James Kilgore

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James William Kilgore
Born (1947-07-30) July 30, 1947 (age 72)
ResidenceChampaign–Urbana, Illinois
Other namesJohn Pape
Charles William Pape
Alma materUC Santa Barbara
Deakin University (Ph.D.)
OccupationResearch scholar, social justice activist, author
EmployerUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Known forInvolvement with Symbionese Liberation Army
Criminal chargeSecond degree murder
Passport fraud
Possession of an explosive device[1]
Criminal penalty6 years in High Desert State Prison
54 month parole term
Criminal statusReleased and served

James William Kilgore (born July 30, 1947) is a research scholar at the University of Illinois,[2] who was involved with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an American left-wing terrorist organization. After the arrest of the core SLA members in 1975, Kilgore went underground for 27 years. He lived most of that time in Southern Africa. During his time on the run, Kilgore rejected the politics of violence, building a career as an educator, researcher and activist in Zimbabwe and South Africa. He wrote a number of books and academic articles during that period under the pseudonym John Pape. He was arrested in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2002, extradited to the United States and subsequently served six and a half years in prison in California. During his incarceration he wrote several novels. The first of these, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, was published a month after his release in 2009 by Umuzi Publishers of Cape Town. He now lives in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and teaches at the Center for African Studies. In 2015, he published a non-fiction book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time.

Early years[edit]

Kilgore grew up in California, graduating from San Rafael High School in 1965. During his high school days he was an honor-roll student and an active athlete, participating on school basketball, baseball and golf teams. He attended University of California at Santa Barbara, where he played on the college volleyball team and subsequently became active in student politics during the anti-war protests of 1969 and 1970. During these years he met Sara Jane Olson (née Kathleen Soliah), his partner at the time and later political associate in the Symbionese Liberation Army. He graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1969.[3]

Involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army[edit]

After graduating from college, Kilgore and Olson moved to Oakland, California, where he became involved in various political activities. He also visited a number of political activists who were in prison, including Willie Brandt, convicted for his role in anti-war bombings in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 1974 Kilgore became connected to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst. According to Hearst's memoir, Every Secret Thing,[4] Kilgore, Olson and other friends of theirs assisted Hearst and her compatriots, William and Emily Harris (née Montague), to escape the FBI after six members of the group were killed in a shootout with police on May 17, 1974. Hearst also reported that Kilgore took part in a number of crimes in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974 and 1975, including a bank robbery in Carmichael, California, where a customer was killed. Hearst, Harris and Montague were arrested in September 1975.

In 2002, Kilgore, along with Harris, Montague and Olson were indicted for their participation in the Carmichael bank robbery mentioned by Hearst.[5] Hearst was not indicted. The defendants, including Kilgore, subsequently pleaded guilty to second degree murder and all served time in California state prisons for this offense. Kilgore was released in 2009, the last of the defendants in the case to leave prison.[6]

Underground years[edit]

After the arrest of Hearst and the others, Federal authorities charged Kilgore with possession of an explosive device and he went underground. He remained on the run for 27 years until November, 2002 when he was arrested in Cape Town, South Africa. According to reports by British journalist Gavin Evans,[7] during his time as a fugitive, Kilgore constructed an alternative identity as Charles "John" Pape and worked as an educator and researcher in Zimbabwe and South Africa. During that period he married Teresa Barnes and the couple had two children. He also lived in Australia for two years where he enrolled in Deakin University and eventually earned a Ph.D. in his new name, writing a dissertation on the history of domestic workers in Zimbabwe.

Evans reported that Kilgore moved in 1991 to South Africa, where he became the Director of Khanya College in Johannesburg, a small institution that prepared black youth for university. In 1997, he and his family moved to Cape Town, where he took a position as co-director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), a unit affiliated with the University of Cape Town which specialized in education for union members. Upon his arrest, a number of people in South Africa came forward to claim that Kilgore was a changed man. South African activist Trevor Ngwane noted that everything Kilgore "did in South Africa showed that he had broken with terrorism as a method of struggle, preferring the hard patient slog of building among ordinary workers, in the trade unions and among working-class youth. He exchanged his guns and masks for pen and paper. He stopped living between the cracks and in the night; he built a new life, took care of his family and contributed to the struggle of the workers."[8]

Other statements of support for Kilgore came from the South African Municipal Workers' Union, Khanya College, the University of Cape Town, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

US authorities had a very different perspective. US Attorney General John Ashcroft noted that the arrest of Kilgore proved that "terrorists can run and they can try to hide overseas, but in the end we will find them and bring them to justice."[9]

Kevin Ryan, US Attorney in the San Francisco Federal Court, where Kilgore was charged, echoed Ashcroft's sentiments, "The arrest and prosecution of James Kilgore, the last of the fugitive SLA members, represents the Department of Justice's commitment to bringing terrorists, be they domestic or foreign, to justice. We will never forget their acts, and the passage of time will not diminish our resolve or our vigilance."[10]

After being extradited to the United States, Kilgore pleaded guilty to both the possession of explosives charge and his role in the bank robbery in Carmichael. He was sentenced to ten years in prison in California. After six and a half years in prison, he was released on parole, against Los Angeles police objections.

