Hijackers - They're Still Flying High
By BARRY BEARAK,
Times Staff Writer
MIAMI-"I have a bomb," the man said and locked himself in the lavatory. Later, he pushed a note under the door. On it was the tired, familiar command: "Take me to Cuba."
That hijacking May 1 began Ameria's latest spate of air piracy. In the next two months, nine more attempts followed, including one Tuesday night. There was the woman who waved a flare pistol, the man who awkwardly wore a bomb around his neck, the two men who flicked their cigarette lighters near a bottle of gasoline.
Then there was the tiny Cuban refugee who stuck a hunting knife against a flight attendant's side. When he let go of the weapon briefly to sip some Coke, two businessmen grabbed his arms and a third man punched him in the head until the 116-pound refugee could be hogtied with a seat belt.
Hijacking, like some rash that can be controlled but not cured, has beset U.S. air traffic now for 22 years. It has brought metal detectors into the airports and sky marshals onto the planes. It has forced the United States and Cuba, two, neighbors who aren't talking, to begin passing notes themselves.
225 Attempted U.S. Hijackings
"The Cubans don't want to be seen as some part of an air tragedy," said an American diplomat who asked not to be named. "They want to give the ''impression of being responsible actors on the world stage."
Since 1961, there have been 225 attempted hijackings of American airliners, 115 of them successful. Flights from 71 different U.S. airports have carried would-be hijackers. It has happened 25 times out of New York, 23 out of Miami, 14 out of Los Angeles, once from Pellston, Mich.
Three quarters of the successfully hijacked planes have been ordered to Havana, and federal officials blame most hijackings since 1980 on unhappy Cuban refugees who arrived in the United States during that spring's Mariel boatlift A small number of these refugees are jobless or homesick or crazy or all three.
The U.S. State Department has an answer. It wants Cuba to take back any refugees who want to return, as well as any whom U.S. officials want to send. Cuba's response, U.S. diplomats say, has been vague.
Penalties Stiff in Cuba
In June, the Cuban government did, in fact, comply with one request. It released a list of all hijackings to the island since 1980, complete with penalties. Hijackers, that list showed, have been sentenced with increasing severity, with some receiving prison terms of up to 20 years.
To the Federal Aviation Administration, that seemed a strong deterrent, and July 6 it gave the list to the press. "If homesick Cubans try to get back to visit their families, the only way they'll see them is on visiting day, if they have a visiting day," warned FAA spokesman Jack Barker.
An Air Florida jet was hijacked to Havana the next day.
Two weeks later, the FAA announced a new plan-better airport screening, more sky marshals, TV and radio ads to warn of the stiff penalties in Cuba. Officials suggested, moreover, that Cuba return hijackers to face tough American justice.
If Cuba returned the hijackers for punishment, it "would shut this thing off like a faucet," Barker said.
Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?
But the return of hijackers is a touchy business, for air piracy is often seen through the prism of politics. The U.S. government has long condemned hijackers to Cuba as an evil breed, while it praised those who brought boats and planes from Cuba as courageous freedom fighters.
The Cubans, in fact, did once rely on American courts for even-handed treatment of hijackers, and found that ideology weighs heavy on the scales of justice.
In September, 1980, Juan Adega Fresneda and Crecencio Perez-Perez, two Mariel refugees who said they missed life in a poor Havana suburb, hijacked a Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta, menacing a stewardess with bottles of gasoline. They were handcuffed upon arrival in Havana and sent back. A U.S. federal judge sentenced them to 40 years.
At the same time, the United States changed policy in a way that obliged the Cubans. Three men had overpowered the captain of a Cuban fishing boat and steered the vessel to Key West. They were arrested and charged with hijacking-unlike others who had done similar things for 20 years and had been hailed as heroes.
But when the case went to trial in Miami, the jurors deemed the boat theft no crime. Hijacking in the pursuit of freedom is not really hijacking, they agreed. An overflowing courtroom burst into applause at the acquittal. The accused toasted each other with wine in front of the federal building.
