The Miami Herald
Dec. 09, 2003
Copilot refutes link to Cuban hijack plot

Lead defendants in the alleged hijacking of a domestic Cuban flight say they were pawns in the plot designed by Gustavo Salas Cleger, who claims not to know the men.


KEY WEST - The defendants' faces were impassive, their eyes downcast as the man they said played them as pawns in a hijacking plot told a federal court Monday that he did not know any of them and never discussed with them any skyjacking plans.

The witness, Gustavo Salas Cleger, copiloted a domestic Cuban DC-3 flight that was diverted to Key West on March 19. Salas, who still lives in Cuba, testified Monday in the sixth day of the trial of six Cuban men accused of forcibly overtaking the plane using kitchen knives, packing tape and string. No one aboard the 37-person flight was injured, though each of the accused men faces up to life imprisonment if convicted of air piracy and conspiracy.

In earlier testimony, the lead defendant, Alexis Norneilla Morales, said Salas and an airport security guard sought him out last year and presented detailed plans to stage a hijacking. At the two men's instructions, Norneilla said, he recruited family members and friends, and was furnished with knives by the airport security guard to ''put on a show'' of hijacking with the understanding that they would be able to live freely in the United States.

But Salas, testifying for the prosecution and seated an arm's length from Norneilla, said Monday that he had never met or spoken with Norneilla or any of the defendants prior to the March 19 incident.

''I never saw any of them,'' Salas said. Corroborating the testimony from the flight's pilot, who took the stand last week, Salas said Norneilla warned them during the flight that women and children were under the hijackers' control, held a knife to the pilot's throat and thwarted the pilots from broadcasting radio transmissions.

Norneilla told the court last week that he never used a knife and kidded around with the pilot and co-pilot, who he said he believed were in on the plan. The pilot still lives in Cuba, as does the security guard, who is not expected to testify.

The defense's six lawyers rested their case Monday before noon. Salas was called as a rebuttal witness for the prosecution, and will be cross-examined today.