San Quentin Six

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The San Quentin Six were six inmates at San Quentin State Prison in the U.S. state of California (Hugo Pinell, Willie Tate, Johnny Larry Spain, David Johnson, Fleeta Drumgo and Luis Talamantez), who were accused of participating in an August 21, 1971 escape attempt that left six people dead, including George Jackson, a co-founder of the Black Guerrilla Family.

Costing more than $2 million, their 16-month trial was the longest in the state's history at the time and was dubbed "The Longest Trial" by Time magazine.[1][2] Of the six defendants, one was convicted of murder, two were convicted of assault on correctional officers, and three were acquitted of all charges.

During the escape, which sparked a riot on the cellblock, Jackson had a .32 caliber pistol allegedly smuggled into the prison by attorney Stephen Bingham. Immediately after the incident, Bingham went on the run and fled the country for 13 years; he returned in 1984 to stand trial, and was acquitted of all charges in 1986.[3] Bingham's defense had argued that guards had smuggled George Jackson the gun, hoping that he would be killed. During the ensuing riot, George Jackson, three corrections officers, and two inmates were killed.

In addition to Jackson, those killed in the altercation were guards Paul E. Krasenes, 52, Frank DeLeon, 44, and Jere P. Graham, 39, as well as inmates John Lynn, 29, and Ronald L. Kane, 28.[4] Spain was found guilty in the shooting deaths of guards DeLeon and Graham, Pinell was convicted of cutting the throats of guards Charles Breckenridge and Urbano Rubiaco, Jr. (died 2013), both of whom survived,[5] and Johnson was convicted of assaulting Breckenridge.[4] There were no convictions for the killings of Krasenes, Lynn, or Kane.[4] Drumgo, Talamantaz, and Tate were found not guilty of all charges, including various counts of murder, conspiracy, and assault.[4][6]

Map of San Quentin Prison

Riot of August 21, 1971[edit]

The details about what really happened that day are still contradicted to this day, but Adjustment Center inmate Johnny Spain recalled saying the one true fact about this day was that "There was a gun introduced into the Adjustment Center on August 21."[7] The state first claimed that officials that attorney Stephen Bingham and a female assistant arrived at San Quentin for a meeting with George Jackson at around 2:00 pm.[8][9] The assistant handed a briefcase to Bingham when she was not permitted to enter the visiting room.[8]

According to an Associated Press report based on interviews with prison officials, a cursory search of Bingham's briefcase was performed and a guard failed to open a tape recorder case that was in it.[9] This report stated that the briefcase was returned to Bingham after he walked through a metal detector.[9] An article in the San Francisco Chronicle based on the reports of officials provided a slightly different version by stating that Bingham had triggered the metal detector while carrying the briefcase through it.[8] That report indicated that an officer opened the briefcase and found a cassette tape recorder, then inspected its battery compartment to determine whether it was functional.[8] Prison officials later came to believe that the working components of the recorder had been removed to allow room for an automatic handgun with its grip handles removed.[8] Initial reports described the weapon as a 9 mm pistol made by the Spanish manufacturer Llama firearms.[9] There was another story that circled suggesting that George Jackson was able to assemble the gun himself with parts that were smuggled and thrown over to the Adjustment Center yard.[7] However, most of the evidence points to the fact that the gun was smuggled within the prison already assembled along with some faint messages found in Jackson's cell.[7] After the incident occurred prison officials found messages in Jackson's cell that read "Take the bullets out of the bag" "Hurry and give me the piece in the bag. Keep the bullets".[7]

Jackson was strip searched in San Quentin's Adjustment Center, then escorted to the visiting room.[8][9] He sat across from Bingham at a wooden table that had no barriers between the two and was intermittently observed by guards.[9] Officials speculated that during this time Bingham passed the gun to Jackson, who concealed it in his hair under a watch cap.[8] The meeting lasted about 15 minutes.[9] Around 2:35 pm, Jackson was escorted by officer Frank DeLeon back to the Adjustment Center, where another officer performed a second search prior to returning Jackson to his cell.[8] When that officer asked Jackson about what appeared to be a pencil in his hair, Jackson pulled the gun out, pointed it at the officers, and inserted a magazine. He reportedly shouted, "This is it!",[8][9] and ordered all of the officers to lie face down on the floor. Jackson then ordered an officer to get up and activate a switch that opened all 34 cells on the first floor.[9] After Jackson had successfully released the convicts he repeatedly shouted "The dragon has come"[7], and as calls for help went out heavily armed California Highway Patrolmen and Marin County Sherriff's rained on the prison blocking all access roads to the prison. It was at this point George Jackson stated "Its me who they want"[7] so with a gun in hand alongside Johnny Spain they ran out into the prison "plaza" where Jackson was immediately gunned down by a marksman who shot him in the back where the bullet bounced from his spine or pelvis and exited through his skull.

