MIAMI — An American accused of hijacking a Miami-bound airliner to Cuba almost 30 years ago “described what he did as an act of terrorism” to federal agents who brought him back from Havana earlier this month, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
William Potts Jr., 56, a one-time black militant, also confessed to the act of air piracy verbally and in writing after he was formally arrested by FBI agents at Miami International Airport on Nov. 6, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis told a federal magistrate judge during the defendant’s bond hearing.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman granted the prosecutor’s request that Potts be held before trial because he is both a risk of flight and danger to the community, citing a potentially long prison sentence and the legal “presumption” of detention for such an offense. The magistrate also cited an outstanding New Jersey arrest warrant accusing Potts of threatening a gas station attendant with a knife during a hold-up that took place one day before the 1984 hijacking.
“The facts are the facts,” Goodman told Potts, who was on his best behavior after he protested the proceedings during his first court appearance on Nov. 7.
The former New Jersey resident entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment last week. He is seeking credit for the 13 years he spent in prison in Cuba for the hijacking. If convicted of air piracy in the United States, Potts could receive between 20 years and life in prison.
His defense attorney, Paul Korchin, argued that his client should be allowed a low personal surety bond before trial, saying that his two daughters who once lived with him in Cuba are now residing with the defendant’s mother in Atlanta. Korchin said his client wanted to return to the United States, hoping that he would receive credit for his imprisonment in Cuba and be reunited with his daughters.
“He wants to be in the United States,” Korchin said, adding that his client contacted the media in Cuba to protest that the State Department would not allow him back into his native country. “He has arrived at the place where he wants to be.”
But Medetis, the prosecutor, said the U.S. government did not try to thwart Potts’ return, noting that he only applied for an American passport in Havana during the past year to come back home. Medetis also stressed that her office will pursue the air-piracy charges against Potts, regardless of his imprisonment in Cuba for the same offense and his hope for time served there.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the prosecutor summarized the air-piracy case against Potts, citing details in an FBI affidavit. Potts claimed to have explosives aboard the New York-to-Miami flight on March 27, 1984, demanding its diversion to Havana. Potts described himself then as a black militant who threatened to blow up the Piedmont Airlines jet and kill passengers if it landed in Miami, according to a note he handed to the flight crew. He also demanded $5 million.
An FBI agent, Affell Grier, testified at the hearing that Potts “explained that he committed the crime” and “wrote out a statement” after his recent arrest at MIA.
In interviews in Cuba, Potts said he had hoped to be welcomed on the communist-run island nation as a revolutionary and given guerrilla training. Instead, the Castro government arrested him and tried him for the hijacking. Potts’ commandeering of the airliner came several years after a wave of similar hijackings had largely subsided.
According to the FBI, Potts paid $119 for the ticket he used to hijack the Piedmont flight. An aunt in Paterson, N.J., said she had given him $120 the day before to pay her electric bill and had not seen him since.
At his previous court hearing, Potts said he was a farmer in Cuba who earned 200 Cuban pesos a month, and that he had no other assets. So, the federal public defender’s office was appointed to represent him.
The hijacking case, assigned to U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum in Fort Lauderdale, is set for trial Dec. 16.