Convicted of murder in 1962, George Wright hijacked a flight out of Miami. Then he disappeared – until last year. Now we can tell the complete story
t's past 10pm in the evening, a rude hour to knock on someone's front door, but George Wright's attorney has assured me that this is the best time. The TV cameras have gone away. The newspaper reporters have quit. For the man whose recent capture, after 41 years on the run, ended one of the longest unsolved fugitive cases in criminal history, there might be some semblance of normalcy. So I stroll by moonlight through a wooden gate, down the cobbled entryway of a whitewashed cottage in a Portuguese village, and I knock.
There's a faint padding of footsteps; a porch light flips on. I find myself suddenly anxious. 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 1962, he participated in a robbery at a gas station in New Jersey, in which he left a man bleeding to death while he went out to dinner. Later he broke out of prison and worked with the Black Panthers.
He was also, said the FBI agent, a domestic terrorist. In 1972, Wright held a gun to the head of a pilot on a plane packed with 86 passengers. He received a million dollars in cash – the largest ransom ever paid in an airplane hijacking in the United States – and forced the plane to fly to Algeria. Then he disappeared. In September 2011, he was caught. Wright deserved, the agent said, never to see the outside of a prison again, and I found myself nodding in agreement.
When I phoned Wright's attorney, Manuel Luís Ferreira, he insisted that Wright was now a completely different man, kind and gentle to a fault; a caring father, a devoted husband, an active humanitarian – organiser of banquets for the homeless, basketball coach to inner-city kids. He was a threat to no one, said the lawyer, and not deserving of any punishment at all.
"A person can change, you know," Ferreira explained. I said I wasn't so sure. The FBI agent had mused that a man like Wright can only pretend to change. I said I wanted to meet with Wright himself. The attorney, after some thought, offered to drive me to his house.
The cottage's bright yellow door swings open, and there, shadowed behind a curtain of brown beads – unable to venture farther because of the electronic monitor strapped to his right ankle – is George Wright.
"Come in," he says. I step through the beads.
The mug shot of Wright – the picture that's in my mind – shows a 19-year-old kid with a modest Afro, his jaw set, his eyes cold and challenging. Before me now is a 68-year-old man. His name is no longer George Wright. He's José Luís Jorge dos Santos. Jorge for short. Glasses hang around his neck. White hairs spring from his eyebrows. His head is shaved; crow's-feet pleat his eyes. He's wearing grey sweatpants and black slippers and a navy blue sweatshirt. His handshake is warm and enveloping.
He leads me through the living room, books stacked everywhere, a shelf of knickknacks – an ostrich egg, a collection of dried gourds – and into the kitchen. He pours me a cup of coffee. Wright's wife, Rosário, wanders in. They have two children, a 25-year-old son, Marco, and a 20-year-old daughter, Sara. Rosário is wearing a tan sweater and blue sweatpants and pink Crocs. Her hair is trimmed in a casual bob. She affixes me with a judgmental look.
I join Wright at the kitchen table. He folds his hands over the blue tablecloth, jiggling a vase of cut flowers. A batik depicting the Last Supper hangs on the wall.
He asks me what I want. I say I'd like to hear his life story. He says he's never told the whole thing, not even to his wife. His voice is deep, still inflected with a southern twang. He's partial to using the phrase "you dig" as conversational filler. It's probably time to tell it, I say. He's quiet a moment.
"You know," he says, "this is a matter of life or death to me."
I nod. After his capture by Portuguese police acting on instructions from the FBI, Wright was jailed for three weeks, then released, placed under house arrest. Now what's happening is three Portuguese judges are, in essence, evaluating his life, stacking all of Wright's good deeds on one side of the judicial scale and all his bad ones on the other, and seeing where the pans settle. There are no court hearings, no in-person testimony; Wright's lawyer provides all his arguments in written form, as do the Portuguese attorneys representing the United States.
This triumvirate of judges playing an earthly version of St Peter will render a verdict that will either condemn Wright to spend the rest of his life in a US prison or allow him to pull off his greatest escape ever: he'll be completely absolved by the Portuguese government, all charges dropped. There seems to be no middle ground.
As I sit with Wright, both of us nibbling bits of soft Portuguese cheese, he has no idea when a decision will come. He is in limbo. Each day, he knows, could be the last he'll ever see his house or sleep with his wife or hug his children. No surprise that he looks weary and burdened. I can sense that he wants to speak, to finally represent himself, in his own words. He draws a breath, arching his shoulders as if stretching a bowstring, flexing the muscles of time, of distance, of memory.
Where do you want to begin?" he asks.
We start with the moment that changed everything. It happened just outside the Collingwood Park gasoline station on the eastbound lane of Route 33 near Asbury Park, New Jersey. It happened when Wright pulled a brown seamless stocking over his face. His partner, Walter McGhee, did the same. Wright carried a sawed-off Winchester .22-calibre pump-action rifle. McGhee held a five-shot revolver. They had just fortified themselves with swigs of vodka. It was a little before 9.30pm on the Friday after Thanksgiving 1962.
