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Escaped killer found hiding in plain sight

LISBON -- A convicted American killer who escaped a New Jersey prison and disappeared after a 1972 hijacking lived openly in West Africa under his real name for years and even socialized with U.S. Embassy officials, a former U.S. ambassador said yesterday.

The comments by John Blacken, a retired ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, raised new questions about a decades-long FBI manhunt for George Wright, who managed to elude authorities for 41 years until being arrested Monday in Portugal.

Blacken told The Associated Press he was stunned to hear about Wright's arrest because he knew him and his wife -- who might have even worked on translation projects for the embassy. Blacken had no idea that Wright was a fugitive.

Wright's years on the lam took him across the globe, from New Jersey to Detroit to Algeria to France to Guinea-Bissau and Portugal, at the very least.

When Blacken served as ambassador from 1986 to 1989 in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, Wright had already escaped in New Jersey while serving time for murder and was wanted in the 1972 hijacking by the Black Liberation Army of a U.S. plane to Algeria.

"All this was a big surprise, my goodness, murder and everything else," Blacken said in an telephone interview from Bissau, the capital. "No one imagined him being a murderer. Of course we didn't know him that well. He seemed like an ordinary person and not radical at all."

Cracking the cold caseA fingerprint on Wright's Portuguese ID card was the break that led a fugitive task force to him, according to U.S. authorities. For decades his file was an unsolved "cold case" for U.S. law enforcement.

Michael Ward, head of the FBI in Newark, said it wasn't unusual that Wright could have lived undetected overseas for so long.

"Obviously, communication abilities were much less back in the '70s and the '80s than they are today," Ward said. He said New Jersey's Fugitive Task Force was able to track him down with today's better investigative techniques and improved technology.

Ann Patterson, whose father, Walter, was killed by Wright in a 1962 gas station robbery in New Jersey, was surprised to learn that Wright lived in plain sight and managed to remain undetected in Guinea-Bissau using his real name.

"He just got away with everything. He was very adept at what he did. This is unreal," she said yesterday.

Blacken knew Wright's Portuguese wife, Maria do Rosario Valente, better because she had worked as a freelance Portuguese-English translator, possibly even for the embassy.

Wright is being held in Lisbon, pending extradition hearings.

Eight years into his 15-to-30-year prison term, Wright and three other men escaped from the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, N.J., on Aug. 19, 1970. The FBI said Wright then joined an underground militant group, the Black Liberation Army, and lived in Detroit.

In 1972, Wright -- dressed as a priest and using an alias -- hijacked a Delta flight from Detroit to Miami along with other BLA members, police said. After releasing the plane's 86 other passengers for a $1 million ransom, the hijackers forced the plane to fly to Boston, then to Algeria, where the hijackers sought asylum.

Algeria returned the plane and the money to the United States but allowed the hijackers to stay.

Living a sweet lifeWright and the other hijackers left Algeria in late 1972 or early 1973 and settled in France, where they got jobs and reportedly lived together. Wright left the group, and his associates were tracked down, arrested and convicted in Paris in 1976. The French government refused to extradite them to the United States.

Life was sweet for Wright in the Portuguese hamlet of Almocageme, where neighbors said he lived for at least 20 years with his wife and two children, now in their 20s.

Locals knew him as Jorge Santos, a friendly man from Africa who did odd jobs and spoke fluent Portuguese. Over the years, he worked as a nightclub bouncer, a beach stall salesman and ran a barbecue chicken restaurant.

His wife answered the door Wednesday at their house but would not comment on her husband's arrest.

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