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Colorful U.S. fugitive, alleged hijacker is far from his hometown of ... Halifax

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Above, In this photo released by Noticias de Colares last week, U.S. fugitive George Wright is seen in Praia das Macas, Portugal, in 2000. Top, Wright is pictured among the 1961 graduates of Mary Bethune High School. / October 03, 2011
The burst of worldwide news coverage this week following the capture of a mysterious man of intrigue has thus far overlooked one fact: Halifax is where he got his start.

George Wright’s capture in Portgual after 40-some years on the lam made international headlines after his arrest last week. A murder convict, a prison escapee, a black liberation radical, an airplane hijacker and — later — a bon vivant on the diplomatic scene, Wright was nabbed by Portugese authorities to close out a caper that could have come straight out of a John Le Carre novel.

Among people of a certain age in the Halifax County, George Wright’s journey from well-liked classmate to FBI fugitive in Europe has been a topic of long-standing interest — and mystery.

“When he broke out of prison and hijacked that plane, everybody said, ‘That was ol’ George Wright’,” said Lauretta Martin of South Boston, a graduate of Mary Bethune High School in 1959, two years ahead of Wright, who was a member of the class of 1961.

Wright’s sudden re-appearance — all over TV news — has locals a-chatter and following every development.

“I was up half the night on the Internet,” said one local woman who declined to be identified by name, nervously citing Wright’s canny record.

Convicted of killing a decorated World War II veteran in a 1962 gas station robbery, Wright’s story assumed mythical proportions beginning in 1970, when he escaped from a New Jersey prison by driving off in the prison warden’s car. Migrating to Detroit, then a hotbed of radicalism, Wright became affiliated with the Black Liberation Army, and in 1972 he and four others — with three children in tow — famously hijacked a Delta Airlines flight from Detroit to Miami. Slipping past the lax security of the day, Wright dressed as a priest and carried a gun in a hollowed-out Bible.

Passengers were released in exchange for $1 million — the highest ransom of its time — delivered to the plane by an FBI courier dressed in nothing but a swim suit, as the hijackers had demanded. The hijackers forced the flight to Algeria, where the passengers were released but the five culprits escape the long arm of the U.S. government. (Their $1 million was confiscated by Algerian authorities, however).

Most of his alleged accomplices were arrested in Paris four years later — but the wily Wright remained at large, the sole member of the gang to escape U.S. justice.

For years afterwards, Wright led an unnoticed, but not exactly invisible, lifestyle. In the 1980s, he surfaced in the west African nation of Guinea-Bissau, going by his real name and often socializing with officials at the U.S. embassy to the former Portuguese colony. A former American envoy told the Associated Press last week after his arrest that Wright’s Portuguese wife may have even worked on Embassy projects.

“No one imagined him being a murderer. Of course we didn’t know him that well. He seemed like an ordinary person and not radical at all,” John Blanken, the envoy, told the Associated Press.

The couple later migrated to a Portugal resort town, where they lived peacefully for at least 20 years and now have two grown children — until Wright, now 68, was arrested Sept. 26.

The big break: Wright’s fingerprint on a Portuguese ID card produced a match with a print from his criminal file in New Jersey, the setting for his murder conviction nearly five decades earlier. Wright’s arrest closes out one of the longest unsolved “cold cases” on the books of American law enforcement.

For those who knew him from his Halifax days — long before he adopted the identity of José Luis Jorge dos Santos, journeyman Portuguese laborer, or before he merited his own entry on Wikipedia — George Wright was a lively, smart young man, albeit one with an edge.

“A GQ dresser”

Earl Tyrone Green, a fellow graduate of the Mary Bethune Class of 1961, recalled Wright was “a good student” and a “well-mannered individual.” Wright had two sisters, Edwina and Sally, he thinks.

Green, who grew up in Riverdale, got to know Wright, a Halifax teenager, after both became students at Mary Bethune, then the county high school for African-American students, grades 8-12. Green and Wright became friends and went to parties — “sock hops” — together.

“He was never what you’d call a troublemaker, but he wouldn’t back down from anybody,” Green recalled. “He was a ‘GQ’ dresser, but don’t step on his shoes. What I mean by that is, if you didn’t mess with him he wouldn’t mess with you.

“But if you did mess with him he wouldn’t back down from anybody …. But other than that, he had a good character about him,” said Green, who retired back home in 1993 after a 25-year career in the airline industry.

Eldridge Baird, a Bethune schoolmate now living in Germantown, Md., also remembers Wright being “a very smart guy, articulate, well-liked. He was very popular, and well-dressed, also.”

Baird was a freshman at Bethune when he befriended Wright, then a junior. Despite the differences in age, Baird said he quickly got to know Wright because they both were part of the popular group at Bethune.

