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Portugal won't extradite fugitive killer George Wright to U.S.

December 23, 2011 |  5:51 am

George WrightGeorge Wright, who escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1970 where he was serving time for murder,  then fled the country by hijacking a jet to Algeria with a militant nationalist group, has won his fight to remain free after Portugal's Supreme Court ruled against U.S. efforts to extradite him.

The decision, which Wright's lawyer said he learned of Thursday, means Wright may remain free in Portugal, where he eventually settled under a new name, unless the United States appeals to that country's Constitutional Court, its highest.

In November, a lower court rejected the extradition request. The United States then appealed to the Supreme Court, which also rejected extradition. It was not required to explain its decision, and Wright's  lawyer, Manuel Luis Ferreira, said he did not have details of the higher court's decision. Ferreira said the lower court had rejected extradition because the statute of limitations on the sentence Wright had been serving in New Jersey when he escaped in 1970 had expired.

The court decision is the latest dramatic twist in Wright's criminal life, which began the day after Thanksgiving in 1962. That's when Wright took part in a gas station holdup in New Jersey that killed Walter Patterson, a decorated war veteran and father of two young girls.

One of Patterson's daughters, Ann Patterson, told the Associated Press on Thursday that she was stunned by the court's ruling. "I'm surprised," she said, according to AP. "I wouldn't know what else to say about it."

Wright was sentenced to 15 to 30 years after being convicted of robbery and murder, but escaped prison in 1970 and resurfaced two years later when five members of the Black Liberation Army, a militant black nationalist group, hijacked a passenger jet flying from Detroit to Miami. Passengers said Wright was dressed as a priest and hid his gun in a hollowed-out Bible.

The group demanded $1 million ransom -- at the time, a record -- to release the passengers, who were freed unharmed. The money was brought to the plane by FBI agents dressed in swimsuits, a demand made by the hijackers to ensure they were not armed. The hijackers escaped after forcing the jet on to Algeria, then scattered across the globe. His fellow hijackers were eventually arrested and served time, but Wright eluded authorities for nearly 40 years.

A tip eventually led law enforcement authorities to Portugal, where they found Wright living as Jorge Luis dos Santos and married to a Portuguese woman. Now 68, he has two children there and lives outside Lisbon.

 -- Tina Susman in New York


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Photo: George Wright, a.k.a. Jorge Luis dos Santos, at his home outside Lisbon, Portugal, where courts have said he can stay to avoid extradition to the United States. Credit: Armando Franca/Associated Press