Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Panther Murder

(Pic Of Mumia in the Panther Days)

Mother's slaying drives daughter's search for killer

Victim was bookkeeper for Black Panther radical group;


'Cold case' remains unsolved after 32 years

By Kristin Bender, STAFF WRITER Inside Bay Area

Tamara Baltar stood on a cemetery hillside looking down at her mother's grave. She paced, too tense to kneel or sit on the moist grass next to the simple marker. It was a fall Sunday morning and the graveyard was cool and quiet.

Baltar remembered the day in January 1975 when she buried her mother, Betty Louise Van Patter, who had been murdered by a blow to the head and tossed into San Francisco Bay. The 45-year-old woman's water-logged body floated at least 17 days before it was spotted by a boater.

This week marks the 32nd anniversary of the discovery of Van Patter's body; her "cold case" remains unsolved.

Her funeral drew throngs of well-wishers, friends and others in Van Patter's radical left community.

Baltar, just 24 at the time, also remembered the police lookouts standing sentry on the hill above Sunset Cemetery in El Cerrito, scanning the crowd of mournersfor members of the Black Panther Party, who she later discovered police suspected of murdering her mother.

Van Patter was the Black Panthers' bookkeeper and believed she had discovered that the party doctored its books and had major tax problems, which she threatened to expose.

On that Sunday in the cemetery, Baltar visited her mother's grave to build up courage for what she had to do later that day — confront a former Panther bodyguard-turned-author, Flores Forbes, who she believes may know something about the slaying. Forbes is the author of "Will You Die With Me: My life and the Black Panther Party."

Formed in 1966, the Black Panther Party became one of the most famous radical groups in 20th century.

The party's founders were Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, whose fiery rhetoric molded the party's image. The young men accused the government of brutalizing poor black communities and claimed the right to arm themselves in self-defense.

The party has a complex legacy of violent confrontations with police and militancy, but for almost 20 years it also ran a long list of groundbreaking community programs — free health clinics, schools, free breakfast programs and senior programs.

It was in mid-1974 when Van Patter became bookkeeper for the party's Educational Opportunities Corporation, the Oakland Community School and the Lamp Post, an Oakland bar and restaurant that served as a Panther gathering place. She also was an aide to then-party leader Elaine Brown.

But Van Patter soon discovered financial improprieties and threatened to expose the party and Newton.

Then she disappeared. But before she did, Van Patter told her daughter, a boyfriend and an accountant friend, Lillian Weil, what she knew. And just before her disappearance, Van Patter had picked up a cash-flow chart from the late Weil that was supposed to help Van Patter straighten out the books at the Lamp Post, Baltar said.

"My mother had mentioned to me that she was having problems," Baltar said. "But other than the cash out of the register problem at the Lamp Post, she would not be specific with me — she was protecting the Panthers."

It took Baltar 10 years to realize it, but she says she believes her mother was killed to silence her. And she has spent much of her life methodically and quietly trying to find the killer, consumed by the hunt.

She has undergone hundreds of hours of therapy and still attends a support group for families of murder victims. She lives a short distance from her mother's grave so she can be close to her.
She has had the support of both her children, friends and her brother Greg, but still hasn't experienced anything remotely close to closure about the slaying.

"I want to know where she was killed, how she was killed. ... I want to know what happened to her — my mother," Baltar said. "When it comes down to the bottom line, I just want to know. ... It has driven my life."

"I believe my mother was killed by the Black Panther Party. The truth is, I believe they killed her. I know they killed her."

Authorities don't disagree with Baltar about who killed Van Patter.

"It all boiled down to her affiliation with the Panthers and then her falling out of grace with the Panthers and then her threatening to expose them," said Russell Lopes, a retired Berkeley police homicide investigator, who reopened the case three years ago. Police, however, never had enough physical or circumstantial evidence to build a case against any one person in the party.
Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff said there have only been theories and speculation about who killed Van Patter.

"All the speculation is that it involves the Panthers," he said. "That she found some hanky-panky in their bookkeeping. I feel sorry for Tamara; what she needs to do is put it behind her and she can't do it."

The night of Dec. 13 Van Patter went to work for the party on the suggestion of David Horowitz, an editor at Ramparts, an up-and-coming journal of political thought where she had kept the books. Horowitz didn't know Van Patter, a woman who had radical beliefs about political and social change, but he knew she could clean up the Panthers' bookkeeping practices.

Meticulous and scrupulous, she soon realized that the Panthers had tax problems and other financial inconsistencies she neither fully understood nor liked.

On Friday, Dec. 13, 1974, Van Patter had been drinking white wine alone in her Haste Street apartment to gear up for a night on the town. Sometime before 7 p.m., she headed out the door to her car. The bar wasn't far, but she didn't like to walk alone at night.

The petite, green-eyed, divorced mother drove to Berkeley Square, a neighborhood bar on University Avenue where she was known.

There were no indications that she didn't intend to return to her apartment. She left her credit cards and birth control pills home, according to police reports. And she had a date with her daughter the following week to show off the downtown Oakland office where she did her bookkeeping in solitude, Baltar recalled.

