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Homesick American hijacker offers to return from Cuba

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
updated 11:19 AM EDT, Mon May 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Potts hijacked a plane to Havana in 1984
  • He was surprised to face trial and be sentenced to 15 years in Cuban prison
  • His daughters are now living in U.S., but Potts continues to fight to join them
  • Potts says he realizes that violence is not the way to bring about change

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Should William Potts, an American fugitive living in Cuba, ever set foot in the United States again, he faces an indictment for airplane hijacking and a potentially lengthy prison term.

So why is Potts now battling to return to the same country that wants to imprison him?

In 1984, Potts hijacked a Piedmont Airlines passenger plane bound for Miami with 56 people aboard.

A Black Panther and self-styled revolutionary, Potts dreamed of receiving military training in Cuba that he could use to overthrow the United States government.

But first, the New York native had to find a way to get to the island.

Potts' solution was to smuggle a .25-caliber pistol inside a fake cast on his arm.

The handgun set off the metal detectors at Newark Airport, but all Potts had to do was flash his cast and an easy smile to breeze past security.

After the plane took off, Potts went to bathroom, where he ditched the phony cast and put on what he calls his "Black Panther costume" of dark clothes and combat boots. He walked to the back of the airplane with the pistol in hand.

A flight attendant told him to retake his seat, Potts said, but her eyes grew wide as she saw his changed demeanor and clothing.

Potts gave her a note ordering the pilot to fly the plane to Cuba.

Over the plane's telephone system, the pilot tried to convince Potts to end the hijacking.

"I had to be forceful with him," Potts remembered. "I tell him, if we don't go to Cuba, this plane is going down. We are going to hell or Cuba."

As the plane crossed the bright blue water and the coastline and palm trees came into view, Potts still wasn't sure he was over Cuba.

"I had them go low and circle around," he said. "I was looking for McDonald's and Coca-Cola and propaganda like that. I didn't see any of it, so I figured we must be here."

The plane landed in Havana, but Potts did not get the welcome he expected from his fellow revolutionaries.

After years of hijackings to the island, the Cubans put hijackers like him on trial.

Authorities told Potts that Fidel Castro's government was no longer involved in spreading armed revolution abroad.

"In a Machiavellian sense, the Cubans changed," he said. "They simply changed. They used to do it, and now they don't do it."

Authorities offered to let Potts return with the plane he hijacked to the United States, where air piracy charges awaited him.

Potts said he would face trial in Cuba.

"I thought I had won the case, and they gave me 15 years," Potts said, recalling his brief court proceedings in Cuba. "I didn't even know what 15 was in Spanish. And they said 'quince.' I said, what is 'quince?' and my translator said 15 years. And I said, '15 years for who?' And they said, '15 years for you.' "

Even though he was sent to one of Cuba's toughest prisons, where he regularly battled with other inmates and the guards, Potts never lost faith in the same revolution that had become his jailer.

"If you are not able to suffer for the cause, you are just a play revolutionary," Potts said.

Potts served his time -- 13½ years in prison and the rest under supervised release -- and tried to fit into Cuban society with the pidgin Spanish he learned in prison.

His first marriage, to a Cuban, didn't work out.

"That was a clash of cultures," he explained. "I am Muslim, and she's a santera."

A second failed marriage produced two daughters: Ntann, 7, and Assata Shakur, 11, named after the American fugitive also believed to be residing in Cuba whom the FBI added to its list of most wanted terrorists in May.

The girl's mother, Aime, also a Cuban, said she didn't realize her husband was naming their daughter after a fellow militant, convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper.

"He likes Japanese things, so I thought it was a Japanese name," she said with a roll of her eyes.

Raising his two daughters, Potts said, made him realize how much he missed family in the United States and wanted his children to meet them.

He said he also needed to make amends and apologize in person to the passengers of the plane he hijacked.

Potts still considers himself a revolutionary but says that both he and the times have changed, and violence is no longer an acceptable way to bring about change.

"I regret taking the plane and putting those people's lives in jeopardy," he said. "I didn't have that perspective at the time, but I have it now and will have it until the day I die. I would have been responsible for all those people dying."

In 2009, Potts wrote President Barack Obama, requesting a pardon for the hijacking.

Hearing nothing back, Potts then wrote the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami to ask whether a plea deal could be worked out to take into account the time he had served in Cuba.

"Fifteen years in a communist prison that's been cited for human rights violations, I have paid my debts to society," he said.

Potts again got no reply, but his daughters were given U.S. citizenship and passports.

Potts wanted to travel with them to the U.S. and in September said he offered to surrender and face the charges awaiting him in the United States.

Nearly six months later, his daughters have been living with relatives in the U.S. since December, but he is still waiting for an answer.

But without a renewed U.S. passport, Potts can't join his girls.

Dozens of fugitives are believed to be living in Cuba, from convicted cop killers to Puerto Rican separatists to suspects in a South Florida Medicare fraud scheme.

The U.S. State Department has placed Cuba on the list of countries that support state terror, along with Iran and Syria, for providing a safe haven for fugitives from U.S. and international justice.

Potts is in all likelihood the only fugitive on the island offering to be tried.

"No one's harboring me," Potts countered. "I am trying to go back."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami said Potts has been indicted for the 1984 hijacking but would not comment on why his offers to surrender have gone unanswered.

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