The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
June 28, 2003

N.C. hijacker who forced plane to Cuba dies at 59

The Associated Press

GASTONIA, N.C. (AP) - The local man who hijacked a small plane from here to Cuba in 1970 has died after spending his last years trying to make amends for what happened.

A funeral was held Saturday at a Gastonia church for Ira David Meeks, who died of lung cancer Monday at the age of 59.

On April 22, 1970, Meeks hired pilot Boyce Stradley to take him and his girlfriend, Diane McKinney, on a sightseeing tour over Gastonia.

Meeks pulled a gun on Stradley and demanded he fly them to Cuba. They stopped briefly in Rock Hill, S.C., and in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., before landing at the Jose Marti Airport in Havana. They were met by Cuban soldiers, who imprisoned them.

Connie Meeks, who said she married Meeks in 1990, said he told her that he tried to explain to Cuban authorities that "he felt persecuted as a black man in America and had heard that things would be better in Cuba."

But, she said, Cuban authorities suspected him of being a spy and tortured him.

Cuban officials deported Meeks in 1976, but FBI agents arrested him on the hijacking charge when he arrived at a New York airport.

A federal court later ruled that Meeks wasn't mentally competent to stand trial; he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1966.

An eight- to 10-year sentence on kidnapping and robbery charges in Gaston County also was overturned because of questions about his competency.

A county judge finally freed Meeks in 1981 after he has spent years in jail and a state mental hospital.

At the time of his release, Meeks said that "as long as I take my medicine I'm stable, I don't hallucinate."

Meeks and Stradley eventually reunited to spread a message of forgiveness. Stradley, who died in 1991, had founded a Christian group to thank God for letting him survive the ordeal.

Meeks lived quietly in Gastonia after his legal troubles. He worked as a mechanic, drafter, welder and electrician.

Connie Meeks said their marriage was short. Ira Meeks married McKinney in 1991. McKinney escaped prosecution when authorities decided she was an unwilling
participant in the hijacking.

McKinney, now 51, had known Meeks about a month before the hijacking, she said, knew nothing of his mental illness and was already pregnant by him. The child, Ira Jr., was born while she was being detained in Cuba.

"He was not the same person" by then, said McKinney, 51. "He was a really good man, and would do anything he could to help people."

McKinney and Meeks were separated, and she saw him for the last time in 2002 when he dropped by her house.

"He didn't talk about the hijacking much," she said. "He'd put that behind him and was just moving on with his life."

His sister, Vicky Clinton of Gastonia, said her brother devoted his life to helping his parents and doing good deeds for others. But the hijacking and the fallout were difficult for the family for years, Clinton said.

"It was very, very painful for our family," she said. "We just had to really pray hard, hold our heads up and press on. There was nothing we could do about it, but we did suffer."