Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ronald Bridgeforth lived under radar for decades - enters plea

Laura Rena Murray, SF Chronicle
Tuesday, November 22, 2011

For four decades, he lived an alternative life, with a name that
wasn't his own, keeping secret a criminal past. In August, the
67-year-old counselor decided it was time to surrender.

Ronald Bridgeforth and his wife slowly packed their Michigan home,
where they had lived for 35 years, giving away personal belongings
and donating a majority of their books to local libraries and
museums. They resigned from their jobs: he, a licensed therapist and
faculty member at a community college; she, a professor of English
composition and literature.

Hand in hand, they boarded a flight to the Bay Area.

Today, Bridgeforth plans to plead guilty to assault on a police
officer with a deadly weapon. Fearing a lengthy prison term, he
skipped out on bail shortly after pleading no contest to the 1968
crime. According to his attorney, Bridgeforth faces one to 15 years in prison.

He sat down with The Chronicle shortly after turning himself in to
authorities this month to describe how he created his life as Cole
Jordan, the mild-mannered Michigan college therapist, and what led
him back to the Bay Area to once again become Ronald Bridgeforth.

Bridgeforth's mother was 15 when she gave birth to him in Berkeley.
The first six years of his life were spent with his grandparents in
Arkansas, until his mother married and moved the family to the Los
Angeles area. His mother became a pharmacist; his stepfather was a mechanic.

"It was a good family," he said. "I was nurtured." Describing himself
as an "athletic nerd," Bridgeforth said he played the violin and
varsity football and "never got in any trouble."

Finding a place to fit in

After graduating in 1962, he decided to attend Sterling College, a
small Presbyterian school in Kansas where he was one of only two
black students. He attended classes there for a year and a half, but
felt isolated. He didn't fit in.

So halfway through his sophomore year, he transferred to Knoxville
College, a predominantly African American school in Tennessee. "I saw
myself in everyone around me," Bridgeforth recalled. "I wasn't an oddity."

It was there that 19-year-old Bridgeforth met a recruiter from the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and agreed to work the
summer of 1964 registering black voters in Mississippi.

"I did not have a real understanding of the politics of the South,"
he said. "When my mother found out, she was terrified."

That summer stretched into a full year with the committee. He dropped
out of college. During that time, he said his work led to being
threatened by mobs, vigilantes and being unfairly targeted by police officers.

"People risked their lives to vote," he said. "It wasn't safe. You
could disappear in Mississippi."

Ron Carver worked under Bridgeforth with the committee and considered
him a mentor. One day, Carver remembered, he gave his car keys to his
friend in front of a state trooper, who then arrested Bridgeforth on
a trumped-up charge of stealing Carver's car. That was the life he
led in Mississippi as a politically involved black man, said Carver,
who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area and is a consultant for
labor, environmental and human rights organizations.

"He was brave. He was a leader," Carver said. "He helped empower the
black community of Starkville, Miss."

Back to Bay Area

Bridgeforth transferred to the committee's San Francisco office after
a year in Mississippi. But once he was back in the Bay Area,
Bridgeforth drifted away from the student group. He worked part time
for the longshoremen's union. He also joined the Independent Action
Movement, a volunteer community service group that he said helped to
improve schools through literacy programs.

Then came the day that would forever change his life: Nov. 5, 1968.

Police were called to a White Front discount store on El Camino Real
in South San Francisco on a report of a customer arguing with store
employees. Bridgeforth admits he was trying to buy toys and clothing
for kids in the community with a stolen credit card.

Bridgeforth said he panicked when police arrived. According to
prosecutors, he took a handgun out of his pocket and led the store
manager and two police officers to the front of the store. He had
jumped into a waiting car with two other men when a third police
officer arrived and blocked the getaway car's path.

Authorities said Bridgeforth opened fire, hitting the car but none of
the officers, who returned fire. Bridgeforth was shot in the foot,
his getaway car crashed, and the men were arrested.

"It was incredibly reckless, stupid and dangerous," he said last
week. He called the incident "an aberration in my life."

Prison looms

At the time, he would have been subjected to indeterminate
sentencing, which stipulates a range of time served in prison as
decided by the parole board instead of the courts. Faced with the
possibility of a lengthy prison term, Bridgeforth decided to run.

