Circling Back to a Bizarre Skyjacking
Updated: Mar 6
In Miami, an FBI agent in swimming trunks carried a $1 million ransom in a heavy suitcase to a position under the open door of the airliner’s fuselage. A rope dropped down, and the suitcase was hauled up. (Photo by Associated Press)
Three men and two women, with three young children in tow, hijacked a Delta Detroit-to-Miami airliner on their way to Algiers to join the Black Panthers, some of whom had found refuge in the aspiring capital of Third World freedom movements.
To calm the 94 passengers and seven crew members, they played the music of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops, reported Aviation Safety Networks and USA Today (July 31, 2021). The two women entertained their children, ages 1, 2, and 3, with coloring books and games.
The three men had disguised themselves: George Wright as a priest with a gun hidden in a hollowed-out Bible; Melvin McNair as a businessman, and George Brown as a disheveled college student, according to USA Today in one of a series of stories about forgotten Black Americans. Jean McNair was Melvin McNair’s wife, and Joyce Tillerson was Wright’s girlfriend.
At Miami, they demanded $1 million to be delivered by someone wearing only swim trunks to prevent concealment of a weapon, according to USA Today. The demands were met, and the hijackers released the passengers unharmed. Then, the DC-8-51 flew to Boston to prepare for the transatlantic flight.
It was July 31, 1972.
Skyjacking was common (one per week, sometimes more than one a day, between 1968 and 1972), according to Aerotime Hub (October 31, 2016). It was not considered a serious threat by airlines or passengers. And it was more of an inconvenience than anything else. It was not until December of 1972 that the Federal Aviation Administration would issue emergency rules that required screening of passengers and baggage.
Where are the Detroit hijackers now?
Three have died: Jean McNair in 2014; Brown in 2015, and Tillerson in 2000.
Wright and Melvin McNair are on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) fugitive list. They face arrest if they return to the United States. Wright, who is now Jose Luis Jorge Santos, lives in Portugal in Lisbon District near Sintra, according to BBC News (September 28, 2011). McNair lives in Caen, Normandy, in France, where he and Jean had stellar and rewarding careers as social workers. The McNairs, Brown and Tillerson had made France their home.
Why is the story of the hijackers important?
Because it could have been the story of most young Black people, including me. I was 17 and in Hempstead, New York, reading The Black Panther newspaper, a weekly with a circulation of 100,000, domestically and internationally, according to Charles E. Jones in the Black Panther Party (Reconsidered) (1998). Published in Oakland, California, the newspaper’s purpose was consciousness-raising.
The skyjacking occurred the summer before my first year at the prestigious Williams College, where I hoped to hone the skills to change the world. The hijackers also planned to change the world. Newspaper stories often described them as Black Panthers or Black Liberation Army members, but they were neither. They also were called militants and radicals, and they were if you mean that they were fighting the traditional definition of themselves as Black and, therefore, worth less than whites.
William May, the captain of Delta Air Lines 841, who is featured in the documentary Melvin & Jean: An American Story (2012), visited the McNairs in France.
“As you age, you can reflect back,” said May, who is white and was 41 when hijacked. “That really wasn’t right, the things that they had to deal with, that we didn’t have to. I’m not sure if I had the same problems they had, I might have done something radical, too. I hope I wouldn’t. Hopefully, I’d be smart enough not to, but I don’t know.”
Detroit was the main character that brought the hijackers together.
“The city had a large Black population, along with a strong base of Black nationalists, who advocated for economic self-sufficiency and racial pride,” according to USA Today.
Detroit was one of 16 American cities that had uprisings in 1967. During the course of five days, the Detroit police and fire departments, Michigan State Police, Michigan National Guard and the U.S. Army were involved in quelling the largest civil disturbance of 20th century America: 43 deaths, hundreds of injuries, nearly 1,700 fires, and more than 7,000 arrests, according to the Detroit Historical Society.
“The insurrection was the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation. For much of the 20th century, the city of Detroit was a booming manufacturing center, attracting workers – both black and white – from Southern states. This diversity aggravated civil strife . . .”
