More than 35 years ago, in a daring prison escape, two brothers scaled the walls of San Quentin State Prison to freedom. Twenty years later, one of the men, Larry (Watani) Stiner surrendered to authorities in the South American country of Suriname, returning to San Quentin where at present he is fighting for his release. His brother George Stiner has not been heard from since.
Stiner’s life story has all of the intrigue of a well written novel, but it is far from fiction. The story begins in the winter of 1969 when he was a student and member of the black movement group “Us.” While a meeting was underway at UCLA discussing the selection of a director for the new African American Studies Center, a shoot-out erupted between Us members and members of the Black Panther Party. When it was over, two Black Panthers, John Huggins, 23, and Alprentice (Bunchy) Carter, 26, lay dead, victims of gunshot wounds. Shortly after the shootings an all-points bulletin was issued for the arrest of brothers Larry (Watani) Stiner and George Stiner.
The dispute was instigated by Us member Tawala Jones and Black Panther Elaine Brown, who had words in a hallway at the event. Brown reported the incident to Panther members John Huggins and Bunchy Carter who became enraged and retaliated by pistol whipping Jones in the UCLA campus cafeteria. One shot was fired, scattering the students. Another Us member present, Claude Hubert, observed the beating and subsequently pulled a gun and shot Carter in the chest and Huggins in the back. Huggins fired several bullets into the crowd, one hitting Watani in the shoulder before he died from his gunshot wound, according to Watani, who was working security at the January 17, 1969 event.
The Stiner brothers surrendered to authorities with the belief that since the shooting was spontaneous and they had not fired a shot, they would not be charged. A third man, Donald Hawkins, was arrested. All three men were charged for the murders of the two Black Panther Party members. The actual shooter, Hubert, was never apprehended.
Though neither of the Stiner brothers nor Hawkins pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Carter and Huggins, all three were convicted of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Hawkins, who was 18 at the time of the shooting, was sent to the California Youth Authority where he served seven years. Watani and George Stiner were sentenced to seven-years-to-life and were sent to the California Department of Corrections.
ESCAPE FROM PRISON
After serving time at Soledad State Prison, Watani joined his brother at San Quentin, then the most violent and infamous prison in the country. The brothers were prison celebrities; everyone knew who they were from their highly publicized case. It was not long before Watani and George became targets. Watani was attacked by two inmates on the yard, one wielding a knife. A prisoner who attempted to protect Watani in the attack was stabbed to death.
“I had no problems with these guys,” says Watani. “To me it was an obvious case of guard-prisoner collusion. Someone wanted me dead.”
Although Watani had a few years left on his sentence and was sure to parole under the laws at the time, he and his brother decided that they would surely be killed before that time came. On March 30, 1974 while on a family visit, leaving a note behind for their parents, they escaped from San Quentin to a waiting car. Watani made his way to Memphis then boarded a flight to Guyana, South America.
LIFE ON THE RUN
Watani settled in Guyana, at that time the hub of the Caribbean anti-colonial struggle. Soon, because of his protest activities he was once again a target. But this time it was not U.S. authorities or violent prisoners and guards he had to fear, it was the Guyanese government who threatened to kill him. In 1980, once again in mortal fear, Watani fled Guyana for neighboring Suriname, a former Dutch colony whose elected government had just been overthrown in a military coup. Despite economic collapse and political unrest, Watani made a life for himself with Nisha, a woman he met in the market while buying coffee and sugar, which he made a living at selling in neighboring Guyana. Watani and Nisha had six children together and, along with her 4-year-old son, they scratched out a meager living.
“I grew cassavas, tomatoes and string-beans which we traded in the markets. Nisha and I managed to scrape by, but just barely.”
In 1993 the political situation in Suriname was unraveling. Soldiers were on the streets and there was a threat of civil war. Stiner’s family home was commandeered; he and his family were forced to live in the bush. According to Stiner, there was only one choice, turn himself in to U.S. authorities in exchange for asylum for his family in the United States. After negotiating his family’s safe passage to America, Stiner turned himself over to FBI custody at the American Embassy in Suriname on a hot tropical afternoon in November of 1993. The United States government reneged on their part of the deal and left his wife and children in destitute, according to Watani.
After more than 10 years, with a letter and delayed help from now Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Watani and Nisha’s six children were brought to the United States to live with Larry Stiner Jr., Watani’s adult son from a previous marriage. The wait had terrible consequences on Watani’s family; his wife was committed to a mental institution and his children have to live with the trauma of years in foster care.
Stiner maintains under the daily weight of incarceration and in spite of serving an additional 15 years after his surrender, he holds on to the hope of parole one day.
“When I first came back to San Quentin, I thought that I’d serve my time, do a few years and get paroled. So long as I played by the rules, stayed out of trouble and did what they asked of me, they’d let me out so I could take care of my family,” says Stiner.
Year after year the parole board refuses to grant Stiner parole. Now in the defiant spirit that made Stiner a revolutionary, he refuses to take part in the Parole Board hearings, which he has labeled “a sham.”
“I have no faith that I will receive a parole date at my upcoming hearing. My only option is through the courts. I’d rather they slapped me with 30 years than have to deal with the politics of parole,” says Stiner. “It’s costing the taxpayers entirely too much money for them to deny parole to those who have done their time, transformed their lives, and are clearly no threat to society.”
Watani Stiner was up for parole on July 22, he received a 5 year parole denial and will remain incarcerated for a crime he has served a lifetime for, and continues to insist he did not commit.