NEW YORK — A 67-year-old man on Thursday admitted hijacking a plane four decades ago and forcing it to land in Cuba, telling a judge how he threatened to cut a flight attendant's throat to get access to the cockpit, where another man held a gun to the back of the co-pilot.
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein forced Luis Armando Pena Soltren to reveal the details of the hijacking, highlighting the violence and frightening nature of an encounter that otherwise might be lost in the stilted language of formal criminal charges.
Pena Soltren, a U.S. resident, returned to the United States in October, something his lawyer said he had been seeking to do for decades because he was remorseful. He entered his plea to charges of conspiracy to commit air piracy, interfering with a flight crew and kidnapping in federal court in Manhattan. Sentencing was set for June 29.
Pan American Flight 281, which had 103 passengers and crew, was traveling from New York's Kennedy Airport to Puerto Rico on Nov. 24, 1968.
Pena Soltren, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, at first made it seem that he started the hijacking by holding a knife to the throat of a male flight attendant. A prosecutor later clarified that the flight attendant was a woman.
"Did you put it to the back of the neck or the front of the neck?" the judge asked.
"I believe it was the front," Pena Soltren answered.
"So you were threatening to cut his throat?" Hellerstein said.
"That's right, sir," Pena Soltren answered. "I told him this was an air jacking, and I told him I needed him to open the door to the cabin."
Pena Soltren then explained how he and another hijacker entered the cockpit. He said an accomplice held a gun to the back of the co-pilot as the crew steered the plane to Havana.
An indictment returned in December 1968 charged Pena Soltren and two others with using pistols and large knives to force the pilots to divert the flight.
Two of the men were arrested in the mid-1970s and pleaded guilty to their roles in the skyjacking. Another man who was not on the flight was indicted but was found not guilty on all charges.
At sentencing, Pena Soltren could face life in prison, though a letter from prosecutors estimated that his federal sentencing guideline range was roughly between 22 and 30 years.
Pena Soltren's lawyer, James Neuman, said in an interview that Pena Soltren carried out the hijacking in a desperate bid to get to Cuba to see his father, who was hospitalized. He said the others involved in the attack had motivations related to the movement for the independence of Puerto Rico.
He said Pena Soltren began asking to return to the United States as far back as 1979, but U.S. authorities did not clear the way for him to do so until recently. The requests, he said, were ignored or greeted with indifference until U.S. authorities approached him last year.
Neuman said his client's motivation to return was because "he was sincerely and profoundly remorseful."
He said Pena Soltren had never committed a crime before or after the hijacking, which occurred at a time when they were so common that numerous attacks could occur within a year. The hijackers, Neuman said, managed to sneak a gun on the plane by hiding it in a diaper.
"His wasn't even the only hijacking that day. It was not considered an act of terrorism like it is today," Neuman said.
The judge acknowledged the changes in the legal system, saying Pena Soltren will be eligible for parole, which was abolished two decades ago.
Pena Soltren, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and has a wife and four grown children, remains held without bail. His wife, who lives in Florida, was not in court Thursday. Neuman said he advised her to stay away to protect her privacy.
Neuman said Soltren worked in the fields in agriculture during his years in Cuba.
Neuman said he will argue that his client should receive less time in prison than his co-defendants because he was not the organizer or leader and because of his age. He said the pair who pleaded guilty received 12 years and 15 years in prison. The man sentenced to 12 years was paroled after serving about a third of that sentence, the lawyer said.