LISBON, Portugal » An American fugitive who brazenly hijacked a plane in the 1970s lived openly in the African nation of Guinea-Bissau during the 1980s under his real name, a former U.S. ambassador said Thursday.
Retired Guinea-Bissau Ambassador John Blacken told The Associated Press said the embassy knew George Wright — captured this week in Portugal — but did not know he was a fugitive.
Embassy officials would have taken action if they had known Wright had escaped from jail while serving time for murder, and was wanted in the case of the jet hijacked by his American radical group to Algeria in 1972.
"If we had received such a cable, we would have responded," said Blacken, who said he was stunned upon hearing news reports about Wright’s detention in Portugal.
Wright used his own name while in Guinea-Bissau, and Blacken remembered meeting Wright socially in the former Portuguese colony where Black was ambassador from 1986 to 1989.
"All this was a big surprise, my goodness, murder and everything else," Blacken said in an interview from Guinea-Bissau, where he retired. "No one imagined him being a murderer, of course we didn’t know him that well. He seemed like an ordinary person and not radical at all."
Blacken could not recall what sort of work Wright did in Guinea-Bisseau. He said he remembered Wright’s Portuguese wife better because she had worked for as a translator for either the embassy or for a Guinea-Bissau trade and investment project he launched in 1993.
"It’s strange that (U.S. officials) never tracked him down here," Blacken said.
Wright has lived for at least the last two decades in Portugal, and a photocopy of his Portuguese residency card that AP viewed listed his home country as Guinea-Bissau.
A woman who answered the phone at the Guinea-Bissau embassy in Lisbon said no one was available to comment on whether Wright obtained citizenship from the country. The secretary for Ambassador Fali Embalo said he would not be in his office on Thursday.
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 in a communal family with several of its 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 four other Black Liberation Army members and three children, including Wright’s companion and their 2-year-old daughter.
Clendenning reported from Madrid.