FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — An American who returned from Cuba after hijacking a jetliner to the communist island 30 years ago pleaded guilty Thursday to a U.S. kidnapping charge. Now, he’s hoping for credit for the time he served behind bars in Cuba.
William Potts, 57, entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum. In interviews before his return from Cuba last year, Potts said he decided to return after such a long time to finally resolve the U.S. case. His attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Robert Berube, said Potts has children living in the U.S. and wanted to get out of Cuba.
“He wants to put this behind him,” Berube said. “He didn’t have to come back, but he did.”
Federal prosecutors substituted the kidnapping count for a previous charge of air piracy, which carried a mandatory prison sentence of at least 20 years. Although the kidnapping charge has a maximum life sentence, it gives Rosenbaum more flexibility in sentencing Potts.
Potts is seeking credit for 15 years he served in a Cuban prison, although in his plea agreement Potts acknowledged Rosenbaum is under no legal obligation to do so. The plea deal says the judge can consider the Cuban time as one factor in his U.S. sentence.
“There’s no guarantee of that, but 15 years in a Cuban prison is pretty hard time,” Berube said.
Sentencing on the U.S. conviction was set for July 11.
“It’s entirely up to the court what your sentence will be,” Rosenbaum reminded Potts.
“Yes ma’am, I understand that,” Potts replied.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis said the Justice Department had not decided yet what sentence to recommend.
According to the FBI, Potts claimed in a note to a flight attendant that he had explosives and threatened to blow up a Piedmont Airlines flight headed from New York to Miami in March 1984. In addition to diverting the jetliner to Havana, Potts demanded $5 million in ransom.
The New Jersey native described himself then as a black militant using the name “Lt. Spartacus” who was “a soldier in the Black Liberation Army,” according to the FBI. The note also discussed freedom for “brothers and sisters” in South Africa and criticized U.S. interference with Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
In previous interviews, Potts said he hoped to be welcomed when the plane landed in Cuba and thought he’d be given training as a guerrilla. Instead, the Cubans arrested him and tried him for hijacking, ultimately sending him to prison. After his release, Potts was given permanent residency in Cuba and had been living in an apartment east of Havana.
He began calling himself the “homesick hijacker” in interviews in Cuba with The Associated Press. In court Thursday he was quiet and unassuming, often answering the judge’s questions barely above a whisper.
In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of American aircraft were hijacked to communist Cuba at the height of the Cold War. By the time Potts commandeered the Piedmont Airlines plane, they had become less frequent and Cuba had begun prosecuting the hijackers.
Potts was initially scheduled to plead guilty Tuesday, but that was delayed over a last-minute snag in the wording of his plea agreement.
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Miamicurt