AP Exclusive: US fugitive lived openly in Africa

September 29, 2011 - 2:05 PM
Portugal Hijacker Fugitive Captured

In this photo released by Noticias de Colares on Thursday Sept. 29, 2011, U.S. fugitive George Wright is seen in a post office in Praia das Macas, Portugal in 2000. Wright was arrested Sept. 26, 2011 by Portuguese authorities at the request of the U.S. government after more than 40 years as a fugitive, authorities said. The FBI says Wright, who escaped the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, N.J., in 1970, became affiliated with the Black Liberation Army and in 1972 he and his associates hijacked a Delta flight from Detroit to Miami. After releasing the passengers in exchange for a $1 million ransom, the hijackers forced the plane to fly to Boston, then on to Algeria. Wright is being held in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, pending extradition hearings. He has asked to be released while the extradition process goes forward, and the court handling the case is considering his request, according to U.S. officials. (AP Photo/Noticias de Colares)

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A convicted American killer who disappeared after a 1972 hijacking lived openly in West Africa under his real name for years and even socialized with U.S. embassy officials there, a former U.S. ambassador said Thursday.

The comments by John Blacken, a retired U.S. ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, raised new questions about a decades-long FBI manhunt for George Wright, who managed to elude authorities for 41 years until being arrested Monday in Portugal.

Blacken told The Associated Press he was stunned to hear about Wright's arrest because he knew him and his wife — who might have even worked on translation projects for the U.S. embassy. But Blacken had no idea that Wright was a fugitive.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department had no immediate comment.

Wright's years on the lam took him across the globe — from New Jersey to Detroit to Algeria to France to Guinea-Bissau and then Portugal, at the very least.

When Blacken served as ambassador from 1986 to 1989 in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, Wright had already escaped from jail in New Jersey while serving time for murder and was wanted in the 1972 hijacking by the Black Liberation Army of a U.S. plane to Algeria.

"All this was a big surprise, my goodness, murder and everything else," Blacken said in an telephone interview from Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau. "No one imagined him being a murderer. Of course we didn't know him that well. He seemed like an ordinary person and not radical at all."

A fingerprint on Wright's Portuguese ID card was the break that led a U.S. fugitive task force to him, according to U.S. authorities. But for decades his file was in the unsolved "cold cases" section for U.S. law enforcement.

Blacken said he was never alerted by U.S. law enforcement officials about Wright's background.

"If we had received such a cable, we would have responded," Blacken added. "He was known as George Wright here, and it's strange that (U.S. officials) never tracked him down here."

It was not clear what action, if any, Blacken could have taken in a nation that at the time was very sympathetic to those it perceived as freedom fighters.

Michael Ward, head of the FBI in Newark, N.J., said it wasn't unusual that Wright could have lived undetected overseas for so long.

"Obviously communication abilities were much less back in the 70's and the 80's than they are today," Ward said. "You're dealing with someone with a common name who is living a low-key lifestyle and those factors would have contributed to him going unnoticed at the time."

Ward said New Jersey's Fugitive Task Force was able to track him down and break open the case with today's better investigative techniques and improved technology.

"It was a combination of persistence in the investigation, but also law enforcement techniques across the board have improved in the last 40 years. These days, everyone is just better at what they do," Ward said.

Ann Patterson, whose father Walter was killed by Wright in a 1962 gas station robbery in New Jersey, was surprised to learn that Wright lived in plain sight and managed to remain undetected in Guinea-Bissau using his real name.

"He just got away with everything. He was very adept at what he did. This is unreal," she said Thursday.

Blacken could not recall what sort of work Wright did in Guinea-Bissau, a tiny nation on the Atlantic Ocean. He knew Wright's Portuguese wife, Maria do Rosario Valente, better because she had worked as a freelance Portuguese-English translator, possibly even for the embassy.

Wright and his wife were already married when Blacken knew them, and Wright has lived for at least the last two decades in Portugal. A photocopy of his Portuguese residency card listed his home country as Guinea-Bissau.

A woman at the Guinea-Bissau embassy in Lisbon said no one was available to comment on whether Wright obtained citizenship from the African nation, but doing so in the 1980s was relatively easy for foreigners.

Wright's arrest has generated intense media interest in Portugal. International camera crews were staked out Thursday around his pretty house on a cobbled street not far from a stunning Atlantic Ocean beach in Almocageme, 28 miles (45 kilometers) west of Lisbon.

He is being held in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, pending extradition hearings and will likely remain in detention for at least several weeks while his lawyer and lawyers for the United States present their legal arguments, said the president of the Lisbon court.

Wright has asked to be released during the process and can appeal the extradition decision to the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, a process likely to last months, the judge, Luis Maria Vaz das Neves, told The AP.

Vaz das Neves declined to provide details of the arguments because that information is not available to the public in Portugal, but said authorities are trying to determine whether Wright's Portuguese identity documents are valid.

"The citizen is American, though he said he also has Portuguese nationality, but that remains to be resolved," Vaz das Neves said.

Blacken didn't know if Wright had obtained citizenship when he was in Guinea-Bissau, but said it wouldn't have been too hard to do.

"A person living here for over a period of time who wants to apply for citizenship can normally get it regardless of his background," Blacken said.

The leftist Socialist authorities in Guinea-Bissau at the time might have even been impressed if Wright had told them about his past, said Jan Van Maanen, honorary consul for the Netherlands and Britain in Guinea-Bissau.

"In the 70s and the 80s, they used to use passports and therefore nationality as something to decorate people with," Van Maanen said.

In the United States, Wright was convicted of murder and hijacked a plane.

Eight years into his 15- to 30-year prison term, Wright and three other men escaped from the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, on Aug. 19, 1970. The FBI said Wright then joined an underground militant group, the Black Liberation Army, and lived in Detroit.

In 1972, Wright — dressed as a priest and using an alias — hijacked a Delta flight from Detroit to Miami along with other BLA members, police said. After releasing the plane's 86 other passengers for a $1 million ransom, the hijackers forced the plane to fly to Boston, then to Algeria, where the hijackers sought asylum.

Algeria returned the plane and the money to the United States but allowed the hijackers to stay.

Wright and the other hijackers left Algeria in late 1972 or early 1973 and settled in France, where they got jobs and lived together, said Mikhael Ganouna, producer of the 2010 documentary "Nobody Knows my Name" about the hijacking.

But Wright left the group, and his associates were subsequently tracked down, arrested and convicted in Paris in 1976. The French government, however, refused to extradite them to the United States.

Until his arrest Monday, life was sweet for Wright in the Portuguese hamlet of Almocageme, where neighbors said he lived for at least 20 years with his wife and two children, now in their 20s.

Locals knew him as Jorge Santos, a friendly man from Africa who did odd jobs and spoke fluent Portuguese. Over the years, he worked as a nightclub bouncer, a beach stall salesman and ran a barbecue chicken restaurant.

His wife answered the door Wednesday at their whitewashed house but refused to comment on her husband's arrest.

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Clendenning reported from Madrid. Samantha Henry contributed from Newark, N.J. and Wayne Parry contributed from Atlantic City, N.J.