Fugitive Returns From Cuba, Pleads Guilty in 1968 Hijacking

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A man who took part in a decades-old airplane hijacking, and who has been living as a fugitive in Cuba ever since, has returned to the United States to plead guilty in the matter.

Luis Armando Pena Soltren is a U.S. resident who was indicted in December 1968 on charges related to the skyjacking of Pan American Flight 281, which he allegedly committed in order to gain passage to Cuba, where his father was hospitalized. Three others involved in the incident were motivated by political reasons related to the independence of Puerto Rico, which was the plane’s destination. It had originated in New York.

Pena Soltren and two other men forced the pilot to divert the plane, which carried 103 passengers and crew, by first threatening to cut a flight attendant’s throat and then gaining access to the cockpit. They also allegedly brandished pistols and held the copilot at gunpoint. They had used a diaper to conceal the gun when boarding the plane.

The two onboard accomplices were arrested in the mid-1970s and pleaded not guilty, receiving 12 and 15 years in prison, respectively. The man given the lesser sentence received parole after about four years. A third man, who was not aboard the Pan Am flight, was also indicted and found not guilty on all charges.

Pena Soltren remained a fugitive in Cuba, where he was protected from prosecution. According to his lawyer, he wanted to return to the United States as early as 1979, but United States authorities either ignored or dismissed his requests until last year. He returned to the country in October.

Pena Soltren, his attorney also says, is “sincerely and profoundly remorseful.” The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, ordered Pena Soltren to describe details of the attack, in order to emphasize the violence that occurred that day.

The 67-year-old Pena Soltren is charged with conspiracy to commit air piracy, interfering with a flight crew and kidnapping. He entered a plea of guilty in federal court in Manhattan and has been given a sentencing date of June 29. Although he is eligible to receive a life sentence, prosecutors have indicated that the probable sentence would be closer to between 22 and 30 years.

At the time, hijackings were much more common, with several such attacks occurring in the skyways each year. In fact, the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 281 was not the only one that occurred that day, November 24, 1968. Today, however, the actions of Pena Soltren and the other men would be considered an act of terrorism.

 

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