US fugitive cites poor health in extradition fight

October 28, 2011 - 2:45 PM
Portugal Hijacker Fugitive Captured

Captured American fugitive George Wright kisses his wife Maria do Rosario Valente in the kitchen of their house Friday, Oct. 28 2011, in Almocageme, outside Lisbon. Valente says in an interview with The Associated Press that her husband regrets his criminal past, including his 1962 New Jersey murder conviction, escape from a U.S. prison and hijacking of a plane in 1972. Wright, 68, was on the run for 41 years until his arrest in Portugal a month ago and is currently under house arrest. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

ALMOCAGEME, Portugal (AP) — The wife of captured American fugitive George Wright said Friday her husband has a litany of health problems requiring treatment and should not be extradited to the United States to serve the rest of his time on a murder conviction after 41 years on the lam.

Maria do Rosario Valente said in an interview with The Associated Press at their home that Wright suffers from glaucoma, "very, very high" blood pressure caused by recent stress, and has complained of chest pains. She also said he regrets his criminal past.

"We're having a bunch of tests done to see what's his current health condition," Valente said.

She added: "He regrets the choices he ... made. If he could, probably he'd have made different choices."

Wright, tall and slim with his head shaved bald, did not participate in the interview because of Portuguese court restrictions that prevent him from talking about the case. After it was over, he kissed her and made small talk about matters unrelated to his legal battle.

Wright's lawyer, Manuel Luis Ferreira, said he will include his client's health problems in legal arguments aimed at preventing him from being sent to the United States to serve the rest of a 15- to 30-year jail sentence for the 1962 killing of a New Jersey gas station worker.

"I didn't initially realize how bad off he was," Ferreira told the AP Friday. "Now that I've gotten to know him, I know his problems."

U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined comment via email on what impact Wright's health could have on the extradition process, which could last months.

Wright, 68, was convicted of the murder of Walter Patterson in Wall Township, N.J... He escaped from the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, in 1970 after serving more than seven years. The FBI says says Wright also was part of a Black Liberation Army group that hijacked a U.S. plane from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to Algeria in 1972.

The rest of the group was arrested in France, but Wright made his way to Portugal, and met Valente in the late 1970s in Portugal. The two later moved to the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, where the country's then-Marxist leaders granted him asylum and a new identity.

Wright lived openly using his real name in Guinea-Bissau and even socialized with American diplomats, but one former ambassador who served in the country while Wright and other U.S. diplomats were based there has told the AP they did not know about his past.

His wife worked for years as a freelance translator for the U.S. embassy in the country's capital, Bissau, and Wright was a logistics coordinator for a Belgian nonprofit development group until the couple moved back to Portugal in 1993.

Valente said her husband has become a more peaceful man since his days as a militant. She showed the AP photographs of paintings by Wright and art work at local buildings — a skill which has allowed him to earn money in Portugal among other odd jobs he's done over the years.

She spoke to the AP in English in the kitchen of the home she has shared with Wright for almost since they left Guinea-Bissau, at the end of a cobblestone street in a pretty hamlet on the Atlantic coast near a stunning beach and about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

The FBI says it requested Wright's detention after providing fingerprints to Portuguese authorities that matched his contained in a national fingerprint database for all citizens and residents. He was initially jailed, but a judge allowed him to return home wearing an electronic tag that monitors his movements and would alert authorities if he ventures outside his house.

Neighbors describe Wright as a friendly, churchgoing family man. He has a grown daughter and son with Valente. Some assumed he was from Africa when he moved here.

"If ... the purpose of sending someone to jail is to rehabilitate them, then that job is done," Valente said.

The main argument from Wright's lawyer for him to stay in Portugal is his Portuguese citizenship — and a law from the country that allows Portuguese convicted of crimes to serve their time at home.

The citizenship is based on his new identity from Guinea-Bissau, and the name he was given: "Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos."

Armed with that, he married Valente in 1990, and used his new identity and the marriage to convince Portuguese authorities to give him citizenship.

Ann Patterson, daughter of the man killed in New Jersey, declined comment Friday on Wright's health problems but said she still wants him returned to serve his sentence.

"Our world has been turned upside down," said Patterson, 63. "We've now had to grieve for our father for the second time when we never should have had to the first time."

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AP reporter Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield, N.J., contributed to this report.