According to the Chronicle, officer Charles Breckenridge's throat was slashed and he was dragged to Jackson's cell; Breckenridge survived.[8] On top of him were thrown the bodies of officers Frank DeLeon and Paul Krasenes, as well as those of two white inmates (John Lynn and Ronald L. Kane). Sergeant Jere Graham was killed by inmates when he came to the Adjustment Center to pick up DeLeon for another assignment. After the revolt had ended, 26 captured prisoners were laying down stripped naked in handcuffs and shackles, and within the following days of the riot the beatings were relentless.[7] Those who survived the riot were constantly tormented, threatened, and beaten at the hands of the Warden, Louis S. Nelson, and told by the guards that "None of you will ever leave here alive".[7]


The biggest arguments surrounding what happened on August 21, 1971 is all surrounding the weapon and the various stories that were constantly changed by the legal advisement and prison officials themselves.[7] After revising their stories multiple times over the following weeks after the riot, the weapon in question was the 9mm Astra M-600 almost 9 inches long and weighing approximately 2.5 pounds.[7] Another scenario suggests the guards at San Quentin received a non-functioning weapon with a filed down firing pin from one of two outside sources, Criminal Investigation and Identification Department of the state attorney general's office or Criminal Conspiracy Section of LAPD.[7] It was argued that the 9mm found next to Jackson's body would have been too large to fit within Bingham's tape recorder let alone inside Jackson's cap.[7] The Department of Corrections than again changed their minds and said that the weapon had to be a .38 caliber Llama Corto[7], but to further complicate the trial, Louis Tackwood pushed to say that the gun he took to the prison was a .25 caliber revolver. Attorney Charles Garry had given up on these changing testimonies and therefore stated that the escape theory was "garbage", and insisted that the riot was due to emotional unrest and had nothing to do with the trying to escape the prison.[7] During the trial, Tate was freed on $50,000 bail.[10] Defense attorneys presented a conspiracy theory suggesting that prison and law enforcement officials set up Jackson to be killed.[10] The prosecution asserted that the escape attempt was a conspiracy that involved radicals sympathetic to Jackson.[10]

After 17 months and deliberating 124 days, the Marin County jury of five men and seven women rendered their verdicts for 6 [7] of the 46 separate felony counts on August 12, 1976. David Johnson was convicted of one count of felony assault on a guard, Hugo Pinell for two counts of felony assault on a guard, and Johnny Spain for two counts of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.[7] Johnny Spain's convictions were eventually reversed in 1989, and most of these convictions were carried out due to the supply of countless eyewitnesses so the others involved were highly up for debate.[7] [10] Marin County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Broderick spent 45 minutes reading the verdicts.[10] The trial ended as the longest in California history, during which 23,000 pages of testimony were collected.[10] The aftermath of this trial sparked a lot of change within San Quentin becoming with defense attorney's ability to argue that the events that took place were in conjunction with various law enforcement agencies to murder an African American political prisoner and therefore frame 6 innocent inmates was enough evidence to promote the high amount of distrust within the government.[7]

The San Quentin Six[edit]

Fleeta Drumgo[edit]

Fleeta Drumgo (1945 – November 26, 1979) was born to Inez Williams in Shreveport, Louisiana.[11][12]

According to the Daily Review (Hayward, California), Drumgo moved to Los Angeles at the age of 3, and had been in and out of juvenile detention homes since the age of 13.[13] According to Fania Davis Jordan, the sister of Angela Davis, he moved to Los Angeles at the age of 14, was placed in the Preston School of Industry and upon his release was sentenced to the Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, California, after an arrest for attempted murder.[11]

