September 28, 2011 5:11 am

U.S. fugitive George Wright caught in Portugal after four decades

A 1970s militant who carried out one of the most brazen hijackings in U.S. history lived for decades in an idyllic Portuguese hamlet near a stunning beach with his Portuguese wife and two children, his neighbours said Wednesday.

George Wright, 68, worked odd jobs around Almocageme, 28 miles (45 kilometres) west of Lisbon, most recently employed as a nightclub bouncer, said two neighbours who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared being ostracized for speaking out.

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Wright, taken into custody Monday at the request of the U.S. government, also spoke very good Portuguese, they said, adding that his children were now in their 20s.

A woman who answered the door at his home in Almocageme told an Associated Press correspondent she had no comment and then closed the door.

Wright used the alias of Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos, U.S. officials said, and townspeople in Almocageme knew him as “Jorge” and “George.”

Almocageme gas station attendant Ricardo Salvador said Wright had business cards which gave his first name as George and many locals called him that. Most locals questioned by the AP said they assumed Wright was African, not American.

“He was a very nice guy,” Salvador said. “He used to wave as he drove past and I’d shout out, ‘Hey, George!”‘

A fingerprint on a Portuguese ID card was the break that led a U.S. fugitive task force to Wright, who was arrested by Portuguese authorities and is being detained in Lisbon.

Wright was convicted of the 1962 murder of gas station owner Walter Patterson, a decorated World War II veteran who was shot during a robbery at his business in Wall, New Jersey.

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, on Aug. 19, 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 2-year-old daughter.

After releasing the 86 other passengers in exchange for a $1 million ransom – delivered by an FBI agent wearing only swim trunks, as per the hijackers’ demands – 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 viewed as worldwide liberation struggles.

The hijackers had identified themselves to the airplane passengers as a Black Panther group, police said at the time. They said the hijackers smoked marijuana continuously during the flight.

At the request of the American government, Algerian officials returned the plane and the money to the U.S. They briefly detained the hijackers before allowing them to 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 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. The French government, however, refused to extradite them to the U.S., where they would have faced longer sentences.

Wright remained at large, and his case was among the top priorities when the New York-New Jersey Fugitive Task Force was formed in 2002, according to Michael Schroeder, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, who worked with New Jersey’s FBI and other agencies on the task force.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) brought along all its old escape cases when the task force 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. They had age-enhanced sketches made and tried to track down any communications he may have made with family in the U.S.

An address in Portugal was one of several on a list of places they wanted to check out, 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 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, U.S. authorities were on a plane to Portugal. And Monday, Portuguese police staking out Wright’s home found him.

Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said Wright was arrested for purposes of extradition on the New Jersey homicide charge. He would serve the remainder of his sentence if returned to the U.S., she said.

Samantha Henry in Newark, Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, New Jersey, Pete Yost in Washington and Karen Zraick, Rhonda Shafner, Barbara Sambriski and Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.

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