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NJ fugitive fights extradition with citizenship claim

George Wright
George Wright is seen in a post office in Praia das Macas, Portugal in 2000. Wright was arrested Sept. 26, after more than 40 years as a fugitive.Ho / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Captured American fugitive George Wright will claim a new identity to prevent the U.S. from extraditing him, his lawyer said Saturday.

Wright, 68, became a Portuguese citizen, called Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos, in 1991 after marrying a Portuguese woman, lawyer Manuel Luis Ferreira told The Associated Press.

Ferreira said in an interview that Wright's new identity was given to him by West African country Guinea-Bissau when it granted him political asylum in the 1980s and was accepted by Portugal.

The U.S. is trying to extradite Wright to serve the remainder of his 15- to 30-year sentence for a 1962 murder in New Jersey. He had served more than seven years before breaking out of prison in 1970.

But Ferreira said his client argues that he has the right to serve the time in Portugal because he has Portuguese citizenship based on his new identity.

"As a Portuguese citizen, if he has to answer to any authority or if he has to serve any sentence, it has to be to Portuguese authorities and in Portuguese territory," Ferreira said.

U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney, reached by email, declined to comment on Ferreira's arguments because the case is pending.

Extradition ruling in coming weeks
A judge is expected to rule on the extradition request in coming weeks. If he loses, Wright could appeal to higher courts in what would likely be a lengthy process.

Official documents belonging to Wright and provided to the AP show Portugal accepted his new identity papers when it granted him citizenship.

Wright has a Portuguese passport, issued in 2007, and other documents including a Portuguese social security number, driving license and voter registration card.

"There's no doubt whatsoever about his nationality," Ferreira said, adding that Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos "is now his real name."

Ferreira also hopes to persuade the Lisbon judge hearing the case that Wright should serve any outstanding jail time in his adopted country because that is where his wife and grown son and daughter live.

Ferreira is due to present his written arguments to the judge on Thursday after an initial hearing last Tuesday when Wright opposed his extradition.

Wright broke out of the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, on Aug. 19, 1970, after serving more than seven years of his sentence for killing a man in a 1962 gas station robbery. He was also part of a Black Liberation Army group that hijacked a U.S. plane to Algeria in 1972.

Wright was captured in a seaside village near Lisbon on Monday, after decades on the run, and is detained while the court rules on his case.

U.S. authorities say they found him when they matched his fingerprint on a Portuguese identity card to one in the United States, though they have not provided further details.

Until his arrest, Wright spent decades living with his Portuguese family near Lisbon, keeping his violent past a secret.

After arriving in Algeria in the early 1970s, Wright spent six years moving secretly between that North African country, France, Spain and Portugal, according to his lawyer.

Working as a DJ before getting citizenship
In 1979, while working as a DJ at a discotheque near Lisbon, he met his future wife, Maria do Rosario Valente. However, because he was undocumented he had trouble finding work in Portugal, Ferreira said.

He went to Guinea-Bissau which, after its independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1974, was ruled by a single-party Marxist government that looked kindly on black liberation movements.

Wright lived openly under his real name with his wife there before changing his identity and even socialized with diplomats. A former U.S. ambassador told the AP he knew Wright then but had no idea he was a fugitive.

Wright attended Portuguese classes in Guinea-Bissau, Imani Na Umoja, an American who lived there at the time, told The AP last week.

The new identity provided to Wright, enabling him to travel back to Portugal, included made-up names for his parents.

Wright requested Portuguese citizenship after his marriage. Ferreira said Wright and Valente wed at a civil service in Guinea-Bissau in July 1990 and at a church ceremony in Portugal two months later.

They then settled in a hamlet on the coast outside Lisbon where Wright worked at odd jobs, including construction. He also ran a local restaurant and a post office. Locals say they knew him as Jorge Santos and assumed he was African. They said he never disclosed details about his past.

Their son Marco was born in 1986 and their daughter Sara in 1991, according to Ferreira.