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Hijacker returns to US after 29 years in Cuba

After his jail term ended, William Potts (center) was given permanent residency in Cuba. But the “homesick hijacker” now wants to take his chances with the US justice system.

Ramon Espinosa/associated press

After his jail term ended, William Potts (center) was given permanent residency in Cuba. But the “homesick hijacker” now wants to take his chances with the US justice system.

MIAMI — An American who hijacked an airliner to Cuba nearly 30 years ago as a self-described revolutionary flew back home Wednesday to face US justice.

FBI agents took William Potts, 56, into custody shortly after his charter flight from Havana landed at Miami International Airport, said FBI spokesman Mike Leverock. Potts faces a 1985 federal indictment charging him with air piracy for hijacking a Piedmont Airlines flight in 1984.

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In interviews prior to leaving Cuba, Potts said he was seeking ‘‘closure’’ and hoped to persuade US prosecutors to give him credit for the 13-plus years he spent in a Cuban prison for hijacking the flight. The US charge carries a sentence of between 20 years and life in prison, according to federal prosecutors.

‘‘My position is I am a free man. I have served my time,’’ Potts said. ‘‘But they seem to have another concept. They are going to take control of me. I will be under their authority.’’

Potts was taken initially from the airport to the FBI’s Miami field office and later will be transferred to a downtown detention center. Potts is scheduled to make his initial appearance in federal court Thursday, where the first order of business will be getting him a lawyer.

US authorities have aggressively prosecuted some returning fugitives, while others saw their sentences reduced significantly for time served elsewhere. Typically, a criminal defendant who pleads guilty and accepts responsibility qualifies for a more lenient sentence.

In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of American aircraft were hijacked to communist Cuba at the height of the Cold War. But by the time Potts commandeered his plane, they had become less frequent and Cuba had begun prosecuting the hijackers.

‘Once you’ve paid your debt to society you’re entitled toa fresh start.’

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According to an FBI affidavit filed with the indictment, Potts bought a one-way ticket on the Piedmont flight on March 27, 1984. Potts has said the flight originated in Newark, N.J., but the FBI affidavit said it was nearby LaGuardia Airport in New York.

As the airliner approached Miami, the FBI said, Potts pushed a flight attendant call button and handed her a note claiming he had two ‘‘comrades’’ onboard and two explosive devices aboard. Potts called himself ‘‘Lt. Spartacus, a soldier in the Black Liberation Army,’’ according to the FBI.

The note from Potts also demanded $5 million, threatened to blow up the plane and kill passengers if it landed in Miami, discussed freedom for ‘‘brothers and sisters’’ in South Africa, and criticized American interference with Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. The plane was flown to Havana, where Cuban authorities boarded and arrested Potts.

They later found an electric bill that had fallen from Potts’ pocket containing the name Kay Brown of Paterson, N.J. Brown told the FBI that Potts was her nephew and that she had given him $120 to pay her bill but had not seen him since.

The airline ticket cost $119.

She also gave agents a photo of Potts, and the FBI said three passengers identified him in a photo lineup as the man who hijacked the flight.

Potts said he thought Cuba would welcome him and offer training as a guerrilla. Instead, he was convicted of air piracy. He was later given permanent residency in Cuba and has been living recently in a modest apartment east of Havana.

In 2009, Potts called himself the ‘‘homesick hijacker’’ in an Associated Press article about his desire to one day return to the United States.

Even though Potts could have stayed in Cuba, he decided to take his chances with the legal system. The pending US case against him keeps him from living his life fully, he said.

‘‘It’s time it had closure. Why leave it hanging, why leave this gaping uncertainty?’’ he said. ‘‘So I want to resolve that because . . . having completed my sentence, I feel like I want to put all that stuff behind me. . . . Once you’ve paid your debt to society you’re entitled to a fresh start.’’

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