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The Life of a Fugitive

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Kafka might have written it. Hitchcock might have filmed it. Stephen Bingham lived it: A quiet, gentle man finds himself accused of murder and has to flee, take on a new identity and live 13 years as a fugitive from justice or, more precisely, from injustice.

Bingham’s life was blown apart on the afternoon of Aug. 21, 1971, when California’s San Quentin prison erupted in violence that left Black Panther leader George Jackson, two other prisoners and three guards dead. Bingham had gone to the prison that day to discuss with Jackson a civil suit to improve prison conditions. The authorities claimed that he had somehow smuggled in a gun to Jackson, precipitating the carnage, and making Bingham an accomplice to murder. In fact, Bingham says, he heard about the bloodbath from his housemates in North Oakland hours later. “My first feeling was just horror that Jackson and five other people had been killed,” he recalls, “but when they mentioned the news reports linking me to it, my horror turned fairly quickly to terror.”

Smuggling a gun to a prisoner was “morally something that was totally outside my frame of reference,” says Bingham, and indeed the jury that acquitted him only last month found the prosecution’s scenario inconceivable. “I think he was scapegoated,” says jury foreman Mary Bradford, 61, a retired schoolteacher. “It was ludicrous. It was so obvious the guy was not guilty, beyond any stretch of the imagination.” Nevertheless, in the supercharged political atmosphere of 1971, when the authorities and the Black Panthers were engaged in open warfare, Bingham doubted that he could get a fair trial or survive the vengeance of guards if jailed. He decided to run for his life.

Bingham was an unlikely desperado. A member of a politically prominent Connecticut family—his grandfather Hiram was the state’s governor and a U.S. senator, his father, Alfred, served as a probate judge and his uncle Jonathan represented the Bronx in Congress—Bingham had followed the patrician path to prep school, Yale and law school at Berkeley. As a college student he had helped blacks to register to vote in Mississippi in 1963. He took two years off from law school to serve in the Peace Corps. But his résumé meant nothing to the men on his trail.

Without a word of farewell to his girlfriend or parents, he made his way to Las Vegas. There a friend introduced him to a woman experienced at getting AWOL soldiers and draft resisters into Canada. She straightened and lightened his curly dark hair and provided him with $3,000 raised by unnamed “friends.” She also gave him a birth certificate and Social Security card in the name of one Robert Dale Boarts, who Bingham supposes was a deceased baby or young child, someone without a history.

He flew to Philadelphia, where, by pleading a family emergency, he obtained a passport in 24 hours. He bought a small suitcase and some clothes and flew to Europe. “My family didn’t know where I was for at least a year,” says Bingham. “I wish I could have phoned them or let them know, but for 13 years I didn’t get caught, and who knows what one extra phone call would have done.” The FBI was, in fact, checking up on long distance calls to the Binghams’ home.

He spent the first three years on the run, in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Austria, never staying in one place for more than a couple of weeks. “I sort of assumed that they were figuring out where I’d gone—I guess I imagined it as it might be in a film series or something—and at some point they would find out what passport I was using and check Czechoslovakian visas or something,” he recalls. “I had no idea whether they were 10 minutes away or a few hours away. I had no way of knowing.” How did it feel to live under that kind of constant tension? “I suppose it’s going to take years before I can tell anybody what I felt. One way I got through this period was not to be overly aware of what my feelings were, not dwell on how awful I felt and how afraid I was.”

For a long time he did not dare get a job. “I wanted to do everything legally, and the only way is to go into police stations and get working papers. I wanted to stay away from police stations.” He would spend most days walking in the country, then hunker down in a cheap hotel room and cook a simple meal on his gas camp stove. On a good night, he could catch a baseball game over the Armed Forces network on his portable radio. “Sometimes they even carried them live,” he says, still excited at the memory. “That was especially connecting.” He read a great deal—whatever he could afford at used book stores: Jack London, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Crime and Punishment. Though he managed to live on three or four dollars a day, by early 1972 his money had run out. He returned to Canada for a few months and received another sum from “friends.”

