According to news reports, George Wright is entertaining book and movie deals. He’s a star, practically — yet another glam criminal out of reach of the law. Safe abroad, smirking at justice, holding forth on the iniquities of America. Wright and his comrades often spelled this word with a “k.” Sometimes three of them.
He has an exciting story to tell, it’s true. It has been all too exciting for those on the wrong end of his guns. In 1962, the day after Thanksgiving, he and some buddies went on a crime spree. This was at home in New Jersey. One of the people they robbed was Walter Patterson, a gas-station owner. With panty hose shoved over their faces, they shot him dead. Off they went with $70.
Patterson, 42 years old, was a member of what someone would call the Greatest Generation. He came home from the war with a Bronze Star, earned when he drove his truck into a hail of German bullets, in order to save some men. Patterson survived the Nazis, but not the two-bit thugs who came to his gas station.
George Wright, apprehended, was sentenced to 15 to 30 years. He served seven of them. In 1970, he escaped from his minimum-security prison, which was nothing but a dairy farm, really. He and a buddy hot-wired the warden’s car. They got to Detroit, where they joined the “Black Liberation Army.”
In 1972, they and three others hijacked a plane. Wright, dressed as a priest, pulled a gun from a hollowed-out Bible and held it to a stewardess’s throat. The hijackers demanded a million-dollar ransom. Wright said, “If that money’s not here by 2 o’clock, I’m going to start throwing a dead body out the door every minute.” The U.S. government paid.
The gang forced the plane to Algeria, which was a haven for self-styled revolutionaries (in reality, robbers, rapists, and murderers who had learned a little black-power talk). When they landed, something funny happened: The Algerians confiscated the money. The gang was ticked. In a statement, they said, “We are shocked and bewildered to be branded as criminals for our revolutionary activities.”
After a sojourn in their new “homeland,” as they called it, they moved to another homeland: France. Eventually, they were arrested by French authorities — all but Wright, who escaped down into Portugal. From there, he went to Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa. It was run by people much like Wright, and they were happy to give him a new identity: José Luís Jorge dos Santos. After acquiring a wife and two children, he went back to Portugal, to live a pleasant life by the sea.
U.S. law did not quite forget him. They tracked him down last September — 49 years after the murder of Patterson, 41 years after Wright’s prison escape, and 39 years after the hijacking. Wright commented, “Knowing the Americans, I always feared that they had their antennas up.” He need not have feared too much: The Portuguese refused to extradite him. The case is now regarded as closed. Wright, who is 69, said, “I want to relax now, and spend time with my family and friends.” Yes, don’t we all?
Walter Patterson, too, had a family: a wife and two daughters. His wife died a year and three months after his murder, of a heart condition. When Wright was finally tracked down, Patterson’s daughter Ann said, “He needs to come back here and pay his debt to society.” She was 14 when her father was murdered. Wright “has had a good life for the past 40 years,” she said, “but he took away about half of my father’s life.”