The Cubans have returned no hijackers since.
"It's the old problem: one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist," says Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana until a year ago, when he left the State Department. "The U.S. has never quite faced up to this."
The problem is back.
On July 22, the same day two business men were celebrated for foiling the airplane hijacking by the knife-wielding refugee, 23 refugees -11 men, five women and seven children floated into the Florida Keys in a Cuban government fishing boat. Its captain and his threeman crew reported they had been captured at gunpoint.
On the docks, relatives of those aboard waved handkerchiefs and shouted salutes. They said the hijacking had been months in the planning; they had known that the dull gray vessel was on its way.
The airplane hijacker thwarted by the businessmen, Rodolfo Bueno Cruz, has been indicted for air piracy and faces a 20-year minimum sentence. Federal prosecutors in Miami have yet to decide, however, whether there will be any charges against the refugees on the boat.
"If we ever got the Cubans to return hijackers to us, they'd want us to return maritime hijackers to them, and we just wouldn't do that," Smith says.
Pirating airplanes, a crime of extortionists and expatriates, has befuddled diplomats for 50 years. The first airplane hijacking dates back to 1931 in Peru. In the late 1940s it was a favored way to escape communist Europe.
Castro rebels favored it, too. They hijacked three Cuban planes in late 1958 in their final efforts to overthrow the Batista government. One diverted Miami-to-Havana flight crashed and 17passengers were killed.
After Fidel Castro took power, however, hijacking became a tactic of fleeing Batista loyalists. There were 15 attempted hijackings from Havana to Miami between 1959 and 1966. Several involved on-board gun battles.
In April, 1959, Alfredo Mason y San
chez, a former sergeant in Batista's secret police, escaped jail, slipped into a stolen Army uniform and diverted a domestic flight.
Castro, in Washington at the time, said, "This could have been prevented by more careful searches of those boarding planes. But we don't like to do those things."
In October, 1960, nine anti-Castro passengers fought a frenzied gun battle with guards on a domestic Cubana Air Lines flight before directing it to Key West. They killed a guard with his own gun and wounded the pilot and copilot.
In July, 1961, hijackers shot a guard and forced another domestic Cubana
flight to Florida. Erwin Harris, a Miami advertising executive who contended the Cuban government owed him money, was permitted to sell that Cuban plane and 16 others at a sheriff's auction.
"We had a contract to do tourism in Castro's early regime when he was still the great Robin Hood," Harris remem. bers.
Relations between Havana and Washington eroded rapidly.
BY Mid- 1961 the Cubans began getting some leverage. Hijackers started commandeering planes to Cuba as international politics were inevitably touched by some very personal problems.
The first pirate of an American airliner was Antulio Ortiz. In May, 1961, he was both a Miami electrician who had lost his job and a gloomy husband who wanted a different wife. His preference in wives lived in Cuba.
Ortiz recalls: "The consul, Mr. Alvarez in Miami, he told me, 'Hey, Tony, there is only two ways to get to Cuba: either you hijack a boat or hijack a plane.' "
He chose the plane. When he arrived in Havana, he was a hero to both his sweetheart and the government. Years later, he soured on life in Cuba and finagled a visa to the United States in 1975. Here he was arrested for air piracy and is serving 20 years at Terminal Island in San Pedro, where he reminisces about the days when the first U.S.-Cuba hijacker was affectionately nicknamed Numero Uno.
It was President Kennedy who ordered the initial anti-hijacking measures in this country. Border Patrol officers were placed on some flights and the pilot's cabin was locked with the only key kept inside. Congress, in late 1961, passed a law making air piracy punishable by penalties up to death.
Between 1962 and 1967, there were just four efforts to hijack American airliners. The only successful one was by a knife-wielding 16-year-old who demanded that the plane land in Honolulu.
