He was known as "America's most elusive fugitive," and after 41 years at large, he'd built an entirely new life for himself in his adopted country of Portugal.
Wright's criminal history stretches back to 1962, when he and a partner robbed a New Jersey gas station (he was suspected of earlier armed robberies as well, but this particular crime is what he was nabbed for). The station attendant was beaten and shot (by Wright's partner, he maintains; police never disputed it was the partner's weapon that fired), and died two days later. Wright was also arrested two days later, and was sentenced to 15-30 years after pleading "no defense," which would allow him to avoid the possibility of the death penalty. He entered prison just before his 20th birthday.
In 2012, in an extensive interview with GQ, he reflected on how that one night in 1962 changed him forever.
"If I hadn't made that choice," he tells me—the decision to go into the gas station—"I would've had a whole different life. A parallel life."
In 1970, he escaped from prison with a group of other men, and found his way to Detroit with another escapee. There, he recalled to GQ:
They often discussed joining the Black Panthers. Highly active in Detroit, the Panthers sought an end to police brutality and the release of black inmates from prisons. Wright had grown up in an era of overt racism. He recalls using water fountains labeled COLORED ONLY and not being allowed to sit on the main floor of a movie theater and, if he needed to see a white doctor, having to sneak around back and beg to be allowed in. But he couldn't officially join the Panthers. Nor could any of his housemates. To do so would mean greater scrutiny by the police.
Then someone in the house brought up the idea of Algeria. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers' spokesperson, had recently established an office there. Cleaver had fled to Algeria after jumping bail on assault charges following a shoot-out with Oakland police two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Thus began an elaborate scheme that involved a hijacked flight from Detroit to Miami; a million-dollar ransom to free the other passengers (it was paid, and all were released); a jaunt to Boston to pick up a navigator; and a stay in Algeria as planned. France was the endpoint for everyone but Wright.
As the Guardian reports:
The group eventually made their way to France, where Wright's associates were tracked down, arrested, tried and convicted in Paris in 1976. France refused to extradite them to the US where they would have faced much longer sentences. According to news reports at the time, the defence hailed the light sentences they were given as "a condemnation of American racism" after the jury found "extenuating circumstances" in their actions, apparently agreeing with the defence's assertion that the hijacking had been motivated by "racial oppression in the United States".
So, 1976 ... but Wright wasn't found until 2011, after his case moved to top-priority status for a New York-New Jersey fugitive task force was formed in 2002. Where'd he been for four decades, and how had the escaped murderer and notorious hijacker survived? The GQ reporter who visited Wright while he was on house arrest in limbo in Portugal — between his arrest and possible extradition to the US — had the same thought:
Before my trip, I'd asked an FBI agent who helped orchestrate Wright's arrest how it was possible for a man to vanish for four decades. The agent said that Wright was an intelligent and conniving con artist, probably a compulsive liar, who would not hesitate to use violence or charm or subterfuge to worm his way out of any situation. Perhaps, the agent hinted, he was a sociopath.
In the end, Wright's capture was more symbolic than anything else, because Portugal declined to extradite him. In 2012, the New York Times reported, the US Justice Department decided not to appeal. Now 71, he can never leave Portugal, but as he told GQ, he's fine with that.