First published at Judicial Watch’s Investigative Bulletin
By Micah Morrison
It was a savage crime in a savage time.
On May 21, 1971, two New York City police officers—one white, one black—were lured to a Harlem housing project by a fake 911 call. Waiting in ambush were three members of the Black Liberation Army, an ultra-violent offshoot of the Black Panther Party. The BLA was unleashing a wave of mayhem and murder across the country. It was not alone. The terrorist Weather Underground had issued a “Declaration of War” against the United States, protests against the Vietnam War were rocking the nation, and a tidal wave of drugs and crime was sweeping the inner cities.
As police officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones approached the housing project, the three BLA assassins came up behind them and started firing. Officer Jones died immediately with four shots to the head. Officer Piagentini took longer. According to court records, he lay on the sidewalk pleading for his life, saying he had a wife and two daughters at home. The killers put twenty-two bullets in him.
Three months later, BLA members walked into a San Francisco police station and shot dead the desk sergeant, John Victor Young. Three months after that, Officer James Greene was shot and killed in his patrol van at a gas station in Georgia. In June 1972, two more New York City police officers, Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie, were gunned down at an East Village street corner. More BLA murders, robberies and hijackings followed.
Eventually, the law caught up with the BLA. Three men were convicted in murders of Piagentini and Jones. One of them died in prison. Another, Anthony Bottom, will be up for parole in June. The third man, Herman Bell, has been in prison for the crime since 1973. He appears before a New York parole board next week.
Will New York free a cop killer? Bell has a good case for parole. He’s reported to have been a model prisoner during his long incarceration. His attorney commissioned a psychological evaluation that, though not released publicly, has been submitted in support of his release. He has plans for work and a place to live lined up. Friends and family members have submitted letters. One influential supporter is Officer Jones’ son, Waverly Jones Jr., who wrote to the parole board in support of freedom for Bell and Bottom. Mr. Jones noted that he has “forgiven these men” and considers them “victims…of a much larger scheme which got them incarcerated to this day.”
Websites such as FreeHermanBell.org and theJerichoMovement.com have mounted campaigns to free Bell, Bottom and other “political prisoners” in the U.S. The Jericho Movement grew out of 1998 rally in support of Bell’s co-conspirator, Anthony Bottom, and defines itself as a national movement with the goal of “gaining recognition of the fact that Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War exist inside of the United States” and “winning amnesty and freedom” for them. The prisoners supported by the Jericho Movement are drawn from a gallery of hard-Left organizations, including the Black Panther Party, La Raza, the FALN, Los Macheteros, the American Indian Movement, the May 19 Communist Organization, and the BLA.
The Jericho Movement calls Bell “part of the brilliant liberation movement of the 1960s and early 1970s” and a victim of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO counter-intelligence program.
To Bell’s supporters on the hard Left, this is not ancient history. COINTELPRO, the Jericho Movement claims, “has morphed into Homeland Security’s Joint Terrorism Task Force,” an organization of “domestic witch-hunters.” Bell and other jailed members of radical political groups are “peace-loving activists.” Today, “the black liberation movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, and environmentalists are all in the government’s sights.”
Leading the opposition to the killers of Piagentini and Jones is the powerful New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. At a January press conference, PBA President Pat Lynch declared “there is not now, nor will there ever be any justification for granting Bell and Bottom parole,” calling them “convicted cop killers who will say and do anything to get out of prison.”
Officer Joseph Piagentini’s widow, Diane, also appeared at the PBA press conference. Bell and Bottom “have denied our two daughters a loving father, our two grandchildren have been denied the love and warmth of their granddad, and I have been denied a husband,” she said. “There should be no parole for these cold-blooded murderers.”
In 2010, after denying his role in the New York murders for nearly forty years, Bell admitted he shot Officer Piagentini. In a separate legal move in California, Bell also pleaded guilty to playing a role in the murder of the San Francisco police sergeant, John Victor Young.
The PBA assailed the admission to the New York crimes as “a transparent bid to win parole.” According to a transcript of Bell’s March 2012 parole hearing obtained by Judicial Watch, the parole board was skeptical, too.
At the 2012 hearing, a parole commissioner noted that four years earlier, in 2006, Bell was still denying his participation in the shooting of Piagentini and Jones. In 2006, the commissioner notes, “you denied pulling the trigger, and you said you did not kill any of these men, meaning the two New York City police officers. You denied that you actually pulled the trigger at that point and killing the police officer at that time.”
The parole commissioner suggested that Bell’s admission only came after the legal appeals process was exhausted. “I see at your Parole Board hearing in 2010, you did at that time admit to pulling the trigger. You did not deny it at that time…. But up until 2010, were you in denial of the fact that you had actually pulled the trigger on one of the officers? Or, was there a reason you were not coming forward with that? And also, when did your actual appeal process end in terms of your appeals being exhausted?”
Bell’s reply is uncertain, evasive. “It’s such a long time ago,” he says.
The parole commissioner presses him: “Why did it take you to 2010 that you actually did this?”
“I began to see things in a way that I wanted to come clean,” Bell replied. “I wanted to accept the fact that I committed this offense, I wanted to show remorse, but I really didn’t know how to express that to the board.”
In fact, Bell has shown little remorse for his crimes. His few published remarks on the issue are largely exercises in equivocation. In a posting on the Jericho Movement site, for example, Bell notes that “during the 1960s and 1970s, people were killed on both sides. To the degree that my humanity compels me to value and feel remorse for the loss of all life, human and otherwise, I feel remorse that people were killed and families and lives were destroyed.”
In his 2012 interview with the parole board, Bell indicates that the murders of Piagentini, Jones and Young were nothing personal. Just politics. Revolutionary politics.
“It wasn’t the case of these three particular officers attacking the black community,” Bell explained. “It was the case of the institution that was part of the oppression of the black community and this was our response to that repression.” The purpose of the killings, Bell said, was “to start a revolution.”
“Sir,” a parole commissioner asked, “do you consider yourself to be a political prisoner, or a prisoner of war?”
“I consider myself to be a political prisoner,” Bell replied, “but not a prisoner of war.”
“So at the current time, you still consider yourself to be a political prisoner?”
“That’s a two-part question I would like to respond to,” Bell said. “One the one hand, my crime is a political act. On the other hand, as I am today, I don’t see myself as part of that process.”
In 2012, Bell’s arguments did not sway the parole commission. It denied him parole. It condemned “the extreme violence and brutality” of the murders. “Officer Jones was shot multiple times in the back of the head and Officer Piagentini was also shot multiple times,” the parole board noted. “This heinous crime was part of a criminal lifestyle that includes armed bank robbery and the voluntary manslaughter of another police officer in the state of California.” The actions demonstrated “a callous disregard for the life of the victims, who were doing nothing other than serving and protecting their community.”
Next week, at the new parole board interview, Bell gets to try again.
There are no do-overs for Joseph Piagentini, Waverly Jones, and John Victor Young.