AP Exclusive: US fugitive hid in Portugal hamlet

By Barry Hatton

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 28 2011 3:50 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this July 1972 file photo, FBI agents, wearing only swim trunks, per the hijacker’s instructions, prepare to deliver a case containing a $1 million ransom to a hijacked Delta DC8 jet in Miami. The hijackers demanded the ransom in exchange for freeing 86 people on board and free passage to Algeria. George Wright, a 1970s militant who carried out one of the most brazen plane hijackings in U.S. history, was taken into custody by local police in Almocageme, Portugal, Monday, Sept. 26, 2011 at the request of the U.S. government, which is seeking his extradition for escaping from a New Jersey jail on Aug. 19, 1970 after being convicted of murder. Wright was also named as one of the hijackers of the Delta flight in 1972.

James Kerlin, File, Associated Press

ALMOCAGEME, Portugal — He lived the sweet life for decades. But nobody knew he was on the run.

After breaking out of a New Jersey prison 41 years ago, George Wright settled in a picturesque seaside town in Portugal.

He married a local woman, raised two children and grew old in a pretty house on a cobbled street next to a stunning beach. Locals knew him as Jorge Santos, a friendly man from Africa who did odd jobs and spoke fluent Portuguese.

He kept his true identity secret: convicted murderer, prison escapee and accused hijacker.

Wright's decades-long flight from justice ended when the 68-year-old American was taken into custody by local police Monday at the request of the U.S. government. On Tuesday, he appeared before a judge in Lisbon, the capital, for an initial extradition hearing.

Residents of this charming coastal town were coming to terms Wednesday with the fact that a man they knew and liked had been living a lie.

"I never imagined George was in trouble," gas station attendant Ricardo Salvador said.

Most assumed Wright was African, not American. His Portuguese identity card said he was born in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa. A photocopy, shown to The Associated Press, bore the name Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos, an alias U.S. officials said Wright used. It was issued in 1993 and expired in 2004.

Salvador and other residents said Wright had business cards that gave his first name as Jorge or George, and many called him by the latter.

"He was a very nice guy," Salvador said as he took a break from pumping gas on a sunny autumn day in Almocageme, 28 miles (45 kilometers) west of Lisbon. "He used to wave as he drove past and I'd shout out, 'Hey, George!'"

In his younger years, Wright was a darker character.

He was convicted of the 1962 murder of gas station owner Walter Patterson, a decorated World War II veteran shot during a robbery at his business in Wall, N.J.

Eight years into his 15- to 30-year prison term, Wright and three other men escaped from the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, N.J., on Aug. 19, 1970.

While on the run, the FBI said Wright joined an underground militant group, the Black Liberation Army, and lived in a communal family with several of its members in Detroit.

In 1972, Wright — dressed as a priest and using an alias — is accused of hijacking a Delta flight from Detroit to Miami along with four other Black Liberation Army members and three children, including Wright's companion and their 2-year-old daughter.

His capture drew reactions on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ann Patterson, daughter of the murdered New Jersey gas station owner, told the AP she wants Wright sent back quickly. "I'm so thankful that now there's justice for Daddy," she said. "He never got any kind of justice."

Rui Santos, who works at the Almocageme parish council, said he was "stunned" by the news. "I'd never have thought it possible," he said outside a newsstand.

He said Wright approached him in the mid-1990s and offered to coach local kids at basketball, though the project never got off the ground.

Until his arrest, life was quiet for Wright in this hamlet of a few hundred residents, where neighbors said he lived for at least 20 years. Speaking Portuguese with a slight foreign accent, he worked at a series of odd jobs, most recently as a nightclub bouncer, said two neighbors who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared being stigmatized for speaking out.

Wright also once had a stall at the beach and ran a barbecue chicken restaurant.

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