The Detroit chapter of the Black Panther Party formed in 1968 and had a few dozen active members. In 1967, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) instructed its program, COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), to disrupt, discredit and neutralize leaders of civil rights and anti-war groups, according to the Brennan Center for Justice (June 26, 2020). In September 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Black Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, according to National Public Radio (April 15, 2021).
From 1971 to 1974, the Detroit Police Department operated a controversial specialized tactical unit, Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS), that targeted Black men and used undercover surveillance and decoy operations according to Detroit Under Fire: Police Violence, Crime Politics, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Civil Rights Era from the University of Michigan Department of History Labs.
The violence precipitated by STRESS’s proactive policing philosophy was key to the Detroit Police Department’s killing of more civilians per capita than any other large urban department in the United States: 24 men, including three police officers, 22 of them Black, according to Doug Merriman in A History of Violence: The Detroit Police Department, the African American Community and S.T.R.E.S.S. An Army of Occupation or an Army Under Siege (November 17, 2015).
Who were the Detroit hijackers?
They were a complicated group, who shared a house by the Detroit River.
Shortly before the hijacking, George Brown had crossed paths with STRESS.
“Brown was shot by police as he walked home one evening from a movie,” 72-year-old Melvin McNair, told USA Today in July in Caen, Normandy, in France, where he has lived for nearly half a century.
“Detroit police said he had a knife and shot him during an assault. Brown’s French widow, Annie Brown, says her husband was shot six times with ‘dumdum’ bullets’ – designed to expand on impact – and nearly died. A court accepted Brown’s claim he was ambushed by police and threw out the charges,” according to USA Today’s interview with McNair.
“I can’t deny our backs were against the wall,” USA Today quoted McNair. “We felt we were facing death. We had to make a decision.”
Hijacker Melvin McNair lives in Caen, Normandy, in France. (Photo by Francois Decaen)
A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Melvin McNair grew up in a racially segregated society. He attended the historically black Winston-Salem State University, where he met his wife, Jean, on a baseball scholarship. Jean, a bookish and reserved woman with a strong social conscience, introduced him to civil rights protests and other activities. His participation in demonstrations lost him his scholarship, and he dropped out, he said in Melvin & Jean.
McNair was drafted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Berlin, where he became an office logistics clerk. He said that he was passed over for promotions given to undeserving white counterparts. Also, he witnessed cross burnings on military compounds, some of his fellow Black soldiers getting beaten up by white supremacists, and racist heckling on the basketball court and on the street, according to USA Today and BBC News (December 6, 2020). The Army was investigating a report that the Ku Klux Klan had a chapter on a German base.
McNair and many of the 25,000 Black troops in Germany began to grow out their Afros, refuse to stand for the national anthem and, instead of saluting officers, raise their hands in a Black Power fist, reported USA Today. The Army told McNair that he was going to Vietnam.
“At first, McNair sought a legal exit from the Army on the grounds of racism. He enlisted the help of an aunt who worked at the Pentagon and of American Civil Liberties Union lawyers.
“When that failed, he decided to desert.”
He and his pregnant wife moved to Detroit, where Jean had a friend from college. Jean, who had acquired her degree, got a teaching job. McNair trained to be a manager at Gino’s, an Italian chain restaurant.
Both were drawn to the Black Panthers’ legal, medical and social programs. The Free Breakfast for School Children Program, for example, fed thousands of children nationwide, according to the Panthers’ Rise of the Black Panther Party (December 12, 2012) However, they kept their distance because they feared the FBI. The COINTELPRO program sought to instill fear among activists by convincing them that an FBI agent lurked behind every mailbox, according to the Brennan Center for Justice (June 26, 2020).
At Gino’s, McNair worked with George Wright, who introduced him to Brown.
“What the McNairs didn’t know at the time was that Brown had been imprisoned in 1968 for armed robbery,” according to USA Today. “And Wright had been convicted as an accomplice for the 1962 murder of Walter Patterson, who was shot as Wright and three other people robbed a gas station in Wall Township, New Jersey. In 1970, Brown and Wright had escaped together from Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, by hot-wiring a car that belonged to the jail’s warden. The two convicts went underground, eventually surfacing in Detroit.”