Drumgo was later charged with the December 1966 burglary of a television and radio store in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate.[14] According to court documents, Drumgo initially admitted his involvement in the break-in after he was found by officers at the address for which the getaway car used by his accomplice was registered. In early 1967, he was convicted of first degree burglary after waiving a jury trial. He was referred to the California Youth Authority but was found to be "not capable of reformation under their discipline".[14]

In September 1967, the court, pursuant to California Penal Code, reduced the previous conviction to secondary burglary and sentenced Drumgo to six months to 15 years in state prison.[14][15]

Along with Jackson and John Clutchette, Drumgo was one of the Soledad Brothers indicted for the 1970 killing of a correctional officer at Soledad Prison.[16] The trio received national notoriety following the publication of Jackson's book Soledad Brother and were subsequently acquitted in 1972. Twice charged and acquitted for the murder of prison guards, Drumgo was released from prison in August 1976 after serving nine years for the burglary charge.[16]

According to Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Drumgo approached Charles Garry two weeks after the May 1979 shooting of Fay Stender by Edward Brooks hoping to sell information he had regarding the attempted murder.[17] Collier and Horowitz wrote: "[Drumgo] was a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, that he had known of the BGF's plans to shoot Fay two weeks before the event and that he was willing to sell information. He reappeared on several occasions, sometimes wearing a gun in his belt, and named a former prisonmate of Brooks as head of the BGF and the man who had ordered the shooting."[17]

Drumgo was fatally shot in Oakland on November 26, 1979; he was living with Clutchette at the time.[16] According to Oakland police, Drumgo had been shot by more than one weapon and witnesses reported two men leaving the scene, one with a shotgun and one with a handgun.[16] His killers were never caught.[18]

At his funeral, Drumgo was eulogized by Angela Davis as a "communist martyr".[19]

David Johnson[edit]

David Johnson (born circa 1947) was from San Diego, California.[20] He was serving a sentence for burglary of five years to life at the time of the escape attempt.[4][10] In 1985, he was reported to be a student at San Francisco State University.[1]

During the trial after the escape attempt at San Quentin, guard Charles Breckenridge testified that Johnson had attempted to strangle him. On August 12, 1976, Johnson was convicted on one count of assault.[10] He was released from prison in 1993.[21]

Hugo Pinell[edit]

Hugo Pinell was born March 10, 1945 in Nicaragua,[22][23] and died at age 70 after being stabbed by two other inmates (members of the Aryan Brotherhood) at New Folsom Prison on August 12, 2015.

In 1965, Pinell was convicted of rape in San Francisco, sentenced to life imprisonment, and placed in San Quentin State Prison.[10][24] In 1968, he was convicted of attacking a guard and transferred to Folsom State Prison.[24]

In June 1970, he was convicted of a similar assault and transferred to the California Correctional Center in Soledad, California. At Soledad, he was awaiting trial on charges of attacking another guard in December 1970.[24] On March 3, 1971, Pinell fatally stabbed Soledad correctional officer Robert J. McCarthey after luring him to his cell under the guise of needing a letter mailed. McCarthey died in Fort Ord Army Hospital two days later.[24]

By the time of the trial for the uprising at San Quentin, Pinell was serving a life sentence for rape as well as three others for offenses committed while in prison.[25] Pinell was reported by a San Quentin spokesman to have been subdued by guards after he stabbed his defense attorney, Lynn Carman, during a conference at the prison on March 26, 1975.[26] Carman denied having been stabbed or wounded, and declined additional comment on the matter. One witness to the incident reported that Carman was left bleeding from the mouth.[26]

During the trial, two San Quentin guards, Charles Breckenridge and Urbano Rubiaco, Jr., testified that Pinell had cut their throats.[10] On August 12, 1976, Pinell was convicted of two counts of felony assault by a prisoner serving a sentence for life imprisonment.[10] In 1985, he was serving his sentence in Folsom Prison.[1] In January 2009, Pinell lost his ninth bid for parole in front of officials at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California, extending his prison term by another 15 years.[23] On August 12, 2015, Pinell, aged 70, was killed in a prison riot at New Folsom Prison.[27] He had been kept in solitary confinement for almost 45 years and had been released to the general population just two weeks before he was killed.[28]

