The Miami Herald
April 11, 1980. p. 16.
From Herald Staff and Wire Reports
HAVANA – The man who hijacked an American Airlines jet to Cuba said Thursday he acted to escape racial and religious persecution in the United States, the official Cuban news agency reported.
A Cuban government broadcast said the hijacker expressed a desire to leave Cuba for a Moslem country, and that he would be allowed to do so.
The news agency, Prensa Latina identified the gunman as Gerald Leland Merity, 35, originally of Minneapolis, and said he dropped out of dental school at the University of San Francisco last year.
The University of San Francisco has no dental school, but the University of California-San Francisco confirmed that a man by that name attended the university from the fall of 1997 until January 1980, when he dropped out.
Prensa Latina said Merity was a converted Moslem who uses the name Muhammad Jalal Deen Akbar.
IF HE is permitted to leave the island and go wherever he wants, it would mark the first time since hijackings to Cuba began more than a decade ago that Cuba hasn’t prosecuted the hijacker, the State Department said in Washington.
However, State Department officials said late Thursday that had received assurances from Havana that the hijacker would be prosecuted.
Michael Kozak, a legal affairs specialist for the State Department, noted that an executive agreement between the United States and Cuba requiring each country to prosecute hijackers lapsed in April 1977 at the Cuban government’s request.
Nevertheless, the Cubans have continued to abide by its terms, Kozak said, although their motive in doing so may be less to cooperate with the United States than to discourage air piracy.
“Cuba didn’t want to become a haven for crazies,” Kozak said.
STATE DEPARTMENT sources said that if this latest hijacker is released, it could be seen as an attempt by Cuba to “tweak us.”
Cuban President Fidel Castro has been complaining for years that it appears unfair that he prosecutes hijackers while the United States has never been able to successfully prosecute a Cuban boat hijacker.
“But in this case,” one State Department official said, “it could just be his way of showing to the world that there are people who want to come into Cuba just as much as there are people who want to get out.”
Prensa Latina quoted Merity as saying “In the United States, slavery formally ended a little more than 100 years ago, but it continues informally. Until a short time ago, we blacks had to struggle against the Ku Klux Klan, but now we have to do it against the police that accost us, and against the Nazi Party.”
An FBI source in Miami said that aboard the Boeing 727 during the 10-hour hijacking from Ontario, Calif., to Havana on Wednesday, the grimy-clad gunman “behaved more like a criminal fugitive than a political fugitive.”
“Political terrorists generally are verbose and spend the time telling their hostages of their resentment and their reason for their action,” the source said. “This man said nothing at all.”
The FBI prepared composite sketches of the hijacker in an effort to identify him.
THE GUNMAN leaped a fence at Ontario International Airport near Los Angeles on Wednesday morning. He entered the door of the plane being readied for a flight to Chicago, held a .45-caliber pistol to the head of a flight attendant and demanded to be taken to Havana.
The plane and its crew of seven made a refueling stop at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and then flew directly to Havana’s Jose Marti Airport. The plane was allowed to return to Miami Wednesday night.
It was the second hijacking to Cuba this year. On Jan. 25, a Delta Airlines plane from Atlanta was forced to fly to Havana by a man later identified as Samuel Alden Ingram. Ingram remains in Cuba.
This article was compiled from reports by Tom Fiedler of The Herald’s Washington bureau and by United Press International.