William Potts Jr., the American accused of hijacking a Florida-bound commercial flight to Cuba nearly three decades ago, arrived on a chartered-plane with U.S. authorities this afternoon in Miami to face air-piracy charges.
Potts, whose flight from Cuba departed Wednesday morning, is in FBI custody for questioning at the bureau’s field office in North Miami Beach. He will be transferred to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami.
The 56-year-old, former New Jersey resident could have his first federal court appearance Wednesday afternoon or Thursday.
Potts is charged with air piracy by threatening to blow up the Piedmont Airlines flight No. 337 from New York City to Miami on March 27, 1984, if the pilot did not divert the jet to Havana, Cuba, according to an indictment. He ordered the pilot to redirect the flight to Cuba, where authorities did not greet him as a fellow revolutionary but instead convicted him of air piracy and imprisoned him.
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That March day, Potts had purchased a one-way ticket for $119 in cash under the name “William Freeman,” according to an FBI affidavit issued with a criminal complaint for his arrest.
“While on final approach to Miami International Airport, a black male pushed the flight attendants’ call button and then handed a flight attendant a handwritten note,” the affidavit said. “The flight attendant glanced at the note, noticed the word ‘explosives’ and immediately gave the note to the captain.”
Potts then locked himself in the bathroom.
The note, which was later retained by Cuban authorities, was paraphrased by the pilot as follows: “Captain, Lt. Spartacus, a soldier in the Black Liberation Army. I don’t want to land in Miami. I want to go to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana.
“There are two explosive devices aboard the plane that I and two comrades have planted aboard the aircraft.”
Potts’ note, according to the FBI affidavit, also mentioned “freeing brothers and sisters in South Africa, government interference with the Sandanistas, a five-million dollar demand and that passengers would be shot and the plane blown up if it landed in Miami.”
After the Piedmont Airlines jet landed in Havana, Cuban authorities boarded the aircraft and took Potts into custody. While they escorted him off the plane, an elecric bill fell out of his pocket. It was retained by a passenger.
According to the affidavit, the bill was made out to a woman by the name of Kay Brown, of Patterson, New Jersey. She later told the FBI that she had given Potts, her nephew, $120 to pay her electric bill on March 26, 1984, the day before he would hijack the aircraft, the affidavit said.
The aunt also supplied federal agents with a photo of Potts. The FBI used his picture for a photo lineup that also included five other similar photographs of other individuals, the affidavit said. Three flight passengers were shown the photo lineup and all identified Potts as the person who hijacked the jet to Cuba.
After the flight arrived in Cuba, Potts was charged with air piracy, convicted and then imprisoned on the communist-run island nation for 13 years. But after his release from prison, he began a new life in Cuba, getting marrried, starting a family and working as a farmer.
This week, however, Potts told the Associated Press that he wanted to return to the United States after all these years to seek “closure” by facing charges in Miami.
He said that in surrendering, he hoped the time he served in a Cuban prison outside Havana would reduce his punishment in the United States.
“I’m ready for whatever,” Potts told the AP Tuesday, after making arrangements to obtain a passport from U.S. Interests Section officials in Havana. “My position is, of course, I did the crime and I did the time, and the United States has to recognize that.”
Potts’ fate is likely to play out over the coming weeks. It is a near certainty that the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami will seek to detain him while they determine whether to move forward with the original air-piracy charges.
The U.S. attorney’s office and FBI declined to comment Wednesday.
Miami lawyer David Weinstein, former chief of the counter-terrorism section at the U.S. attorney’s office, said federal prosecutors have the authority to pursue air-piracy charges against Potts and are under no obligation to give him any credit for his time served in Cuba’s prison system.
“Hijacking an aircraft in the United States and taking it to Cuba violates the laws of both sovereigns, and a prosecution by Cuba does not bar a subsequent prosecution by the United States,” Weinstein said, citing case law. “Nor is the defendant entitled to credit for any period of incarceration imposed by the foreign sovereign.”