Longtime fugitive US hijacker caught in Portugal
Sep 27, 2011
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A 1970s militant who escaped from a murder sentence in New Jersey and carried out one of the most brazen hijackings in U.S. history was captured in Portugal after more than 40 years as a fugitive, authorities said Tuesday. After decades of stagnancy, there was a sudden break in the case when police matched his fingerprint to a resident ID card.
George Wright, 68, was arrested Monday by Portuguese authorities in a town near Lisbon at the request of the U.S. government, said a member of the fugitive task force that had been searching for him for nearly a decade.
Wright was convicted of the 1962 murder of a gas station owner in Wall, N.J. Authorities say Wright and three associates had already committed multiple armed robberies on Nov. 23, 1962, when he and another man shot and killed Walter Patterson, a decorated World War II veteran and father of two, during a robbery of the Collingswood Esso gas station in Wall.
Wright received a 15- to 30-year sentence and had served eight years when he and three other men escaped from the Bayside State Prison farm in Leesburg, N.J., on Aug. 19, 1970.
The FBI said Wright then became affiliated with an underground militant group, the Black Liberation Army, and lived in a "communal family" with several of its members in Detroit.
On July 31, 1972, Wright, dressed as a priest and using the alias the Rev. L. Burgess, hijacked a Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit to Miami accompanied by three men, two women and three small children from his communal group, including Wright's companion and their 2-year-old daughter, according to Associated Press reports at the time.
When the plane landed at the Miami airport, the hijackers demanded a $1 million ransom - the highest of its kind at the time - to free the 86 people on board. After an FBI agent delivered a 70-pound satchel full of money - wearing only a pair of swim trunks, per the hijacker's instructions - the passengers were released, according to AP accounts.
The hijackers then forced the plane to Boston, where an international navigator was taken aboard, and the group flew on to Algeria, where the hijackers sought asylum.
The group was taken in by Eldridge Cleaver, the American writer and activist, who had been permitted by Algeria's Socialist government to open an office of the Black Panther Movement in that country in 1970, after the Algerian president at the time professed sympathy for what he viewed as worldwide liberation struggles.
The hijackers had identified themselves to the passengers as a Black Panther group, police said at a news conference, according to AP reports at the time. They said the hijackers smoked marijuana continuously during the flight.
Algerian officials returned the plane and the money to the U.S. at the request of the American government, and briefly detained the hijackers before letting them stay. Coverage of the hijackers' stay in Algeria said their movements were restricted, and the president ignored their calls for asylum and requests to return them the ransom money.
The group eventually made its way to France, where Wright's associates were tracked down, arrested, tried and convicted in Paris in 1976. France refused to extradite them to the U.S., where they would have faced far longer prison sentences. According to news reports at the time, the defense hailed the light sentences they were given as "a condemnation of American racism" after the jury found "extenuating circumstances" in their actions, apparently agreeing with the defense's assertion that the hijacking had been motivated by "racial oppression in the United States."
But Wright remained at large, and his case was among the top priorities when the New York-New Jersey Fugitive Task Force was formed in 2002, according to Michael Schroeder, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, who worked with New Jersey's FBI and other agencies on the task force.
The Department of Corrections brought along all its old escape cases nine years ago when the task force began operating, Schroeder said, and investigators started Wright's case anew, never taking a prolonged break from working on it for the past nine years.
They looked at reports from the 1970s, interviewed Wright's victims and the pilots of the plane he hijacked. They had age-enhanced sketches made and tried to track down any communications he may have made with family in the U.S.
The address in Portugal was one of several on a list of places they wanted to check out. But Schroeder said there was nothing about it that made it seem especially promising. "It was another box to get checked, so to speak," he said.
That changed last week, when details started falling into place with the help of authorities there.
"They have a national ID registry," Schroeder said. "They pulled that. That confirmed his print matched the prints with the DOC. The sketch matched the picture on his ID card."
By the weekend, U.S. authorities were on a plane to Portugal. And Monday, Portuguese police staking out his home found him.
Schroeder said he has not been told what, if anything, Wright said when he was caught.
Wright made an initial court appearance in Portugal on Tuesday, according to Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney. He was arrested for purposes of extradition on the state of New Jersey's homicide charge, and would serve the remainder of his sentence on that charge if returned to the U.S.
US fugitive hid in Portugal hamlet
Sep 28, 2011
ALMOCAGEME, Portugal (AP) -- He lived the sweet life for decades. But nobody knew he was on the run. After breaking out of a New Jersey prison 41 years ago, George Wright settled in a picturesque seaside town in Portugal.
He married a local woman, raised two children and grew old in a pretty house on a cobbled street near a stunning beach. Locals knew him as Jorge Santos, a friendly man from Africa who did odd jobs and spoke fluent Portuguese.
He kept his true identity secret: convicted murderer, prison escapee and accused hijacker.
Wright's decades-long flight from justice ended when the 68-year-old American was taken into custody by local police Monday at the request of the U.S. government. On Tuesday, he appeared before a judge in Lisbon, the capital, for an initial extradition hearing.
Residents of this charming coastal town were coming to terms Wednesday with the fact that a man they knew and liked had been living a lie.
"I never imagined George was in trouble," gas station attendant Ricardo Salvador said.
Most assumed Wright was African, not American. His Portuguese identity card said he was born in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa. A photocopy, shown to The Associated Press, bore the name Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos, an alias U.S. officials said Wright used. It was issued in 1993 and expired in 2004.
