WASHINGTON — The United States should continue to seek justice against fugitive George Wright, even though Portugal has refused to extradite him, a former State Department official said at a hearing Wednesday.
Portugal’s unwillingness to send Wright back to the United States, where he was sentenced for a 1962 murder and is wanted in a 1972 plane hijacking, is “legally indefensible,” Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, said at a hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He suggested strategies such as snatching Wright off the street and smuggling him onto a boat if Portugal continues to deny extradition.
“A fugitive may be able to run, but he should never be permitted to hide,” said Winer, who served in the Clinton administration. The commission that held the hearing is an independent U.S. government agency that includes members of Congress and federal agencies.
Wright escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1970 after serving seven years for the killing of Walter Patterson, a gas station attendant. Wright and several associates hijacked a plane to Miami in 1972, traded its 86 passengers for $1 million and then flew to Algeria, where they sought asylum as members of the Black Liberation Army, a militant organization that’s since disbanded.
Portuguese authorities arrested Wright last year at the request of the U.S. government, but released him about a month later. He’d gained Portuguese citizenship through marriage in 1991 and has lived in the country since 1993.
Portugal’s Supreme Court in January refused a U.S. request to extradite Wright, saying the statute of limitations on the murder had expired.
Sitting under a poster of her murdered father in his World War II military uniform, Ann Patterson testified at Wednesday’s hearing that she’s long lived in fear that Wright is on the loose. Wright beat Walter Patterson so badly that the funeral home asked the family for a photo of him so it could reconstruct his body for the casket, his daughter said.
“George Wright is a convicted murderer who lived a life of violence, then fled and lived a life of lies,” she added. “Now his past has caught up with him and he needs to come back here and serve his sentence.”
Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., assured Patterson’s family that there will be repercussions for Portugal. He expressed his dismay that “some seemingly rogue judge” had allowed Wright “to remain at liberty, thumbing his nose at the world and especially at your family.”
Smith said he didn’t understand why the Justice Department hadn’t appealed the case to Portugal’s Constitutional Court. The deadline for an appeal passed in February. Officials from the Justice Department were invited to the hearing but didn’t attend.
Former FBI agent R.J. Gallagher, who worked on Wright’s case, said the Portuguese public prosecutor would have had to initiate an appeal, which it didn’t do for unknown reasons. Extradition cases are conducted in secret in Portugal.
If the United States opts not to jeopardize its relationship with Portugal by snatching Wright, it still has options, Winer said. It could update Wright’s listing in the database of the international law enforcement organization Interpol and ask European police to capture Wright if he ventures outside Portugal. It also could trick him into leaving the country or offer rewards to bounty hunters who might make a citizen’s arrest.