"The politics of the Bay Area were really volatile," he said. "I left
because I didn't want to go to jail for the rest of my life." When
Bridgeforth jumped bail, he left behind an arrest warrant that would
haunt him for decades.

After he fled San Francisco, Bridgeforth assumed a new identity as
Cole Jordan in New York.

He acquired a fake passport and moved to Dakar, Senegal. Although he
said he didn't know anyone when he arrived, he met a group of
Americans and followed them to Gambia. Once there, Bridgeforth was
accepted into the family of a woman in her late 40s, Yai Sainabu, and
he relaxed into the indigenous culture. Bridgeforth remembers
spending most of his days reading history and philosophy books in the
local library, where he said he felt safe.

But after two years, he decided to return home.

"They treated me like family, but America is where I wanted to be,"
he explained. "The answers I sought were not there. This is my home."

Back to America

Bridgeforth returned to California in 1971, bouncing between Los
Angeles and the Bay Area. He was apprehended by police that winter
while driving in the city with an old friend. Bridgeforth declined to
say why he was arrested in that case.

Officers released him an hour later before they realized he was a
fugitive. After the close call, he moved to Atlanta, where he was
joined by a friend he would later marry. His wife, Diane, did not
want to reveal her last name, nor would Bridgeforth say what or when
she knew about his criminal past.

After saying goodbye to his mother at the pharmacy where she worked,
Bridgeforth cut off all ties with his mother and younger sister, who
had been subjected to police and FBI questioning on his whereabouts.
In order to live as Cole Jordan, he needed to leave his past behind,
he decided.

"The fact that I assumed a new identity placed restrictions on what I
could do," Bridgeforth said. "You make certain decisions and you pay
certain prices.

"It was a kind of self-imposed prison," he said. "Not being in jail
is not the same as being free."

Settling down

After getting married in Atlanta, Bridgeforth moved his family north
and settled in Michigan. He worked as a welder and custodian while
earning his bachelor's degree from Wayne State University. In 1993,
he graduated with a master's degree in counseling. In 1998, he joined
the faculty at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"I was better at that than anything I'd ever done," Bridgeforth said.
"I was given a chance at Washtenaw to rewrite my life, and I worked hard."

One of his former students, Kelly Mendenhall, said Bridgeforth
transformed her life when she met him in 2000. Once a depressed
college dropout, she credits Bridgeforth with motivating her to
re-enroll and said he guided her through college.

"He was at every ceremony clapping and cheering for me," she said.
"And at graduation, when I walked down the aisle with a gold honors
cord around my neck." Mendenhall is now the director of a community
center for at-risk youth in Ann Arbor.

Although he kept his past a secret while living in Georgia and
Michigan, Bridgeforth's family was involved in the community, he said.

The couple participated in school-based parent support groups and
developed after-school programs. He coached a youth basketball team
and sponsored student groups, such as the African American Men for
Education and Success and the
African American Humanities Club.

His wife earned two master's degrees, in educational psychology and
English composition, and taught at both the high school and college
levels. They raised two sons and said they worried about basketball
games, PTA meetings and summer camp.

Decision to give up

Once he decided to surrender, Bridgeforth Googled his real name for
the first time in years. He was shocked to find out that he was
listed on the FBI's Most Wanted list for the 1971 murder of a
policeman in San Francisco, a crime he says he did not commit. Sgt.
John Young was shot and killed at the Ingleside police station,
purportedly by members of the Black Liberation Army, a violent
offshoot of the Black Panther Party.

Although he acknowledges being impressed by the Black Panther Party's
rhetoric and community programming efforts at the time, Bridgeforth
maintains he was never a member of the Black Liberation Army.

The two men who were with Bridgeforth during the 1968 shooting were
arrested in 2007 for the Ingleside homicide. Charges against them
were ultimately dropped. Last week, state prosecutors announced they
would not proceed with charges against Bridgeforth in that case.

That leaves only the 1968 case.

Bridgeforth said he and Diane discussed surrendering to authorities
several times over the years. Each time, they decided against it,
saying they wanted to give their sons a normal childhood.

Now those boys are in their 30s. They never knew about their father's
past until recently, when Bridgeforth said he had to address some
legal problems in California.

"My sons didn't ever know their families," he said.

That included his sons' 81-year-old grandmother, who Bridgeforth
discovered was still alive after an Internet search turned up her
name on meeting minutes from community organizations.

"I really thought I had lost my mother, and she thought she lost me," he said.

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