AP Enterprise: US fugitive's 41-year life on lam
LISBON, Portugal (AP) — On a spring day in 1976, while hiding out in Paris, an American member of the Black Liberation Army panicked.
Newspapers were trumpeting the arrest of four comrades who had helped him hijack a plane. He needed to get out of France, and fast.
George Wright called together his secret network of friends — French radicals and an American sympathizer. They hatched a plan: Wright would slip quietly into Portugal by train and move on to one of its former African colonies, where Marxism and hostility to the West meant he would probably be safe.
The plan worked for decades. Then, in September, thanks to a fingerprint from his past, it all came crashing down.
The tale of Wright's life on the run spans 41 years and three continents. It starts in New Jersey with a prison break, moves to Algeria on the hijacked plane, to Paris where he lived underground, to Lisbon where he fell in love, to the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau — and finally to an idyllic Portuguese seaside village, where he built a life as a respected family man.
It was there that he was arrested in September. But on Thursday, Wright made another dramatic escape: A Portuguese court denied a U.S. request for extradition, saying Wright is now Portuguese and the statute of limitations on his crimes has expired.
At a press conference after he was freed from house arrest, Wright declared himself "very happy, morally and spiritually." He said that he is now a changed man, and that he had committed the hijacking "to fight for black rights."
The story of Wright's decades on the run was pieced together through documents and interviews with 32 people who knew him, including his Portuguese wife, a Black Panthers sympathizer who helped him in Paris, former U.S. Embassy officials in Guinea Bissau, and the pilot of the plane he hijacked at the start of his fugitive life.
Wright's odyssey has its roots in the fall of 1962, when he and three associates were accused of committing multiple armed robberies in two New Jersey towns and then holding up the Collingwood Park Esso gas station in Wall Township, according to court records.
The gang shot and killed gas station owner and World War II veteran Walter Patterson in a robbery that netted $70. Wright, then 19, and his accomplices were indicted a month later.
Police said Wright and 22-year-old Walter McGhee each fired shots during the holdup, and an autopsy showed Patterson died from McGhee's bullet, according to a 1963 Associated Press article. Wright maintains he never killed anyone, saying he never even opened fire.
Wright and McGhee pleaded not guilty, but later changed their pleas to "no defense," meaning they did not admit guilt but did not contest the charges. Wright said he entered the plea only to avoid the death penalty or a life sentence.
McGhee was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor and Wright to up to 30 years. After rejecting Wright's appeal for a trial, a judge sent him to the New Jersey State Prison.
Wright was eventually moved to a minimum security prison dairy farm. There he met George Brown, a former forklift operator serving time for armed robbery.
On Aug. 22, 1970, the two waited until guards made their bed checks, then simply walked out of the prison, which had no outer walls, and stole a car. Wright's Portuguese wife, Maria do Rosario Valente, says he told her they hotwired the warden's car to make their getaway.
The two resurfaced two years later in dramatic fashion — as members of the underground Black Liberation Army militant group.
Wright, dressed as a priest, boarded a Detroit-to-Miami passenger flight, along with Brown, another man, two women and three small children. The group was armed with three handguns and took over the plane above Savannah, Georgia, with Wright holding a cocked revolver against the neck of a flight attendant, according to the pilot, retired Delta Air Lines Capt. William May.
After landing, the hijackers demanded $1 million to release the passengers, insisting that agents deliver the cash from the tarmac naked as proof they weren't armed. May said he convinced Wright — who did most of the talking and appeared to be the leader — that the agents should be allowed to wear bathing suits.
Wright got angry during the negotiations, blurting out at about 12:30 p.m.: "If that money's not here by 2 o'clock, that's when I'm going to start throwing dead bodies out the door."
The money was already en route from a bank to the airport. When it arrived, Delta ramp supervisor Bernard Cooper and an FBI agent put on swimming suits bought hastily near the airport; Cooper's was two sizes too small.
They headed to the plane with a suitcase stuffed with the money. An emergency rope was dropped from the jet, the suitcase was pulled inside and the passengers were set free.
The hijackers embarked on their trans-Atlantic getaway, smoking pot in the first class section, where "they were like kids, counting the money and frolicking about," May says.
They first forced the pilot to fly to Boston so an international navigator — also dressed in a bathing suit — could board the plane and guide it to Algeria, where they wanted political asylum. In the air, they crowed that they were leaving decadent America, escaping the ghettoes and heading to their homeland.
The hijackers chose Algeria because former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver was there at the time, say May and George Pumphrey, a former Black Panther sympathizer now living in Germany.
Algeria gave the ransom money and the plane back to the United States, but let Wright and his group stay, with their movements restricted to the capital, Algiers. They moved on to Paris by early 1973 and got to know Pumphrey, who was living there.
Helped by French sympathizers, Wright got a job as an electrician's assistant, took French classes and used the alias "Alvin" with his comrades. French police rounded them up in May 1976, but Wright wasn't caught in the dragnet and contacted Pumphrey for help in fleeing France.
The French radicals provided Wright money for the train journey to Portugal. It was the best escape route, Pumphrey says, because from there Wright could try to get to Angola, Guinea-Bissau or Mozambique — all recently liberated Portuguese colonies that would probably welcome Wright and refuse to extradite him if asked.
Wright met his future wife on New Year's Eve, 1978, as the two waited to get into a nightclub near Lisbon. She liked speaking English, and they shared musical tastes, including the blues. She says all she knew about him back then was that "he seemed to know his way around" Portugal, had spent time in France, and was living with a friend in Lisbon and taking Portuguese classes.
Valente says her husband never told her about the hijacking or the robbery that put him in jail until after his arrest in Portugal, a claim that Wright's boss for nearly four years in Guinea-Bissau says stretches belief. He did tell her he had once escaped from jail, but she thought he was joking.
