48 Hours Preview: A sketch artist helps authorities tracking down fugitive murder suspect George Wright

48 Preview Fugitive George Wright
48 Preview Fugitive George Wright
Fugitive George Wright

(CBS) - When sketch artist Christopher McDowell of the Tom's River Police Department got a call from the US Marshals in 2007, he says he'd never even heard of George Wright, a short order cook who'd helped rob a New Jersey gas station in 1962 and participated in the brutal murder of the owner.

48 Hours Preview: The Hunt for Mr. Wright

When McDowell learned that the victim was a decorated World War II hero, he jumped on the case and began researching Wright - a shadowy figure with one of the most bizarre life stories 48 Hours has ever told.

After being sentenced to prison, George Wright escaped in 1970 and two years later led a team of militants that hijacked an airliner to flee the United States, first exchanging the passengers for a million dollar ransom. The hijackers, who wanted to be sure that the agent delivering the cash had no weapons, demanded that the ransom be delivered to the plane by a naked FBI agent.

Video: Creating an age-enhanced sketch

In 1994, the FBI started working with the U.S. Marshals and the New Jersey Corrections Department on a task force formed in part to find George Wright.

But his crimes were so long ago - and investigators were so short on evidence - they had no idea if he was even still alive. If so, they wanted McDowell's best guess about what Wright might look like more than 40 years after he'd vanished.

"There really is a lot of guesswork involved," McDowell says. "We don't know if he's gained a tremendous amount of weight, if he's grown a beard, if he's not grown a beard, if he's wearing glasses, if he's not wearing glasses, those are some of the challenges you face."

Armed with a pair of mug shots nearly 50 years old, McDowell knew he would have to extrapolate based on other details of the case. Wright was thought to be hiding in Europe and had previously worked as a handyman.

"The diet and nutrition in Europe is much better than us here in the United States, so he was more than likely lean," McDowell says. "I could see from an inspection of the mug shot that he had a receding hairline, so more than likely in his older age he didn't keep his hair and was balding."

Based on those few clues - and his 15 years of experience - McDowell drew up a series of sketches to cover all the bases.

"You have George Wright with no hair at all. Then you add a little bit of hair. I added a little weight to him, possibly a double chin. It just kept moving on and on, says McDowell. "And then I sat down with the investigators and we collectively determined which one would probably be the most accurate."

Not long after McDowell delivered his sketches, the task force located Wright and arranged for his arrest.

"I saw his arrest photograph and compared it to my sketch," remembers McDowell, telling 48 Hours it was a dead match - the best result a sketch artist can hope for.

"I was relieved and assumed they're gonna be calling me for more work," he said.

And the most bizarre twist of this thoroughly bizarre story - is that their work may be far from over.