The two men strode into the gas station's office, guns drawn. Inside were three vending machines – soda, cigarettes, candy – a phone booth, several chairs, and a wooden desk. Sitting at the desk was 42-year-old Walter Patterson, who was leasing the station. He wore a dark green uniform that said Walt in embroidered script on the breast pocket. He was the father of two girls, ages 14 and 13. He was white; his assailants were black.
"As soon as the guy saw us coming in the door, I recall him saying, 'Get out of here with that shit, get out of here,'" says Wright. It's 50 years after the crime, but his hands are clenched atop the kitchen table, and he won't make eye contact with me. "It just, you know, went bad. It wasn't the plan. The guy refused to give up. Everything happened in a minute."
Wright's recollection of that minute is hazy. But I was able to speak with a retired FBI agent named R J Gallagher, who hunted Wright for 17 years. Gallagher had access to all the original police reports, to the suspect-interview transcriptions, to every scrap of evidence. He was able to reconstruct the crime down to its tiniest detail.
After Patterson told the two men to get out, according to Gallagher, it was Wright who responded.
"Motherfucker!" he said, "you'd better give up the money." Patterson had no intention of surrendering anything. He approached the intruders, and immediately there was a physical confrontation. Patterson wasn't a big man, but he was uncannily strong. He could reach into the hood of a car and lift out the motor by himself. In the Second World War he'd won a Bronze Star for combat valour. But unarmed and outnumbered, he was soon pummelled about the head and shoulders with the guns, beaten so badly that the person who later found him reported that he'd been shot in the head.
There was no cash register in the gas station; typically Patterson kept most of the money crumpled in his pocket. At some point during the beating, he emptied his pocket and threw the bills on his desk. There was a total of $70.
Then McGhee shot him. The gun was about six inches from Patterson's waist. The bullet passed through his liver and kidney and stopped a few inches above his left hip. Patterson fell to the floor. "My mind just froze up on me," says Wright. "I was shaking like crazy. I grabbed the money, I grabbed it out of there, I grabbed it." Wright and McGhee fled. They went to a place called the Belmont Inn, where Wright ate two cheeseburgers and played bar shuffleboard. Patterson died in the hospital two days later.
We've uncorked a bottle of Portuguese red wine, Wright and I. It's very late. The house's rafters groan in the ocean wind. His wife, Wright says, is really the night owl. He prefers mornings. His pancakes, with his homemade batter, are a family favourite.
"Want to try them?"
He tells me to return in the morning.
By day, I can see what attracted Wright to rural Portugal. Green hills ascend to the clouds; a couple of stone castles nestle amid the trees. There's a salty whiff in the air. Wright's house, in the village of Casas Novas, is a short walk from Adraga Beach, with sea-carved caves and velvety sand. Lining his front walkway is a small garden: spinach, kale, cilantro, strawberry. A ceramic sign, in English, reads welcome friends and neighbours.
I eat with Wright and Rosário. I finish a dozen pancakes, maybe more. I ask Rosário how she's been able to handle the situation. She responds with a question of her own: how long have you been with your wife? Ten years, I tell her, and she calls me a "rookie". She says I couldn't even begin to understand the depth and power and complexity of love in such a short period of time. She's been with Wright for 33 years.
"How," I wonder, "are the kids holding up?"
Tears build in Rosário's eyes. "We don't watch the news anymore."
Their son, sleeping late, gallops down the stairs. Marco works at a nearby restaurant. His head is shaved bald, as if in solidarity with his dad. I mention the tattoos covering his arms, and Marco rolls up a sleeve while his father frowns. "They're multiplying," Wright says with a sigh.
Sara meanders in, shy beneath a nimbus of golden brown ringlets, and begins peeling a pomegranate. When she sees her father, she grasps his waist and starts patting his head. Wright literally has to work his way out of her embrace.
Once the breakfast dishes are cleared, Wright continues his story. "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."
I feel like he's thought quite a bit about this alternate existence. A life on the run – a life in which no one can ever poke into your past, where you can't call attention to yourself – eliminates the opportunity for a real career. Wright has worked only a succession of short-term jobs: artisan, food-cart owner, disc jockey. Rosário has taught kindergarten and served as a Portuguese-to-English translator. When I ask Wright what he imagines he'd be doing in his parallel life, he shrugs
Rosário, reading a book in the living room, shouts that he would've been a celebrated painter. She shows me one of his canvasses – an impressionistic sunset over a shimmering lake. "Painting," says Rosário, "is his true calling."
"You don't think," I say to Wright, "you were destined to be involved in criminal behaviour?"
Not at all, he insists. Until the murder, Wright claims the worst thing he'd ever done was sneak into his high school gymnasium to play night-time basketball with his friends. Wright and his younger sister, Edwina, grew up in the Baptist farming community of Halifax, Virginia, not far from the North Carolina border. His father, a drinker, left the family when Wright was five. His mother died of rheumatic fever several years later. He was raised primarily by his grandmother.
Wright was accepted to college at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, where the famous sit-ins took place at the Woolworth's lunch counter the year before he arrived. But he dropped out a month into his sophomore year.
"I was uncertain about everything," he says. "My life, where I was going, all of that." He caught a bus to New Jersey, rented a room for $4 per week, found a job as a short-order cook, and started dating a girl in Asbury Park.
One morning, he used the communal showers in his guesthouse but left his room door open. He says that when he returned, his wallet was gone. He needed $1.25 to catch the bus to his job, which was several towns away. He asked his girlfriend for a small loan. No luck. He asked her uncle. Not possible.
"I knew this fellow McGhee," says Wright. "I went to his house, and I asked him."
Wright says that McGhee didn't have any money either, but he knew how they could get some.
"How's that?" asked Wright.
"Take off a store," McGhee said. "There ain't gonna be no problem. Just go in and put the gun up in the guy's face."
"Shit," said Wright, who seemed to possess a wild and self-destructive impulsiveness. "I ain't got nothing else." He agreed to accompany McGhee into the gas station.
This, Wright tells me several times, is an essential point: it was McGhee's gun that fired, not his. The police never disputed this. "When the gun went off, I didn't even look at the guy," Wright says. "I don't even recall him falling. I was just desperate. You dig? I didn't want to lose my job. It was a stupid, non-thought-out process. I just needed a dollar and a quarter for the bus."
I found Wright's excuse implausible – murder someone for bus fare? – but as Wright himself told me, it's crucial to consider the racial atmosphere at the time. During my stay in Portugal, I reread James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which was originally published in the New Yorker two weeks before the gas-station crime. "White people," Baldwin wrote, "had robbed black people of their liberty and... profited by this theft every hour." Therefore, he added, "I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal."
Two days after the robbery, Wright was arrested in a third-floor room at his boarding house. The stocking he'd used in the crime, with eyeholes snipped out, was still on his head, rolled up and worn as a cap.
He was charged with murder. His grandmother hired a lawyer, a white man who advised him to avoid a jury trial at all costs. So he pled "no defence" – he didn't admit guilt but did not contest the charges – and was handed a sentence of 15 to 30 years. It may have been good legal advice. The judge in the case, Elvin Simmill, told him, "I would've sent you to the electric chair if the jury returned a verdict of guilty."
Wright was shipped to a New Jersey state prison a few weeks before his 20th birthday. "They closed the doors behind me," he says, "and it seemed like the end of the world."
For a while, he thought about escaping. But he was in a maximum-security facility. So he did what he could to occupy himself. He played a lot of chess. He took a course in typing, another in sociology. He read philosophy books. He became a follower, for a while, of Elijah Muhammad, the mentor to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. He made licence plates.
After four years in prison, Wright saw the parole board for the first time. "I told them I was sorry for what I had done, that I was rehabilitated, please let me go home. What else could I say?"
Parole was denied. All his friends from the outside world had faded away. His grandmother had visited him one time, but never again. "It was too far," Wright says. But soon he was transferred to Leesburg State Prison, a medium-security work farm on 1,100 acres in southern New Jersey – a transfer, according to one FBI agent, that may have been due to a clerical error. Security at Leesburg was relatively loose. There wasn't even a perimeter fence.
On the afternoon of 19 August 1970, a couple of men approached Wright. Their names were Jimmy and Jumbo. Wright was working in the prison laundry at the time. The men said they'd had enough of prison and wanted to do something about it. "They asked me," says Wright, "if I was interested."
"You guys kidding me?" said Wright.
"No," they said.
"Yeah," said Wright. "I'm interested." They talked about it. "I ain't going nowhere walking," Wright added.
"We're going to get transportation," they said. Jimmy mentioned that he was a skilled mechanic, expert at hot-wiring cars.
Wright figured that if he did get out, he'd need cash to restart his life. There are always wheeler-dealers in prison who have money, and Wright knew one of them, a man named George Brown, who was serving three to five years for armed robbery. Brown promptly joined the team. They agreed that they were going all the way: either they'd escape or they'd be shot. Freedom or death.
There were inmate counts every hour at Leesburg. Sometime after the 10pm check, the four men disappeared, unarmed, into the night, avoiding the guards by hiding in a cornfield. When the 11pm count came up short, the alarm sounded. A few minutes later, the warden of the prison discovered that his own car was missing.
It turned out that Jimmy had hot-wired the warden's vehicle. The four of them drove 30 miles north, to Atlantic City. They wore their jail uniforms – khaki tops and bottoms printed with an inmate number – inside out. The car was found four days later. In it was a single shoe, one prison-issued sock, and a hot-wire kit.
