Between 1968 and 1979, one hundred seventy-eight American airplanes were hijacked to Cuba. This was the era of Vietnam war protests, the drug culture, hippies, free love, the civil rights movement, and racial violence. Some who seized airliners were revolutionaries, while others were fugitives with criminal pasts.
Many skyjackers believed Cuba, ruled by their hero, Fidel Castro, was an egalitarian paradise. What they found was squalid, overcrowded housing, sub-par transportation, rancid food, and few civil rights. As soon as the hijacked planes landed on Cuban soil, most freedom-seekers were rounded up and interrogated with a brutality unheard of in the U. S. Many political prisoners spent years performing back-breaking labor in the “Sugarcane Gulags.” Michael Newton, in his book, The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings, wrote that “some [skyjackers] found their lot on the island unpleasant, later choosing to face prison in America rather than stay in Cuba.”
A Black Panther’s Nightmare
“Cuba is a nightmare,” Garland Grant told reporters in a phone call from the island nation. “Believe me, I’m all for the United States now. I’d even wear a Nixon button.” A member of the Black Panthers, on January 22, 1971, Grant skyjacked Northwest Airlines Flight 433 as it flew from Milwaukee to Washington, D. C. He landed in Cuba, believing Castro’s claims that everyone there was treated equally, and that no racism existed in the communist country.
He was quickly disabused of those notions, spending five years in a brutal Cuban prison. There he lost an eye while being beaten by sadistic guards and was stabbed repeatedly with bayonets. Grant was eventually given a sixteen-square-foot putrid-smelling room in a hotel where he swept floors for a living. “I just want to get back to the United States,” he whined. “I’m living like a dog in Cuba.” He also told reporters that “there are more racism problems here than in the worst part of Mississippi.” After being sent back to the states, Grant was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released after serving about three-fourths of his sentence.
Ready to go Home
On September 19, 1970, Richard Duwayne Witt boarded Allegheny Airlines Flight 730 in Pittsburgh and hijacked it to Havana. There he faced the same problems as many American asylum-seekers. In an interview, he complained about worn-out clothing, inedible food, police harassment, and racial discrimination. The government even made him shave off his Afro. He claimed he’d rather face the death penalty in America than stay in Cuba.
“I want to be in the U. S.—even in jail—as long as I can leave here,” Witt said. “I’m ready to face the music in the United States—whatever the court decides. I’d rather be in federal prison than this place.” In 1978, after eight years in Cuba, Witt was allowed to return to the United States. Convicted of air piracy, he got his wish—15 years in federal prison.
“They still have dungeons down there”
Lewis Cale (also known as Louis Moore) and two companions skyjacked a Southern Airways DC-9 on November 10, 1972, a flight en route from Birmingham to Memphis. During the 24-hour-long hijacking, the plane made nine stops at different airports across the country. Finally, authorities had had enough and FBI agents shot out the airliner’s tires. In retaliation, one of the hijackers shot and wounded a co-pilot. The long-suffering pilot, forced at gunpoint to fly to Havana on shredded tires, slid the plane along the runway, making a miraculous landing.
The skyjackers were immediately taken into custody by Cuban police. They were placed in isolation for a month, then beaten nearly to death during a series of bloody interrogations. Cale’s hair turned prematurely gray from the stress of the torture and a lack of food. A Cuban guard struck him on the forehead with a machete, leaving a disfiguring scar. If that was not enough, several of his teeth were pulled out without the use of anesthesia. “They threw us into dungeons,” Cale said. “They still have dungeons down there.” He said he witnessed a prisoner’s ears being cut off, and two prisoners murdered by guards.
Cale had had enough. When the Castro regime gave him a choice of twenty years in a Cuban prison or release to the United States, he jumped at the chance to return to his home country. Cale said his release gave him the chance to “spread the evils of communism.” He later served a 20-year sentence in America’s federal prison system.
As National Airlines Flight 97 began its final touchdown for Miami International Airport on March 6, 1969, a small-time crook and communist named Anthony Bryant pulled out a pistol and hijacked the plane. As the airliner flew toward Havana, Bryant robbed all the passengers, including a Cuban intelligence operative. Bad mistake.
The skyjacker had dreamed of “a place where everyone was equal.” Unfortunately, Cuba was not that place. Bryant was immediately arrested and, without a trial, sentenced to 12 years in the “sugarcane gulag.” There he labored day in and day out, and endured so many bayonet attacks from guards that he had scars all over his body. After being released from prison, Bryant subsisted on maggot-filled bread.
Cuba eventually sent Bryant back to the United States. “Communism is humanity’s vomit,” he said at his first hearing. Possibly because of the persecution he had endured, Bryant was sentenced to only five years of probation. He wrote a popular book, Hijack, that detailed his torturous stay in Cuba, and spent the rest of his life condemning totalitarian regimes.
“If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t do it”
On January 29, 1969, Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient Everett White hijacked Eastern Air Lines Flight 121 and took it to Cuba. He was joined by Larry Brooks and Noble Mason III. The three were sent to the sugarcane gulags where they languished for five miserable years. Eventually, White was released and found work in a bakery.
