South Florida Sun-Sentinel
December 20, 2003

Flight attendant who testified at Key West hijacking trial remains in U.S.

By Ann W. O'Neill
Staff Writer

A Cuban flight attendant who was allowed to leave the communist island to testify at a federal hijacking trial in Key West slipped away from his guards and has remained in the United States, according to attorneys and a prominent exile leader.

In a terse fax late Friday, prosecutors formally informed lawyers for the six skyjackers, who were convicted in Key West on Dec. 11:

"We have received information that Abilio Hernandez Garcia did not return to Cuba after the trial," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Harry C. Wallace Jr., and John Delionado wrote. "The information that we have indicates that Mr. Hernandez Garcia stands by the testimony given in this matter under oath."

Mario S. Cano, attorney for one of the hijackers, said a defection would help the six defendants in their appeals for a new trial. A key point by the defense was that
crew members participated in the plan to fly the plane north to Florida.

At the trial, the defense called the diversion March 19 of a Havana-bound flight to Key West a "freedom flight" and claimed crew members agreed to play along with
a "staged" skyjacking. But the jury convicted two brothers, their cousins and their friends of air piracy after six hours of deliberations.

The flight attendant's decision to stay "confirms the defense's position all along, that the crew was in on it," Cano said. "And now, here's the first one to stay."

The Cuban government permitted the pilot, co-pilot, mechanic and flight attendant to travel to the United States to testify for prosecutors. They were guarded by
senior representatives of the North American Directorate of Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Witnesses sought by the defense were forced to stay behind because of fears they might defect. And when defense attorneys traveled to Cuba to prepare for trial,
they were detained under guard in an airport waiting room and not allowed to see anything or talk to anyone.

It could not be learned late Friday whether Hernandez Garcia has formally requested political asylum. He is thought to possess a visa, said Joe Garcia, executive
director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Garcia said he was contacted several days ago and informed of the flight attendant's situation.

According to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity, Hernandez Garcia, 24, slipped away Dec. 12 from a hotel in Miami.

Hernandez Garcia testified on the third day of the trial, saying he was grabbed from behind and led to the back of the plane with a knife pressed to his throat. He
said his hands were tied and he was thrown to the floor. Other crew members were piled on top of him, he said.

Questioned by defense attorneys, he denied that Cuban officials had told him to embellish his story. But the defense maintained that every time he told his story, the
flight attendant added details about violence and threats.

He also testified that he did not like how he was treated in the United States after the hijacking. He complained that during the three days he spent at Krome
detention center, he slept on the floor and wasn't given the opportunity to shower.