An American who hijacked an airliner to Cuba nearly 30 years ago as a self-described revolutionary was in custody yesterday, a day after returning home on a charter flight from Havana.
Agents took William Potts, 56, into custody on Wednesday shortly after his flight arrived at Miami International Airport, FBI spokesman Mike Leverock said. Potts faces a 1985 federal indictment charging him with air piracy for hijacking a Piedmont Airlines flight in 1984.
In interviews prior to leaving Cuba, Potts said he was seeking “closure” and hoped to convince US prosecutors to give him credit for the 13-plus years he spent in Cuban prison for hijacking the flight. The US charge carries a sentence of between 20 years and life in prison, according to federal prosecutors.
“My position is I am a free man. I have served my time,” Potts said. “However, they seem to have another concept. They are going to take control of me. I will be under their authority.”
Potts was taken initially from the airport to the FBI’s Miami field office and later was due to be transferred to a detention center. Potts was scheduled to make his initial appearance in federal court yesterday afternoon.
US authorities have aggressively prosecuted some returning fugitives, while others saw their sentences reduced significantly for time served elsewhere. Typically, a criminal defendant who pleads guilty and accepts responsibility qualifies for a more lenient sentence.
In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of US aircraft were hijacked to Cuba at the height of the Cold War. However, by the time Potts commandeered his plane, they had become less frequent and Cuba had begun prosecuting the hijackers.
According to an FBI affidavit filed with the indictment, Potts bought a one-way ticket on the Piedmont flight on March 27, 1984. Potts has said the flight originated in Newark, New Jersey, but the FBI affidavit said it was nearby LaGuardia Airport in New York.
As the airliner approached Miami, the FBI said Potts pushed a flight attendant call button and handed her a note claiming he had two “comrades” on the plane and that there were two explosive devices aboard. Potts called himself “Lt. Spartacus, a soldier in the Black Liberation Army,” according to the FBI.
The note from Potts also demanded US$5 million, threatened to blow up the plane and kill passengers if it landed in Miami, discussed freedom for “brothers and sisters” in South Africa and criticized US interference with Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. The plane was flown to Havana, where Cuban authorities boarded it and took Potts into custody.
They later found an electric bill that had fallen out of Potts’ pocket containing the name Kay Brown of Paterson, New Jersey. Brown told the FBI that Potts was her nephew and that she had given him US$120 to pay her electric bill, but had not seen him since.
The aunt also gave agents a photo of Potts, and the FBI said three passengers identified him in a photo lineup as the man who hijacked the flight.
Potts said he thought Cuba would welcome him and offer him training as a guerrilla. Instead, he was tried and convicted of air piracy. He was later granted permanent residency in Cuba.
In 2009, Potts called himself the “homesick hijacker” in an article about his desire to one day return to the US.