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Calif. Congressman Pushes Cuba To Extradite Man Who Hijacked Plane In 1971


One person closely watching the president's visit to Cuba is Congressman Jerry McNerney. Back in November 1971, at age 21, McNerney was on TWA flight 106 from Albuquerque to Chicago. That plane was hijacked. The three hijackers were on the run, suspected of killing police officer Robert Rosenbloom. And when they took over flight 106, they forced the pilot to take them to Cuba. Two of those hijackers have since died, but one, a man named Charles Hill, is still living there. As we read in the Los Angeles Times, Jerry McNerney is now pushing for Cuba to extradite Hill to finally face justice. I talked to the congressman earlier today. Congressman McNerney, welcome to the program.

JERRY MCNERNEY: Well, thank you for inviting me.

SIEGEL: And first, take us back to that day in November 1971. What do you remember of the hijacking?

MCNERNEY: Well, the first thing was that there had been a high-profile murder of a state trooper just west of Albuquerque maybe three weeks before the hijacking. And it was very big news. These folks were very desperate to leave the country. And I didn't expect, of course, them to hijack the plane I was on. It was an evening flight - or red-eye flight really from Albuquerque to Chicago. And in those days, we didn't have the jet walks. You had to walk on the tarmac and walk up the stairs to the airplane.

SIEGEL: The other fact about those days was there were a lot of airplane hijackings in those days, particularly in 1971.

MCNERNEY: There had been. And that was of course on people's minds. And in fact, my parents dropped me off at the airport. And my mom waved good-bye and said now, don't get hijacked, Jerry. So we walked up the stairs, and I turned around and there was someone with a gun not right behind me but a few people behind me. And then before long, it became obvious that these were the individuals that were responsible for the killing and that they were making an effort to leave the country.

SIEGEL: You mean they actually hijacked the plane while it was still on the ground? This wasn't in midair?

MCNERNEY: That's correct, yeah. They just had stolen a truck and burst through the fence, drove up to the base of the airplane and just walked up the stairs. They finally got everyone in their seats. The captain got on the plane and said please everyone be calm, you know, and nobody will get hurt. People stood up and said well, what are you going to do? And so we got airborne and they said well, the hijackers would like to go someplace in Africa, but we've warned them that the plane wasn't an intercontinental plane. And then about an hour later they said well, we're going to be going to Cuba. And then another hour later, they said well, we're going to drop off in Tampa, Fla., and let everyone off except the crew, which is what happened. We landed peacefully and were allowed to get off the plane. And they took off and went to Cuba.

SIEGEL: Plane goes off to Cuba, the crew then flies back. Last summer, you wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry asking that Charles Hill's extradition be part of diplomatic efforts with Cuba. It's been almost 45 years. It's still important to you?

MCNERNEY: Well, yeah. I mean, these individuals killed a law enforcement officer. They hijacked a plane and put 150 people's lives at risk, including my own. I think the one that's remaining alive should return home and face justice. This is about as serious a set of crimes as you can possibly commit.

SIEGEL: The State Department wrote back to you and said - and I'm quoting now from their letter - "we consistently raise this issue with the Cuban government at every appropriate opportunity." And the letter said that fugitives have been a primary agenda item in diplomacy. Does the State Department's professed interest in this satisfy you?

MCNERNEY: Well, it's nice to hear that they are interested in this, Robert. But I - we need to be more forceful. Charles Hill is not the only fugitive in Cuba that's committed murder or other very serious crimes. So we need to have an understanding with Cuba that our relations are going to depend on including extradition.

SIEGEL: Would anything short of extradition qualify as justice being served in this case?

MCNERNEY: No, I don't think so, Robert. I know that Mr. Hill's lived a good life there. And the family of Officer Rosenbloom suffered the loss of their father and their husband. No, he needs to come back and face justice in this country.

SIEGEL: Congressman Jerry McNerney, Democrat of California, thanks for talking with us.

MCNERNEY: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: We contacted the State Department and the Justice Department for that story and both declined to comment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.