The Brinks Robbery - 20 Oct 1981
On October 20, 1981, a Brinks Company armored car was robbed of $1,589,000 in cash that it was preparing to transfer from the Nanuet National Bank in Clarkstown, N.Y. One of the guards of the Brinks truck was killed in the robbery at- tempt and two other guards were severely wounded when the perpetrators opened fire with shotguns. In an attempted escape from the scene of the robbery and murder, one of the vehicles bearing the perpetrators was stopped in a collision, and a second was stopped at a police roadblock. A third was suc- cessful in escaping. The occupants of the first vehicle were arrested. The occupants of the second vehicle opened fire on Nyack, N.Y., police at the roadblock and killed two policemen. The suspects then fled, although one occupant was arrested. The stolen funds were recovered by police the same day from the vehicles.
Those arrested on the day of the Brinks robbery were (1) Katherine Boudin, a member of the WUO and a fugitive since 1970; (2) Samuel Brown, with no known political background but a record of arrests in New York City dating to 1958; (3) Judith Alice Clark, a former member of the WUO and a current member of the MCO; and (4) David Joseph Gilbert, also a member of the WUO and a fugitive. In addition to these arrests, a number of suspects were apprehended in the following days.
Tracing the license plates and descriptions involved in robbery, murders, and escape attempts led police to a series of apartments evidently used as "safehouses' by the gang. Two of these safehouses had been used by Marilyn Jean Buck, described as "quartermaster' of the BLA. These apartments were found to contain weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, false documents and disguises, lists of police of ficers and floor plans of area police stations, and radical political literature. The safehouses had been abandoned short- ly before the police search, but evidence contained in them contributed to subsequent arrests.
On October 27, 1981, Cynthia Boston (aka Fulani Sunni-Ali), "minister of information' of the RNA, was arrested at RNA headquarters in Gallman, Mississippi. Boston and her common law husband, William Johnson (aka Bilal Sunni-Ali) had been identified from photographs by witnesses as having visited the safehouses, and a vehicle found at the RNA headquarters had been identified as having been present at one of the safehouses shortly after the Brinks robbery.
In the course of 1982 and 1983 a total of eleven suspects were arrested and indicted on federal or state charges growing out of the Brinks robbery and triple murders. After lengthy and expensive trials in the spring and summer of 1983, several convictions were obtained. On September 3, 1983, Sekou Odinga (t/n Nathaniel Burns), a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, and Silvia Baraldini, “national treasurer' of the MCO, were convicted on federal charges of conspiracy and racketeering that included the Brinks robbery and murders, a robbery and murder in the Bronx in 1981, and the escape of BLA leader Joanne Chesimard from prison in 1979. Two other defendants, Cecil Ferguson and Edward L. Joseph (a former member of the Black Panther Party and the BLA), were convicted on the same day as accessories, and defendants Iliana Robinson and Bilal Sunni-Ali (t/n William R. Johnson), were acquitted.
On February 15, 1984, Odinga and Baraldini received sentences of 40 years imprisonment and a fine of $50,000; Ferguson and Joseph were sentenced to twelve and a half years. On September 14, 1983, Judith A. Clark, David J. Gilbert, and Kuwasi Balagoon (t/n Donald Weems, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the BLA) were convicted on state charges of two counts of first degree armed robbery and three counts of second degree murder. On October 6, 1983, the three convicted defendants were each sentenced to three consecutive terms of 25 years imprisonment and concurrent terms of twelve and a half to 25 years imprisonment for armed robbery.
Two other defendants, Katherine Boudin and Samuel Brown, were scheduled to be tried separately on state charges of murder and armed robbery. On April 26, 1984, Boudin entered a plea of guilty to the charges and on May 3 was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. On June 14, 1984, Brown was convicted of state charges of murder and armed robbery and on June 26 was sentenced to three consecutive prison terms of 25 years to life. Another suspect in the Brinks robbery, Samuel Smith (aka Mtayari Shabaka Sundiata, a member of the BLA) was killed by police in New York City on October 23, 1981 after he had fired on police officers seeking to arrest him. A .38 caliber bullet found in Smith's pocket after his death was later shown to have come from the gun of one of the police officers killed in the Brinks escape attempt.
Despite these convictions, the failure of the Brinks robbery, and the disruption of the network that the arrests and investigations caused, the Brinks incident was not an isolated crime, and some of its principal alleged perpetrators remained at large. Law enforcement authorities pointed to at least five earlier successful or attempted armed robberies in the same area as the one in Clarkstown with a modus operandi similar to that of the Brinks robbery.
At least three major suspects in the Brinks-related cases remained at large: Joanne Chesimard (aka Assata Shakur, a leader of the BLA); Jeral Wayne Williams (aka Mutulu Shakur, also a member of the BLA and RNA); and Marilyn Jean Buck of the BLA. The terrorist, as opposed to the criminal or mercenary, nature of the Brinks robbery and related crimes became apparent from the political affiliations and associations of several of the leading suspects as well as from the materials discovered in the safehouses. Aside from linkages among the WUO, the BLA, and the RNA, an additional connection to West coast terrorist activity was also revealed.
