Fugitive caught after 41 years
01:32 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

George Wright, 68, arrested Monday in Portuguese resort town

He escaped from prison in 1970 and hijacked plane to get to Algeria

There was no trace of him for decades afterward

Incident prompted screening of passengers, carry-on bags at airports

CNN  — 

He had been on the run for four decades. He escaped from prison when Richard Nixon was in the White House, joined the Black Liberation Army in Detroit, hijacked a plane and (in)famously demanded that FBI agents deliver ransom money in bathing suits. And they did.

Now, after a manhunt spanning three continents that often appeared to run cold, the FBI has finally found George Wright.

At age 68, he was living quietly in the resort of Sintra near Lisbon in Portugal when he was arrested Monday.

The United States is seeking his extradition from Portugal to serve the remainder of a 15- to 30-year sentence for murder. Portuguese judicial authorities could not be reached Tuesday for details of the extradition process.

Wright is fighting extradition, a U.S. federal agent said, and his next court appearance in Portugal is in about two weeks.

Wright’s life story reads like an international crime novel. In 1962, at the age of 19, he and three associates carried out a series of robberies in New Jersey. Wright and another man shot and killed a World War II veteran in a gas station robbery in Farmingdale.

He was arrested soon afterward and, after pleading no defense, was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. But in 1970, Wright escaped from Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, reportedly stealing the warden’s car to make his getaway.

Wright made his way to Detroit, then a hotbed of militant black politics, and joined the Black Liberation Army. (He is also reputed to have made some money during this period as a part-time model, using an alias.)

On July 31, 1972, Wright and four other members of the Black Liberation Army went to Detroit airport and boarded Delta Flight 841 for Miami. Wright was dressed as a priest and carried a handgun in a hollowed-out Bible.

Airport security was different in those days. Various Palestinian groups were hijacking planes regularly, as were individuals keen to go to Cuba. Altogether, the U.S. Department of Transportation recorded 364 hijackings worldwide between 1968 and 1972: more than one a week on average.

The hijackers of Delta 841 – three men and two women accompanied by three children – seized the plane as it approached Miami. The FBI says “subsequent investigation identified Wright as one of the hijackers.”

Once on the ground, the hijackers demanded that FBI agents dressed only in bathing suits deliver $1 million ransom to the plane. They wanted to be sure the agents were not carrying guns. The money was duly delivered by the scantily clad agents.

The hijackers allowed the 88 passengers off but kept the flight crew on board and ordered that the plane fly to Boston. With the addition of an extra navigator (wearing swim trunks and a shirt), the DC-8 was refueled there and flew on to Algiers.

Algeria in the early 1970s was run by a hard-line socialist government that was no friend of the United States and allowed various dissidents, militants and alleged terrorists to take sanctuary there. A leading member of the Black Panthers, Eldridge Cleaver, had been welcomed as a political refugee there in 1968 after jumping bail in California.

The Algerian government confiscated and returned the $1 million in ransom money to the U.S., but Wright and his associates melted away. Some of the hijackers were arrested in Paris in 1976, but for decades, there was no trace of Wright.

Then, nine years ago, a fugitive investigator with the New Jersey Department of Corrections working with the U.S. Marshals Service got a lead. Officials won’t comment on reports that Wright had begun to contact relatives in the United States.

Juan Mattos, U.S. marshal for the District of New Jersey, said: “Over the course of nine years, their tenacious resolve has proven to be very powerful in seeking justice and closure for the victims.”

And in a press release Tuesday, Michael Ward of the FBI’s Newark Division said the case should “serve notice that the FBI’s determination in pursuing subjects will not diminish over time or distance.”

At the time of the hijacking, there was limited screening of passengers at U.S. airports. This screening system did not require every passenger to be examined, only those who met a profile established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

After the Algiers flight and several hijackings that turned violent, the Nixon administration instructed the FAA to adopt emergency regulations to improve screening. At the end of 1972, the FAA ordered airports to ensure that all passengers and their carry-on baggage be inspected before boarding.

CNN’s Emily Smith contributed to this report.