The group split up in Atlantic City. Jimmy and Jumbo were swiftly recaptured. Wright and Brown hid near the bus station for two nervous hours. Then they boarded a Greyhound to New York City. Wright had spent seven years, seven months, and 25 days behind bars.
Soon after Wright arrived in New York, he realised it was an unsuitable place for a fugitive. "I began to see too many people I knew from high school," he says. He needed anonymity. So he and Brown moved to Detroit. There he held a couple of menial restaurant jobs and enrolled in a course to become a male model. He even landed a few paying gigs but had to quit: "I'm on the run and having my picture taken a lot."
He and Brown were sharing a house on Detroit's east side with Wright's girlfriend, her daughter (by another man), and a couple named Melvin and Jean McNair, who had two small kids. All three men were wanted – Wright and Brown for the jailbreak and McNair for deserting the army. They were out of work, on the lam, and desperate for something that would get the heat off them for good.
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 cinema 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.
A plan was hatched. Everyone in the house was in on it; weeks of effort were involved. Brown knew someone who worked at Detroit Metro Airport. They needed a plane that could travel long distances but did not have a hatch that connected the luggage hold and the passenger cabin. It had to be inaccessible from underneath. Brown's friend found them the ideal plane. Wright dyed his hair gray and studied the airport's security procedures. Weapons were procured.
Reservations for the three men, two women, and three children were made over the phone. They booked coach class, near the rear of the plane, on Delta flight 841, a Detroit-to-Miami non-stop scheduled to leave on 31 July 1972, at about 9am.
The men boarded the plane in outfits that they anticipated would not arouse suspicion. Brown dressed as a dishevelled student. McNair was a businessman. Wright was a priest. He wore black vestments and a clerical collar and held a Bible in his hand. He'd booked his ticket under the name Reverend Larry Darnell Burgess.
They were quiet for the first two hours of the flight. Food was served and collected. In addition to Wright's eight-person party, there were 86 passengers and seven crew members. After the meal, says McNair in a soon-to-be-released documentary film called Melvin & Jean: An American Story, a flight attendant passed through the plane. Wright tapped her on the shoulder. They were flying over Savannah, Georgia, about an hour from landing.
"Excuse me," Wright said. "Can I ask you something?"
The flight attendant ducked down to speak to him, and Wright displayed his gun. It had been hidden in the hollowed-out Bible. At the time, Delta did not use metal detectors in Detroit. The others' weapons, it's theorised – Wright won't confirm this – were concealed in a baby carrier and inside a portable radio.
When the flight attendant saw Wright's gun, she jumped back. "Keep cool," Wright told her. "Just take us to the cockpit." And he followed close behind her, up the aisle.
The hijacking is a touchy subject for Wright. He's never been brought to trial for the crime, and if the Portuguese judges rule against him, Wright knows that the United States will likely prosecute him for it. Domestic terrorism can be punished with the death penalty. Wright doesn't deny being on that airplane, dressed as a priest. But any details he provides, he explains to me, could only hurt him.
The pilot of the plane, a DC-8, was William Harold May. He was 41 years old at the time. He's now 81, but his memory of the event seems impeccable, his voice retaining the jargony, confident-verging-on-cocky rhythm of a captain on the PA. He spoke to me for hours.
May told me he wasn't in the cockpit when the hijacking started. He was using the bathroom. "When I came out," he says, "this fellow turned around" – it was probably McNair –"and he had what looked like a .45 and kind of stuck it in my belly and said, 'They want you up front.' So I go in the cockpit, and everybody up there is white as a sheet."
Wright was already in the cockpit, according to May, with a flight attendant as his hostage. "He had his arm around her neck and a revolver pointed at her head, cocked," says May. "I thought she was going to faint."
"Uncock the gun and we'll talk," May said to Wright.
"The gun's all right," he replied.
"No," said May, "I'm not going to talk to you until you uncock that gun. Those things go off."
Wright uncocked the gun. "My knees were kind of weak," recalls May. "I said, 'Let me get in my seat.' " Wright moved aside, and May sat at the controls.
"What do you want?" May asked.
"We want a million dollars," answered Wright. "And we want to go to Algeria."
From the pilot's seat, May managed to surreptitiously enter a set of numbers into the dashboard transponder. Miami air-traffic control responded through his headphones.
"Are you squawking 7500?" That's the code for a hijacking in action.
"Affirmative," replied May, and Miami International began preparations to receive the flight.
After they landed, May taxied the plane to an abandoned runway. He tried to talk Wright out of his plan. "You know," May told him, "this airplane won't fly to Algeria. It doesn't have the range. We'll probably go down in the ocean, and everybody's going to drown. Are you ready for that?"
This wasn't entirely a lie. Despite all the preparation Wright and his team had done, they'd failed to realise that there were two types of DC-8s. The international version had more fuel tanks than the domestic model – 10 instead of eight – and specialised water-emergency equipment. Even more daunting, May himself had never piloted an overseas flight; he'd never even left the United States on vacation.
