The FBI agents wore swimsuits — the better to ensure they were unarmed as they delivered $1 million in cash to the hijackers. The criminals wore beatific looks, traveled with young children and were "polite as possible," a passenger on the ill-fated Delta flight recalled at the time.
For one man, it was the perfect crime — for nearly 40 years.
But on Tuesday, the FBI said it had caught up with the last hijacker, a convicted killer named George Wright who had escaped from prison in 1970 and resurfaced two years later when he joined members of a radical black nationalist group in forcing the jet to fly to Algeria.
Wright, now 68, was picked up outside his home in Portugal as he headed to a neighborhood cafe, said Michael Schroeder, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service in New Jersey.
"Can you imagine?" Schroeder said, envisioning Wright's surprise when Portuguese police, who had Wright under surveillance and were working in collaboration with U.S. officials, captured the fugitive.
Officials planned to request his extradition to New Jersey to finish serving his sentence of 15 to 30 years for shooting to death a gas station employee during a robbery the day after Thanksgiving in 1962. It was unclear whether Wright could also face trial for the hijacking, which made headlines with its radical perpetrators, record-setting ransom and wild costumes. In addition to the FBI agents in swimsuits, news reports at the time said that one of the hijackers — alleged to be Wright — wore priestly robes and hid his gun in a hollowed-out Bible.
"It read like a Hollywood script," Schroeder said of the case, which had gone cold until 2002, when he said the marshals service created regional fugitive task forces throughout the country. Wright's case, with its dramatic flair and heroic victim — the man killed at the gas station was a 42-year-old decorated World War II veteran named Walter Patterson — quickly became a priority.
Witnesses and relatives of Patterson were re-interviewed. Old reports were scoured. Age-enhanced sketches and busts were created to show how Wright might look today.
"Our guys really blew the dust off this case," Schroeder said. "The key was working every lead."
An address in Portugal was one such lead, and it paid off Monday when Wright was arrested without incident.
It marked the apparent end of a life on the lam whose chapters hark back to an era when hijackings were a common tool of militants, when it was possible to board a plane without being patted down or putting your carry-on through X-ray machines, and when $1 million was enough to make five hijackers happy.
In July 1972, when the three men and two women of the Black Liberation Army commandeered the flight from Detroit to Miami, $1 million was the most ever paid for the release of airplane hostages. The $50 and $100 bills were stuffed into a briefcase, which was tied to the end of a rope dangling out the jet window at the Miami airport. After it was hoisted inside and all of the approximately 90 passengers were freed, the Delta DC-8 made its way to Algeria.
Algerian officials seized the plane and the money and returned them to the United States, but the hijackers were let go. Several years later, four were captured in France, but the fifth — who had used the name Larry Burgess but whom FBI agents at the time identified as George Wright — remained missing.
The FBI said Wright had joined up with the Black Liberation Army after fleeing prison and moving to Detroit. In subsequent years, the BLA would be accused in a number of violent crimes and sometimes worked with members of the Weather Underground, another radical group.
Members of the two groups were convicted in the 1981 holdup of a Brink's armored truck, in which $1.6 million was stolen and two police officers and a security guard were shot dead.
News reports from 1972 said Wright and several other BLA members had lived together in Detroit and often discussed going to Algeria, where they thought the socialist government would welcome them. They said the reason for the hijacking was to flee "decadent" America, the pilot of the seized airline, William H. May, said at the time.
When Algeria seized the ransom, the group was indignant. "We are shocked and bewildered to be branded as criminals for our revolutionary activities," it said in a statement.
Despite the group's revolutionary rhetoric and record of violence, the hijackers were not accused of abusing the passengers or crew members. However, they did insist that the FBI agents who delivered the cash wear either swimsuits or underwear, to be sure they did not carry weapons.
"There were no threats to any of the passengers, and they were polite as possible," said one of the passengers interviewed after the hijacking, George Coppal of Detroit.
After U.S. officials got a tip that Wright might be in Portugal, authorities in that country were notified. Fingerprints submitted by Wright to get a national identity card there matched those on file with the FBI, officials said. Schroeder said relatives of Patterson had been notified of Wright's capture and were "ecstatic."
"The crime left two young girls without a father," said Gary Lanigan, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections. "Despite the passage of time, justice has been served, and George Wright will pay for his crime."
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.