According to police and published reports, she was greeted at Berkeley Square by some friends and bar regulars before she had a drink alone. A short time later, a tall black man dressed in black came up to Van Patter and gave her a note. No one knows what the note said, but Van Patter quietly grabbed her coat and purse, and left.

She was never seen alive again. Baltar says now that Van Patter may have been "summoned" to the Lamp Post bar on Telegraph Avenue, but no one is certain.

When a boyfriend tried to reach Van Patter at the Lamp Post by phone after not finding her at the Berkeley Square, the person who answered said "that party has left," according to reports.
Her car was later found at her apartment.

Five weeks later, on Jan. 17, 1975, Van Patter's body was plucked from the Bay near the San Mateo Bridge in Foster City. It took three days to identify her through dental records.
The investigation focused on the Panthers' "security cadre," who were bodyguards for Newton, but nothing ever came of the probe. Police also questioned party leader Brown, but she denied knowing anything about Van Patter's disappearance or death, according to reports.
In her 1993 book, "A Taste of Power," Brown wrote that Van Patter was becoming too nosy about Panther business and that she wasn't a benefit to the party. Brown fired her.

"While it was true that I had come to dislike Betty Van Patter, I had fired her, not killed her," Brown wrote in the book.

Years went by and the case remained open and unsolved.

Chronicling murder

When a decade passed and Baltar finally started suspecting the Panthers had killed her mother, she became nearly obsessed with finding the killer.

Since then, Baltar has documented every face-to-face conversation and phone call with police, private investigators, journalists and friends related to her mother's death. Her files on the case include 32 thick, three-ring binders along with hundreds of newspaper stories on the Black Panther Party and its members. Baltar has been an armchair detective, collecting information through leftist journalists and friends following some Panther-related death, anniversary or book publication.

Chronicling information about her mother has been cathartic and she has healed, but in many ways at a price, she admits.

Baltar was married to a doctor for 10 years and had a daughter with him. But the relationship soured and he ultimately left her.

"I definitely blame my mother's murder on my divorce because that trauma was the first big impediment to living in the present, even though I was getting better over the years. I see that now," she said.

Baltar's oldest daughter, Leah Berkowitz, 26, has a healthy and loving relationship with her mother, but only after years of problems because, Berkowitz says, the slaying colored her mother's entire life.

"She was really emotionally overtaken by grief, sadness, loss and anger, and was unable to respond to me and my needs," Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz said her mother was overprotective and had to know where she was at "all times." She even wrote a list of rules that included contacting her mother before doing anything.
Denial about who killed her mother didn't help Baltar in the early years. "I didn't think my mother was murdered by the Black Panthers for nearly 10 years," she said. "For me, this was a crime committed within my own community — the sub-community of the left," said Baltar, now 56.

"While I did not know a single Panther, everyone on the left in the Bay Area was part of a huge family back in the 1960s and'70s. I guess it's tantamount to a family member committing murder, in a way," she said.

Looking back, it was Horowitz, a one-time Panther insider and former leftist writer turned conservative, who tried to tell her otherwise.

"On the way to Betty's funeral, I said, 'I think the Panthers killed your mother' and Tamara said, 'They're good people.' When you are in the left, you don't see it," said Horowitz, who introduced Van Patter to the Panthers and adds he has spent the last 32 years regretting it.
Confronting a Black Panther

While Baltar has chronicled the death, she had never confronted anyone who was a member of the Black Panther Party about the slaying.

But on that fall Sunday morning in the graveyard, as she stood above her mother's simple rose quartz marker, her hands shook as she held a piece of paper with the questions she was prepared to ask former Black Panther Forbes.

Then she got into her car and drove to Oakland, where she met a friend who drove her to the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Jack London Square and stayed with her for moral support. The two women arrived an hour earlier than Forbes was scheduled for a book signing — during the 40th anniversary celebration of the Black Panther Party — because Baltar needed the time to acclimate to her surroundings.

Baltar walked around. She debated where to sit, ran into a friend and chatted.
Then she spotted Forbes, who she said she recognized because of his picture in the book jacket.
Forbes' book is about his life with the party, but he also admits in it that he tried to murder a witness prepared to testify against party leader Newton for the slaying of a 17-year-old prostitute three years earlier. The attempt was botched. Forbes served nearly five years in prison for his role.

Finally, Baltar got the chance to ask the questions she waited three decades to ask:
"You wrote a lot about the Lamp Post bar in your book and my mother was Betty Van Patter," she said, according to a tape of the event.

"She was a bookkeeper and she worked for the Black Panther Party. She was last seen in December 1974, and she was found murdered after that. Given your role as you described in your book, would you please comment on that?"

Witnesses said Forbes' eyes were on Baltar as he adjusted himself in his chair.

"OK, well, I did not know who Betty Van Patter was," he said.

While the mission did not uncover anything new, Baltar called that Sunday one of the "biggest days in (my) life and one of the most tremendous experiences I've ever had."

"I stood up for my mom, that's how I felt. I stood up for my mother. I did something aggressive, " she said. "I did the right thing."

1 Comments:

At 7:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope the people who killed Betty Van Patter are brought to justice. Elaine Brown is running around the state of Georgia as an activist. Someone should get her to talk.

 

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