But Wright was committed. Asked if they were prepared to die, Wright said, "Yes, we're Black Panthers."
The Delta ramp supervisor at the time, in charge of loading and unloading baggage, was Buster Cooper. He was 27 years old, in the operations center, listening to the radio chatter. The FBI was trying to persuade Wright to release the passengers. Then, says Cooper, he heard a statement over the radio that will forever be seared into his memory. It was Wright speaking from the cockpit.
"If you don't bring us the money," Wright said, "we're going to throw some motherfucking heads out the motherfucking door."
"Everybody in operations," says Cooper, "went, 'Whoa, this is getting serious.' " The First National Bank of Miami was contacted, and soon the money was on its way.
The bills, fifties and hundreds, were placed in "a cheap-ass suitcase" plucked from customer service, recalls Cooper. The black case, with a Delta Air Lines luggage tag, bulged at the sides.
There was discussion in the cockpit about how, exactly, the handoff would occur. Wright was worried about an ambush. "I want that man to come out here nude," he told May.
"Be reasonable," said May. News of the hijacking had spread, and dozens of people were rubbernecking just beyond the airport's chain-link fence.
The plane's copilot, Darl Henderson, had an idea: "What about a skintight bathing suit?"
Wright agreed. So a Delta employee ran over to the men's store in the airport and purchased two swimsuits, with dark vertical stripes and a thick white waistband.
Cooper changed into the suit. An FBI agent named Bob Mills did the same. Then Cooper drove the mobile stairway out to the plane. He stopped twenty feet away. They'd promised to arrive unarmed, but in fact Mills kept a six-shot revolver on the seat.
"If I had my way," says Mills in Melvin & Jean, "I would've shot them. Because I didn't think they deserved to live."
He didn't get his way. Wright shouted instructions through the partially opened side window of the cockpit – the only way for him to communicate with Cooper and Mills. He made each of them walk away from the truck, barefoot and shirtless, then turn around to verify they were unarmed.
Mills dragged the suitcase to the base of the plane. One of the flight attendants opened a door and tossed out a length of red vinyl "escape tape". Mills tied it to the suitcase. The attendants hauled it up and handed the million dollars over to the hijackers.
The passengers were released, driven away in two buses. After more than three hours in Miami, the plane, with the hijack team and flight crew and all the passengers' luggage, took off. May had convinced Wright about the plane's travel capabilities, and the hijackers agreed to fly to Boston, where they could take on an international navigator and also shorten the trip to Algeria by a thousand miles.
They landed at Logan Airport, rolled to the end of the runway, and parked. Eight sharpshooters were posted nearby, some dressed as airline workers.
Two white Mobil fuel trucks arrived, the refuelers wearing swimsuits, and 13,800 gallons were pumped into the plane. The navigator, also in a bathing suit, arrived carrying a satchel filled with maps and clothing. He propped an aluminum ladder against the plane and climbed aboard. Then one of the hijackers kicked the ladder away and sealed the door.
May had specifically requested that he didn't want any funny business here; he needed a real navigator, someone who could guide him on his first trip across the Atlantic. "I didn't want some FBI guy to come on with guns blazing," he says.
But May took one look in the navigator's bag – the maps were uselessly large-scale, and the uniform was wrong – and he realised the FBI wasn't playing this straight. After the plane took off, the man instructed May to activate the alternating-current isolation switch. Once he did, warning lights would flash all over the control panel.
"What's the motive, man?" May asked.
"Tell them we're having an emergency and have to go back to Boston," he said. "Tell them we'll have another airplane waiting." May understood that when the hijackers were transferring planes, the snipers would have a shot at them.
The plan was flawed. "The last time I actuated the AC isolation switch," May said, "I lost all the flight instruments." This could cause a genuine emergency, and May wasn't willing to risk it. "Let's just get on with it," he said.
So May continued east, over the Atlantic. In the first-class section there were seats that faced each other with a table between. The suitcase, May remembers, was on this table, opened up. "They were like children around that money," says May. "One of them took a pack – it had this money band that said $20,000 – and handed it to me and said, 'Here's a tip for the crew.'" May turned down the offer.
Because the plane was equipped for domestic travel, it had only a VHF radio. Its range was less than 200 miles, so the plane was soon completely out of contact. There was still no water-emergency gear. Stormy weather raged over the Atlantic. May, for his inaugural international flight, hadn't slept in more than 20 hours and had eaten only a Charleston Chew. A gun was frequently pressed against his head by a man dressed as a priest. "It was not the best set-up," says May.
Still, with the help of Spanish air-traffic controllers May contacted as the plane skimmed Europe, they landed at Dar el Beida airport in Algiers. An official drove out with a set of stairs. The hijackers opened the door.
"We want to see Eldridge Cleaver," said Wright.