After being on the run for a couple of years he finally felt secure enough to seek work, but never stayed long at any one job. He sold soft drinks in a circus in northern Italy. He peddled toiletries door-to-door, picking up a little Italian to supplement the German and French he’d learned in school. He scraped down the hulls of motorboats. He worked as a receptionist at an Italian hotel, and then as a waiter at a resort in the Austrian Alps.

Back in Canada briefly in August 1974, in a clandestine interview with the New York Times, he announced that he was alive and well, but admitted “There’s still an aspect [of living underground] that’s like dying in a certain emotional sense.” Gradually he grew confident enough to enter the United States, fighting back his fear as he crossed the Canadian border, for one-month visits in 1977, ’78 and ’82. On the 1978 visit, he rendezvoused on Long Island with his parents. They ran into one another’s arms and wept. “That was one of the most wonderful things that happened in all the years I was away,” he says, his dark, deep-set eyes glistening.

With the help of a handful of confidants in Europe he was able to keep in irregular contact with his parents by mail, but he did not learn of his mother’s death in May 1981 until six weeks after her funeral: “That was one of the horrors, the awful things. It had already happened and I just couldn’t do anything about it. I was aware that the FBI takes advantage of family crises. I didn’t feel that it was a good thing for me to contact my family for a while.”

He settled in Paris in 1974, finding a cheap, rent-controlled apartment in a working-class neighborhood, and went to work painting the interiors of apartments. He was to be a house-painter for the next 10 years, going into business with a Frenchman with whom he became close friends. The experience gave him a new appreciation for manual labor: “I always notice now how nicely-dressed people sidestep the guy with the jackhammer on the sidewalk. I had this whole political involvement with unions and workers, and yet I never was really aware that this whole world was put together by people like that.” He enrolled in film school in Paris and joined a group of political activists who made documentaries pleading the cause of struggling small farmers in France. In the spring of 1980 he fell in love with a fellow film student, Francoise Blesseau, then 19. He told her who he really was only after several months, when they moved in together. She was familiar with the Black Panthers but had never heard of George Jackson, much less Stephen Bingham. She was “very surprised but very understanding,” Bingham says.

Was Robert Boarts different from Stephen Bingham? “I was probably becoming somewhat different in the first three years I was away because it was such a solitary experience,” he says. “But as soon as I was able to work and study and have a set of friends I was able to become myself again.”

Finally, in 1984, Bingham and Françoise decided that the time had come for him to indeed become himself, though he’d have to risk life in prison to do it. He had always intended to return someday. “I knew I had to and I knew I would, because it was the only way to clear my name.”

Together they struggled through the emotional process of giving up one life and returning to another. Finally, accompanied by his lawyers, he turned himself in at the Marin County jail on July 9, 1984, and after 13 years the barred door slammed shut behind him. He was prepared for that. “I’d decided I was going to learn as much as I could from my experiences in jail and not focus on the physical restraint it represented. I tried to be detached.”

He was held eight days, before his friends and supporters managed to raise the $400,000 bail. A week after his release, he, Stephen Bingham, took Françoise Blesseau as his lawfully wedded wife.

Bingham’s father, Alfred, 81, who “never doubted” his son’s innocence, contributed $200,000, the bulk of his wealth, to a defense that ultimately cost more than $500,000. The trial lasted two and a half months, and the jury reviewed the evidence for what seemed an interminable five days. But finally, at five minutes before noon on Friday, June 27, the jury took its first and only vote—12-0 to acquit.

Today Stephen Bingham, at 44, embarks on his third life. He scarcely knows where to begin. “We’re starting from zero economically,” he points out, and the tentativeness in his voice suggests a deficit that cannot be counted in dollars. “We keep thinking the ecstasy should open up before our eyes and the burden lift from our shoulders, but it isn’t that simple.”

He and Françoise would like to own a home and have kids. “We’ve got normal ambitions,” he says. “But everything has been so uncertain for us for so many years it’s hard to even imagine concrete things like that.” About all he is sure of is that he will remain active in the cause of social justice. “It’s just part of who I am,” he says.

Having faced the accusations of the state before a jury of his peers, Stephen Bingham has won some justice of his own. “It’s terrible how many people get them selves excused from jury duty because they think they’re doing something more important,” he says. “There’s nothing more important.”