Fugitive George Wright Captured In Portugal

The 40-year hunt for fugitive George Wright is over. The FBI says he was arrested on Monday in Portugal. Wright was arrested in 1962 after an armed robbery gone bad in New Jersey. He later escaped from prison, became affiliated with the Black Liberation Army, and was part of the group that hijacked a Delta jet from Detroit to Miami in 1972.

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After more than four decades, the hunt for fugitive George Wright is over. Wright was convicted of murder in New Jersey, escaped from prison, hijacked a plane to Algeria, then disappeared, all before 1973.

As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the law finally caught up with him this week in a Portuguese beach town.

JOEL ROSE: It was a brazen hijacking, even in a year that was full of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Men with guns hijacked a Delta Airlines jet today...

ROSE: On July 31, 1972, George Wright and four other members of the Black Liberation Army hijacked a plane leaving Detroit. Wright reportedly dressed as a priest and carried a handgun in a hollowed-out Bible. When the plane landed in Miami, the hijackers demanded a $1 million ransom. From Miami, they flew to Boston and on to Algeria where they disappeared. Wright's associates were arrested in France in 1976, but he eluded capture until Monday. Deirdre Fedkenheuer is a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

DEIRDRE FEDKENHEUER: It had never become a cold case. They never fell off the radar. We check on them. We look back on them. And sometimes, you get a break, as we did in this case.

ROSE: Law enforcement officials got a tip that Wright might be living in a resort town near Lisbon, Portugal. That's where he was arrested on Monday by Portuguese police, more than 40 years after escaping from a New Jersey prison. Wright was serving time for his role in a 1962 murder. He was one of four men involved in an armed robbery in Wall, New Jersey, that left gas station owner Walter Patterson dead. Wright did not pull the trigger, but he was charged with murder and pleaded no defense. Walter Patterson's nephew Phillip Patterson wonders why it took so long to bring Wright to justice.

PHILLIP PATTERSON: I was told by the FBI in '98 that the man fell through the cracks. And all I said was how could he fall through the cracks when he hijacked an airplane?

ROSE: The FBI declined to be interviewed for this story, though Walter Patterson's daughter Ann told a local TV reporter that she's grateful to the FBI and everyone else involved in tracking Wright down.

ANN PATTERSON: My sister and I are glad that now there will finally be justice for Daddy. We relive the shock of the phone call from that night of the robbery every time we have to address this.

ROSE: For his part, Phillip Patterson says he won't celebrate until George Wright is back on U.S. soil.

PATTERSON: I'll feel 100 percent better as soon as I know he's back in New Jersey and back behind bars. I don't care how old he is. I understand, according to the paper, he's 68 now. Well, guess what, you've had 40 years of life on the run. My uncle hasn't.

ROSE: George Wright is now facing extradition and a return trip to prison in New Jersey. Deirdre Fedkenheuer at the Department of Corrections says the case should send a message to other fugitives and would-be fugitives.

FEDKENHEUER: That it doesn't matter how long you're gone. And it doesn't matter how many miles you've put between yourself and where the crime was committed. It's really just a matter of time before you will be found.

ROSE: Wright and his fellow hijackers also delivered a message of sorts to the Federal Aviation Administration. After a string of high-profile hijackings in 1972, the FAA issued an emergency rule that made inspection of all carry-on baggage and security screening of passengers mandatory. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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