A most-wanted murderer who has been on the run since he escaped a New Jersey prison and allegedly hijacked a plane from Detroit in the 1970s has been caught after an investigation that spanned four states, three continents and four decades, NBC New York has learned.
FBI and New Jersey officials tracked hunted killer George Wright to a town outside Lisbon, where Portuguese authorities arrested him Monday.
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.
FBI forced to deliver cash in bathing suits
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.
Tower recordings from the time captured their negotiations.
"Follow my instructions to the letter or someone will get hurt," a hijacker says. "We will follow your instructions explicitly. The money's being packed in suitcases right now," comes the reply from the tower.
"The money comes on first before any passenger gets off," the hijacker says.
"The men are putting on their bathing suits and going over with the money now," the tower says.
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.
Hijacking prompted scanners at every airport
Capt. William May, a pilot held hostage, said after the ordeal was over that the hijackers told them "we were the pawns in this game and we'd be the first to go if anything went wrong."
Hijackings were frequent in those days. Before this hijacking, another plane with Black Panthers flew to Algeria and was greeted by Eldridge Cleaver, who had been welcomed as a political refugee after fleeing bail in California.
When Wright and his crew landed, the Algerians — under pressure from U.S. officials — seized the $1 million, and the group was not allowed to meet with Cleaver. But they spoke to the press before they fled.
"Give us our money and we'll go somewhere else," said a woman traveling with them.
After that hijacking, Congress ordered scanners at every U.S. airport.
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 and New Jersey Department of Corrections investigators, tracked him to Portugal.
Wright, now 68, is being held without bail in Portugal.