A former member of the Black Panther Party who hijacked an airliner in 1972 has been arrested in a foiled plot to hijack another passenger jet in San Diego with the use of explosives.
Willie Holder, 42 and unemployed, was arrested about two weeks ago in a Golden Hill apartment that he shared with his Yugoslavia-born wife and his brother. Although he was under investigation for planning a hijacking, Holder was instead charged with violating his federal probation. His wife and brother were not charged.
The first judicial hearing in the case was held Tuesday in U.S. District Court. Assistant U.S. Atty. Larry A. Burns said that Holder waived his right to a speedy hearing so his court-appointed attorney, Sylvia Baiz, could check court records from his previous case.
Baiz, who is with Federal Defenders of San Diego, did not return phone calls to her office.
Holder waived extradition to New York, where he was tried in 1987 for the 1972 hijacking of a jetliner from Seattle to Algeria. It will be up to federal prosecutors in New York to decide whether to pursue hijacking charges against him. Now he is charged only with violating his parole by testing positive for alcohol and marijuana and for planning the hijacking.
The current investigation of Holder began last month, when an informant notified agents of the California Bureau of Organized Crime and Criminal Intelligence, or BOCCI, that Holder was planning a hijacking but needed C-4, a plastic explosive, to pull it off. Investigators said Holder was planning to hijack an airliner from Lindbergh Field.
Posing as a gun runner, BOCCI Supervising Agent David Torres went undercover and was introduced to Holder by the informant. In a June 26 meeting at the Brigantine restaurant on Shelter Island, Holder allegedly asked Torres to supply him with C-4, blasting caps and a detonator. Holder also asked for other weapons and armor-piercing ammunition, Torres said.
“He told me that he had hijacked a plane in the past. But he didn’t tell me that he was planning to hijack another plane. We never discussed that,” Torres said.
But the unidentified informant had two meetings with Holder on June 18, during which Holder discussed his plan to hijack a jetliner, according to a search warrant affidavit filed July 1 by the FBI with a U.S. magistrate. The affidavit said Holder claimed to have an unidentified accomplice who would make sure that a ransom was transferred to a bank account.
Torres said Holder told the informant that he planned to ask for “millions of dollars in ransom.” Holder told the informant that he was going to strap the plastic explosives to his body and threaten to blow up himself and the aircraft if the ransom was not delivered, Torres said.
Other law enforcement sources said the former Black Panther Party member was going to stage the hijacking in the guise of a political statement, but his real intention was to get enough money to last him the rest of his life.
Holder and his wife, Violetta Yertha Velkova, who is partly paralyzed, were living off Holder’s Social Security disability checks, authorities said.
Holder said he is a Vietnam combat veteran who was decorated for bravery and is proficient in the use of C-4 explosives, which were commonly used in Vietnam, investigators said. Holder, an Army paratrooper, served with an elite long-range reconnaissance patrol team and as a helicopter door gunner, sources said.
“He’s still living in the 1960s and 1970s. He talks a lot about Vietnam and the radical politics of the 1970s. Vietnam and the 1972 hijacking are constant topics of discussion,” said one law enforcement source.
Law enforcement sources described Holder as “bright, smooth and very confident.” His psychiatric evaluation revealed that he is a paranoid schizophrenic, according to other sources who have reviewed his probation file.
BOCCI agents conducted a surveillance of Holder from June 24 to June 28, the FBI affidavit said. However, investigators later learned that Holder was very efficient at counter-surveillance and had been able to identify four of their surveillance vehicles.
On July 1, five days after their meeting at Shelter Island, Holder told Torres he had obtained another form of explosives in Santa Barbara. But Holder said he still needed firearms and ammunition, Torres said.
Alarmed by Holder’s claim that he was in possession of explosives, authorities decided to arrest him the next day. Investigators arrived at his residence in the afternoon and took him into custody without incident.
“Based on that new information (that Holder might have explosives) and the seriousness of his statements to me and the informant, plus the prior offense, that was our justification for putting this guy under arrest,” Torres said.
He said a search of Holder’s apartment produced no weapons or explosives. Investigators are not sure if Holder actually purchased the explosives or if he has them stashed somewhere, Torres added.
However, investigators recovered an armored vest and a manuscript titled “Terror by Fiat,” which Holder was supposedly writing. The FBI affidavit said that Holder had shown 31 pages of the manuscript to his probation officer, Janice Boone, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
The manuscript recounts the 1972 hijacking and Holder’s activities as a fugitive in Europe before he returned to the United States in 1986, the affidavit said. In a June 26 meeting with the informant that was recorded, Holder bragged that, when he was in Europe, he associated with several radical terrorist organizations, including the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Baader-Meinhoff Gang.
Holder ended up in Europe after the hijacking that he pulled off almost 20 years ago.
On June 2, 1972, Holder and Catherine Marie Kerkow hijacked a Western Airlines jet from Seattle and forced it to fly to Algeria. The pair received a $500,000 ransom for the release of the passengers and crew.
Press reports at the time indicated that he also demanded the release of black activist Angela Davis, who was then on trial for murder, kidnaping and conspiracy in San Jose. Davis was subsequently acquitted.
The ransom money was later returned by the Algerian government, which gave Holder and Kerkow political asylum. They were allowed to join other Black Panther Party members who had been granted asylum in Algeria. It is not known what happened to Kerkow.
Holder then lived in Algeria until 1975, when he moved to France. In 1980, the French government convicted him for the 1972 hijacking and sentenced him to a five-year suspended sentence.
He returned voluntarily to the United States in 1986 and later pleaded guilty in New York to charges of air piracy. However, the FBI affidavit said that Holder was declared mentally incompetent and was not tried until 1987. He received a four-year sentence in federal prison and was paroled to San Diego in August, 1989.