The Black Panthers lived in a white stucco villa in the wealthy outskirts of Algiers, a mansion donated by the Algerian government. Cleaver adorned the place with two brass plaques engraved with leaping panthers. But for the hijackers, any visions they had of Algeria as utopia swiftly crumbled.
First, there was the matter of the money. The hijackers were allowed to stay with the Panthers, but the government seized the suitcase before it left the plane. Cleaver sent a letter to Algeria's president, Houari Boumedienne. "Without the money to finance and organize the struggle," he wrote, "there will be no freedom." Yet the case was returned to the United States. The hijackers did not keep a single dollar.
Then there was Cleaver himself. "The only thing that interested him was the money," says Brown in a documentary film about him called Nobody Knows My Name. "They weren't dealing with the struggle. They were women-hunting in Algeria." Neighbours of the mansion complained about all-night parties. While his wife was away, Cleaver apparently initiated an affair with a local teenager. "We risked our lives for believing in the cause," says Brown. "When we got there, the cause wasn't there. They fucked it up."
After a few months, the entire hijack team decided to leave. They had no real plan. "We moved around the world a little bit," says Brown. They lived in Germany, where they blended in with US soldiers, then settled in Paris. Wright took a job as an electrician's assistant, learned French, and used a new alias, Alvin.
Though he had help from French sympathisers – people who viewed the hijackers as freedom fighters – it was difficult for Wright to shake a sense of paranoia, that someone was always around the corner looking for him. "Sometimes I would feel the weight of it," he says, "and I would have to be alone, work it out myself, try to get past it." As it turned out, there was good reason for his fears.
Wright returning home on bail in 2011.
Wright spent his time in France studying what he calls the "theory of revolution". He examined Marxism. He looked into Leninism. "I began to question a lot of things," he says – the methodology of the black-power movement, the motivation of his fellow hijackers. "I wanted to change my life. So one day I just said, 'That's it, I'm out of here.'" He broke up with his girlfriend and drifted away from the hijack group.
The timing was ideal. French authorities had indeed identified them, and in May 1976 every adult who'd hijacked the airplane was arrested – except Wright. Nobody knew where he was.
The other hijackers were jailed. Their French lawyers argued, successfully, that racism was so rampant in America that they could not receive a fair trial there, so the proceedings were held in France. They were found guilty, but the men spent only three years in prison, the women two and a half. The children were sent home to America.
"After they were arrested," says Wright, "I came to the conclusion that it might not be healthy for me to stay around." About this time, wars were being fought in Portugal's African colonies – Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau – and a stream of black immigrants was flooding into the country. Wright saw an opportunity to camouflage himself. "So I made the decision," he says, "to come to Portugal."
A fugitive's life is rarely simple and almost never conducive to long-term relationships. But on New Year's Eve 1978 into 1979, outside a nightclub near Lisbon called the Manhattan, Wright met a young woman named Maria do Rosário Valente. It wasn't quite love at first sight, says Rosário, but the feeling was so powerful she still recalls exactly what he was wearing: a green wool sweater he'd knitted himself, denim bib pants, and a green stocking cap. An earring was in his left ear. He introduced himself only as "Jorge".
Darkening the first stages of the love affair was Wright's sense – the same suspicion he'd had in France – that he wasn't safe. He'd heard that Guinea-Bissau, a newly independent nation in Africa's western bulge, often granted asylum to political exiles. So Wright left Rosário behind and flew there. The expatriate community in Guinea-Bissau was small and politically well connected, and he soon met the nation's vice president, Vasco Cabral, who viewed him as a hero of the American civil rights movement.
Cabral helped him gain citizenship and arranged a new identity: José Luís Jorge dos Santos. The name was chosen, Wright says, because it's completely ordinary; it doesn't call attention to itself at all. His identity papers included fake names for his parents. He settled into a mud-brick house with no window panes – just screens – in the capital city of Bissau. Rosário soon joined him. She took a job teaching elementary school. They learned the local language, an Afro-Portuguese blend called Krioulu. It was Wright's fourth language. They often camped on the country's palm-covered islands. They married in a colourful civil ceremony. Marco was born in 1986, Sara in 1991.
And it was here Wright discovered what he'd long been seeking – a way to assist people of colour in a manner that felt like he was making a difference. It began with basketball. Wright landed a position at the national physical-education school, charged with introducing basketball to the youth of Guinea-Bissau.
He had a natural talent for coaching. Kids flocked to him. He staged the country's first-ever international tournament. "Playing together as a team, shaping them as people – I didn't even consider it work," says Wright.
He also accepted a position with a Belgium-based non-profit organisation called Islands of Peace. The aid agency taught impoverished fishermen how to build wooden boats and fashion netting; it introduced efficient farming skills and better sewing techniques – anything to create sustainable jobs.
