Fugitive accused of hijacking plane to Cuba expected in court in Miami

11/06/2013 10:28 AM

11/06/2013 10:33 PM

On a spring day, a New Jersey man using the fictitious name “William Freeman” paid $119 in cash for a one-way airline ticket to Miami.

Piedmont Airlines flight No. 337 departed from New York’s La Guardia Airport on March 27, 1984, but it never made it to Miami International Airport.

Before the expected landing at MIA, Freeman gave a flight attendant a handwritten note and the word “explosives” caught her eye immediately. Freeman — whose real name was William Potts Jr. — threatened to blow up the aircraft and shoot passengers if the pilot didn’t divert the jet to Havana, Cuba.

But instead of being greeted by Cuban authorities as a revolutionary hero, as the self-described black militant expected from the Castro regime, Potts was convicted of air piracy and imprisoned for 13 years. Now, at 56 and after living in Cuba for nearly three decades, Potts surrendered Wednesday to U.S. authorities, saying he wanted to face up — finally — to the U.S. charges.

“I’m ready for whatever,” Potts told The Associated Press on Tuesday, after making arrangements to obtain a passport from U.S. Interests Section officials in Havana. “My position is, of course, I did the crime and I did the time, and the United States has to recognize that.”

U.S. authorities brought him back in a chartered plane to the very airport where the hijacked Piedmont Airlines flight was supposed to land.

FBI agents arrested the longtime fugitive and questioned him for hours at the bureau’s field office in North Miami Beach. He was then transferred to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. He is scheduled to have his first federal court appearance in Miami on Thursday.

Potts is charged with air piracy by threatening to blow up the Piedmont Airlines flight if the pilot did not redirect the jet from Miami to Havana, according to an indictment. Potts ordered the pilot to divert the jet to Cuba. But it was not entirely clear from court documents what motivated Potts to carry out the hijacking — a crime that, among other issues, has strained U.S.-Cuba relations dating back decades.

Here’s how Potts’ plot unfolded:

“While on final approach to Miami International Airport, a black male pushed the flight attendants’ call button and then handed a flight attendant a handwritten note,” an FBI affidavit said. “The flight attendant glanced at the note, noticed the word ‘explosives’ and immediately gave the note to the captain.”

Potts then locked himself in the aircraft’s bathroom.

The note, which was later retained by Cuban authorities, was paraphrased by the pilot as follows: “Captain, Lt. Spartacus, a soldier in the Black Liberation Army. I don’t want to land in Miami. I want to go to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana.

“There are two explosive devices aboard the plane that I and two comrades have planted aboard the aircraft,” according to the affidavit, filed in 1984 along with the criminal complaint for Potts’ arrest.

Potts’ note also mentioned “freeing brothers and sisters in South Africa, government interference with the Sandinistas, a five-million dollar demand, and that passengers would be shot and the plane blown up if it landed in Miami.”

After the Piedmont Airlines jet landed in Havana, Cuban authorities boarded the aircraft and took Potts into custody. While they escorted him off the plane, an electric bill fell out of his pocket. It was retained by a passenger.

According to the affidavit, the bill was made out to a woman by the name of Kay Brown, of Patterson, N.J. She later told the FBI that she had given $120 to Potts, her nephew, to pay her electric bill on March 26, 1984, the day before he hijacked the aircraft, the affidavit said.

The aunt also supplied federal agents with a photo of Potts. The FBI used his picture for a photo lineup that included five other similar photographs of others, the affidavit said. Three flight passengers were shown in the photo lineup and all identified Potts as the person who hijacked the jet to Cuba.

After the flight arrived in Cuba, Potts was charged with air piracy, convicted and then imprisoned on the communist-run island nation for 13 years. But after his release, rather than return to his native country, Potts began a new life in Cuba, getting married, starting a family and working as a farmer.

This week, however, Potts told the AP that he wanted to return to the United States after all these years to seek “closure” by facing charges in Miami.

He said that in surrendering, he hoped the time he served in a Cuban prison outside Havana would reduce his punishment in the United States.

Potts’ fate is likely to play out over the coming weeks. It is a near certainty that the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami will seek to detain him while it determines whether to move forward with the original air-piracy charges. The U.S. air piracy charge carries a minium sentence of 20 years and a maximum term of life.

The U.S. attorney’s office and FBI issued a press release Wednesday, describing only the long-standing charge against Potts.

Miami lawyer David Weinstein, former chief of the counter-terrorism section at the U.S. attorney’s office, said federal prosecutors have the authority to pursue air-piracy charges against Potts and are under no obligation to give him any credit for his time served in Cuba’s prison system.

“Hijacking an aircraft in the United States and taking it to Cuba violates the laws of both sovereigns, and a prosecution by Cuba does not bar a subsequent prosecution by the United States,” Weinstein said, citing case law.

“Nor is the defendant entitled to credit for any period of incarceration imposed by the foreign sovereign.”

In his interview with the AP, Potts said that no matter how his criminal case is resolved in Miami, he would like to return to Cuba for his golden years.

“I’m a permanent resident in Cuba, and just as soon as I finish taking care of this business in the United States, I certainly have every intention of returning to Cuba to live,” he said. “I’ve lived half my life here in Cuba now, and my future interests and the things that I want to do are located here in Cuba.”

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