U.S. Fugitive Caught in Portugal More Than 40 Years After Hijacking

September 28, 2011 - 2:10 AM
Hijacker Fugitive Captured

This arrest photo taken Feb. 15, 1963 and provided by the New Jersey Department of Corrections swows George Wright while in custody for the 1962 murder of a gas station owner in Wall, N.J. Wright was arrested Sept. 26, 2011, by Portuguese authorities at the request of the U.S. government after more than 40 years as a fugitive, authorities said Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011. The FBI says Wright, who escaped the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, N.J., in 1970, became affiliated with the Black Liberation Army and in 1972 he and his associates hijacked a Delta flight from Detroit to Miami. After releasing the passengers in exchange for a $1 million ransom, the hijackers forced the plane to fly to Boston, then on to Algeria. (AP Photo)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A fugitive task force that spent nine years pursuing the case of a 1970s militant who carried out one of the most brazen hijackings in U.S. history got a break this week: police matched his fingerprint to a resident ID card in Portugal.

That match led to the arrest Monday of George Wright, 68, who had been on the run for more than 40 years.

Wright was taken into custody 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. The following day Wright made an initial court appearance.

Wright was convicted of the 1962 murder of gas station owner Walter Patterson, a decorated World War II veteran and father of two, who was shot during a robbery at his business in Wall, N.J.

Eight years into his 15- to 30-year prison term, Wright and three other men escaped from the Bayside State Prison farm in Leesburg, N.J., on Aug. 19, 1970.

The FBI said Wright became affiliated with 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 — hijacked a Delta flight from Detroit to Miami. With him were several members of his communal group, including Wright's companion and their 2-year-old daughter.

After releasing the 86 passengers in exchange for a $1 million ransom — delivered by an FBI agent wearing only swim trunks, as per the hijackers' demands — the hijackers forced the plane to fly to Boston, where an international navigator was taken aboard, and then on to Algeria, where they sought asylum.

The group was taken in by American writer and activist Eldridge Cleaver, who had been permitted by Algeria's Socialist government to open an office of the Black Panther Movement in that country in 1970. The Algerian president at the time professed sympathy for what he viewed as worldwide liberation struggles.

The hijackers had identified themselves to the airplane passengers as a Black Panther group, police had said at the time. They said the hijackers smoked marijuana continuously during the flight.

At the request of the American government, Algerian officials returned the plane and the money to the U.S. They briefly detained the hijackers before allowing them to 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 the ransom money to them.

The group eventually made its way to France, where Wright's associates were tracked down, arrested, tried and convicted in Paris in 1976. The French government, however, refused to extradite them to the U.S., where they would have faced longer sentences.

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 (DOC) brought along all its old escape cases nine years ago when the task force began operating, Schroeder said, and investigators started the case anew, never taking a prolonged break from working on it.

They reviewed 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.

An 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 Wright's home found him.

Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said Wright was arrested for purposes of extradition on the New Jersey homicide charge. He would serve the remainder of his sentence if returned to the U.S., she said.

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Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J., Pete Yost in Washington and Karen Zraick in New York, and Associated Press News researchers Rhonda Shafner, Barbara Sambriski and Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.

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Follow Samantha Henry at http://www.twitter.com/SamanthaHenry.