The organizational support for the Brinks robbery as well as its political and terrorist character became clear on November 2, 1981 when the MCO and the RNA held a press conference "to extend our full solidarity to the captured combatants, the Black Liberation movement and in particular the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika' (in the words of the MCO statement). The RNA expressed its solidarity with and support for the BLA and for "armed struggle," although it denied any connection between the Brinks robbery and the RNA. On November 5, 1981, the BLA itself issued a communique that began: On October 20th 1981, under the leadership of the Black Liberation Army, Black Freedom Fighters, and North American Anti-Imperialists, all members of the Revolutionary Armed Task Force, attempted an act of expropriation of 1.6 million dollars from an armored Brinks truck.
The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC), a WUO aboveground support group founded in 1977, issued a special edition of its newsletter, "Death to the Klan", in which it also expressed support for the perpetrators of the Brinks robbery, which it termed an "attempted expropriation' and noted that “We made an error... by referring to the attempted expropriation as the Brinks "robbery". We know that the use of this term contributes to the state's strategy of criminalizing a revolutionary act." (It may be noted that the term "expropriation' was used by both Lenin and the Brazilian terrorist Carlos Marighella to describe armed robberies committed to obtain funds for the financing of terrorist and underground activities).
Details of the background, organization, and purposes of the “Revolutionary Armed Task Force' were revealed during the trial of the Brinks defendants in the testimony of Tyrone Rison, a 36 year old convict currently serving a 12 year prison term for bank robbery in Georgia. Rison agreed to testify after pleading guilty to the armed robbery of an armored car in the Bronx on June 2, 1981 and to cooperate with federal authorities in the Brinks case. Rison testified on May 2, 1983 that he had been recruited into a group called "The Family" at meetings of the RNA by Mutulu Shakur in 1976.
Rison identified defendants Nathaniel Burns, Silvia Baraldini, William R. Johnson, Cecil Ferguson, and Edward L. Joseph as members of The Family. In later statements Rison described the leadership of this group as "The Action Five," consisting of himself, Shakur, Burns, Donald Weems, and Samuel Smith. This group had supervised or participated in armed robberies or attempted robberies as early as 1976 in Pittsburgh as well as robberies of a credit union in Arlington, Virginia, the Brinks robbery, and others. Rison also provided a detailed account of the escape of Joanne Chesimard from the Clinton, N.J., Correctional Facility on November 2, 1979.
Rison, Burns, and Shakur, as well as Baraldini, assisted Chesimard's escape from prison, where she was serving a life term for the murder of a state trooper in 1973. On November 2, 1979, Burns, using false identification, was able to smuggle a revolver to Chesimard inside the prison. Following her escape, she was taken to a safehouse in New Jersey that was raided by police after the Brinks robbery two years later, given money from earlier robberies, and provided a plane ticket to the Bahamas.
Rison also described in his testimony an organization established in 1979 by Shakur as a front for the robberies and for illegal narcotics traffic. This organization, known as the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America (BAAANA) was located in Harlem, and according to the FBI it served as a planning center for the robberies as well as a distribution center for cocaine and other drugs. According to Rison, the funds from the robberies were turned over to Shakur. As much as $100,000 from stolen funds may have been used for drugs and for living expenses by the group. It was from BAAANA that the perpetrators of the Brinks robbery itself allegedly left before carrying out the robbery and murders.
It was also Shakur who served as the principal link between the blacks and the white radicals in the network, according to Rison. Rison also was specific on the political motivations of the crimes. Shakur had originally recruited him, he testified, by asking him, "will I be willing to commit robberies to give money to the black people?"
Although the Brinks robbery itself was originally intended to benefit the members of the group, according to Rison, Nathaniel Burns objected to this, saying, "We're not just going out robbing to put money in our pocket. Our purpose is to rob for black people, as a mass of people, to channel the money back into the neighborhoods." As a result of Burns's argument, it was decided by the goup that the money from the Brinks robbery would "go to the political struggle, just like any other robbery.”
Additional evidence of a link between the series of armed robberies in the New York area and the Weather Underground and its remnants was derived from false identifications used to rent vehicles that were involved in these robberies. It was discovered, for example, that the identifications of two legitimate citizens were used to obtain driver's licenses by persons who later rented vans used in two of these robberies (an attempted robbery in Greenburgh, NY, on February 20, 1980, and a successful robbery of $500,000 in Inwood, Long Island, on March 22, 1980).
The legitimate citizens whose identifications were used had, in December 1979, purchased items at aboutique in Manhattan known as "Broadway Baby.” Their identifications were used shortly after shopping at the boutique by other unknown persons to obtain false driver's licenses, and these licenses were used later to rent vehicles involved in the robberies. From September 1979 until February 1980 the manager of Broadway Baby was Bernardine Dohrn, a founding member and leader of the Weather Underground until her surfacing on December 3, 1980 in Illinois.
A fingerprint found on the application for a duplicate driver's license used to rent a van involved in a June 2, 1981 armed robbery and murder in the Bronx was established as being that of David Gilbert, and the handwriting on this application is identical to that on another application for rental of a van used in the escape of Joanne Chesimard. A copy of a rental agreement in the false name of "Judith Schneider." an alias used to rent a vehicle involved in the Brinks robbery of October 20, was found in the apartment of Katharine Boudin after her arrest.
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