MIAMI (AP) — An American who returned from Cuba to face U.S. charges that he hijacked an airliner to Havana decades ago was denied release on bail Tuesday, in part because of an outstanding arrest warrant claiming he committed a New Jersey armed robbery.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis said at a bail hearing that William Potts faces still-active charges that he robbed a gas station attendant at knifepoint in Bergen County, N.J., on March 26, 1984. That's the day before Potts boarded a New York-to-Miami flight and hijacked it to Havana by claiming in a note that he was a black militant called "Lt. Spartacus" who had bombs on board, according to the FBI.
Medetis told U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman that Potts would be arrested by New Jersey authorities if released on bail in the hijacking case. She also contended that Potts, a fugitive for nearly 30 years, could easily flee prosecution and is a danger to the community, based on the robbery charge and the hijacking itself.
"He has on a number of occasions admitted to the offense," Medetis said. "He described what he did as an act of terrorism."
Potts' attorney, Paul Korchin, noted that Potts voluntarily returned to the U.S. to resolve the charges and that his mother and several siblings living in the Atlanta area would co-sign for any bail amount. His two daughters, Korchin said, were permitted to come from Cuba to the U.S. in December 2012 and now live with Potts' mother.
"He has arrived at the place he wants to be," Korchin said.
Goodman, however, sided with the prosecutor against bail, noting that under air piracy laws there is a presumption for a defendant to be kept jailed before trial except under unusual circumstances. Goodman also noted that Potts faces a sentence of 20 years to life, a prime incentive to flee the country.
U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum in Fort Lauderdale has set a Dec. 16 trial date for Potts, although that could be delayed.
Potts, 56, served more than 13 years in a Cuban prison after hijacking the Piedmont Airlines flight. Korchin said he was also held for about two more years in a Cuban immigration facility, finally winning his release in 2000, and that Potts hopes a U.S. judge will give him credit for some or all of that time behind bars.
Medetis said Potts admitted the hijacking in interviews with the FBI and in a written statement after he returned to the U.S. She said there's no requirement for a judge to count Potts' Cuban jail time toward any U.S. sentence.
Goodman agreed, telling Potts that a federal judge "would have the discretion to give some credit, a little bit of credit, all the credit or no credit."
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