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AP Exclusive: US fugitive hid in Portugal hamlet

By Barry Hatton

Associated Press

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

He married a Portuguese woman, identified by neighbors as 55-year-old Maria do Rosario Valente, the daughter of a retired Portuguese army officer. They had two children — Marco and Sara, now in their early 20s — who used their mother's last name when they registered for swim classes at the local pool.

The family lived in a neat whitewashed house with terra cotta roof tiles, a yellow door and a small front garden. At the front gate, a black mailbox in the shape of a barn carried the words "U.S. Mail." A gray VW Passat station wagon that neighbors said Wright drove was parked on the narrow dead-end street.

A woman who answered the door confirmed she was Maria do Rosario Valente and said she had no comment about the arrest.

A short walk away was the breathtaking Praia da Adraga beach, a sandy cove surrounded by steep rocky hillsides that has a natural rock tunnel where ocean waves blast through.

A fingerprint contained on Wright's Portuguese ID card as required by law was the break that led a U.S. fugitive task force to him, according to U.S. authorities.

Wright's capture was among the top priorities when the New York-New Jersey Fugitive Task Force was formed in 2002, according to Michael Schroeder, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, who worked with New Jersey's FBI and other agencies on the case.

"They have a national ID registry," Schroeder said of Portugal. "They pulled that. That confirmed his print matched the prints with the (Department of Corrections in New Jersey). The sketch matched the picture on his ID card."

Schroeder said the task force had been aware for at least several months of the possibility that Wright could be in Portugal. "Once the investigative group had a strong belief that George Wright might be in Portugal, we proceeded to take the next steps immediately. But those steps take time," Ward said.

Wright was being detained in Lisbon while the extradition process continued, but Portuguese police refused to release any details about the case.

U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said she couldn't speculate on how long extradition might take.

Back in 1972, Wright and his alleged accomplices released the hijacked plane's 86 passengers in exchange for a $1 million ransom — delivered by an FBI agent wearing only swim trunks as ordered by the hijackers. They then forced the plane to fly to Boston, where an international navigator was taken aboard, and the plane was flown to Algeria.

The group was taken in by American activist and writer Eldridge Cleaver, who had been permitted by Algeria's socialist government to open a Black Panther Movement office in 1970. The Algerian president then professed sympathy for what he saw as worldwide liberation struggles.

At the request of the U.S. government, Algerian authorities returned the plane and the ransom to the United States. They briefly detained the hijackers before allowing them to stay. But their movements were restricted and the Algerian president ignored their requests for asylum.

Wright and the others left Algeria in late 1972 or early 1973 and settled in France, said Mikhael Ganouna, producer of a 2010 documentary about the hijacking, "Nobody Knows my Name."

Wright left the group after breaking up with a girlfriend, and no one knew where he went, Ganouna said.

Wright's associates were all eventually tracked down, arrested and tried. They were convicted in Paris in 1976, but the French government refused to extradite them to the U.S., where they would have faced longer sentences.

One of them, George Brown, lives in Paris but isn't worried about being extradited because he has already served his sentence, Ganouna said.

Over the years, the New Jersey Department of Corrections task force on fugitives reviewed reports from the 1970s, interviewed Wright's victims and the pilots of the hijacked plane, had age-enhanced sketches made of the fugitive and tracked any possible links to his family in the U.S.

An address in Portugal was one of several leads they wanted to check, but Schroeder said there was nothing special about it.

"It was another box to get checked, so to speak," he said.

That changed last week when details started falling into place with the help of Portuguese authorities.

By the weekend, U.S. authorities were on a plane to Portugal. On Monday, Portuguese police staking out Wright's home found him there.

William May, the pilot of the Detroit-Miami flight hijacked in 1972, said Wright was the group's leader.

"It's been 40 years," May said. "I'm surprised there was even any interest in finding him still."

Alan Clendenning in Madrid, Jamey Keaton in Paris, Wayne Parry in Howell, N.J., Samantha Henry in Newark, N.J., Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J., Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C., and Karen Zraick, Rhonda Shafner, Barbara Sambriski and Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.

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