In Andrew Cuomo’s final hours as New York’s governor, he added one more despicable act to his checkered career: commuting the 75-years-to-life sentence of David Gilbert, who was convicted of murdering two police officers and a security guard in an act of terrorism in the 1980s. A final decision on clemency is expected by the state parole board by November 1.
Gilbert first joined the Weather Underground in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, the group committed numerous violent acts, including assaulting police officers, of which Gilbert claims he was twice falsely accused; widespread looting and rioting; and several bombings, including of the U.S. Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972—acts Gilbert continues to praise. He also praised the FALN Puerto Rican nationalists, who left a trail of innocent dead Americans in their wake.
When Gilbert joined the May 19th Communist Organization in the late ’70s, it was just part of a natural progression for him which eventually would lead to robberies and murders. The group had morphed from the Weather Underground which, after the war ended, found that their most hardcore members decided to continue and to overthrow the United States. They quickly joined forces with the Black Liberation Army which, after the war, were remnants of the Black Panthers and were known for assassinating police officers in cold blood.
The group’s first joint action was breaking Black Panther leader Joanne Chesimard (a.k.a. Assata Shakur) out of jail in 1979. She had been convicted in 1973 of murdering a New Jersey police officer during a traffic stop. Once she was free, Chesimard fled to Cuba, where she has been hiding ever since. Gilbert praised the action, falsely claiming in his 2012 autobiography that Chesimard was innocent. He added that he long admired her.
After the joint armored truck robberies began in 1980, they soon took a deadly turn. In June 1981 in the Bronx during a Brinks truck robbery, the BLA members opened fire, killing guard William Moroney and injuring another. David Gilbert was not there. He had used an alias, however, to rent one of vehicles used in the robbery and had also rented other vehicles used in two prior robberies, and unbelievably, in the Chesimard prison escape two years earlier, all of which would be verified later by the FBI.
After meticulous planning, they decided to rob a Brinks truck making a pickup at a bank at Nanuet Mall in Rockland County, New York. The terrorists planned on using part of the funding to bomb a Brooklyn police precinct. By this point, a pattern for the robberies was in place.
On the afternoon of October 20,1981, Gilbert, who had earlier rented a U-Haul, and fellow terrorist Kathy Boudin (who shared with him a one year-old son, Chesa, who is now district attorney of San Francisco) pulled up behind an abandoned Korvette’s store and waited. At the bank, a Honda and Buick driven by terrorists Judith Clark and Susan Rosenberg waited as a red van with six BLA members pulled up next to the Brinks truck and began firing with M-16s as guards Joseph Trombino and Peter Paige began to unload $1.9 million in cash.
Trombino was severely injured, but Paige died in seconds. When the van arrived at the transfer point, two bags containing $600,000 were put in Clark’s Honda while four bags with $1.3 million were thrown into the back of the U-Haul. When the six BLA members jumped in the back, the three vehicles sped away, leaving the van. But a young woman living nearby saw the switch from her window and called the police.
The U-Haul soon approached a New York State Thruway entrance in nearby Nyack, and four officers armed with pistols and one shotgun, who had just set up a roadblock, approached the vehicle. Boudin got out and nervously told Detective Arthur Keenan there were no black people there, and Officer Brian Lennon started to return his shotgun to his car, while Keenan insisted on seeing the back of the truck.
Suddenly the back door swung open and the six BLA members had aimed their M-16s and began firing at the officers. Keenan was hit twice and took cover behind a tree, returning fire. Waverly Brown, the only black officer on the Nyack force, was hit and returned fire. He was hit again and fell. One of the terrorists then pumped more bullets into him. Sergeant. Ed O’Grady took cover behind his vehicle while returning fire. Kneeling while reloading, one of the terrorists coolly walked over to him and shot him three times with his M-16.
Lennon, still in his patrol car returning fire with his shotgun, drew his pistol and fired as the U-Haul was backing toward him and rammed his vehicle. The robbers fled. O’Grady, who was dying, blocked the truck’s exit from the other side. Meanwhile, Michael Koch, an off-duty officer who had been caught in the roadblock, started to pursue Kathy Boudin on foot as she ran down the side of the thruway. She resisted as he tackled her.
