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 near 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, New Jersey.
Eight years into his 15- to 30-year prison term, Wright and three other men escaped from the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, 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 village 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.
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.
About a mile (1.6 kilometers) 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 (euro730,000 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 took Wright into custody.
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, New Jersey; Samantha Henry in Newark, New Jersey; Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, New Jersey; Tom Breen in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Karen Zraick, Rhonda Shafner, Barbara Sambriski and Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.