Former LA-based Black Panther Party leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt died earlier today in Tanzania at the age of 63. He spent twenty-seven years of his life behind bars after being falsely convicted and imprisoned in 1972 for the earlier shooting death of schoolteacher Caroline Olson. Pratt, godfather of slain rapper Tupac Shakur, was released on bail in Santa Ana in 1997 after Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey granted him a new trial.
Crucial to his freedom was the revelation that a key witness for the prosecution hid the fact that he was a police informant and ex-felon. Efforts to retry the former member of the radical leftist African-American organization never materialized and Pratt eventually was granted $4.5 million dollars in settled lawsuits with the FBI and city of Los Angeles.
News accounts from various media outlets will retell this important facet in reporting Pratt's death, but few, if any will speak of the Orange County connection to it all, nor the role he played in establishing a local branch of the Black Panther Party here in Santa Ana.
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The year was 1968 and Tommy Crockett, who ran a local record store, had falsely claimed that the Los Angeles chapter of the organization authorized him to organize an OC branch with a storefront on First and Raitt streets. Geronimo Pratt was among a group of LA Panthers who paid Crockett and the people he had recruited a visit one day that year. As Daniel Lynem recounted in a cover story Weekly managing editor Gustavo Arellano and I wrote back in September 2009:
They took Crockett to breakfast, then ordered the rest of us to meet at the office. Finally, they put us in a circle, put Crockett in the middle of it and pistol-whipped him. After that, they announced I was the official leader of the Santa Ana chapter.
The following year, Lynem, the "Huey P. of OC" at the time, found himself falsely accused and arrested for the 1969 fatal shooting of Santa Ana Police Officer Nelson Sasscer (for whom the city's Sasscer Park is named). Lynem was freed after a month in the Orange County Jail; eventually another Black Panther, Arthur League, was convicted of second-degree murder for Sasscer's death.
The prosecuting district attorney who dropped the charges at the time and helped to convict League, holding off an appointment to a judge's seat until he could put a Black Panther, any Black Panther, in jail? Everett Dickey: the same man, decades later as Superior Court Judge, who granted Geronimo Pratt a new trail and the freedom to live out the rest of his days, which ended today.