U.S. Fugitive Found Hiding in Portuguese Hamlet

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

George Wright, 68, was taken into custody by local police Monday at the request of the U.S. government, which is seeking his extradition for escaping from a New Jersey jail in 1970 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, reported Wednesday that the former Black Liberation Army member plans to fight the extradition demand.

During a court appearance Tuesday in Lisbon, Wright asked to be released pending the outcome of the U.S. extradition request, and his request is being reviewed by Portuguese judicial authorities, U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said Wednesday.

Until his arrest, life was sweet for Wright in the tiny town of Almocageme, 28 miles west of Lisbon. Fluent in Portuguese, Wright had no apparent profession but worked a series of odd jobs, most recently as a nightclub bouncer, said two neighbors who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared being ostracized for speaking out.

Wright married a Portuguese woman, identified by neighbors as 55-year-old Maria do Rosario Valente, the daughter of a retired Portuguese army officer. They had two children — Portuguese-born Marco and Sara — now in their early 20s, who used their mother’s last name when they registered for swim classes at the local pool.

The couple lived in a small, whitewashed house with terracotta roof tiles, a yellow door and a small front garden in the picturesque village, which lies close to broad Atlantic beaches. A gray Volkswagen station wagon that neighbors said Wright drove was parked on the cobbled dead-end street outside.

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

His daughter, Ann Patterson, told the AP she wants Wright sent back quickly to the United States. “I’m so thankful that now there’s justice for Daddy,” she said 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 The AP, bore the name Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos, an alias that U.S. officials said Wright used. The identity card puts his age as 68. It was issued in 1993 and expired in 2004.

Neighbors estimated the family had been in the village for at least 20 years but said the couple didn’t mix much with neighbors. None of them witnessed Wright’s arrest.

Rui Santos, who works at the parish council, said Wright approached him in the mid-1990s and offered, in Portuguese, to coach local kids at basketball but the project never got off the ground.

A fingerprint on Wright’s Portuguese ID card was the break that led a U.S. fugitive task force to him. He was arrested by Portuguese authorities and is being detained in Lisbon but Portuguese police have repeatedly refused to release any details about the case.

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 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 Black Liberation Army members and three children, including Wright’s companion and their 2-year-old daughter. The hijackers with Wright were not the same men who escaped from prison with him.

After releasing the plane’s 86 other passengers in exchange for a $1 million ransom — delivered by an FBI agent wearing only swim 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.

Wright’s capture 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.

Investigators started the case anew. They reviewed reports from the 1970s, interviewed Wright’s victims and had age-enhanced sketches made.

An address in Portugal was one of several places they wanted to check out.

That changed last week, when details started falling into place with the help of Portuguese authorities.

By the weekend, U.S. authorities were on a plane to Portugal. And Monday, Portuguese police staking out Wright’s home found him there.

This article was written by Barry Hatton and published by htrnews.com on September 28, 2011.

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