Fugitive hijacker may soon return to U.S.

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Story highlights

  • William Potts hijacked a U.S. airliner in 1984 and forced it to Cuba
  • The former Black Panther spent more than 13 years in Cuban prisons
  • He's been trying to return to the United States for the past year
  • He told CNN he expects to return within a week

Nearly 30 years after hijacking a U.S. airliner to Cuba, fugitive William Potts may soon return to the United States.

Of the several dozen fugitives that U.S. authorities believe are living in Cuba, he is probably the only one fighting to go home.

"Like or lump it, I am an American, I was born there, my family was born and raised there, and that's where I have been wanting to go for over a year," Potts told CNN exclusively, after he met with U.S. diplomats in Havana on Monday.

Potts, 56, said he submitted paperwork during his visit to the United States Interests Section in Cuba for a single-use passport that would allow him to travel back to the United States, where he probably faces arrest for the 1984 hijacking of a passenger plane to the island.

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U.S. State Department officials said they were unable to discuss Potts' case, citing privacy concerns, but they issued a statement that said, "through our missions overseas, U.S. citizens traveling or residing overseas are accorded a full range of passport services."

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At the time of the hijacking, Potts was a Black Panther with dreams of overthrowing the U.S. government. Cuba, he thought, might provide him with military training to carry out his own revolution.

To get to the communist nation, he smuggled a .25-caliber pistol onto a Piedmont Airlines flight scheduled to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to Miami.

After the flight took off, Potts brandished the pistol and told the pilot to fly the plane and 56 people aboard to Havana.

"I had to be forceful with him," Potts remembered. "I tell him, 'If we don't go to Cuba, this plane is going down. We are going to hell or Cuba.' "

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But Potts' dream of being embraced by Cubans as a fellow revolutionary did not pan out.

Cuban authorities told him that he wouldn't receive military training and instead would be put on trial. They offered to send him back to the United States with the hijacked plane, but he chose to stay in Cuba to show he wasn't "a play revolutionary."

After brief court proceedings, his new hosts gave him a lengthy prison sentence.

"I thought I had won the case, and they gave me 15 years," Potts said. "I didn't even know what 15 was in Spanish. And they said 'quince.' I said, what is 'quince'? And my translator said 15 years. And I said, '15 years for who?' And they said, '15 years for you.' "

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Potts served over 13 years in some of Cuba's toughest prisons and said he received regular visits from U.S. diplomats.

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After his release in 1997, Potts had two daughters and said being a father changed his politics.

"I am no longer a revolutionary," he said, "just a father."

Potts still faces a federal indictment in Miami for the hijacking.

In 2009, he wrote President Barack Obama requesting a pardon for the plane hijacking that brought him to Cuba. Hearing nothing back, he then wrote the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami to ask if a plea deal could be worked out to take into account the time he had already served in Cuba.

Potts again heard no reply, but his daughters were given U.S. citizenship and passports, and last year, they left to go live with his family in the state of Georgia.

Now, Potts says he would like to be reunited with his two young daughters. But, unlike other U.S. fugitives in Cuba -- some with million-dollar bounties on their heads -- his attempts to turn himself in have been met with disinterest from the United States.

The U.S. State Department has placed Cuba on the list of countries that support state terrorism, along with Iran and Syria, for providing a haven for fugitives from U.S. and international justice.

"No one's harboring me," Potts told CNN in an interview May. "I am trying to go back."

On Monday, he said his frustration had boiled over and he had planned a hunger strike in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Instead, he met with American diplomats who he said apologized for the delay in issuing his temporary passport.

Potts said he may be back in the United States within a week, where he expects to be spending more time in jail. He is hopeful that the years he served in Cuba's prisons will reduce any sentence he faces back home.

"I am ready to discuss it and debate the issue in a court of law if necessary," he said. "Because I am sure that any American can understand that 15 years in prison in a communist country is 15 years. It's not a Club Med situation."

Homesick American hijacker offers to return from Cuba