By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA (AP) — William Potts calls himself the “Homesick Hijacker.” U.S. authorities have another name for him: fugitive harbored by an enemy government — one of dozens of Americans hiding in communist Cuba.
Almost 25 years ago, he smuggled a pistol onto a commercial flight, diverted the plane to Havana, and spent 13 1/2 years in a Cuban prison for air piracy.
Now the Mount Vernon, New York, native has written to President-elect Barack Obama seeking a pardon and hoping U.S.-Cuba relations will improve and he’ll be able to come home.
Others among the more than 70 American fugitives in Cuba fear the opposite — that a thaw in the nearly 50-year-old freeze between neighbors will put them within the reach of U.S. law.
“It’s not a good time to raise my name up there,” said Charlie Hill, who was accused in the slaying of a New Mexico state trooper and hijacked a plane to Cuba in 1971. “Things are going good. I don’t want to be in the limelight.”
Neither government would comment on the subject because these are sensitive times — a change of U.S. administrations, and indications that both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are ready to make tentative moves toward detente.
Among other issues, U.S. officials are hoping Cuba will cooperate in apprehending a ring of Cuban-Americans who fled here from Florida in a Medicare scam. And Cuba continues to insist that the U.S. return five Cuban agents it says were wrongly convicted of spying in Miami.
But a former U.S. diplomat says better relations could give the FBI more freedom to go after the fugitives.
“In my time, we always got more of those kinds of people back from them when things were going a little better,” said Brookings Institution scholar Vicki Huddleston, who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, there were dozens of American hijackings to Cuba — so many that they became fodder for standup comedians. As a way of discouraging them, both sides signed a 1971 agreement under which each government agreed to prosecute hijackers or return them to the other country.
Still, periodic tensions with Washington often pushed Cuba to suspend the deal, and many fugitives reaching Cuba got asylum — bank robbery suspects, Puerto Rican independence fighters, Black Panthers leaders such as Eldridge Cleaver. They were treated as political refugees — a key reason why the U.S. still labels Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The remaining fugitives enjoy the same free housing, health care and other subsidies as Cubans.
The U.S. has no extradition treaty with this country, and in some ways, they have become wanted Americans whom no one is after. Washington can’t even provide updated information on who is believed to be in Cuba, referring The Associated Press to an outdated FBI list of 78 U.S. fugitives — at least four of whom are known to be dead.
Cuba stopped giving new arrivals sanctuary in 2006, so far returning four wanted Americans who recently had fled to avoid prosecution.
But some famous ones are thought to remain, such as Victor Gerena, a Puerto Rican separatist. He is still on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” fugitive list for a 1983 armed robbery of an armored car company in Connecticut.
Another is Assata Shakur, aunt of slain rapper Tupac Shakur. A black separatist, she was sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1973 killing of a New Jersey police officer and had ties to former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers, who became a campaign issue for Obama because he and Ayers served on the same Chicago community board.
Shakur escaped from prison and made it to Cuba. Though she remains underground, Potts says he ran into her at a Havana book fair last year. Gerena and Shakur still have $1 million bounties for their arrest. As recently as 2005, Fidel Castro said U.S. racism made Shakur a “true political prisoner.”
But Potts, who got to Cuba a year after Shakur, was not celebrated — instead, he ended up in the fearsome Combinado del Este prison just outside Havana. Now 52, he argues he has paid his debt — and that prison time-served here should allow him to head back to America a free man.
“I am no terrorist. Not even at the height of my sophomoric idealism could I ever condone terrorism of any kind,” he wrote in his pardon request, which he plans to send to the White House through his sister in Georgia.
He still faces an indictment for air piracy in Florida federal district court that could carry a 20-year prison sentence. Alicia Valle, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney for the district, refused to say whether prison time in Cuba could mean a reduced U.S. sentence.
In March 1984, on a Miami-bound Piedmont Airlines flight that originated in Newark, New Jersey, Potts pushed his call button and gave the flight attendant a note saying he had two accomplices aboard with explosives. He now says he told the lie to “avoid confrontations.”
He claimed to be Lt. Spartacus, a soldier in the Black Liberation Army. But now he says he was never actually a formal member of the violent Marxist group, and that he knew the hijacking would be nonviolent.
He was so infatuated with Cuba’s communist way of life that he was willing to hijack a plane, even though he spoke no Spanish, knew no one on the island and expected to go to prison.
Potts has married twice since being released from prison, but is now going through his second divorce. His wife took his Cuban-born daughters, ages 7 and 4, and nearly all the furniture in their scruffy Havana apartment, leaving him only a bed, pile of books and CDs, Muslim prayer rug and a small table on which is a single bowl and chopsticks.
Until recently, he ran an illegal Internet cafe on his aging home computer, netting about $110 a month after expenses, but now he is planning to move out of Havana, hoping to put the divorce behind him.
Potts says if pardoned he will go to the U.S. to help care for his elderly parents, but return to live in Cuba.
His U.S. relatives have visited him twice in recent years as part of family-visit programs designed for Cuban-Americans, and he took them with him to the U.S. Interests Section, Washington’s Havana mission, seeking visas for his daughters.
On the walls were wanted posters for Shakur and other Americans, but not for Potts.
When he met the officials there, “I asked them, ‘Look, are we going to have some trouble in here?’” he recalled. “And they said, ‘No. We could subdue you if we wanted to.’”
They didn’t, but his visa requests were denied.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
Attorney Gordon Johnson
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice
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