The perfect crime? Not quite. Forty years on, hijacker is run to ground

The FBI catches up with the Black Liberation Army militant who fled with a $1m ransom

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The Independent US

It must have seemed like the perfect crime. On 31 July 1972, an escaped prisoner called George Wright put on a dog collar, hid a revolver inside a hollowed-out Bible, and boarded Delta flight 841 from Detroit to Miami. Looking to all the world like a priest travelling south on church business, he was waved onto the plane.

Three hours later, as the DC-8 prepared for its final descent, Wright and four accomplices leapt from their seats. This was a hijack, courtesy of the militant Black Liberation Army, they declared. FBI agents were instructed to deliver $1m, in cash, to the aeroplane. Then, the group flew to Algeria – and disappeared. It was the height of the Cold War, and the north African country, with its socialist government, was a favourite hiding place for left-leaning dissidents and militants. Wright and his colleagues were therefore able to vanish into the ether. Some of them turned up in Paris, four years later, where they were arrested and imprisoned. But for decades, not a peep was heard from Wright.

Until now. On Monday, Portuguese police descended on an idyllic seaside hamlet, Almocageme, 28 miles west of Lisbon. There, inside a small whitewashed cottage with a yellow door, terracotta roof tiles, and a well-kept front garden, justice finally caught up with a man who had been on the run for more than 40 years. At 68, George Wright was enjoying the good life. Married to Maria do Rosario Valente, the 55-year-old daughter of a retired army officer, he had two grown-up children, Marco and Sara.

Without any visible source of regular income, he supported his family with occasional odd jobs. One summer, he'd had a stall on a nearby beach; another, he ran a barbecue chicken restaurant in the next town. Recently, he'd worked as a nightclub bouncer. Known locally by his real first name, he is said to have lived in Almocageme for at least 20 years. He was fluent in Portuguese, had a friendly – if mysterious – demeanour, and often waved to neighbours as he parked his grey Volkswagen on the cobbled street outside his home. No one knows if his wife, a translator, knew his true identity. She refused to comment to reporters yesterday.

"He was a very nice guy," Ricardo Salvador, who ran the town's petrol station, told the Associated Press. "He used to wave as he drove past and I'd shout out, 'Hey, George!'" Like many locals, Mr Salvador had assumed Wright was African rather than American. "I never imagined George was in trouble," he said.

Trouble is a mild way of putting things. Wright, who is now in custody in Lisbon, is expected to fight extradition to the US. If he loses, he may spend the rest of his life behind bars.

His story has more twists than a well-thumbed crime thriller. It begins in 1962. With three accomplices, Wright, then 19, embarked on a string of violent robberies in his native New Jersey. One of them ended tragically: on 23 November, Walter Patterson, a Second World War veteran and father of two, was shot and killed at the petrol station he ran in the town of Wall. Wright was arrested, pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and got a 15 to 30-year sentence. But in 1970, he escaped from prison, reportedly stealing the warden's car, driving it casually out of the gates, and making a clean getaway. During his time behind bars, Wright had become involved in the Black Power movement. He headed to Detroit, then a hotbed of the Black Liberation Army. The FBI believes he moved in with a "communal family" of members, using an alias to earn a small income as a model.

The 1972 hijacking was carried out by Wright and four other "family" members, two men and two women, including his then girlfriend. They had three small children with them, including a two-year old girl who belonged to Wright's companion. According to witnesses, they smoked large quantities of marijuana during the flight. Having made the pilot land in Miami, the group ordered FBI agents to deliver $1m in cash to the plane. It was the largest ransom ever achieved by a group of airline hijackers. During the drop, the agents were instructed to wear nothing except for skin-hugging swimming trunks, to ensure that they weren't carrying concealed weapons. The hijackers instructed the pilot to fly to Boston, where they refuelled and took delivery of an international navigator, who was also wearing swimming briefs. They took off again and flew to Algiers, where they were taken in by Eldridge Cleaver, a left-wing American writer and social activist.

It wasn't all plain sailing, though. The country's socialist President, Houari Boumédienne, was sympathetic to what he saw as members of a liberation movement, and allowed the group to stay. But he refused to grant them asylum, and severely restricted their movements. He also confiscated the $1m, and returned it to the US, along with the DC-8.

Frustrated, the group quietly made their way to Paris, where several were arrested in 1976. They successfully fought extradition to the US, and were imprisoned in France, where they served substantially shorter sentences. But Wright remained at large.

His arrest is the result of an investigation by the New York-New Jersey Fugitive Task Force, formed in 2002, which reopened the case. They re-interviewed Wright's victims, went over paperwork from the 1970s, and attempted to see if he'd had any recent contact with his family in the US. The address in Almocageme was one of several leads that were thrown up.

Last week, they realised that they had their man: Portuguese authorities looked up Wright on their national ID register. His fingerprints matched those on US records. After a surveillance operation, police surrounded his house and knocked on the door. Wright came quietly. His fate is now in the hands of a Lisbon court.

The FBI said that it hopes the arrest will "serve notice that the FBI's determination in pursuing subjects will not diminish over time or distance". Ann Patterson, the daughter of Wright's original victim, told the Associated Press: "I'm so thankful that now there's justice for Daddy. He never got any kind of justice."

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