A 1970s militant who carried out one of America’s most brazen plane hijackings lived for decades in a seaside hamlet in Portugal with his Portuguese wife and two children, neighbours said.
George Wright, 68, was taken into custody by local police on Monday at the request of the US government, which is seeking his extradition for escaping from a New Jersey jail after being convicted of murder. Wright was also named as one of the hijackers of a Delta flight in 1972.
The Portuguese news agency Lusa, citing unnamed police sources, said that the former Black Liberation Army member planned to fight any extradition.
During a court appearance on Tuesday in Lisbon, Wright asked to be released pending the outcome of the US extradition request, and his request is being reviewed by Portuguese judicial authorities, said a spokeswoman for the US justice department.
Until his arrest, Wright was living in Almocageme, 28 miles west of Lisbon. Fluent in Portuguese, he had no apparent profession but worked a series of odd jobs, most recently as a nightclub bouncer, said two neighbours.
George Wright in 1963. Photograph: AP
Wright married a Portuguese woman, identified by neighbours as 55-year-old Maria do Rosario Valente, the daughter of a retired Portuguese army officer. The couple had two children, Marco and Sara do Rosario Valente, now in their early 20s, who used their mother’s last name when they registered for swimming classes at the local pool.
It was unclear how Wright ended up in Portugal or when he learned Portuguese, but his wife worked as an occasional translator.
The couple lived in a small whitewashed house in Almocageme, which lies close to broad Atlantic beaches.
Portuguese house where George Wright lived for more than 20 years. Photograph: Tiago Petinga/EPA
Wright was convicted of the 1962 murder of petrol station owner Walter Patterson during a robbery at his business in Wall, New Jersey.
Patterson’s daughter told AP she wanted Wright sent back quickly to the US. “I’m so thankful that now there’s justice for daddy,” she said on Wednesday. “He never got any kind of justice.”
Wright possessed a Portuguese identity card that said he was born in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in west Africa. A photocopy of the document, shown to AP, bore the name Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos, an alias that US officials said Wright used. The identity card puts his age as 68. It was issued in 1993 and expired in 2004.
Neighbours estimated the family had been in the village for at least 20 years but said they did not mix much with other residents. None of them witnessed Wright’s arrest.
Ricardo Salvador, who works at a local petrol station, said Wright had business cards with his first name as George and many locals called him that. “He was a very nice guy,” Salvador said. “He used to wave as he drove past and I’d shout out, ‘Hey, George!’”
Most locals questioned by the AP said they assumed Wright was African, not American.
“I never imagined George was in trouble,” said Salvador, 30.
A fingerprint on Wright’s Portuguese ID card was the break that led a US fugitive taskforce to him. He was arrested by Portuguese authorities and is being detained in Lisbon.
The US embassy in Lisbon referred all questions to the FBI, declining comment about the case and Wright’s extradition.
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, in August 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 four other BLA members and three children, including Wright’s companion and their two-year-old daughter. The other hijackers were not the men Wright escaped from prison with.
The hijackers identified themselves to the Delta aeroplane passengers as a Black Panther group.
After releasing the 86 other passengers in exchange for a $1m ransom delivered by an FBI agent wearing only swimming trunks, the hijackers forced the plane to fly to Boston. There an international navigator was taken aboard, and the plane was flown to Algeria, where the hijackers 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 saw as worldwide liberation struggles.
At the request of the American government, Algerian officials returned the plane and the money to the US. They then briefly detained the hijackers before allowing them to stay. The hijackers’ movements were restricted in Algeria, however, 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. France, however, refused to extradite them to the US, where they would have faced longer sentences.
Wright alone remained at large, and his capture was among the top priorities when the New York-New Jersey fugitive taskforce was formed in 2002, according to Michael Schroeder, a spokesman for the US marshals service, who worked with New Jersey’s FBI and other agencies on the task force.
The New Jersey department of corrections brought along all its old escape cases when the taskforce began operating, Schroeder said, and investigators started the case anew. They reviewed reports from the 1970s, interviewed Wright’s victims and the pilots of the plane he hijacked.
An address in Portugal was one of several on a list of places they wanted to check out, but Schroeder said there was nothing special about it.
“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 Portuguese authorities.
“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 Wright’s home found him there.
, black liberation army
, extradition request
, nightclub bouncer
, occasional translator
, us justice department
Categories: The Western Press