After 40-year manhunt, can fugitive George Wright be brought to justice?
The murder of a N.J. war hero leads to a prison break, an airplane hijacking and a 40-year global search for fugitive George Wright. Now that authorities know where he is, can they bring him to justice? Correspondent Susan Spencer reports.
Produced by Josh Yager, Mead Stone and Jonathan Leach
From old photos to artists sketches to a lifelike age-enhanced plaster bust they created, it's almost as if the fugitive George Wright himself were watching and taunting the three-man task force who've been on a hunt to find him -- around the world and across the decades.
"We had photos. We had fingerprints," said Rick Cope of the U.S. Marshal's Service.
"We know that he had false teeth," said Dan Klotz of the New Jersey Department of Corrections. "We knew he had scars..."
"You could see a scar on the forehead," said Cope.
"Our job, our responsibility is to find this man," added Klotz.
"He is a very smart adversary," said R. J. Gallagher, recently retired from the FBI.
For R. J. Gallagher, Rick Cope and Dan Klotz, the saga begins with Wright's involvement in the murder of war hero Walter Patterson in 1962.
"He hurt this family ... he's gotta pay for what he did," said Dan Klotz.
"The crime is senseless..." Ann Patterson told Spencer of her father's murder. "There are triggers throughout the year, his birthday, the day he got shot, the day he died."
Today, a lot of her past is boarded up and paved over... and for decades, Walter Patterson's daughter, Ann, tried to keep it that way.
Ann's daughters, Terry and Jackie, never actually knew their grandfather and never knew why.
"It was never spoken of in the house at all," said Terry.
"We knew it was a quiet subject for a reason and not to bring it up," added Jackie.
Now, 50 years after his murder, Walter Patterson's granddaughters are spearheading their mother's fight to finally bring George Wright to justice.
"On behalf of the commission ... I welcome Ann Patterson who, along with her family, have suffered irreparable harm from the brutal violence committed against her beloved family by George Wright," said Rep. Chris Smith at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
"My father was robbed, brutally beaten, and shot," Ann said addressing the commission. "I was 14 years old. The nightmare was just beginning."
"Her whole timeline of her life just ... shifted," Terry told "48 Hours."
Ann was born in 1947. Her father, Walter, served on the front lines in World War II, coming home with a Bronze Star. Back in New Jersey, he opened a small gas station. Today, it's abandoned, but still standing.
After dinner on Nov. 23, 1962, he left home and headed back to work.
"... and I did what I always did ... I stood in the window and I went like this," Ann recalled, waving. "...and he waved to me. That was the last time I saw him alive."
After spending 17 of his 25 years at the FBI on this case, R. J. Gallagher knows every detail of what happened next.
"It was a simple robbery of a gas station," he explained.
Just after 9 p.m., a black and white sedan pulled into Patterson's gas station. Two men - a pair of short order cooks named Walter McGhee, 22, and George Wright, 19, went inside.
"I had a gun, I had it in my waste...a .32," McGhee told "48 Hours."
Wright had a sawed off .22 rifle. They demanded Walter Patterson's money -- all $70 of it.
"Here's a guy who fought for his country," said Gallagher, "now somebody's coming in and trying to take his piece of America."
"He's not gonna let that happen," said Spencer.
"No ... it's what he fought for," he said.
And he put up a hell of a fight this time, too. According to Gallagher, the gunmen beat Patterson savagely.
"Walter Patterson made a lunge for me...and we got to tussling..." said McGhee.
"... and they started hitting him ... about that head with their weapons. They knocked him to the ground," said Gallagher.
"... and I pulled out my gun ..." said McGhee.
In his decades as a fugitive, George Wright has been as elusive to reporters as to authorities, though he did speak to Mike Finkel for a GQ magazine exclusive titled "Uncatchable".
Finkel taped the interview, in which Wright paints himself as an almost innocent bystander:
George Wright: Nobody was thinking about going and shoot nobody. You know, I think my mind just froze up on me.
Mike Finkel | GQ magazine: And you probably just were standing there just like...
George Wright: With my mouth open probably.
Mike Finkel: Do you remember seeing any blood or anything like that?
George Wright: No, I didn't even look at the guy, to tell you the truth. I was shaking like crazy ... and McGhee also ... he had shot the guy... and he didn't know whether it had killed him or not.
Police found bullets and casings, but couldn't say for sure how many shots were fired or by whom. For Walter Patterson, it didn't matter.
"... it went through his abdomen ... it went through his kidney and his liver," Gallagher explained, pointing to his side. "...and the bullet never exited."
The robbers fled. Minutes later, Ann's daughter, Terry, says passing motorists found Patterson barely conscious.
"He was beaten so severely ... it took like 10 or 12 -- numerous hours to try to piece together his skull," she said.
Two days later, Walter Patterson died -- but not before describing his attackers and their car.
"It's amazing that he could give that much information," Spencer commented.
"He definitely helped to solve his own homicide," said Gallagher.
Police soon found the car, and within 48 hours, they had the driver along with the two gunmen: Walter McGhee and George Wright.
To avoid the death penalty, both men pleaded no contest to murder. The fatal bullet matched Walter McGhee's gun; he got life. George Wright got 15 to 30 years.
"I felt safe then because then they were in jail," said Ann.
George Wright GQ interview: That night in jail, the reality of it hit me ... Minimum 15, maximum 30 years in New Jersey State Prison ... just sounded like the end of the world.
For Ann Patterson, it also felt like the end of the world.
"You look at the clock and right ... daddy should be coming home. And he's not coming home ... and you gotta remind yourself of that," she told Spencer.
"You still call him daddy," said Spencer.
"He'll always be my daddy. Because there's a part of me that's still 14 years old," Ann replied. "I was probably was like a little soldier or a zombie all through high school ... I don't have a lot of memories of it, I just did what I had to do and immersed myself in my school work."
"There's school pictures and so forth, after that point, the pictures kind of stop," Spencer noted to Terry.
"The family did stop. Her family ended at that point," she said.
Living moment to moment, she struggled through high school and gave up any hope of college. Then, one August day nearly eight years after the murder, Ann's past caught up with her.
"My Aunt Jenny called me up and said, 'Ann, George Wright has escaped!' She said lock your doors..." recalled Ann.
That was only the beginning...
"Prison breaks, hijackings, fleeing from country to country to country," said Terry.
"It's a roller coaster ride," Jackie said. "...you just wonder what's next ... the next twist ... the next turn."
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