Federal courts

U.S. man accused of hijacking Miami-bound jetliner to Cuba 30 years ago gears up to plead guilty

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

A former New Jersey man who hijacked a Miami-bound commercial jet to Cuba almost 30 years ago and finally surrendered to U.S. authorities last month is gearing up to plead guilty to an air-piracy charge, according to his attorney and court records.

William Potts, Jr., a one-time black militant, was scheduled to go to trial at the end of December, but his attorney won a delay Wednesday from a federal judge so he could obtain evidence about the case from the State Department while he pursues a plea agreement.

“In all likelihood this case will be resolved without the necessity of a jury trial,” assistant federal public defender Robert Berube wrote in a motion requesting the delay. He added that securing documents held by the State Department has been “complicated” and “time consuming.”

Berube said he is seeking to negotiate a plea agreement that would allow his client, now being held in the Miami Federal Detention Center, to get credit for the 13 years of prison he had already served in Cuba for the 1984 hijacking offense.

Last month, Potts, 56, entered a not guilty plea. If convicted of air piracy in the United States, Potts could receive between 20 years and life in prison.

Potts’ likely guilty plea could come before his trial, now scheduled for early March before U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum in Fort Lauderdale federal court. On Wednesday, the judge granted his lawyer’s request to delay the trial.

During the defendant’s bond hearing last month, a prosecutor said that Potts “described what he did as an act of terrorism” to federal agents who brought him back from Havana in early November.

Potts also confessed to the act of air piracy verbally and in writing after he was formally arrested by FBI agents at Miami International Airport on Nov. 6, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis told a federal magistrate judge during the bond hearing.

Judge Jonathan Goodman granted the prosecutor's request that Potts be held before trial because he is both a risk of flight and danger to the community, citing a potentially long prison sentence and the legal “presumption” of detention for such an offense.

An FBI affidavit describing the case said Potts claimed to have explosives aboard the New York-to-Miami flight on March 27, 1984, demanding its diversion to Havana.

Potts described himself then as a black militant who threatened to blow up the Piedmont Airlines jet and kill passengers if it landed in Miami, according to a note he handed to the flight crew. He also demanded $5 million.

An FBI agent, Affell Grier, testified at the bond hearing that Potts “explained that he committed the crime” and “wrote out a statement” after his recent arrest at MIA.

In interviews in Cuba, Potts said he wanted to return home and face justice after all these years. He got married while living in Cuba, and his two daughters now live in the United States.

In the interviews, Potts said that when he hijacked the Piedmont flight to Cuba, he had hoped to be welcomed in the communist-run island nation as a revolutionary and be given guerrilla training.

Instead, the Castro government arrested him, tried him for the hijacking and imprisoned him. Potts' commandeering of the airliner came several years after a wave of similar hijackings had largely subsided.

According to the FBI, Potts paid $119 for the ticket he used to hijack the Piedmont flight. An aunt in Paterson, N.J., said she had given him $120 the day before to pay her electric bill and had not seen him since.

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