A convicted New Jersey murderer who disappeared after pulling off a 1972 hijacking lived openly in West Africa under his real name for years and even socialized with U.S. embassy officials there, a former U.S. ambassador said Thursday.
NBC New York first reported that FBI and New Jersey officials had tracked hunted killer George Wright to a town outside Lisbon, where Portuguese authorities arrested him Monday.
John Blacken, a retired U.S. ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, told The Associated Press he was stunned to hear about Wright's arrest because he knew him and his wife — who might have even worked on translation projects for the U.S. embassy. But Blacken had no idea that Wright was a fugitive.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department had no immediate comment.
Wright's years on the lam took him across the globe — from New Jersey to Detroit to Algeria to France to Guinea-Bissau and then Portugal, at the very least.
Blacken said he was never alerted by U.S. law enforcement officials about Wright's background.
"If we had received such a cable, we would have responded," Blacken added. "He was known as George Wright here, and it's strange that (U.S. officials) never tracked him down here."
Decades ago, Wright was in a New Jersey prison, serving a 30-year sentence for the 1962 robbing and killing of a war hero he had gunned down at an Esso gas station in Farmingdale, N.J. World War II Bronze Star recipient Walter Paterson was killed for the $70 in his pocket.
In August 1970, Wright and two others escaped from the Leesburg, N.J. facility, stole the warden's car and headed to Atlantic City. From there they went to Detroit, where they joined up with the Black Liberation Army. He lived under an alias, working part-time as a model to pay bills.
Two years later, Wright and several others commandeered a Delta Airlines flight from Detroit to Miami -- Wright boarded the flight dressed as a priest, with a gun hidden in the cut-out pages of a Bible.
His fellow members of the Black Liberation Army also boarded with weapons, and 88 passengers were held hostage. It was one of the most daring hijackings in history, and also one of the most humiliating for the FBI.
Agents were forced to wear bathing suits to deliver a suitcase of cash to Wright and his fellow hijackers on a Miami runway. The hijackers wanted to be sure they weren't carrying weapons.
After Wright and the others got their money, they let the passengers go but kept the crew hostage. They then flew to Boston, where they refueled before leaving for Algeria.
Some of the hijackers were eventually caught a few years later in Paris, but Wright was never found -- until he recently began contacting some relatives in the U.S. The FBI, along with U.S. marshals, Monmouth County prosecutors and New Jersey Department of Corrections investigators, tracked him to Portugal.
Wright is being held in Lisbon pending extradition hearings and will likely remain in detention for at least several weeks while his lawyer and lawyers for the United States present their legal arguments, said the president of the Lisbon court.
Wright has asked to be released during the process and can appeal the extradition decision to the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, a process likely to last months, the judge, Luis Maria Vaz das Neves, told The AP.