09/08/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Kathy Boudin is coming home—but she'll receive a decidedly mixed greeting. Some are thrilled. "This is the best birthday present you could ask for," says her son Chesa, 23. Others are shocked. Upon hearing the news, South Nyack Police Chief Alan Colsey muttered, "I was numb, speechless."
Boudin, a former member of the Weather Underground, was sentenced to 20 years to life for her role in an armed robbery in 1981 that left three men dead. On Aug. 20 the New York State Parole Board informed Boudin that she would be freed by October. "It's really happening. I'm coming home," she told long-time friend Bernardine Dohrn, who raised Chesa, while Boudin, now 60, was in prison. "When Chesa was a kid, I'd say to him, 'When you're grown up, Kathy will get out,' " says Dohrn, 61, now a law professor at Northwestern. "It almost became a fairy tale." She and her husband, University of Illinois education professor Bill Ayers, 58, are also former members of the Weather Underground; they did not participate in the robbery.
Chesa, a recent Yale graduate heading to Oxford University next month on a Rhodes scholarship, was driving home through Kansas to Chicago when he got a call on his cell phone with the news. "I let out a hoot," he says, then dialed several other family members. "There was lots of crying; people were overjoyed." He set out for New York last week in anticipation of Boudin's release from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. (His father, David Gilbert, is still serving a 75-years-to-life sentence for his role as the driver in the robbery.)
Boudin's imminent freedom was no cause for celebration for the families of murdered Brink's security guard Peter Paige and Nyack police officers Waverly Brown and Sgt. Edward O'Grady. "We're devastated," said Sergeant O'Grady's nephew John Hanchar, who learned the news on what would have been his uncle's 55th birthday. Adds Brown's son Gregory: "I supported her serving a full sentence. I don't think anyone should suffer the loss of a family member through such violent means."
The daughter of a prominent civil rights attorney and the subject of a new biography, Family Circle (written by her Bryn Mawr classmate Susan Braudy), Boudin was a fugitive at the time of the deadly Brink's robbery. She had played a part in several previous Weather Underground actions, surviving an explosion in Greenwich Village that killed three fellow members. The group, which claimed responsibility for 20 bombings between 1969 and 1975, used violence as a way to bring attention to its leftist social agenda. Coordinated with the militant Black Liberation Army, the 1981 robbery of $1.6 million from an armored truck in Rockland County, N.Y., had been intended, defenders said, as a way to redistribute wealth to the poor.
A decoy riding in the van that hid the gunmen, Boudin had not been involved in planning the crime nor was she armed, but she was charged with second-degree murder after fleeing the scene. She pleaded guilty and, leaving then-14-month-old Chesa with Dohrn, began her sentence. While in prison, Boudin established counseling groups for imprisoned parents and HIV-positive prisoners, earned a master's degree in adult education and literacy and wrote about her experience for the Harvard Educational Review.
"She saw a need in the community," says Chesa, who is close to Dohrn and Ayers but who had also built relationships with both parents through letters and visits. "She wanted to make a positive contribution—though obviously she made some big mistakes."
Others are less impressed by her jailhouse activities. "Her attitude has been self-serving to gain parole," says Police Chief Colsey. "She's played the game."
Boudin has declined interview requests pending her release; no date has yet been set. She has over the years, says Chesa, discussed her remorse with him. Recently she told him that she would like to personally apologize to the victims' families for their loss—an offer that so far has no takers. "They have reasons to be hostile for her winning her freedom," acknowledges Chesa. "In my own experience there was nothing more important than to forgive. I was initially very angry at my parents—they were arrested and abandoned me. It wasn't until I forgave them that I was able to live a healthier life. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for [those families]."
Dohrn says that Boudin rarely talked about what she might do if she were to be released, never allowing herself to dream of the outside world. "Now she's ready to enter the next stage of her life," says Dohrn of Boudin, who is expected to live with friends in Brooklyn. She hopes to schedule knee surgery for an old sports injury and complete her Ph.D. "In the bigger sense," says Dohrn, "I think she'll be an educator, the way she is in prison. She'll have a life."
Reported by Diane Herbst