HAVANA (AP) — William Potts has long been beyond the reach of U.S. justice in Havana, where he served time for a hijacking, then settled down with a Cuban woman, started a family and made his livelihood as a farmer.
On Wednesday, nearly three decades after he forced an airliner to bring him to the Communist-run island, he was heading back to a now-unfamiliar homeland and an uncertain legal future.
"I've got kind of mixed emotions, let me say that at least, about touching American soil for the first time in nearly 30 years," Potts said. "So much has changed, and I'm just going to have to wait and see what it looks like when I get there."
Wearing glasses and a white cap, Potts bent his forehead to the ground in prayer and stuffed a large black bag with belongings before traveling to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana before dawn.
He gave his ex-wife, with whom he is still close, a thumbs-up, and walked across the street with American officials who were to escort him on a charter flight to Miami.
Potts, now 56, was a young militant in 1984 when he pulled a gun hidden in a plaster cast and commandeered a commercial flight headed from New Jersey to Florida. He ordered it to Cuba, where he expected authorities to offer him guerrilla training.
Instead, he was convicted of air piracy and jailed for more than 13 years.
Potts said he seeks "closure" by facing the U.S. justice system. He argues that the time he served in Cuba should mitigate further punishment back home, but admitted there's no guarantee.
"My position is I am a free man. I have served my time," Potts said. "But they seem to have another concept. They are going to take control of me. I will be under their authority."
"I hope the American authorities consider that he already served 15 years in prison in Cuba," said Aimee Quesada, his ex-wife. "It was a moment in his youth and he hurt no one. For the welfare of his daughters and his family, I hope he can resolve this problem soon."
U.S. authorities have aggressively prosecuted some returning fugitives, while others saw their sentences reduced significantly for time served elsewhere. U.S. Interests Section, FBI and Cuban officials so far have declined to comment on Potts' case.
After getting out of jail in Cuba, Potts set about making a new life in Cuba, where he has been granted permanent residency. He and Quesada live in a modest Soviet-style apartment block east of Havana.
Even though Potts intends to continue to call Cuba home for the foreseeable future, he decided to return home and take his chances with the legal system. The pending U.S. case against him keeps him from living his life fully, he said.
"It's time it had closure. Why leave it hanging, why leave this gaping uncertainty?" he said. "So I want to resolve that because ... having completed my sentence, I feel like I want to put all that stuff behind me. I don't want that lingering over or impeding anything I might want to do. Once you've paid your debt to society you're entitled to a fresh start."
Associated Press journalists Fernando Gonzalez in Havana and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.
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