He told her he wanted to head to Africa to explore his racial heritage, inspired by the 1977 television series "Roots," about an African sent as a slave to the United States and his descendants.
Guinea-Bissau tightly controlled foreigner entries, but Wright got a letter of safe passage from a high-ranking Portuguese military official, his wife says.
Valente, the daughter of a retired senior Portuguese army officer, says she did not know the name of the official who helped her husband and would not provide information on how to contact her father, who is now elderly and in poor health.
While Valente insists she knew nothing about her husband's past when he went to Guinea-Bissau, she is sure that the African nation's rulers were aware of it because they decided to give him political asylum.
Wright left first for Guinea Bissau in 1980, where a new identity of Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos awaited him, arranged by now-deceased Vasco Cabral, a hero of the nation's struggle against Portuguese colonial rule, his wife says.
Valente followed later. She got a job teaching elementary school in the capital, Bissau, while he worked as a government-employed basketball coach and physical education teacher.
"He was there not under false pretenses. Everyone knew his past. They gave him political asylum, a job, somewhere to live, so he wasn't hiding," she says, while maintaining she herself was ignorant of his criminal past at the time. Wright has also said he never told her about his past.
The two were close friends with members of the nation's Marxist political elite, and Valente soon parlayed her knowledge of English into translation jobs for the U.S. Embassy.
Bissau had a population of only about 250,000 at the time, and the American expatriate community was tiny in the hardship post, where electricity and water service were sporadic and finding decent food was a challenge.
Nine U.S. diplomats and embassy workers who served in Bissau in the 1980s and early 1990s say Wright lived openly using his own name — but told The Associated Press they knew nothing about his past.
Among them was John Blacken, a former U.S. ambassador who still lives in Guinea-Bissau; he says he was never informed about Wright's past in any cables from Washington.
Wright visited the embassy when his wife was working there. But officials in Washington did not typically send embassies messages about fugitives wanted in the United States, unless there was information indicating they were in the country, says one diplomat who served at the embassy. And Wright never drew attention to himself through a request for a new passport, social security card or other embassy services.
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he still works for the government and was not authorized to speak about Wright.
Wright also helped an American company to build more housing at the American ambassador's residency compound, according to his wife and Edmee Pastore, the embassy's administrative officer in the early 1990s.
The company had hired local construction workers, but the owner didn't speak Portuguese, Pastore recalls.
"Along comes George Wright," she says. "He had learned enough Portuguese to help these men do the work they were going to do. The upshot was these houses finally got built, and people moved in."
It was Wright's connections in Bissau along with his language skills that prompted Hannes Stegemann to hire him as logistics coordinator for a Belgian nonprofit group running a fisheries project.
Wright told Stegemann and others about his conviction, his jail escape and the hijacking — and was so open about his past that Stegemann finds it difficult to believe U.S. officials in Guinea-Bissau and his own wife didn't know about it.
In Guinea-Bissau's circle of political powerbrokers, Wright was seen as a revolutionary, Stegemann says.
Among Wright's close friends was Bissau Mayor Manuel Saturnino da Costa, a chess partner who lived two doors down from his home, say Stegemann and Wright's wife. But Da Costa, reached in Bissau by telephone, denied he knew Wright, even as "Jack the American" — the way many locals referred to him.
Wright and Valente didn't wed until 1990 in a civil ceremony in Bissau, but Valente says in Guinea-Bissau people are considered married when they live together.
The couple had a son, Marco, in 1986 and a daughter, Sara, in 1991.
Married to Valente and armed with his new identity as a citizen of Guinea-Bissau, Wright obtained Portuguese citizenship. The couple moved to Portugal in 1993 for a better education and safer environment for their children, Valente said.
They set up home in Almocageme, a place of whitewashed walls and terra-cotta roofs near a stunning beach, less than an hour's drive from Lisbon.
Townspeople interviewed by AP describe Wright as an affable family man and regular churchgoer. Wright, who lived from odd jobs including decorative painting, helped at charity events and played basketball with emigre friends from Guinea-Bissau.
Wright didn't reveal his past in Portugal, even with his closest friends. Andre Cameron, an American musician who has known Wright for two decades, said he was "in shock" after Wright was detained.
Wright's peaceful life ended abruptly when Portuguese police turned up at his small, two-storey house at the end of a quiet cobblestone street in late September.
The FBI said he was detained after they provided Portuguese authorities with a fingerprint that matched Wright's from the country's national database of fingerprints, but have declined to say what prompted them to look for Wright in Portugal.
Wright's sister came from the United States to visit her brother at least three times over the years, raising speculation among Wright's friends in Portugal that the two were in regular contact and that authorities picked up on it.
Valente says Wright's two children learned about his past after his arrest; they cried for their entire first 45-minute visit with him. Two weeks after Wright's capture, he was released on house arrest with an electronic monitoring system while the judge considered the U.S. extradition request.
Despite the denial of the request Thursday, American authorities have said they will keep fighting to get Wright to serve the rest of a 15- to 30-year murder sentence in New Jersey. But for now, Wright, who also suffers from glaucoma, high blood pressure and chest pains, is free. He said Thursday that he had wanted to tell his family his story for years, but "I had a weight on my shoulders and I didn't want to transfer it onto them."
His freedom will not go down well with Ann Patterson, the New Jersey gas station victim's 63-year-old daughter. She says she wants justice.
"This man has lived a 50-year lie," she says.
Clendenning reported from Madrid. Associated Press writers contributing to this report included Tom Breen in Raleigh, North Carolina; Samantha Henry in Newark, New Jersey; Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield, N.J.; Dan Sewell in Cincinnati; and Jamey Keaten in Paris. Investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed from New York.