Salvador and other residents said Wright had business cards that gave his first name as Jorge or George, and many called him by the latter.
"He was a very nice guy," Salvador said as he took a break from pumping gas on a sunny autumn day in Almocageme, 28 miles (45 kilometers) west of Lisbon. "He used to wave as he drove past and I'd shout out, 'Hey, George!'"
In his younger years, Wright was a darker character.
He was convicted of the 1962 murder of gas station owner Walter Patterson, a decorated World War II veteran shot during a robbery at his business in Wall, New Jersey.
Eight years into his 15- to 30-year prison term, Wright and three other men escaped from the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, on Aug. 19, 1970.
While on the run, the FBI said Wright joined an underground militant group, the Black Liberation Army, and lived in a communal family with several of its members in Detroit.
In 1972, Wright - dressed as a priest and using an alias - is accused of hijacking a Delta flight from Detroit to Miami along with four other Black Liberation Army members and three children, including Wright's companion and their 2-year-old daughter.
His capture drew reactions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ann Patterson, daughter of the murdered New Jersey gas station owner, told the AP she wants Wright sent back quickly. "I'm so thankful that now there's justice for Daddy," she said. "He never got any kind of justice."
Rui Santos, who works at the Almocageme village council, said he was "stunned" by the news. "I'd never have thought it possible," he said outside a newsstand.
He said Wright approached him in the mid-1990s and offered to coach local kids at basketball, though the project never got off the ground.
Until his arrest, life was quiet for Wright in this hamlet of a few hundred residents, where neighbors said he lived for at least 20 years. Speaking Portuguese with a slight foreign accent, he worked at a series of odd jobs, most recently as a nightclub bouncer, said two neighbors who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared being stigmatized for speaking out.
Wright also once had a stall at the beach and ran a barbecue chicken restaurant.
He married a Portuguese woman, identified by neighbors as 55-year-old Maria do Rosario Valente, the daughter of a retired Portuguese army officer. They had two children - Marco and Sara, now in their early 20s - who used their mother's last name when they registered for swim classes at the local pool.
The family lived in a neat whitewashed house with terra cotta roof tiles, a yellow door and a small front garden. At the front gate, a black mailbox in the shape of a barn carried the words "U.S. Mail." A gray VW Passat station wagon that neighbors said Wright drove was parked on the narrow dead-end street.
A woman who answered the door confirmed she was Maria do Rosario Valente and said she had no comment about the arrest.
About a mile (1.6 kilometers) away was the breathtaking Praia da Adraga beach, a sandy cove surrounded by steep rocky hillsides that has a natural rock tunnel where ocean waves blast through.
A fingerprint contained on Wright's Portuguese ID card as required by law was the break that led a U.S. fugitive task force to him, according to U.S. authorities.
Wright's capture was among the top priorities when the New York-New Jersey Fugitive Task Force was formed in 2002, according to Michael Schroeder, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, who worked with New Jersey's FBI and other agencies on the case.
"They have a national ID registry," Schroeder said of Portugal. "They pulled that. That confirmed his print matched the prints with the (Department of Corrections in New Jersey). The sketch matched the picture on his ID card."
Schroeder said the task force had been aware for at least several months of the possibility that Wright could be in Portugal. "Once the investigative group had a strong belief that George Wright might be in Portugal, we proceeded to take the next steps immediately. But those steps take time," Ward said.
Wright was being detained in Lisbon while the extradition process continued, but Portuguese police refused to release any details about the case.
U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said she couldn't speculate on how long extradition might take.
Back in 1972, Wright and his alleged accomplices released the hijacked plane's 86 passengers in exchange for a $1 million (euro730,000 million) ransom - delivered by an FBI agent wearing only swim trunks as ordered by the hijackers. They then forced the plane to fly to Boston, where an international navigator was taken aboard, and the plane was flown to Algeria.
The group was taken in by American activist and writer Eldridge Cleaver, who had been permitted by Algeria's socialist government to open a Black Panther Movement office in 1970. The Algerian president then professed sympathy for what he saw as worldwide liberation struggles.
At the request of the U.S. government, Algerian authorities returned the plane and the ransom to the United States. They briefly detained the hijackers before allowing them to stay. But their movements were restricted and the Algerian president ignored their requests for asylum.
Wright and the others left Algeria in late 1972 or early 1973 and settled in France, said Mikhael Ganouna, producer of a 2010 documentary about the hijacking, "Nobody Knows my Name."
Wright left the group after breaking up with a girlfriend, and no one knew where he went, Ganouna said.
Wright's associates were all eventually tracked down, arrested and tried. They were convicted in Paris in 1976, but the French government refused to extradite them to the U.S., where they would have faced longer sentences.
One of them, George Brown, lives in Paris but isn't worried about being extradited because he has already served his sentence, Ganouna said.
Over the years, the New Jersey Department of Corrections task force on fugitives reviewed reports from the 1970s, interviewed Wright's victims and the pilots of the hijacked plane, had age-enhanced sketches made of the fugitive and tracked any possible links to his family in the U.S.
An address in Portugal was one of several leads they wanted to check, but Schroeder said there was nothing special about it.
"It was another box to get checked, so to speak," he said.
That changed last week when details started falling into place with the help of Portuguese authorities.
By the weekend, U.S. authorities were on a plane to Portugal. On Monday, Portuguese police took Wright into custody.
William May, the pilot of the Detroit-Miami flight hijacked in 1972, said Wright was the group's leader.
"It's been 40 years," May said. "I'm surprised there was even any interest in finding him still."