What happened to the hijackers in Algeria?
Not what they expected.
“Algerian authorities seized the plane and ransom which they returned to the U.S., but the hijackers were released after a few days,” reported Aviation Safety Networks.
According to a review of Elaine Mokhtefi’s memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital, in The Nation (May 7, 2019), in June 1969, Eldridge Cleaver and his wife, Kathleen Cleaver, were among the first Black Panthers to go to Algiers. Newly independent Algeria supported the Panthers with cash stipends, and travel in and out of the country.
“The Panther’s orientation, at least among those party members who were abroad, became increasingly internationalist, understanding the struggle against racism in America as one part of a broader struggle by colonized people against Western imperial powers,” according to The Nation review.
However, by July 1972, most of the dozen Black Panthers there were packing their bags or already left, according to BBC News (December 6, 2020) Algeria had become less responsive to the requests of the Panthers. Relations between the Algerian and U.S. governments were warming up. Algeria denied asylum to the hijackers.
After 18 months, four of whom left for France and one went to Portugal, reported USA Today.
Hijacker George Wright was a free man in Portugal in 2011. (Photo by Filipa Couto)
After a brief stay in Portugal, George Wright, of Halifax, Virginia, went to Guinea-Bisseau, where he requested political asylum and acquired the name, Jose Luis Jorge Santos. In the 1980s, he was the basketball coach for the Banco National da Guinea team and, later, for Benfica de Bissau, according to Correio da Manha (October 23, 2011).
NBC News (September 29, 2011) reported that Wright, a native of Halifax, Virginia, knew John Blacken, the U.S. Ambassador to the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, and may even have worked on translation projects for the U.S. Embassy. His Portuguese wife, whose father was a military officer, worked as a kindergarten teacher.
After 20 years, Wright and his wife, Maria do Rosario Valente moved to Portugal, where he acquired citizenship through marriage, reported Correio da Manha. The couple had two children. They lived quietly in the village of Almoçageme in the municipality of Sintra. Their neighbors respected them and assumed that Wright was African, not American. In 1999, the couple came to Riverside International Church and, in 2002, were baptized on the beach of Carcavelos.
The 68-year-old man had worked as a house painter, crafts salesman, chicken takeaway restaurant owner and cosmetics salesman, according to Correio da Manha (October 23, 2011). Ironically, one of his jobs included one as “a bartender on the NATO base in Oeiras, a place with high security and where you have to leave your fingerprints in order to enter the service.”
Then, in 2011, after 41 years living as a fugitive, the FBI caught up with Wright. The U.S. authorities had reopened Wright’s case nine years before. Due to telephone calls made to family in the States, the authorities began to pay more attention to Portugal. Through Wright’s fingerprints in his identity card and the assistance of the Judiciary Police, he was traced to his neat, whitewashed home 40 kilometers from Lisbon, reported SIC Noticias.
Following an international arrest warrant, Wright was detained by the Portuguese Judiciary Police on September 11 under house arrest wearing an electronic surveillance bracelet. The U.S. government formally requested Wright’s extradition for him to finish his 15- to 30-year sentence, reported SIC Noticias and CNN (September 28, 2011). He had served seven years, according to Patch: Wall, New Jersey (December 6, 2011). Wright denied killing anyone, according to Correio da Manha.
The Portuguese Court of Appeals refused the extradition request based on Wright’s Portuguese nationality, according to Diario de Noticias (January 20, 2012).
U.S. authorities appealed the decision, according to Publico (November 18, 2011). The Supreme Court of Justice of Portugal rejected the appeal outright on December 22, reported Publico (December 22, 2011).
New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, whose constituent was the slain gas station owner and his daughter, wrote Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho a letter asking for extradition to no avail.
The U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to provide the legal arguments for denial because she said that, in Portugal, extradition cases are conducted in secret, according to Patch: Wall, New Jersey (December 6, 2011). However, Portugal’s procedures for extradition are not secret. They state:
“Portugal does not extradite its nationals.
