- Member of the Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist group in the 1970s
Born on July 30, 1947, James William Kilgore was the son of a prosperous California lumber dealer. In the 1960s he attended UC Santa Barbara, where he was active in the anti-war protest movement and became the boyfriend of an education major named Kathleen Soliah. After graduating from college in 1969, Kilgore moved (with Soliah) to a commune in Monterey. The couple then relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where they made acquaintance with local radicals like Angela Atwood, who in the early ’70s was a founding member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a Marxist-Leninist terror cult that sought to overthrow the U.S. government by means of guerrilla warfare.
Kilgore and Soliah themselves joined the SLA in 1974. Initially, they were tasked with renting safe houses and procuring food (mostly via shoplifting) for their fellow cult members. Throughout 1974-75, Kilgore took part in a number of SLA crimes in the Bay Area, including the April 21, 1975 armed robbery of Crocker Bank in Carmichael, California. His accomplices inside the bank were Kathleen Soliah, Emily Harris, and Michael Bortin. (William Harris and Steven Soliah served as their lookouts, while Wendy Yoshimura and Patricia Hearst drove the getaway cars.) During the robbery, Emily Harris shot and killed a 42-year-old bystander named Myrna Opsahl. Immediately thereafter, Kilgore went into hiding to evade the law.
In July 1975, Kilgore acquired the birth certificate of a dead 10-month-old infant named Charles William Pape and used it to apply for a U.S. passport that would permit him to flee the country.
In August 1975, the Los Angeles Police Department found unexploded, nail-packed pipe bombs beneath two of its patrol cars. Evidence indicated that Kilgore and Soliah were responsible. Within a month, four key SLA members were arrested and subsequently incarcerated, rendering the organization essentially moribund. Kilgore and Soliah, meanwhile, remained on the lam, though they were no longer a couple.
Soon thereafter, Kilgore fled to Melbourne, Australia, where, under the pseudonym Charles William “John” Pape, he enrolled as a history major at La Trobe University. In 1980 he relocated to the southeastern Australian state of Victoria, to pursue a social science degree at Deakin University. In 1982 Kilgore moved on to Zimbabwe, in hopes that its socialist government might deny American extradition requests. There, he taught variously at a polytechnic, a domestic workers’ night school, and a township secondary school—while also writing state educational materials, publishing academic articles, and earning a PhD. Moreover, Kilgore became close friends with members of South Africa’s banned African National Congress (ANC).
After two years in Zimbabwe, Kilgore became romantically involved with 25-year-old black feminist Theresa Barnes, a Brown University graduate who was pursuing a PhD and lecturing in history at the University of Zimbabwe. In 1990 the couple had their first of two sons. The following year, Kilgore left Zimbabwe and became the principal of Khanya College in South Africa. In 1998 he was named co-director of the University of Cape Town’s International Labour Resource and Information Group. Kilgore subsequently joined the ANC, published a book attacking globalization and privatization, contributed to a number of labor and academic journals, wrote pro-worker letters to various newspapers, assisted South African trade unions and educational forums, and wrote a school textbook on “world civilization.” During his 27 years in exile, he secretly made return trips to the United States at least three times—in 1981, 1996 and 1997.
In November 2002 Kilgore was arrested in Cape Town, South Africa, and was extradited to the United States the following month. He pleaded “not guilty” to two federal charges—possession of a pipe bomb that had been found in his apartment in 1975, and making a false passport application—and “guilty” to charges of bank robbery and second-degree murder (of Myrna Opsahl). In exchange for these pleas, Kilgore received a 54-month prison sentence. During his incarceration, he wrote several novels, the first of which was titled We Are All Zimbabweans. Kilgore was released from prison in May 2009 and subsequently published two other works of fiction which he had drafted in prison: Freedom Never Rests: A Tale of Democracy in South Africa, and Prudence Couldn’t Swim.
In 2009 Kilgore and his family settled in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where he joined the University of Illinois (UI) faculty as a lecturer in global studies and urban planning. When interviewing for that position, he concealed the facts about his criminal and terrorist past. In the spring of 2014, however, authorities at UI became aware of Kilgore’s background and refused to renew his contract as a lecturer. This sparked outrage among Kilgore’s colleagues, 300 of whom signed a petition demanding that his employment be restored. The American Association of University Professors, meanwhile, wrote a letter of protest on his behalf. In November 2014, UI’s board of trustees voted to re-hire Kilgore, and he began working again in January 2015.
In recent years, Kilgore has written extensively about the problems of “mass incarceration” and racism in the American criminal-justice system. His works have appeared in such publications as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Truthout, CounterPunch, Dissent, Radical Teacher, and Critical Criminology. In August 2015 Kilgore released his first non-fiction book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time.
For additional information on James Kilgore, click here.
Further Reading: “Hidden in Plain Sight” (People.com, 7-26-1999); “A Life on the Run” (TheGuardian.com, 1-25-2003); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com, 1-24-2002); “The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army” (PBS.org); “SLA Member Gets 6-Year Sentence” (Los Angeles Times, 5-25-2004); “SLA Fugitive Kilgore Set to Be Flown to California” (Los Angeles Times, 12-19-2002); “Ex-SLA Member Kilgore Is Sentenced” (Los Angeles Times, 4-27-2004); “U. of I. Clears Way for Convicted Radical to Teach Again” (Chicago Tribune, 11-14-2014); “Professor With a Past” (Inside Higher Ed, 5-8-2014); “Articles by James Kilgore” (Prison Legal News).