U.S. DISTRICT COURT IN MIAMI

U.S. hijacker of jet to Cuba in 1984 is sentenced to 20 years in Miami federal court

 
 
William Potts speaks to reporters outside Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, before boarding a plane to the U.S. November 6, 2013.
William Potts speaks to reporters outside Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, before boarding a plane to the U.S. November 6, 2013.
© Desmond Boylan / Reuters / REUTERS

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

William Potts Jr., a self-described black militant who hijacked a U.S. jetliner to Cuba 30 years ago, told a Miami federal judge Thursday that he was no longer that “same person.”

Potts said that after serving 13 years in a Cuban prison and raising a family on the island for another 16 years, he finally surrendered to federal authorities in November because he wanted to be reunited with his daughters, now living in the United States.

“If you just give me a chance, judge, I’ll do you proud,” Potts, 57, told U.S. District Judge Michael Moore. “I’m begging you, please, let me go back to my children.”

Moore sentenced Potts to 20 years in prison for hijacking the New York-to-Miami flight to Havana in 1984 — but it’s unlikely the former New Jersey resident will have to serve the full term.

Moore sided with the prosecution’s recommended sentence, which would allow the U.S. citizen to seek parole in about seven years.

In effect, Potts would be given credit for the 13 years he had already served in a Cuban prison, which was described as a “hell-hole” by his defense attorney. But under U.S. law, the judge could not legally give Potts that credit because he had served that time for being convicted of the hijacking offense in Cuba.

Potts’ lawyer, assistant federal public defender Robert Berube, urged the judge to give him 15 years, with the opportunity to seek parole in five years. “We’re a country of laws, but it comes to the point where you have to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ’’ Berube said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis told the judge that the U.S. government had already given Potts the benefit of the doubt by agreeing to change the charge against him in a plea deal so he could qualify for parole in about seven years.

In May, Potts pleaded guilty to a new kidnapping charge that helped him avoid a minimum-mandatory 20-year prison sentence for the original charge, air piracy.

Although that new offense carried up to life in prison, it gave the judge leeway to craft a prison sentence that effectively took into account Potts' lengthy incarceration in Cuba. The kidnapping offense imposed no minimum-mandatory punishment.

In November, Potts had initially entered a not guilty plea to the original air-piracy charge, which carried between 20 years and life in prison.

The U.S. attorney's office dropped that charge, after Potts was sentenced on the new kidnapping offense.

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, who described himself as a 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.”

After decades on the lam, Potts said in interviews on the island that he wanted to return home and face American justice. 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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