Federal court

American who hijacked Miami-bound jetliner to Cuba pleads guilty to new kidnapping charge

William Potts
William Potts
Miami Herald File


William Potts Jr., the self-described black militant who hijacked a U.S. jetliner to Cuba 30 years ago, pleaded guilty to a new kidnapping charge Thursday that will help him avoid a minimum 20-year prison sentence for the original charge, air piracy.

The former New Jersey man, who commandeered the Miami-bound commercial jet to Havana in 1984, finally surrendered to U.S. authorities in November after living the life of a prisoner and fugitive in Cuba. Potts said he wanted to face the American justice system and reconnect with his two daughters now residing in the United States.

Assistant federal public defender Robert Berube negotiated the plea agreement with prosecutors, but Potts’ July 11 sentencing will be up to U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum in Fort Lauderdale federal court.

The agreement might allow Potts, now being held in the Miami Federal Detention Center, to get some credit for the 13 years of prison time he served in Cuba for the hijacking — though it doesn’t guarantee it.

The deal notes that “the calculation of any term of imprisonment . . will not include credit for any term of imprisonment the defendant previously served in Cuba.”

But the deal also says Potts is not prevented “from asking [the judge] to consider” his previous imprisonment in Cuba as a “factor” in deciding his sentence in the U.S. case.

In November, Potts, 57, entered a not-guilty plea to the air-piracy charge, which carries between 20 years and life in prison. The U.S. attorney’s office plans to drop that charge, after Potts is sentenced on the new kidnapping offense.

Although that new offense carries up to life in prison, it gives Rosenbaum leeway to craft a prison sentence that takes into account Potts’ lengthy incarceration in Cuba. The kidnapping offense imposes no minimum-mandatory punishment.

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

Potts also confessed to 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 was both a risk of flight and danger to the community.

A factual statement filed with his plea agreement said Potts claimed to have explosives aboard the New York-to-Miami Piedmont Airlines flight on March 27, 1984, demanding its diversion to Havana.

Potts, a self-described black militant, handed a note to a flight attendant in which he identified himself as “Lt. Spartacus.” The flight attendant took the note to the pilots.

“[Potts] ordered the pilot to divert the aircraft to Havana, Cuba,” the statement said. “The note further stated that if the aircraft landed in Miami, [Potts] would hold the passengers, shoot them and blow up the aircraft with two explosives that [he] claimed to have placed on board the plane.”

He also demanded $5 million.

Potts went to the back of the aircraft and spoke to one of the pilots over the intercom system. Potts “reiterated his demands and threats . . and the pilot diverted the aircraft and landed in Havana.”

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 arrest at Miami International Airport.

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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