Skip to main content

Plane hijacker William Potts, who was jailed in Cuba, seeks U.S. plea deal

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
updated 4:55 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
William Potts prays with other Muslims in Alamar, Cuba on May 17, 2013. After nearly 30 years of living as a fugitive on the island, Potts says he is ready to return to the U.S. and face hijacking charges.
William Potts prays with other Muslims in Alamar, Cuba on May 17, 2013. After nearly 30 years of living as a fugitive on the island, Potts says he is ready to return to the U.S. and face hijacking charges.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Potts, who hijacked a plane and forced it to Cuba in 1984, served time in Cuba
  • He returned to the United States last month and seeks a plea deal in federal court
  • Potts on his prison time: "15 years in prison in a communist country is 15 years"

(CNN) -- William Potts, the "homesick hijacker" who returned from a life on the lam in Cuba to the United States in November, may soon plead guilty to commandeering a passenger plane to the island at gunpoint in 1984, according to U.S. federal court documents.

After Potts' arrival and arrest in Miami, Potts' family said they feared he had made an error by handing himself over.

"It's taking a toll on my family to think he might go to prison again," Mekoda Potts, his brother, told CNN. "They are trying to put him away for another 20 years? It's not right."

But according to recent court documents, the hijacker has been meeting with prosecutors and may soon agree to a plea deal.

Admitted hijacker fugitive back in U.S.

"In all likelihood this case will be resolved without the necessity of a jury trial," assistant public defender Robert Berube said in court documents. "However obtaining the potential discovery in this case is complicated."

The discovery includes documents from the State Department that could back Potts' assertion that he already spent more than a decade in a Cuban jail for the hijacking.

On Wednesday, a federal judge agreed to postpone the start of Potts' trial from December to March to give his attorneys more time to obtain those documents.

A militant past

Nearly 30 years ago, Potts was a black militant hoping to overthrow the United States government by violent means.

After smuggling a pistol aboard Piedmont Airlines flight in a fake cast, Potts threatened to kill everyone aboard the plane if the pilot didn't divert the aircraft to Cuba.

"We are all going to hell or Cuba," Potts said he told the pilot of the Miami-bound flight.

In Cuba, Potts said, he believed he would be given military training by the government to carry out his armed struggle in the United States.

Instead, Potts was tried by the Cubans for the hijacking and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Potts said he served more than 13 years in Cuban jail and then nearly two more years under a conditional release program. During that time, he said, he received regular visits from U.S. diplomats.

Those visits could be key to a possible reduction of the 20 years to life-sentence that Potts now faces in the United States.

"I am sure that any American can understand that 15 years in prison in a communist country is 15 years," Potts told CNN in October. "It's not a club med situation."

Potts had petitioned U.S. authorities for more than a year to be able to return to the United States, even though he still faced air piracy charges there. The hijacker said he wanted to return home to see family, including the two daughters he had in Cuba and then sent to live in the United States.

In November, U.S. authorities issued Potts a single-use passport and arranged for two American diplomats to escort him from Havana to Miami.

"I understand I will be taken into custody, after that I don't know what to expect," Potts told CNN aboard the plane flight from Havana. "That act of terrorism that I did has come back to haunt me every day."

FBI agents arrested Potts as he stopped off the plane.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT