American gets 20 years in prison, parole eligibility for hijacking jetliner to Cuba years ago

Curt Anderson / The Associated Press
July 17, 2014 11:59 AM

MIAMI - An American who returned from Cuba decades after hijacking a jetliner to the communist island was sentenced Thursday to 20 years in U.S. prison but will be eligible for early release on parole, an acknowledgement by prosecutors of the years he spent behind bars in Cuba.

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore imposed the sentenced Thursday on William Potts Jr., 57, for the 1984 hijacking of the Piedmont Airlines flight en route from New York to Miami. Potts pleaded guilty to a kidnapping charge, which was substituted by prosecutors for a previous air piracy charge that would have required Potts to serve a minimum of 20 years.

This way, Potts should get out on parole after serving almost seven years, or one-third of the overall sentence. Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis said that was the government's way of giving Potts credit for 13 years he served in Cuba — the Combinado del Este Prison near Havana that Potts' lawyer, Robert Berube, described as a "hellhole."

"He did an unbelievable amount of time in a very bad place," Berube said.

Potts apologized in court and said he is no longer the self-described angry black militant, calling himself "Lt. Spartacus," who claimed in a note to a flight attendant that he planned to blow up the flight unless it was diverted to Cuba. Potts returned to the U.S. last year hoping to resolve the case so he could spend time with his two children, who moved from Cuba to this country earlier.

"I changed a long time ago, not just because I'm here before you," Potts told the judge. "I promise you'll never regret this if you give me a chance."

Moore, who could have put Potts behind bars for life, said prosecutors made a major concession by filing the reduced charge to give Potts a relatively light sentence.

"This is a changed defendant and a remorseful defendant," Moore said.

Parole has been abolished in the federal system, but it still applies for Potts because his crime was committed so long ago.

Potts was arrested by Cuban authorities as soon as the Piedmont Airlines jetliner landed in Cuba in March 1984. He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars, ultimately serving 13 years before his release.

In previous interviews, Potts said he thought he'd be welcomed as a hero and given training as a guerrilla. After his release, he lived quietly east of Havana until last year when he decided to return to the U.S. to resolve the charges here.

"I hoped that we could work this out. That's why I came back of my own accord," Potts said in court. "Your honour, I didn't get away with anything."

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Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt


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