Thursday, March 18, 2010

US citizen pleads guilty in 1968 air hijacking

Posted on Thursday, 03.18.10
US citizen pleads guilty in 1968 air hijacking
Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK -- A 67-year-old man on Thursday admitted hijacking a plane
four decades ago and forcing it to land in Cuba, telling a judge how he
threatened to cut a flight attendant's throat to get access to the
cockpit, where another man held a gun to the back of the co-pilot.

U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein forced Luis Armando Pena
Soltren to reveal the details of the hijacking, highlighting the
violence and frightening nature of an encounter that otherwise might be
lost in the stilted language of formal criminal charges.

Pena Soltren, a U.S. resident, returned to the United States in October,
something his lawyer said he had been seeking to do for decades because
he was remorseful. He entered his plea to charges of conspiracy to
commit air piracy, interfering with a flight crew and kidnapping in
federal court in Manhattan. Sentencing was set for June 29.

Pan American Flight 281, which had 103 passengers and crew, was
traveling from New York's Kennedy Airport to Puerto Rico on Nov. 24, 1968.

Pena Soltren, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, at first made it
seem that he started the hijacking by holding a knife to the throat of a
male flight attendant. A prosecutor later clarified that the flight
attendant was a woman.

"Did you put it to the back of the neck or the front of the neck?" the
judge asked.

"I believe it was the front," Pena Soltren answered.

"So you were threatening to cut his throat?" Hellerstein said.

"That's right, sir," Pena Soltren answered. "I told him this was an air
jacking, and I told him I needed him to open the door to the cabin."

Pena Soltren then explained how he and another hijacker entered the
cockpit. He said an accomplice held a gun to the back of the co-pilot as
the crew steered the plane to Havana.

An indictment returned in December 1968 charged Pena Soltren and two
others with using pistols and large knives to force the pilots to divert
the flight.

Two of the men were arrested in the mid-1970s and pleaded guilty to
their roles in the skyjacking. Another man who was not on the flight was
indicted but was found not guilty on all charges.

At sentencing, Pena Soltren could face life in prison, though a letter
from prosecutors estimated that his federal sentencing guideline range
was roughly between 22 and 30 years.

Pena Soltren's lawyer, James Neuman, said in an interview that Pena
Soltren carried out the hijacking in a desperate bid to get to Cuba to
see his father, who was hospitalized. He said the others involved in the
attack had motivations related to the movement for the independence of
Puerto Rico.

He said Pena Soltren began asking to return to the United States as far
back as 1979, but U.S. authorities did not clear the way for him to do
so until recently. The requests, he said, were ignored or greeted with
indifference until U.S. authorities approached him last year.

Neuman said his client's motivation to return was because "he was
sincerely and profoundly remorseful."

He said Pena Soltren had never committed a crime before or after the
hijacking, which occurred at a time when they were so common that
numerous attacks could occur within a year. The hijackers, Neuman said,
managed to sneak a gun on the plane by hiding it in a diaper.

"His wasn't even the only hijacking that day. It was not considered an
act of terrorism like it is today," Neuman said.

The judge acknowledged the changes in the legal system, saying Pena
Soltren will be eligible for parole, which was abolished two decades ago.

Pena Soltren, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and has a wife and
four grown children, remains held without bail. His wife, who lives in
Florida, was not in court Thursday. Neuman said he advised her to stay
away to protect her privacy.

Neuman said Soltren worked in the fields in agriculture during his years
in Cuba.

Neuman said he will argue that his client should receive less time in
prison than his co-defendants because he was not the organizer or leader
and because of his age. He said the pair who pleaded guilty received 12
years and 15 years in prison. The man sentenced to 12 years was paroled
after serving about a third of that sentence, the lawyer said.

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