Rosário takes down a photo album devoted to their time in Africa. There's Wright, with a bushy beard, swimming in the ocean with his kids, spitting a stream of water. Another snapshot shows him spoon-feeding his infant children. Bathing his daughter in a sink. Curled in a crib with his son. "Marco couldn't fall asleep any other way," recalls Rosário.
His fear of being captured started to fade. "There were times I didn't think about it anymore." The violence, the running. "It was a part of my life that was finished. I had moved away from that. So why should I keep pulling my past with me?" He felt happy, fulfilled. He had healthy children, a beautiful wife. They lived in Guinea-Bissau for 13 years.
The wrights returned to Portugal in 1993, to the white house in the seaside village, chiefly for their children's education. Wright painted houses. He ran a restaurant he called Chicken in the 'Hood. He made jewellery boxes and sold them on a stall near the beach. He marketed women's cosmetics.
He became involved in a local congregation – Grace Church – and was baptised in the Atlantic Ocean. Many of his neighbours thought he was an immigrant from Africa. He spent a great deal of time volunteering for a Portuguese charity called Serve the City. He refurbished an outreach center for HIV-positive kids; he cleaned graffiti in Lisbon and planted public flower beds. He helped organise dinners for homeless people: "We had tablecloths, candlelight. We wanted to give them dignity. We'd serve them. Volunteers would sing and play instruments."
Years rolled by. His kids grew up. Wright became a senior citizen. The fact that he was a fugitive was never fully forgotten – he described it as "living with a shadow" – but the passage of time lent his thoughts a different hue. "It's not a comforting feeling, knowing you've been involved in something where a ma's life has been taken. You cannot imagine how many times I've thought about that day. Every day I regret I did that."
He says he's still attempting to make peace with himself. "I've been working on it for all these years, and I'm still working on it, trying to accept who I am. I made a decision a long time ago to do something constructive for the rest of my life wherever I can. You dig? It's part of my repentance, to get rid of the regret, the suffering that I made other people go through, to be able to balance the scales."
He's seeking absolution elsewhere as well. "I've asked God to forgive me for this every night, every day, several times a day. And I think God has forgiven me. But the law – the law says other things."
"Do you know anything about a guy named George Wright?" It was a simple question, posed to the FBI by the New Jersey Department of Corrections, which was trying to close the book on old escape warrants. Agent R J Gallagher fielded the query. This was in 1994.
The Wright case, says Gallagher, "had slid off the radar." FBI agents retired, and their replacements had their own investigations. Computers were introduced, systems upgraded, and sometimes old cases weren't properly transferred. "All I had was a name and a date of birth," says Gallagher. "We didn't even know if he was alive."
Gallagher sent investigators to Europe and Africa. He had profilers create sketches that might approximate what Wright now looked like. He issued an Interpol Red Notice – a worldwide arrest warrant. He worked the case, with an almost fanatical compulsion, until he retired in July 011, by which time he was closing in on Wright.
An examination of the phone records of Wright's sister – she occasionally called her brother – provided authorities with their first big break. A fingerprint in the Portuguese national database matched one on file for Wright. The Portuguese police set up a surveillance operation. The US Department of Justice prepared extradition proceedings.
On the morning of 26 September 2011, Wright met a friend at a local pastry shop. He ordered a ham-and-cheese croissant and a half coffee, half milk. "We were just talking about things. You know, life."
As he walked out the door, past plastic tables shaded by red-and-white umbrellas, he was approached by six Portuguese policemen. They told Wright they were investigating the Islands of Peace project he'd worked on in Guinea-Bissau. They called him by his Portuguese name, Jorge Santos. They needed him to take a trip to the station. He'd be back in a couple of hours, they promised.
"I felt a little unsure," Wright says. He sat in the back seat of an unmarked patrol car with an officer on either side and two in front. He was not handcuffed. A second vehicle followed them. In the car, the officers asked him innocuous questions. "How was I feeling, my health, stuff like that," says Wright. He became more suspicious.
They arrived at a Lisbon police station and went into the captain's office. They sat around a table, and the officers began with more pointed questions.
"Where were you before you came to Portugal?"
"Guinea-Bissau," Wright told them.
"Where were you before that?"
"And before that?"
"Nowhere," said Wright.
"What about Algiers?"
And Wright understood that the game was up. "OK," he replied. "Let's put the cards on the table."
They showed him the arrest warrant. "Are you George Wright?" they asked.
It was a name he hadn't heard in decades. "Yes," said Wright. "I've been waiting 40 years for this day."
Wright scoots his chair back from the kitchen table and stretches his legs, exposing the black monitor clamped to his ankle. It's taken him four days to tell me his story, interrupted by frequent visitors offering support. The owner of a local barbecue restaurant came by and grilled kebabs. Neighbours brought Tupperware meals, bags of fruit, a pile of chestnuts. Two friends delivered a blank canvas.
Letters championing his freedom have poured into his attorney's office – from friends, members of his church, fellow volunteers, people he'd met in his various travels. Former players of his from Guinea-Bissau have organised a charity basketball tournament in Lisbon and are raising funds.