Johnny Spain[edit]

Johnny Larry Spain was born July 30, 1949 in Jackson, Mississippi, to a black father, Arthur Cummings, and a white mother, Ann Armstrong.[29] The child of an extra-marital affair, he was named Larry Michael Armstrong, taking the last name of his mother's husband, Fred Armstrong, a beer truck driver.[29]

During a delivery to a nightclub and restaurant in Utica, Mississippi, Fred Armstrong asked the black owner if she would take in the six-year-old boy. The woman said she could not, but contacted her husband's cousin in California who agreed to do so. At the age of six, Spain was adopted by Johnny and Helen Spain in Los Angeles where he was renamed as Johnny Larry Spain.[29] At the time of the escape attempt at San Quentin, Spain was serving a life sentence for murder for having killed a robbery victim who resisted.[10] Spain's attorney Charles Garry opened his defense with expert testimony from Stanford University professor and psychologist Philip Zimbardo.[30]

On August 12, 1976, Spain was convicted of two counts of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of guards Frank DeLeon and Jere P. Graham.[10] The only one of the Six convicted of murder, he had his conviction overturned by federal judge Thelton Henderson because Spain had been shackled throughout the proceedings.[31] The judge placed Pelican Bay State Prison under federal receivership.[citation needed]

After his conviction for the San Quentin escape was overturned, he remained in prison at Vacaville for the original murder until paroled after serving 21 years.[1] He was granted parole in 1988 and now works in community relations in San Francisco.[32] Spain is the father of Sahara Sunday Spain.[33] He wrote an autobiography, Black Power, White Blood: The Life and Times of Johnny Spain.

Luis Talamantez[edit]

Luis Talamantez was born circa 1943.[34] In February 1966, he was convicted of armed robbery in Los Angeles.[34]

After his acquittal in 1971 of the murder charge against him, Talamantez was released on parole (owing to his 1966 conviction) on August 20, 1976 and was taken to a celebration party at the Marin County home of Robert Carrow, his primary defense attorney.[34] In 1985, Talamantez was reported to be "living in the south".[1]

Willie Tate[edit]

Willie Tate was born circa 1944 or 1945 in Selma, Alabama, where he lived until he was six years old. His father was a sergeant in the United States Army. The family moved to El Paso, Texas. However, Tate could not attend school as there was no kindergarten or first grade for black children. The family moved to California and settled in Fresno when he was about eight years old.

According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Tate was picked up as a runaway at the age of 14 and served 10 years in prison for "minor offenses".[35]

On April 26, 1977, Tate was critically wounded after being shot by Earl Satcher, the leader of a group of ex-convicts called Tribal Thumb.[36] In 1985, Tate was reported to be a "fugitive on a Fresno drug warrant".[1]


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  3. ^ "People In The News: Ex-fugitive finally feels free, retains his political activism". The Register-Guard. Eugene, Oregon. June 28, 1987. p. 2A. Retrieved July 13, 2012.
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  14. ^ a b c People v. Drumgo, 269 Cal.App.2d 479 (California Court of Appeals. Second Dist., Div. One February 6, 1969).
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  16. ^ a b c d "Soledad Brother Fleeta Drumgo Shot To Death". Daytona Beach Morning Journal. Daytona Beach, Florida. AP. November 27, 1979. p. 8B. Retrieved September 10, 2014.
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  18. ^ Aptheker, Bettina (1999). "Epilogue". The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis (2nd ed.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 286. Retrieved July 13, 2011.
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  32. ^ Jo Durden-Smith. Who Killed George Jackson?, Publishers Weekly (1976)
  33. ^ "The 9-Year-Old Poet With the Big Advance". The New York Times Magazine. February 4, 2001.
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  35. ^ Reeve, Henry; Wallace, Sandy (May 11, 1977). "Willie Tate shot in San Francisco" (PDF). The Guardian. San Francisco. p. 6. Retrieved September 11, 2014.
  36. ^ Staff (April 28, 1977). "Leader Of Radical Group Killed In Gun Battle". The Blade. Toledo, Ohio. Retrieved September 11, 2014.