He Was America’s Most Elusive Fugitive For 40 Years. Then Police Found His Prints On An ID Card

In a quaint Portuguese village by the sea, an elderly man is living out his twilight years. Then, one September morning, he walks from a café straight into the arms of the waiting police. His time on the run has finally come to an end, it seems – even though it has taken law enforcement more than 40 years to find him.

That man was George Wright, and prior to his capture he had led quite the eventful life. It had also been an existence tinged with hardship, though – not least during Wright’s childhood. He and his sister Edwina had been brought up in Halifax, a rural area of Virginia close to the border with North Carolina. When the pair had still been very young, however, their alcoholic father abandoned them. Then, a few years later, their mother passed away.

Despite that tough start to life, though, Wright grew into an excellent student; he even found himself enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. In the end, however, he dropped out of the college after just a year, feeling unsure about his direction in life. Then, eventually, Wright chose instead to move to New Jersey, where he started afresh.

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And, at first, things in New Jersey seemed to be going well. Wright had got a job in a kitchen, found a room to rent and even met a girl. Then, one day, his wallet was stolen, and he found himself unable to afford the bus fare to work. It was this seemingly minor incident, moreover, that would apparently push Wright towards a life of crime.

Indeed, rather than trying to find more money through legitimate channels, Wright went on to acquire it through illicit means. On November 23, 1962, Wright, his acquaintance Walter McGhee and two other accomplices successfully robbed a local motel, making off with $200 in cash. Then they set their sights on a gas station in Wall, New Jersey, roughly 22 miles away from the scene of their first crime.

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By the time the gang got there, moreover, it was almost 9:30 p.m., and the station was being presided over by Walter Patterson. The dad of two teenage daughters had taken over the shift from his brother Harry Patterson Jr., enabling Harry to spend some more time with his family. And, as it turned out, that decision had sealed Walter’s fate.

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Outside, meanwhile, Wright and McGhee pulled stockings over their heads and picked up their weapons. They then stormed through the door to the gas station – but they were met with resistance. As Patterson attempted to fight off the robbers, however, McGhee fired his Winchester rifle. The shot hit the valiant father.

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Patterson crumpled to the ground, and Wright and McGhee subsequently fled the scene with just $70 in cash. But rather than dwell on their crime, they instead headed to a local inn, where Wright played games and dined on cheeseburgers. Then, only two days after the shooting, Walter Patterson tragically succumbed to his injuries and passed away.

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Patterson’s death now meant that Wright was wanted for murder – a charge for which he was arrested at his home. And when Wright’s day in court came, he entered a plea of no defense and was subsequently sentenced to between 15 and 30 years behind bars.

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The convicted felon then spent four years in a maximum-security prison before becoming eligible for parole. Wright was denied his first chance at freedom, however. But just as he was losing hope of ever getting out before his sentence ended, he found himself transferred to Leesburg State Prison, a far less secure facility. And with the help of three other inmates, he began plotting his escape.

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And, as it happened, the four men’s retreat from Leesburg State was a relatively simple one. In fact, they just walked out of the prison; the institution didn’t even have a fence around its outside. Then one of the group hot-wired a nearby car to carry the fugitives away into the night. They traveled all the way to Atlantic City, where Wright and George Brown, a fellow escapee, then hopped on a bus to New York City.

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Wright and Brown quickly eschewed the Big Apple, however, and fled instead to Detroit, Michigan. It was there, moreover, that they became drawn to the Black Panther Party. At the time, racial prejudice was rife across the United States, and the Panthers’ campaigning against police brutality struck a chord within the wanted men.

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Then Wright and Brown were reminded that Eldridge Cleaver, the leader of the Black Panthers, had gone into exile in Algeria. And, in time, it was clear to the men that they needed to flee to the North African country, too. So, along with three sympathetic accomplices, they decided to hijack a plane.

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That hijack took place on July 31, 1972, after Wright and the others had boarded a Delta Air Lines flight en route to Miami. Craftily, Wright had hidden a gun inside a copy of the Bible, and around one hour before the plane was due to land, he revealed his weapon to a flight attendant and asked to be escorted to the cockpit.

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And once there, Wright told the pilot of their demands – $1 million and a direct flight to Algeria. Rather astonishingly, though, Wright and his accomplices actually got what they wanted. After landing at Miami, the plane was met by FBI agents who delivered the money in return for the passengers’ release. Then a navigator was taken on board, and the aircraft continued to Algeria.

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Upon landing in Africa, however, the government immediately seized the hijackers’ money. And although Wright and his companions were allowed to join Cleaver in his mansion, the group soon became disillusioned with the Panthers’ hedonistic ways. So, they decided to move on and ended up in Paris, where Wright lived under a false name.

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And given time to ponder their situation, Wright decided to break away from the group. As a consequence, by the time that the authorities caught up with them in May 1976, the man who some had claimed had been the ringleader of the hijack had disappeared. Instead, Wright found his way to Guinea-Bissau in Africa, where he married a Portuguese woman and had two children.

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It was in Guinea-Bissau, moreover, that Wright became a new man. He began teaching basketball to the local youth, for instance, and also worked to create sustainable jobs within poor communities. Then, after 13 years in West Africa, he moved his family to Casas Novas, a village in Portugal. And in the European country – and after 41 years as a fugitive – Wright was finally caught.

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It had been back in the U.S that Wright had been tracked down, however. The FBI had reopened Wright’s cold case, and after having scanned a list of phone calls made by the fugitive’s sister, the agency was able to narrow the search to Portugal. Then the authorities got a lucky break: a fingerprint of Wright’s proved identical to one in a Portuguese database. And on September 26, 2011, a group of Portuguese policemen located Wright and subsequently took him into custody, where he admitted his checkered past.

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However, the FBI was out of luck. By that time, Wright, who had taken the name Jorge Santos, had been living in Portugal for so long that he was considered Portuguese. That meant that he was a citizen of a country where the statute of limitations for his crimes had long since passed. And less than two months after Wright’s arrest, a panel of three judges duly confirmed Wright’s status – with the request to extradite him to the United States therefore refused as a consequence. Today, then, Wright is living out his days in peace – an unpredictable ending to a rather unconventional life.

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