there will be much change if Fidel dies,” Hill said. “There might be, but I think it’s 60-40 that not much will happen. If it does, well, what can I do?”

3. Victor Manuel Gerena
Gerena has been on the FBI’s most-wanted list for more than 30 years, after he and gang members allegedly committed a $7 million robbery at a Wells Fargo facility. He is believed to have gone to Mexico, and, from there, boarded a flight to Cuba. He maintains a low profile nowadays, and not much is known about his whereabouts.

4. William Morales
Morales is believed to be a leader of the armed Puerto Rican independence movement FALN, which set of a series of bombs in New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s. He also has one of the more creative escape stories: Morales was captured after blowing his hands to pieces while making a bomb, but nevertheless managed to climb down a bandage he threw out of a Bellevue Hospital window. A 99-year sentence awaits him if he is returned to the U.S.

5. Ishmael LaBeet
LaBeet, a Vietnam War veteran, was convicted of killing eight people in St. Croix in 1972, for which he got eight life sentences. Because St. Croix is one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, LaBeet was transferred to a more secure mainland prison to serve out his sentence, but managed to escape while on his way back to St. Croix for a civil trial. He overpowered his guards and hijacked a passenger jet to get to Cuba, with 198 people onboard. 

These 5 American Fugitives Are Hiding in Cuba