Conflict & Justice

A case of homesickness leads an escaped hijacker back to the US

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Credit: Joe Skipper/Reuters

William Potts, left, is escorted into Miami FBI headquarters after he was taken into custody upon arriving in North Miami Beach, Fla., on Nov. 6, 2013. Potts, a former US militant who hijacked a plane to Cuba almost 30 years ago, flew home to the United States to face air piracy charges.

Imagine traveling from one country to another knowing you could be arrested the minute you arrive.

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That's what William Potts did. The FBI detained him Wednesday — right after his charter plane from Cuba landed in Miami. And he knew that was a possibility because, 29 years ago, he hid a gun in a fake cast, boarded a Piedmont Airlines flight from Newark to Miami and forced the pilot to land in Cuba.

He thought he'd be greeted like a hero on the communist island. That didn't happen. Cuban officials charged him with "air piracy," known in the US as hijacking. He served more than 13 years in a Cuban prison. After he got out, he stayed on the island. But his troubles didn't stop.

He was busted for operating a secret Internet cafe in 2009. He claims he's been making his money as a farmer ever since. 

But now he's decided to return to the US. He flew to Miami this morning on a chartered flight and the FBI promptly took him into custody. The reason for his return to the US? Closure. 

Havana-based AP reporter Peter Orsi talked to Potts right before he left. 

"He wants to put this part of his life behind him," he says.

Potts seems to think he already "did the crime and did the time" in Cuba. It remains to be seen what the courts make of it. Potts is scheduled to make a court appearance later this week in Miami. It's not certain what penalty he'll face. Orsi says US authorities prosecute returning fugitives in different ways. Some get harsh penalties. Some get off relatively easy.

The US charge against him carries a sentence between 20 years and life in prison.

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