Thursday, September 29, 2011

George Wright: What an Interesting Guy


Towards the end of February, 2012, the Portugese government announced that the U.S. had missed an important deadline for filing an appeal in the case of George Wright's extradition, and therefore, they would not be honoring the U.S.'s extradition request and Wright could stay in Portugal as a free man and, I believe, a Portugese citizen. A senior judge in the Portugese tribunal said, "The case is now closed."

CBS' 48 Hours news show did a story about Wright last night, which is what brought all of this back to the top of the jumbled stack that is my memory.


Okay, let's acknowledge the facts first:  he was convicted of murder, he escaped from prison, and he hijacked a jetliner.  So he's a bad guy, okay?

But he lived in the open in Africa for many years, even socializing with a U.S. ambassador.  He has been happily married to the same woman for over 20 years, and they have two grown children.  He is a legal resident of Portugal.  He was a law-abiding citizen in both of his adopted countries. He has made enough clean money to buy a modest but nice house in a Portuguese seaside resort.

This is George Wright, an American fugitive from justice, with two different pasts and what must be a fascinating story.  He sounds like someone I'd like to meet and become friends with.

(Clive Cussler is also on that list.  Maybe the three of us could get together on Cussler's boat some day - no, I think that Wright will be unavoidably detained for the next few years.)

George Wright was convicted in 1962, at age 19, of murdering a WWII veteran and small-business owner, and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.  Eight years into that sentence, in 1970, Wright and three other inmates staged a jailbreak and went underground.

In 1972, Wright and fellow members of the Black Liberation Army hijacked an airliner heading from Detroit to Miami.  The hijacking was front-page news for days.  Wright and co. finally ended up in Algeria.  The Algerian government took custody of the aircraft, and I think they took custody of the $1 million ransom as well.  Wright didn't take it.

The group then went to France, where in 1976 the other hijackers were arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned.  But by then Wright had left France and was in the tiny country of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of Africa.  (Two days ago, I didn't know the country existed, didn't know where it was, and couldn't spell its name.  Wikipedia is your friend.)  He settled down and made a new life there.  He used his real name and his real nationality.  He was friendly with the U.S. ambassador at the time, John Blacken, who was genuinely surprised this week to learn that Wright was a fugitive from justice and a heinous criminal.  Nobody in Guinea-Bissau imagined that the George Wright they knew was that kind of guy.  In G-B, he was a peaceful, friendly, law-abiding citizen.

While living in G-B, he met and married a young Portuguese woman who worked occasionally as a translator at the U.S. embassy.  They had two sons and, after an unspecified number of years, they moved back to Portugal sometime in the 1990s.  They lived in a pretty house on a cobblestone street, in Almocageme, a small town on the Atlantic coast with a beautiful beach.  According to press reports, it's a sandy beach in a cove, surrounded by high cliffs.  It sounds  like heaven to me.

Being a law-abiding citizen, and with nothing to fear from the authorities, Wright got a Portuguese identity card.  He listed his name as "Jorge Santos," and his country of origin as "Guinea-Bissau."  He gave the authorities a fingerprint, which is printed on the ID card and stored in a national database.  Portugal routinely shares the database with law-enforcement agencies in other countries.

And in the United States, the FBI routinely washes the fingerprints it receives through its database of unsolved crimes.  Statistically speaking, it was inevitable that Wright's fingerprint would find a match in the database.  It was only a matter of time.

I imagine that everybody was surprised when the bells started ringing and the red lights started flashing over the cold case of George Wright.  But the FBI took swift action and, after they were sure he was the right man, they notified their Portuguese counterparts.  Local authorities arrested him on Monday, September 26.  He is now 68 years old.  American and Portuguese officials, and an army of attorneys representing everybody, are preparing for the extradition proceedings and court challenges that will, inevitably, bring him back to the U.S. to face justice denied and deferred.

I will not defend George Wright's crimes.  That would be stupid.  But I look at the life he has lived since 1973, and can only say, "wow."

I hope the courts give the guy a break.  His crimes were not crimes against humanity, like those of the WWII concentration camp guards who are occasionally flushed out of their quiet, repentant lives in the Chicago suburbs to face the vengeance of a world that, thankfully, will not forget.

I'm not sure what else to say.  I keep thinking of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.  There must be some redemptive value in living a good life.

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