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Hijacker-fugitive George Wright lived openly under real name for at least 20 years

Hijacker-fugitive George Wright lived openly under real name for at least 20 years
In this photo released by Noticias de Colares on Thursday Sept. 29, 2011, U.S. fugitive George Wright is seen in a post office in Praia das Macas, Portugal in 2000. AP Photo/Noticias de Colares

(CBS/AP) LISBON, Portugal - George Wright, an American fugitive who once hijacked a plane, lived openly in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau during the 1980s under his real name and even knew U.S. embassy officials there, a former U.S. ambassador said Thursday.

Retired Guinea-Bissau Ambassador John Blacken told The Associated Press he was stunned to hear the news of George Wright's arrest Monday in Portugal because he and his collegues did not know Wright was a fugitive.

Blacken said embassy officials would have taken action if they had known Wright had escaped from jail in New Jersey while serving time for murder and was wanted in a 1972 hijacking by the Black Liberation army, a radical U.S. group that diverted a U.S. plane to Algeria.

Wright's ability to elude authorities worldwide for 41 years even while using his own name or the Portuguese variant "Jorge," raised questions about the effectiveness of the FBI manhunt for him.

A fingerprint contained on Wright's Portugese ID card was the break that led a U.S. fugitive task force to him, according to U.S. authorities. But for decades his file was in the unsolved "cold cases" section for U.S. law enforcement.

While Bracken could not remember what kind of work Wright did in Guinea-Bisseau, he did remember Wright's Portugeuese wife Maria do Rosario Valente, who worked as a freelance Portuguese-English translator. Bracken believes that Valente could have worked on a Guinea-Bissau trade project he launched in 1993 for the U.S. embassy.

Wright has lived for at least the last two decades in Portugal, and a photocopy of his Portuguese residency card viewed by the AP listed his home country as Guinea-Bissau.

Wright was being held in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, pending extradition hearings. He has asked to be released during the extradition process, and the court is considereing his request, according to U.S. officials.

If a court grants his extradition to the U.S., Wright could appeal to Portugal's Supreme Court and then to the Constitutional Court, a process likely to last months.

Wright 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 with some 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 other Black Liberation Army members. The hijackers identified themselves to passengers as a Black Panther group, police said.

After releasing the plane's 86 other passengers in exchange for a $1 million ransom, the hijackers forced the plane to fly to Boston, then onto Algeria, where the hijackers sought asylum.

Algerian officials returned the plane and the money to the United States but allowed the hijackers to stay.

Wright and the group left Algeria by boat to Europe in late 1972 or early 1973 and settled in France, where they got jobs and lived together, said Mikhael Ganouna, producer of the 2010 documentary, "Nobody Knows my Name," about the hijacking.

But Wright left the group after breaking up with a girlfriend, and Ganouna said no one knew where he went. Wright's associates were subsequently tracked down, arrested and convicted in Paris in 1976. The French government, however, refused to extradite them to the U.S.

Until his arrest Monday, life was quiet and sweet for Wright in the Portuguese hamlet of Almocageme, where neighbors said he has lived for at least 20 years with his wife and two children, now in their 20s.

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