By this time, he was ready to go home. Back in America, he pleaded guilty to hindering a flight crew and was given a ten-year suspended sentence. After learning that a group of Cuban refugees in America had hijacked a plane back to Cuba, White said, “They don’t even have the right to protest over there. If they lived in a prison here [in the United States], they’d have it better than they do in the streets over there.”
“I have missed my country”
Raymond Johnson, a well-known Black Panther, hijacked National Airlines Flight 186 to Cuba on November 4, 1968. Expecting a hero’s welcome, he was surprised to find Jose Marti International Airport surrounded by tanks. Armed military personnel stormed the plane and arrested Johnson. After two years in prison, he was released. Johnson spent the next 16 years in Cuba where he worked, got married, and had four children.
In 1987, he was allowed to return to the United States. Johnson was a changed man. “I want to thank God for enabling me to be back in my country after 18 years in exile in communist Cuba,” he said. “I don’t regret coming back. I have the consolation of knowing my kids have been saved from a life of communist indoctrination. I would rather be in jail in America than free in Cuba.”
After pleading guilty to kidnapping, Johnson received 25 years in prison. The judge said his harsh sentence was meant to be a deterrent to others. The sentence was overturned on appeal, and Johnson ended up serving only 5 years. He later earned a law degree.
Lt. Spartacus, the Homesick Hijacker
By the 1980s, stricter security at airports had nearly eliminated skyjackings to Cuba. But on March 27, 1984, William Potts, who went by the name, “Lt. Spartacus, a soldier of the Black Liberation Army,” told a stewardess on Piedmont Flight 451 from New York to Miami that he had two bombs on board. His destination, he informed her, was Havana. Potts later said he thought he would be welcome there. That didn’t happen.
Lt. Spartacus was tried for air piracy and spent 13 years in a Cuban prison. After being released, he lived another 17 years as a Cuban citizen. He married and had children, but he told reporters he was “the homesick hijacker.” He wished to return to his home country, he said. Even though he faced decades in American prisons, Potts declared he would take that chance. After 30 years in Cuba, he was sent back home to America where he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years. However, the judge said he should be released after serving only seven.
Skyjacker and Young Daughter Return to U. S.
Jobless and estranged from his wife, Thomas George Washington told reporters he grew tired of American racism and capitalism. On December 19, 1968, he kidnapped his three-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and hijacked Eastern Airlines Flight 47 to Cuba.Washington quickly became disenchanted with communism and begged Castro to let him return to America to face charges. A year after landing in Cuba, Washington and Jennifer were kicked out. They arrived in Montreal aboard a Cuban freighter where they were transferred to waiting FBI agents.
Jennifer was reunited with her mother and Washington convicted of interfering with a flight crew. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
Disillusioned with Paradise
The first hijacker of an American airliner to Cuba was a U. S. citizen born in Puerto Rico named Antulio Ramirez Ortiz. He had grown tired of life in America and was sympathetic to the Castro regime. It was May 1, 1961, when Ortiz claimed he had a bomb on board National Airlines Flight 337, bound from Miami to Key West. The pilots quickly turned the plane toward Havana.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in 1962, Ortiz became disillusioned with his adopted country. He repeatedly tried to escape. On one occasion, he attempted to float a raft to the U. S. but was caught and given six years in a Cuban prison. Another time, he visited the Swiss Embassy hoping to arrange passage to the U. S. He was again sentenced to prison. During the times he wasn’t locked up, Ortiz worked as a general laborer. Finally, Cuba agreed to send him back to the U. S. where he was arrested by the FBI. He received a sentence of 20 years.
Dreams of a Worker’s Paradise
Maoist revolutionaries Charles Andrew Tuller, his teenaged sons Jonathan and Bryce, as well as William W. Graham, robbed a bank in Arlington, Virginia. During the failed heist, they shot and killed the bank manager and a police officer. With the FBI hot on their trail, the killers decided Castro and his “worker’s paradise” would be more inviting.
On October 30, 1972, as Eastern Airlines Flight 496 was boarding in Houston, Tuller and his gang rushed the plane. Armed to the teeth, they shot and killed ticket agent Stanley Hubbard when he attempted to stop them. They also wounded a maintenance worker. Once inside the Boeing 727, they forced the pilot to fly to Havana.
The group quickly grew disillusioned. For three months, they were held in detention, interrogated endlessly, and accused of being spies. After their release, Tuller and his sons found Cuba to be “a living hell,” nothing like the Utopia they had imagined. Three years later, they voluntarily returned to the U. S. to face trial. Convicted of air piracy and kidnapping, each was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Graham, the fourth member of their group, remained in Cuba for a while longer, then snuck back into the U. S. He lived under the law’s radar for 20 years before being caught and handed a life sentence.
Written by Robert A. Waters
Robert A. Waters is the author of the national best-seller The Best Defense: True Stories of Intended Victims Who Defended Themselves With A Firearm (1998) as well as five true crime books, including Guns Save Lives (2002) and Guns and Self-Defense (2019). Visit his popular blog, Kidnapping, Murder and Mayhem, on the internet at www.RobertWaters.net.
This article originally appeared on Mr. Waters’ blog, Kidnapping, Murder, and Mayhem, and is posted here with permission for the enjoyment of our readers at HaciendaPublishing.com.
For those who would like to read more about this subject, I highly recommend Hijack by Anthony Bryant, published in 1984. It is well written, describing his life and eventual disillusionment with communism.