Former hijacking fugitive in Cuba ‘protests’ proceedings in Miami federal court

William Potts Jr., the former longtime U.S. fugitive accused of hijacking a Miami-bound commercial airliner to Cuba almost 30 years ago, took umbrage with the American justice system during his first appearance in federal court Thursday.

“I’m new at this stuff, with total respect ... I have to protest these proceedings,” Potts told U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia M. Otazo-Reyes.

The judge politely cut off Potts — dressed in a khaki prison jumpsuit with shackles on his wrists and ankles — as she inquired about his ability to pay for his own defense lawyer.

“Can you afford counsel or not?” the judge asked.

“No, ma’am,” the 56-year-old, former New Jersey resident answered.

Potts said that he was a farmer in Cuba who earned 200 Cuban pesos a month, and that he had no other assets.

The judge appointed a federal public defender to represent him, and scheduled his arraignment and bond hearing on air-piracy charges for next Wednesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis recommended that Potts be detained before trial, saying he is a risk of flight and danger to the community.

The brief hearing seemed surreal because only days ago in Cuba, Potts said he wanted to surrender to federal authorities and finally face up to the charges in Miami, saying he was “ready for whatever.” Some in the media immediately dubbed him the “homesick hijacker.”

Potts, a self-described black militant three decades ago, thought that he would be greeted by the Castro regime as a fellow revolutionary after he hijacked the New York-Miami flight to Cuba. But instead the communist-run government convicted him of air piracy, and he served 13 years in a Cuban prison. Rather than return to his homeland, Potts got married and started a family.

But on Wednesday, Potts finally surrendered to U.S. authorities and was flown on a chartered plane to Miami International Airport. FBI agents questioned him at length before his federal court appearance Thursday.

Potts is charged with air piracy by threatening to blow up the March 27, 1984, Piedmont Airlines flight if the pilot did not redirect the jet from Miami to Havana, according to an indictment. The U.S. air piracy charge carries a minium sentence of 20 years and a maximum term of life.

Here’s how Potts’ plot unfolded:

On that March day, Potts used the fictitious name “William Freeman” to purchase a one-way ticket to Miami with $119 in cash at New York’s La Guardia Airport. He was one of 58 passengers on Piedmont flight No. 337.

“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 Sandanistas, 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.