Passengers: Hijacker got gun from lavatory
By JOE STARITA
Herald Staff Writer
NEW YORK - Some were furious. Others were merely livid, their faces screwed on so tightly the words came out in sputtering bursts of disgust: "No comment." ... "I'm definitely writing my congressman." . . . "A helluva way to spend New Year's Eve, isn't it?"
Only the children, it seemed, thought that the little unscheduled swing through Havana was a fine way to usher in 1985.
Two hours into the new year, the 198 people on board a hijacked American Airlines jet finally turned to the safety of Kennedy International Airport. Sporting deep tans, furrowed brows, exhausted smiles and Cuban cigars, they spoke of a New Year's Eve none will soon forget.
They told their stories to federal agents, who are investigating how convicted mass murderer Ishmael Ali LaBeet - en route from the Virgin Islands to a U.S. prison got the gun he used to hijack the jet to Cuba.
Lane Bonner, an FBI spokesman in Washington, said Tuesday that agents wanted to know how LaBeet got his weapon. Late Monday, FAA officials had said the hijacking began after LaBeet overpowered one of three "special" U.S. marshals assigned to guard the prisoner during the flight.
Numerous passengers, however, disputed that account, saying that there was no struggle and that LaBeet appeared to have gotten a gun from somewhere in the plane's bathroom. Once LaBeet got the gun, passengers said, he disarmed the three marshals and commandeered the jet to Havana where he was arrested by Cuban authorities.
The hijacking occurred about 6:30 p.m. Monday when the DC-10 - filled with families returning from St. Croix - was approaching Charleston, S.C., about an hour out of New York.
Golf course murders
LaBeet was convicted of leading a group of five men who murdered eight people - including four vacationing Miami residents - at the Fountain Valley Golf Course on St. Croix in 1972. Authorities were transporting LaBeet from the Virgin Islands, where he was involved in a civil suit, to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City and on to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa.
Some passengers said the gun appeared to have been planted in the bathroom by a contact of LaBeet's. Dozens of FBI agents were on hand early Tuesday to question the captain, crew and guards assigned to transport LaBeet.
"He went into the bathroom and came out with a gun," said one angry middle-aged passenger who refused to give his name. "There was no struggle at all. The guards were not overpowered."
Another passenger, 40-year-old Barbara Boses of Plainview, N.Y., said she saw one of the marshals reach for a gun he had strapped on an ankle.
'Don't be foolish'
"The prisoner said, 'Don't be foolish. Get down on the floor,' " said Boses a Manhattan law firm administrator, and the guard "flattened."
LaBeet took the guns from the marshals, the passengers said, and then ordered the guards to the rear of the plane and had a stewardess announce that the plane was being hijacked to Cuba.
"He definitely appeared to get the gun from somewhere in the bathroom," said 20-year-old Richard Joseph, a Rhode Island College student. "Nobody that I talked to saw or heard any kind of struggle at all."
Dennis Feldman, an FAA spokesman in Washington, said that agency was investigating whether LaBeet was being transported "in accordance with FAA safety regulations and whether the incident indicates a need for additional procedures to assure the safety of passengers and crew."
Present rules, according to Feldman, "include such measures as notifying the crew in advance of the flight, the location of the prisoner on the aircraft and adequate measures to guard the prisoner." Current procedures do not include shackling prisoners.
Calm and courteous
Many of the passengers commended the hijacker, a convict serving eight life terms for the 1972 murders, for his calm and courteous behavior throughout the tense ordeal.
"He was real nice about everything," said Travis Wright, a 17-year-old high school student from Westchester, N.Y. "At one point he knew we must be getting tired of holding our arms over our heads, so he asked a stewardess to announce that it was OK to drop our arms, relax a bit and watch the in-flight movie.
"I was glad he did," Wright said, "because it was a good movie: Star Trek III - The Search for Spock."
The only time the hijacker panicked, Joseph said, was shortly before arriving at Havana's Jose Marti Airport.
"The stewardess asked him if one old lady could go to the bathroom and when he said yes, about 20 stood up and tried to go," Joseph said. "He panicked for a second, but then he relaxed."
'No one panicked'
Wright said he, too, was shocked at how calm everyone remained. "Absolutely no one panicked. I expected at some point someone would scream, but no one ever did," he said. "This guy was walking up and down the aisle with four guns - one in each hand and two stuck in his waistband - but everyone remained calm. The marshals just kind of sat there. Boy, they were big guys. I mean really big dudes. They didn't look too happy."
Another tense moment occurred once the plane landed in Havana, said Wright, who was wearing his purple-and-white high school letter jacket, tennis shoes and a floppy straw hat.
"We saw a bunch of Fidel Castro look-alikes come on the plane and the guy was still in the cockpit with a gun," said Wright. "All of a sudden, one of the stewardesses came running out, telling everyone to get down.
"Everyone did," he said, "but nothing happened."
Passengers said the Cuban guards quietly arrested the hijacker without incident and then interviewed the pilots, using TV cameras to record their statements.
Cuban guards friendly
"The Cuban guards were all very friendly," said 13-year-old Andy Weiner, a Livingston, N.J., resident vacationing in the islands with his family. "They wished each of us a happy new year and then gave us all a pass to shop in the airport.
"I got a couple of nice towels," he said. "Once we got off the plane, it was a lot of fun. A once in a lifetime experience."
Throughout the ordeal, college student Joseph said, there was a lot of grumbling from passengers complaining about missing this party or that party. He wasn't one of them.
"Hey, I mean what's the big deal," said Joseph. "We ended up spending New Year's Eve in Havana - and there's not many people who can say that."