Fiction writing[edit]

During his period of incarceration Kilgore wrote a novel, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, which was published in South Africa in June 2009, about a month after his release. Ohio University Press re-published it in 2011. He has subsequently published two other works of fiction that he drafted in prison: Freedom Never Rests: A Tale of Democracy in South Africa and Prudence Couldn't Swim, a crime fiction story set in Oakland, California, and Zimbabwe. His fiction has generally received favorable reviews.[11] Adam Hochschild, award-winning historian, noted that "too few writers have Kilgore's wide-angle vision. This promising first book, vividly rooted in his own experience, leaves me eager to read more by him."

Well-known South African-based reviewer Percy Zvomuya, himself a Zimbabwean, called Kilgore's fiction debut "A fascinating book ... cleverly written, not overly sentimental and manages to capture the vibe of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. Most Zimbabweans will recognize themselves in the novel; their mannerisms, their quirkiness and, well, their 'Zimbabweanness' pour out from the pages...one of the most important books about Zimbabwe."

2008 American book award winner Frank Wilderson commented: "The book is fast-paced and funny, extolling two literary virtues often missing on the Left. It is a good read—the work of a great storyteller. But it is also an invaluable object lesson—the work of a committed activist."


Since his release from prison in 2009, Kilgore has lived with his family in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where he has worked at the University of Illinois, as well as becoming active in local social justice campaigns such as Build Programs Not Jails.[12] He has written a number of articles for online and print platforms such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Truthout, Counterpunch, Dissent, Radical Teacher, and Critical Criminology.[13] He has also carried out a research project on electronic monitoring in the criminal justice system and was a keynote speaker on this topic at the Confederation of European Probation conference in Germany in 2014.[14] His first non-fiction book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, was released by The New Press in August, 2015.[15]

Kilgore's employment status hit the headlines in the spring of 2014 when an architect planning the new local jail started a campaign to pressure the University of Illinois to refuse to renew Kilgore's contract as a lecturer and academic hourly employee, largely because of his criminal background (which the University knew about when they first hired him). The withdrawal of his employment offer prompted a protest from faculty members and beyond.[16] More than 300 faculty members at the university signed a petition to have Kilgore's employment restored and the American Association of University Professors wrote a letter of protest.[17] In November 2014, the university's Board of Trustees again hired Kilgore.[18] He began working again in January 2015 as a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Center for African Studies.[19] In 2015 Kilgore appeared as a commentator in the Ava DuVernay film, 13th. In 2017 he was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship to implement a project on electronic monitoring in the criminal justice system entitled "Challenging E-Carceration."


  1. ^ "Another Plea of Guilty in SLA Case". Los Angeles Times. May 14, 2003. Retrieved December 17, 2015.
  2. ^ "James Kilgore · Ohio University Press / Swallow Press". www.ohioswallow.com. Ohio University Press / Swallow Press. Retrieved 3 September 2019.
  3. ^ "1969 Graduate Finishes Time for Murder Charge". Daily Nexus. Santa Barbara, California. May 11, 2009. Retrieved November 5, 2018.
  4. ^ Patricia Hearst, Every Secret Thing, Pinnacle Books, 1982.
  5. ^ James Sterngold, "4 Former Radicals Are Charged In 1975 Killing in Bank Robbery", New York Times, January 17, 2002; accessed July 10, 2015.
  6. ^ Don Thompson, "Former SLA Member James Kilgore Paroled", SF Gate, May 11, 2009; accessed July 10, 2015.
  7. ^ Gavin Evans, "Patty Hearst, The Symbionese Liberation Army and Me", The Times (London), February 10, 2010; accessed July 7, 2015.
  8. ^ Patrick Bond, "Activists pay tribute to fugitive 'John Pape'", Green Left Weekly, November 27, 2002; accessed March 7, 2011.
  9. ^ "And Then There Were None", The Telegraph (London), cited in Sydney Morning Herald, November 12, 2002.
  10. ^ Bob Egelko "Last SLA fugitive enters guilty plea / James Kilgore admits to federal charges he possessed pipe bomb in Daly City in '75", SF Gate, February 22, 2003; accessed July 23, 2015.
  11. ^ "Reviews", accessed July 22, 2015.
  12. ^ "Build Programs Not Jails | Fighting for alternatives to incarceration in Champaign County, Illinois". programsnotjails.wordpress.com. Retrieved November 24, 2016.
  13. ^ For list of references see "Articles by James Kilgore" at Prison Legal News; accessed August 13, 2015.
  14. ^ "Electronic Monitoring", Offenbach, Germany, December 8, 2014; accessed August 13, 2015.
  15. ^ "Understanding Mass Incarceration". The New Press. Retrieved November 24, 2016.
  16. ^ Colleen Flaherty, "Professor With A Past", Inside Higher Education, May 8, 2014; accessed July 10, 2015.
  17. ^ "AAUP on Kilgore". News-Gazette. Retrieved November 24, 2016.
  18. ^ Cohen, Jodi S.; Manchir, Michelle (14 November 2014). "U. of I. clears way for convicted radical to teach again". chicagotribune.com. CHICAGO, IL. Retrieved 29 January 2017.
  19. ^ "James Kilgore, Adjunct with a Past, Rehired at Illinois", Inside Higher Education, December 8, 2014.

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