David Gilbert jumped out of the U-Haul and ran over to Clark’s Honda, taking the passenger seat, while BLA shooter Sam Brown jumped in the back. Two of the terrorists jumped into the Olds with Rosenberg and both vehicles quickly fled. Meanwhile, in nearby South Nyack, police chief Alan Colsey had been listening to the police radio and sped toward the scene when he heard that O’Grady and Lennon planned on stopping the U-Haul and continued racing to the scene when he heard two officers were down. As he arrived, he noticed the Olds and Honda fleeing and a high-speed chase began.
During the pursuit, the robbers approached a sharp turn at an intersection. The Olds made the turn, but the Honda crashed into a wall, doing heavy damage and stalling it. Colsey got out of his car, and using it as a shield, pulled out his gun and ordered the terrorists to come out with their hands up. Gilbert emerged and began walking slowly toward Colsey, only stopping when the order was repeated multiple times. Clark was searching under her seat and trying to coax Colsey to come over when backup arrived. She was trying to find a pistol they had slipped under her seat. She and Gilbert were arrested and Brown was removed from the Honda, having been injured from the crash.
Two bags from the robbery were found in the Honda, the other four were left behind in the U-Haul. Gilbert would later complain about how he, Boudin, Clark and, later, Brown were treated at the Rockland County Jail. He would write that he had “never experienced the force and fury of the state in such a close-up, immediate and personal way.” He would constantly complain about his incarceration, and would condemn even the existence of prisons, saying they are an “insult to the human spirit and a shameful waste of human potential.”
They would soon be joined by BLA shooter Donald Weems (a.k.a. Kuwasi Balagoon), who was captured in early 1982. Gilbert, Clark, and Weems decided that their defense would be that they were “freedom fighters” and “political prisoners” who were expropriating money for a noble cause. Boudin planned on saying she didn’t know the real reason that Gilbert rented the U-Haul and she and Samuel Brown were severed from the trial.
At a pre-trial hearing that September, the three other defendants decided that the government had no right to try them, with Gilbert addressing the court attacking “Amerika” as full of murderers who yet had the audacity to label them as criminals. “We are neither terrorists nor criminals . . . we became freedom fighters against this racist and deadly imperialist system,” a statement he also proudly included in his 2012 book. Periodically during the trial, Gilbert, Clark, and Weems would disrupt the courtroom and be removed, returning and then repeating the exercise again. In his book, Gilbert would savage the judge, prosecutor, and the jury.
On September 15, 1983, the jury found all three guilty of robbery and the three murders. On October 6, when Gilbert and Clark came up for sentencing, Judge Ritter gave them the maximum, 75-years-to-life (25 years for each murder) meaning they would have to serve at least 75 years each. It was Gilbert’s 39th birthday. In his book, he had already compared himself to Robin Hood, and then noted that Malcolm X, Che Guevera, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had all died at 39.
In 2012, the hardcore Clark then pushed for clemency. She met with Governor Cuomo who recommended release to the parole board, which unanimously rejected her application. She sued the board, won a new hearing, and was freed in 2019. Weems and Brown would receive the same sentence as Gilbert and Clark. Weems died in prison from AIDS in 1986 and Brown remains incarcerated. Kathy Boudin pleaded guilty, received 20 years and was released in 2003. The mastermind behind the Brinks robbery, BLA member Mutulu Shakur, remains in prison.
As for Gilbert, in his 2012 autobiography, he wrote that his son Chesa urged him to express remorse for the deaths, which he did, but then immediately turned it into an attack on America, accusing the nation of massive violence that has refused to accept accountability. Elsewhere in his book, Gilbert said the BLA consistently prevented using gunfire, even though they did in both of the Brinks robberies in 1981. He further maintains that if only that local resident had not witnessed the transfer and called the police, and if the U-Haul had only missed a red light which caused them to get caught in the road block, they might all be free.
If Gilbert and his group of terrorists weren’t caught that sunny October day, they would have continued their violent activity until they were. On the recent 40th anniversary of the murders, the solemn annual remembrance was held at a monument near where Sergeant O’Grady and Officer Brown lost their lives, and which also honors Peter Paige. It was the most heavily attended one ever, and has been growing every year.
Gilbert’s possible freedom was the subject of all the news reports, and not in a good way. He hung over the ceremony like a black cloud. Relatives and friends of the three victims all spoke about their loved ones and their heroism. About David Gilbert, all they can do now is pray.