This pro-Wright solidarity, authorities in the US complain, is rooted in anti-American sentiment. But something deeper is also at work. In much of Europe, there is abiding belief in the healing power of time, and in Portugal there is even a statute of limitations for murder – in Wright's case, 30 years. In the United States, homicide is never legally forgiven. If Wright is extradited, he'll almost certainly die while still imprisoned.
The Portuguese view Wright as someone who couldn't possibly pose a threat to society. He's nearly 70 years old, and in four decades he hasn't received so much as a parking ticket. They view him as a person who's been fully rehabilitated outside of prison. They don't even see him as George Wright. He's Jorge Santos, and has been for years. George Wright no longer exists. How can you punish a man who doesn't exist?
During the day, when the house is bustling, Wright is able to maintain a facade of good spirits. But at night, alone with his thoughts, things are different. The evening he finishes his story, he and I are the last ones awake. Wright, feeling chilled, sits before his fireplace on a tiny wooden stool he'd brought back from Guinea-Bissau. He begins crumpling sheets of newspaper.
"I couldn't sleep last night," he says to me. "Finally I got up. I turned on the TV, but there was nothing but sex and guns. I turned it off. I sat there listening to the sounds of the night."
Wright strikes a match. The fire slowly catches. He's silent for a moment, an old man with high blood pressure, bad knees, and glaucoma, facing the rest of his life in prison.
"Then I woke up Rosário. I held her. I told her how scared I was. Then we both cried."
During my flight back from Portugal, I try to sort out how I feel about Wright. I'm troubled, of course, by the gas-station crime – even if it wasn't his gun that fired, he still let an innocent man die. He never called for help. Still, he was a teenager at the time. You can no longer use youthful rashness as an excuse when you're 29, brandishing a loaded weapon on an airplane and holding more than 90 people hostage. That incident could've easily ended in disaster. Wright is fortunate it did not. And I am not entirely sure there aren't other crimes – crimes for which Wright wasn't caught. He may still have secrets inside him. We'll never know.
But after spending so much time with Wright, I'm convinced that a man can, indeed, change. He says that his younger self – the person who committed those crimes – feels like a stranger, and I believe him. He seems to be an amazing father; his family is heartbreakingly lovely, as kind and tender and giving as any family I have ever encountered. His daughter needs him. I would let him babysit my own children without hesitation.
And yet as the former FBI agent, Gallagher, tells me, running from a crime and staying hidden for a long period should not be rewarded. That sets a terrible precedent. And the lament that he'll be taken away from his wife and children does not stir Gallagher in the least, for that is precisely what Wright did to Walter Patterson, the man gunned down in his gas station.
Ann Patterson, Walter's daughter, is certainly not willing to pardon Wright. Her father's funeral was three days before her 15th birthday. "I just wanted him to sit up and tell us everything was going to be all right," she remembers thinking. Her mother, shattered by the crime, died a year later, leaving Ann and her younger sister orphans.
Until Wright's arrest, she never told her own children how their grandfather died. "It was painful for me to have to bring it up." When she closes her eyes, she says, she can still vividly picture the last moment she ever saw him alive. "He went out and got into the truck" – his green 1958 Chevy pick-up – "and I stood in the kitchen window. It was not quite dark. There were all the Thanksgiving leftovers on the table. And I waved good-bye."
Back home in the United States, I speak with Wright several times over the phone. He says he feels crippled that he can't leave the house and provide for his family. Rosário tells me the wait is further damaging his health. Nobody knows how long the court will take to rule. The crucial issue, his lawyer explains, is the matter of Wright's citizenship. If the judges decide Wright is Portuguese, he is unlikely to be extradited. If he's American, he'll promptly be shipped off to prison.
It turns out that it doesn't take long at all. On 17 November 2011, at 3pm Portugal time, a fax arrives at his lawyer's office. A legal decision. The three-judge panel is unanimous. Without question, with no reservations, Wright is Portuguese. He's lived in the country so long. He married a local woman. He hasn't set foot in the United States since 1972. Extradition is denied. The statute of limitations on all his crimes has been reached. He will receive no punishment.
A technician is immediately dispatched to Wright's house to remove his monitoring anklet. As the band falls away, it appears that Wright has eluded the law yet again. He remains concerned that US authorities will continue to fight for his extradition – but over the next few months, culminating with a final ruling on 28 February, every appeal is denied. The judges' decision is binding.
He'll likely never be able to leave Portugal; the moment he does, the FBI has told me, someone will be waiting to arrest him. "Fine with me," Wright says. But what he can do is stroll out the front door of his house, through the brown beads, beyond the hinged gate, and he can kick off his slippers and feel the sun-warmed cobbles on his feet, the sea breeze over his shaved head – for the first time in 50 years, a free man.
This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared in American GQ. Michael Finkel is the author of True Story.