|George Wright, a black nationalist activist, evaded authorities for 41 years before his arrest in Portugal [AP]|
A 1970s African-American activist from the US who escaped from a murder sentence in the state of New Jersey and successfully left the country on a hijacked airplane has been captured in Portugal after more than 40 years as a fugitive, authorities have said.
After decades of stagnancy, there was a sudden break in the case when police matched the fingerprints of George Wright, 68, to a resident ID card, officials announced.
Wright was arrested on Monday by Portuguese authorities in a town near Lisbon at the request of the US government, said a member of the task force that had been searching for him for nearly a decade.
Authorities say Wright and three associates had already committed multiple armed robberies on November 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 a New Jersey prison on August 19, 1970.
The FBI said Wright then became affiliated with the Black Liberation Army, an underground activist group that members said was fighting for the collective liberation of African-Americans, and that Wright lived in a “communal family” with several of the group’s members in Detroit.
On July 31, 1972, Wright, dressed as a priest and using the alias of ‘Reverend 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 two-year-old daughter, according to AP news agency reports at the time.
When the plane landed at the Miami airport, the hijackers demanded a $1m ransom – the highest of its kind at the time – to free the 86 people on board.
After an FBI agent delivered a 32 kilogram satchel full of money – wearing only a pair of swim trunks, in line with 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.
They were greeted by Eldridge Cleaver, an African-American activist who had been welcomed in Algeria as a political refugee after fleeing from California authorities.
Cleaver had been permitted by Algeria’s newly decolonised government to open an office of the Black Panther Party in that country in 1970.
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.
Algerian officials returned the plane and the money to the US 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 US, where they would have faced far longer prison sentences.
According to news reports at the time, the defence 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 defence’s assertion that the hijacking had been motivated by “racial oppression in the United States”.
Wright’s case was among top priorities for the New York-New Jersey Fugitive Task Force was formed in 2002, according to Michael Schroeder, a spokesperson for the US 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 the case anew.
They looked at reports from the 1970s, interviewed Wright’s victims and the pilots of the plane he hijacked.
The task force had age-enhanced sketches made and tried to track down any communications he may have made with family in the US.
The address in Portugal was one of several on a list of places they wanted to visit.
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, US authorities were on a plane to Portugal, and on Monday, Portuguese police staking out his home found him.
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 US.