The in-crowd, recalled Baird, were “the guys who were the cool guys, were those who dressed well, articulated well, who were athletes, or those of us who were from prestigious families,” said Baird, adding that he believes Wright played for the varsity basketball team. But what set Wright apart was his engaging personality: “George had a lot of charisma. He was a funny guy, a comical guy, and he liked to laugh a lot.”

Mattie Mitchell Muse of South Boston also was in Wright’s class at Bethune, and they became good friends, she said. “I knew him very well. He was very smart, very articulate” but, Muse added, Wright “lived on the edge.”

“He was always playing tricks on people, ‘mischievous,’ I should say …. They weren’t limited to anyone, he would play pranks on his teachers too.”

“He was smart, he was brilliant, but that prankster in him kept him in trouble.”

Wright’s old classmates are not certain if Wright was born in Halifax, but Baird said he believes the family was socially prominent in the community — as events later in his life would seem to bear out.

Life after high school

After graduating from Bethune in 1961, Wright attended North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. He left before completing school — the rumor was he got in a fight and left soon thereafter. Few classmates saw Wright again after he graduated from Bethune, but Earl Green was one, visiting his friend at the A&T campus on weekends while on leave from his service in the Marine Corps.

Green would travel to the Greensboro campus for parties and Wright would put him up in his dorm room. Green remembers that Wright was an entertaining host: “George was the life of the party … Somebody had to be the life of the party. He was one of those people.

“When you party with each other you don’t always get real close, but you [do] get to understand each other,” Green added.

Green said he doesn’t know exactly what happened that caused Green to leave N.C. A&T, but by November 1963, his friend was making headlines in New Jersey after being arrested and charged with the murder of a gas station attendant along with a second suspect, the alleged triggerman. The victim was Walter Patterson, a World War II veteran, a Bronze Star recipient, and father of two.

By that time, authorities said, Wright and three other associates had already committed multiple armed robberies in the region. Pleading no contest to the murder charge, Wright was sentenced to 15-30 years and served eight years of his sentence before he broke out of Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, N.J., in 1970.

Although he lost contact with Wright after he left Greensboro, Green surmises that his old friend fell in with a criminal element: “I just think he got caught up with the wrong crowd.”

Being from a small town, Wright may have been eager to move on to bigger things, Green speculated, only to find himself unable to handle his new surroundings: “Sometimes you get caught up in it and you’re not as strong as you think you are. You get caught up in certain situations, and you can’t get out of them.”

Baird, however, said it’s difficult for him to believe that anyone would have led Wright around by the nose: “George did not seem like a follower. He seemed like someone who set his course in life and followed it.” He was also “a fiery-type of guy. He didn’t take any mess from anybody.” But most of the time Wright was a sunny figure, “a very joyful guy, a playful guy.”

Baird believes that when his murder trial got under way, Wright’s friends from Halifax — civic leaders in the black community — traveled to New Jersey to testify to his good character. Their willingness to make the trip, said Baird, reinforces his belief that the Wright family was important in the town of Halifax.

“My understanding was these people had known him all of his life,” said Baird.

As for how his strong-willed, fun-loving friend could have ended up on trial for murder, Baird pointed to the fact that he was not the triggerman in the crime:

“Perhaps you could say it was a robbery gone bad, and that’s not what he intended.”

Man of mystery

“Who would have thought it?” asked the local contemporary who asked not to be named.

The United States is working to extradite Wright; his lawyer has told European reporters that Wright will claim a new identity as grounds for staying put.

His new name of José Luis Jorge dos Santos was given to him by Guinea-Bissau, which granted him political asylum in the 1980s; the identity was apparently accepted by Portugal, where, newspapers report, locals assumed he was African rather than American.

Wright’s strange life trajectory, charted out long before the War on Terror, practically defies belief, and it’s no different for his old Mary Bethune schoolmates.

After leaving the Marine Corps, Earl Green went to work for USAirways, retiring in 1993 after 25 years with the carrier. As someone who witnessed the impact of hijackings on the airline industry — albeit during an era when even the most brazen attempts led to ransom notes and diverted flights rather than falling skyscrapers and foreign wars — Green said he was dismayed to find out that Wright had seized Delta Flight 841 en route from Detroit to Miami: “Back then it was a terrorist thing, too. When I first heard about it, I thought it had to be a different George Wright.”

Baird wonders if, after all the violence and turmoil in his life, Wright’s period of apparent ease and acceptance in Portugal wasn’t a truer reflection of the young man he had known and liked growing up in Halifax.

“To think that I had known someone who had been involved” in national and international crimes going back decades, “plus for 40 years he’s eluded escape, that within those 40 years he’s done something to turn his life around [in Portugal] …. That doesn’t seem to be surprising to me,” said Baird.

“Going back to high school, he was very well-known and popular, very friendly — it’s not very surprising at all.”

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Colorful US Fugitive? MURDERER.

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