Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On the run for 41 years, a black hijacker has been arrested in Portugal

He had been on the run for four decades. He escaped from prison when Richard Nixon was in the White House, joined the Black Liberation Army in Detroit, hijacked a plane and demanded that FBI agents deliver ransom money in bathing suits. Now, after a manhunt spanning three continents that often appeared to run cold, the FBI has finally found African-American George Wright. At age 68, he was living in the resort of Sintra near Lisbon in Portugal when he was arrested. The United States is seeking his extradition from Portugal to serve the remainder of a 15- to 30-year sentence for murder. In 1962, at the age of 19, he and three associates carried out a series of robberies in New Jersey. Wright and another man shot and killed a World War II veteran in a gas station robbery in Farmingdale. He was arrested soon afterward and, after pleading no defense, was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. But in 1970, Wright escaped from Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey. Wright made his way to Detroit, a hotbed of militant black politics, and joined the Black Liberation Army. On July 31, 1972, Wright and four other members of the Black Liberation Army went to Detroit airport and boarded Delta Flight 841 for Miami. Wright was dressed as a priest and carried a handgun in a hollowed-out Bible. The hijackers of Delta 841 - three men and two women accompanied by three children - seized the plane as it approached Miami. The FBI says that subsequent investigation identified Wright as one of the hijackers. Once on the ground, the hijackers demanded that FBI agents deliver $1 million ransom to the plane. The hijackers ordered that the plane fly to Boston. With the addition of an extra navigator, the DC-8 was refueled there and flew on to Algiers. Algeria in the early 1970s was run by a hard-line socialist government that was no friend of the United States and allowed various dissidents, militants and terrorists to take sanctuary there. A leading member of the Black Panthers, Eldridge Cleaver, had been welcomed as a political refugee there in 1968 after jumping bail in California. The Algerian government confiscated and returned the $1 million in ransom money to the United States, but Wright and his associates were allowed to get away. Some of the hijackers were arrested in Paris in 1976, but for decades, there was no trace of Wright. Then, nine years ago, a fugitive investigator with the New Jersey Department of Corrections working with the U.S. Marshals Service got a lead. At the time of the hijacking, there was limited screening of passengers at U.S. airports. This screening system did not require every passenger to be examined, only those who met a profile established by the Federal Aviation Administration. After the Algiers flight and several hijackings that turned violent, the Nixon administration instructed the FAA to adopt emergency regulations to improve screening. At the end of 1972, the FAA ordered airports to ensure that all passengers and their carry-on baggage be inspected before boarding.

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