Passengers' tackle foils knife-wielding skyjacker
By HELGA SILVA
And ARNOLD MARKOWITZ
Herald Staff Writers
Two passengers on a Tampa-Miami flight Thursday grabbed a hijacker, a third slugged him and other passengers piled on, averting what was about to become the ninth successful hijacking in eleven weeks.
After subduing the air pirate, the passengers tied his hands behind his back with a belt and buckled him into a seat with two seatbelts.
"I just didn't want to go to Cuba," said Dewey Parker, one of two passengers who started the counterattack.
"He [the hijacker] wasn't too big of a guy. I figured we could take him," added Parker, who said he had extensive training in martial arts.
The plane was diverted eight minutes after it took off form Tampa airport shortly around 1:52 p.m., accoring to the FBI. Passengers grabbed the hijacker less than 20 minutes before expecting to land in Havana.
The crew of Northwest Airlines' flight 714 turned around the Boeing 727 with 90 passengers and landed in Miami shortly before 3 p.m.
The FBI identified the hijacker from a Cuban passport in his luggage as Rodolfo Bueno Cruz, 42, of Tampa, a former Cuban political prisoner.
FBI agents also said Bueno underwent a body and baggage search before boarding the plane in Tampa because he fit the profile of a would-be air pirate. FAA officials said they didn't know how they had missed the knife he brandished during the hijacking.
Bueno has a police record in Tampa, where the Tampa Tribune reported he has been arrested twice on charges of raping his retarded daughter. She is 16.
According to the FBI, the 116-pound Bueno arrived in the United States in April 1980, but it was unclear whether he entered via the Mariel boatlift or on a political prisoner flight program.
The accused hijacker, whose occupation in Cuba was listed as a night watchman, lived in the Hyde Park section of Tampa.
"He's being interrogated at our FBI headquarters. After he is charged with air piracy, he will be lodged at the North Dade Detention Center," said FBI agent Jim Freeman. The agents said they did not know why Bueno hijacked the plane.
A hearing in Miami federal court is scheduled today. He faces 20 years in jail if convicted.
Bueno's attempt was thwarted when he was grabbed by passengers Blake Bell, 29, a bed sheet salesman who recently moved to Miami from South Carolina, and Parker, 45, vice president of a cargo ship company and a Miami resident.
Then Duke Rigdon, an Eastern Airlines flight coordinator on his way to Miami, jumped from behind and punched Bueno four or five times in the head and face.
Seconds later at least three other passengers pounced on Bueno. Two took off their belts and used them to bind his hands and feet; next they immobilized him by strapping him into a seat with two seatbelts.
Passengers and FBI officials gave this account of the incident:
Bueno, described as short, darkhaired and slim, built like a jockey and dressed in blue jeans, asked a stewardess for a drink. As she brought it, he grabbed her arm and threatened her with a hunting knife.
He pulled her onto a middle seat in the front of the plane, Bell said, and told her in English: "Sit very still."
He said that he wanted to go to Cuba and that the plane should taxi up to Gate 6 in Jose Marti International Airport.
"The stewardess tried to dissuade him, but he insisted," said Bell.
Bell said Bueno asked the hostage stewardess to call another flight attendant. She did. The second flight attendant relayed the message to the captain: Bueno wanted to go to Cuba.
Once the plane was on its way to Havana, the stewardess tried to persuade Bueno to let her get up and go on with her job.
"He told her, 'You don't understand. You are my insurance policy ,'" Bell said. "At one point he told her: 'When we land in Cuba, I'll give you the knife as a souvenir.'"
After the captain announced to the passengers that the plane had been hijacked and was on its way to Cuba, Parker, who was sitting across the aisle from the hijacker, said he started to make eye contact with Bell.
Parker said he glanced at Bell, who was sitting next to the stewardess, a seat away from the hijacker. He quietly motioned with his hands to show how he wanted Bell to grab Bueno.
There was a break in the tension, The hijacker asked for a drink, put his knife down and gestured with his left as he talked.
"We were about 100 miles from Havana and I figured this had gone on long enough," said Parker.
He gestured toward Bell three times. Then the two went for Bueno.
Parker said he reached across the aisle and seized Bueno's left arm. Bell, a seat away, grabbed his right arm.
Rigdon, an Eastern Airlines flight steward who was a passenger in the seat behind the hijacker, reached over the seat, grabbed him by the hair and slugged him several times in the face and head.
"I was looking at the situation," said Rigdon. "I wanted to be clear we didn't jeopardize anyone."
"I came over the back of the seat and punched him four or five times," he added.
Then other passengers fell upon the air pirate. They wrestled him into an empty seat in the front section of the plane, removed his shirt and tied his hands behind his back and buckled him in with two seatbelts.
Elsa Rodriguez, returning to Miami from Detroit with her elderly mother, said she was "very nervous" during the drama.
"We could see Cuba when it happened," she said. "You worry what can happen to you there."
Jose Toral a Panamanian, said he held Bueno by one leg as his fellow passengers subdued him.
Bueno was arrested on Sept. 6, 1980, for two of the alleged attacks on his daughter - once in July or August that year and the other on Aug. 24. He was arrested again for rape that November, but it was not clear Thursday afternoon whether it concerned the same incidents or another.
According to the State Attorney's Office in Tampa, none of the rape charges in Tampa was prosecuted because the girl was not competent to testify.
Bueno once spent five days in jail for carrying a concealed weapon, a sheathed knife strapped to his ankle.
Herald staff writers Gelareh Asayesh and Jay Ducassi contributed to