But 1968 brought the first of five frightening years. During that period, there were 117 hijacking attempts, 69 of them successful. It was less a time of the homesick hijacker than the time of the schemer and the fugitive from justice.
Communist Soul Mates
In November, 1971, a man who called himself "D.B. Cooper" demanded four parachutes, $200,000 and "no funny stuff." He bailed out with the cash over southwest Washington, jumping possibly to bliss or possibly to oblivion though certainly into American folklore.
In November, 1972, three men with pistols and hand grenades commandeered a Southern Airways flight over Alabama. They sampled the liquor aboard, then eventually extorted $2 million from the airline while ordering the plane on a 29-hour journey that ended in Havana.
"A lot of strange guys coming in in those days," says Anthony Bryant, a hit man who hijacked a plane to Havana in 1969. He spent nearly 12 years in Cuban jails, unable to convince his captors he was an ideological soul mate who wanted to strike up some revolution.
Other hijackers who professed a belief in communism had better luck, Bryant says. They were displayed for propaganda value and permitted to find work where they might. Still others, however, were considered simple criminals or dangerous spies and locked away.
News of Cuba's hard line discouraged some hijackers. Without doubt, so did stepped-up American air traffic security. From 1973 through 1979, there were only 36 hijack attempts, five of them successful.
Since 1971, armed sky marshals have accompanied certain, unspecified flights. Their numbers vary, depending on hijacking activity. But no sky marshal has ever thwarted a hijacking in progress.
Since 1973, airport security guards have electronically screened passengers and their carry-on luggage.
In 1973, the United States and Cuba signed an agreement, each country promising either to punish hijackers or return them: In 1976, Cuba renounced the understanding after a Miami-based terrorist, Orlando Bosch, put a bomb aboard a Cuban airliner, which exploded shortly after takeoff from Barbados, killing 73 people. But the Castro government apparently has continued to punish hijackers.
"Everything has contributed, to a degree," says Barker of the Federal Aviation Administration. "You just don't know how many hijackings have been prevented."
Each wave of air piracy seems to bring new twists, new dilemmas. The latest hijackers, most thought to be Mariel refugees, have favored flammable liquids.
In July, 1981, Rafael Fredesvindo Pellerano ignited small fires on a New York-to-Miami flight before passengers and flight attendants subdued him. They pummeled his neck and chest, and then wrestled him down until he quit breathing. He died on board.
In July, 1982, Nivaldo Rojas Reyes splashed gasoline on a passenger's head. Then he stood impatiently behind him with a lighter, waving the flame in the air.
An outraged public often calls the FAA with suggestions of how to curtail hijackings. Some callers want the government to build a replica of Havana's Jose Marti Airport near Miami. It might fool hijackers, they argue-at least once.
Others propose trap doors that would drop hijackers into the baggage compartment. One woman from Fort Lauderdale, Barker says, recommends that everyone flying into South Florida be required to strip before getting on board and then put on airline-supplied kimonos.
But the prevailing wisdom of U.S. officials is to get some cooperation from Havana. This is difficult. The two governments don't often join sides.
A Castro Conspiracy?
In fact, the fear in Miami's large Cuban community is that the latest hijackings are the work of Castro agents-that air piracy is a ploy to get the American government to negotiate on other issues.
"The Cuban intelligence agency has a complete dossier on everybody they sent from Mariel who had a jail record or psychological problems," Joe Carollo, a Miami city commissioner, contends. "It is extremely easy for them to send their agents to the psychologically unfit and convince them to hijack a plane."
Carollo's view is the prevailing one in the Cuban exile community and it stretches all the way to Terminal Island, where Antulio Ortiz himself is certain it is so. "Most of the actual plane hijackers are working for Castro," he insists.
But then Antulio Ortiz, 56, has been wrong before.
The Numero Uno of air piracy recalls, "I never expected nobody to follow
my steps hijacking a plane."