Federal court

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

 
 
William Potts
William Potts
Miami Herald File

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

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.

Read more Cuba stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
This is the raft on which 16 Cubans sailed from Cuba to Alligator Reef Light off Upper Matecumbe Key this week.

    THE KEYS

    Cuban migrants found suffering from dehydration off the Keys

    Sixteen Cuban migrants were intercepted off the Upper Keys on Wednesday afternoon, and seven of them needed medical attention after suffering from extreme dehydration.

  •  
Sixteen migrants are found crammed in this tiny boat around Alligator Lighthouse, which is about four miles offshore of Islamorada in the FLorida Keys.

    IMMIGRATION

    More than a dozen Cuban migrants rescued at sea in Keys; several taken to hospital

    A small blue homemade boat with a blue-and-white sail was discovered floating near Alligator Reef Lighthouse, about four miles offshore of Islamorada, on Wednesday. Crammed inside the motorless vessel were 16 Cuban migrants lying down, suffering from dehydration, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

  •  
Elsa Lopez looks at her clothes and shoes she wore when she left Cuba with her parents at the age of two at the time. Her items are among several donated by Exiles on display at the VIP opening and presentation of the The Exile Experience: Journey to Freedom, at the Freedom Tower. The exhibit is a pictorial account of the struggles that the Cuban exile community has endured since Fidel Castro's rise to power, and the successes they have achieved in the United States, organized and curated by the Miami Dade College and The Miami Herald, on Wednesday September 10, 2014.

    MIAMI

    Exhibition chronicles Cuban exiles story

    More than 1,000 people crammed into the Freedom Tower Wednesday night for a peek at an exhibition that honors one of the city’s oldest buildings – and captures the tales of hundreds of thousands of Cubans who fled the island and made Miami their new home.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category