Friday 20 April 2018

US hijack fugitive on the run for 40 years is caught in Portugal

Photo dated 1963 of George Wright who has been arrested after more than 40 years as a fugitive. Photo: AP
Photo dated 1963 of George Wright who has been arrested after more than 40 years as a fugitive. Photo: AP

A 1970s militant who carried out one of the most brazen hijackings in US history and had been on the run for more than 40 years has been captured in Portugal.

George Wright, 68, was taken into custody by Portuguese authorities in a town near Lisbon at the request of the US government, said a member of a fugitive taskforce which had been searching for him for nearly a decade.

Wright was convicted of the 1962 murder of filling station owner Walter Patterson, a decorated Second World War veteran and father of two, who was 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 farm in Leesburg, New Jersey, on August 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 two-year-old daughter.

After releasing the 86 passengers in exchange for a million-dollar ransom - delivered by an FBI agent wearing only swimming 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.

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 US Marshals Service, which worked with New Jersey's FBI and other agencies on the taskforce.

An address in Portugal was one of several on a list of places they wanted to examine. But Mr 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.

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 US, she said.

Belfast Telegraph

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