George Wright has a heck of a story. A former member of the Black Liberation Army with ties to the Black Panther Party, Wright’s real-life reads like a best-selling novel or blockbuster movie. He is infamous for escaping from prison, hijacking a plane then being on the lam for 41 years before he was tracked down living a peaceful life in Portugal.
Born in Halifax, Virginia in 1943, Wright graduated from the all-Black Mary Bethune High School in 1961. According to an article on SoVa Now, Wright’s classmates described him as a smart, funny and fearless young man with good character who didn’t start trouble but would end it.
“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,” Earl Tyrone Green told SoVa Now. “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.”
George Wright also attended North Carolina A&T University but eventually left the school before becoming a national fugitive after a fateful night in 1962 changed the course of his life forever.
That was the night Wright, along with some associates, robbed the Collingswood Esso gas station in Wall Township, New Jersey. The station’s owner, Walter Patterson – a decorated World War II veteran with two daughters – was killed during the robbery.
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Wright initially plead not guilty to the murder charge but changed his plea to no-contest after learning a trial could result in the death penalty. He was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison, but escaped with three other inmates on August 19, 1970 after over 7 years.
Two years later on July 31, 1972, 29-year-old Wright hijacked Delta Airlines Flight 841 from Detroit to Miami with several members of his adopted family – Melvin and Jean McNeir and their two children; as well as George Brown, his girlfriend Joyce Tillerson and their child.
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He was dressed as a pastor and used the alias Reverend L. Burgess, according to Aljazeera. The group demanded a $1 million ransom to release the 86 passengers, which was delivered by an FBI agent wearing only swim trunks at the group’s demand (They said they did this to avoid the agent being in possession of any weapons or anything to get the drop on them).
From Detroit, George Wright and his friends had the plane flown to Boston, then Algeria, where they were welcomed by Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who was in the country as a political refugee.
The Algerian government returned the plane and money to the U.S. and briefly detained Wright and party, but eventually released them. From there, the group went to France, where all were apprehended, except Wright – who went on to do a brief stint in Guinea-Bissau in West Africa before falling off the radar.
Wright was 68 when U.S. authorities found him by matching his fingerprints from a Portugal database to ones on record. He was living in a beautiful beachside city in Portugal under the name José Luís Jorge dos Santos in 2011. He was married to a local woman, Maria do Rosario Valente, with whom he had two children. He also spoke fluent Portuguese.
Locals there were as shocked as George Wright’s high school classmates to learn about his conviction. “I never imagined George was in trouble,” Ricardo Salvador, a gas station attendant, told The Associated Press at the time.
In an interview with the New York Times that same year, Wright said he turned his life around an “got rebaptized in 2002.” However, he always knew there was a possibility the U.S. would still come for him one day.
“Knowing the Americans, I always feared that they had their antennas up,” George Wright told the Times. He said he’d worked odd jobs over the years, including being a teacher in West Africa.
Wright maintained he was innocent of the murder and said he only participated in the robbery because he needed the money after his own wallet and belongings were stolen from a hotel room.
“It’s a little absurd for the Americans to come hunting me and making me look like the most evil man in the world, out of some horror movie,” Wright said. “I really should be a role model of rehabilitation.”
Though the U.S. filed several requests and appeals for Wright to be extradited so he could serve the remaining years on his sentence, Portugal refused, stating the statute of limitations were expired for both crimes.