“Two exceptions are admitted by the Constitution: a) Cooperation within the European Union and under procedures related to the European Arrest Warrant, where nationality is not an obstacle in cases of surrender for criminal proceedings; this condition might be evoked in cases of request for sentence execution provided that Portuguese authorities enforce the foreign criminal conviction; b) In cases where the legal possibility of extradition of nationals is foreseen by an international instrument and where the facts justifying the request are punishable as terrorism or international organized crime.”
R. J. Gallagher, a retired FBI special agent, closed out his career with the Wright case. In his testimony at a congressional hearing on July 11, 2012, he detailed the steps toward the U.S. request for extradition and clarified Portugal’s denial.
The five hijackers had been indicted for air piracy in the United States on August 3, 1972. In March 2010, Portuguese authorities made positive identification of Wright.
“One issue remained unresolved,” said Gallagher. “Portugal saw as barrier to extradition Wright’s exposure to a 25-year sentence of incarceration for an air piracy conviction. They viewed this as the equivalent of a death sentence and, therefore, that would serve as basis for the denial.
Therefore, in May 2011, the U.S. decided to tender the extradition request based solely on Wright’s homicide conviction. Gallagher explained the denial:
“It is my understanding they cited the following in their ruling: One, too much time had passed, and there must be closure to criminal cases. Two, Wright’s integration into Portuguese society demanded that extradition be denied on humanitarian grounds. Both these reasons cited per DOJ (the Department of Justice) are just not recognized as basis for denial of extradition per our treaty with Portugal. And third, the court found that Wright is a Portuguese citizen. This is where the matter now stands.”
Wright is a free man in Portugal.
Things turned out differently for the four hijackers who went to France. They were captured in Paris on May 26, 1976, reported Aviation Safety Networks.
The U.S. government requested extradition, which was refused by the French. Instead, the four were tried for air piracy in France. The trial drew luminaries as spectators, such as writer, Simone de Beauvoir, and, actor, Yves Montand, said Melvin McNair in the documentary, Melvin & Jean: An American Story (2012).
McNair served four years in prison. He was released for good behavior, which included learning French, according to USA Today. Brown served a similar sentence. Jean McNair and Joyce Tillerson were freed right after the trial, so they could be reunited with their children. The case had taken two years to come before the court.
Tillerson worked for the South African Embassy in Paris, according to BBC News (December 6, 2020). She died in 2000. George Brown also remained in Paris and died in 2016.
Melvin, nicknamed “Mr. Baseball” played in French semi-professional leagues, and he volunteered as a trainer with national and Olympic youth teams. He and his wife pursued successful careers in social work and mentored troubled youth in Caen, reported USA Today. Jean pioneered after-school programs in France.
In recognition of their work, the city named a baseball field after them in 2013. The following year, Jean died, and Melvin retired from his profession. However, he maintains a busy schedule of meetings with local officials who seek his advice. He also checks in on former pupils.
About the hijacking, McNair said that he does not regret it, but he would not do it again:
“Sometimes I think it was simply the arrogance of youth. Anger blinds you. . . . Maybe it was a miscalculation, but I have made peace with what I did.”
The hijacked pilot, William May, his daughter and son-in-law visited the McNairs in Caen for Melvin & Jean.
“I remember that smile,” Melvin said as May approached him. All around, there were hugs and kisses. Melvin apologized for the anguish of the hijacking. He noted that they were lucky and privileged to have the unflappable May in the pilot’s seat.
Although May’s plane was hijacked, he seemed not to have lost control. He said he told the hijackers that he was not going to talk with them unless they uncocked the gun held at the head of a stewardess. They obeyed him. He told them that he had only flown domestically and, besides, he did not have enough fuel for a flight to Algeria.
“We’re probably just going to get lost and go down into the ocean. Then, everybody’s going to drown,” he remembered saying.
So, they flew onto Boston, where they refueled and added an international navigator to the crew.
In Caen, May and the McNairs seemed like old friends who had not seen each other in a long time.
In one of the last scenes of Melvin & Jean. Melvin and May are walking along a beach in Normandy.
The pilot jokes: “Do you think we can find our way back to the parking lot?”
“That’s easy,” said Melvin.