March 18th, 2010
05:36 PM ET

Participant in 1968 Pan Am hijacking pleads guilty

A man who played a role in the 1968 hijacking of a Pan Am flight from New York to Puerto Rico pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court, the U.S. attorney's office.

Luis Armando Pena Soltren, along with Jose Rafael Rios Cruz and Miguel Castro, boarded Pan American Flight 281 on November 24, 1968, bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Once the airplane was in air, they forced their way into the cabin, armed with pistols and knives, and ordered the crew to land in Havana, Cuba.

Soltren, a U.S. citizen who lived in Cuba for almost 41 years, voluntarily returned to the United States in October 2009 and surrendered to federal authorities at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport - the same airport from which Pan Am Flight 281 took off more than 40 years ago.

According to a written statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, Soltren, 67, pleaded guilty to several charges, including conspiracy to commit air piracy, interfering with flight crew members and kidnapping.

"This guilty plea affirms that the pursuit of justice is tempered neither by distance nor the passage of time," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. "This case is another example of our commitment to work with our partners at the FBI, the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, and the Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, to bring criminals to justice wherever they may hide out and for however long."

Soltren's co-conspirators - Cruz, now 68, and Castro, now 79 - were sentenced in the 1970s after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in New York. They received 15-year and 12-year sentences respectively, a Justice Department news release said. A third co-conspirator, Alejandro Figueroa, was acquitted in 1969 after a bench trial, it said.

Speaking to CNN, Soltren's attorney, James Neuman, offered some insight into what prompted his client to hijack the plane.

"He received word that his father, who was living in Cuba, was in the hospital and in poor condition," Neuman said. "As a U.S. citizen, it would be nearly impossible for him to travel legally to Cuba, and this seemed to be his motivation."

Neuman stated that Soltren "has been trying to come back to the country and face these charges for decades - as far back as 1979 - but it appears that both governments ignored his requests until 2009."

He added, "His pleading guilty represents the ultimate remorse and faith in the U.S. justice system."

According the U.S. attorney's office, Soltren is scheduled to be sentenced on June 29 and faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

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