NEW YORK – A judge sentenced a man who hijacked a plane from New York to Cuba four decades ago to 15 years in prison Tuesday, citing the fear that must have spread among passengers and the flight crew when he put a knife to the throat of a flight attendant and a gun to her back and then entered the cockpit.
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein announced the sentence for 67-year-old Luis Armando Pena Soltren, who returned to the United States from Cuba in October 2009 to face charges of conspiracy to commit air piracy, interfering with a flight crew and kidnapping. He pleaded guilty in March.
"This is a very serious offense. Sometimes it's important to have a strict sentence," Hellerstein said as he rejected pleas for leniency from a defense lawyer who insisted Pena Soltren only joined the hijacking to get to visit his father in a Cuban hospital and then lived an honorable life afterwards.
"Hijacking is a frightening crime," the judge said. "I tried to imagine how I would feel if someone put a knife to my throat and a gun to my back and I wonder how many nightmares would follow."
Hellerstein said Pena Soltren will not be entitled to parole, although his crime occurred before parole was abolished. Instead, he will be entitled to be released on good behavior after 85 percent of his term is served.
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 when Pena Soltren rose from his seat and attacked the flight attendant before entering the cockpit. No one was hurt.
Speaking through a Spanish translater, Pena Soltren apologized for the hijacking and said he wished for forgiveness from the flight attendant "and all those people who felt threatened by my desperate attack."
"I'd like to express my remorse," he said. As he finished a statement that lasted several minutes, he began to cry and slumped into his seat. On a bench where his wife and daughter watched the proceedings, his daughter dabbed tears from her eyes.
At the end of the proceeding, the judge permitted Pena Soltren to face his wife and daughter and briefly speak with them. Hellerstein has for most of the last decade presided over the bulk of litigation stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in which hijackers took over four planes. The hijackers flew the planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
The 1968 hijacking was carried out when Pena Soltren, a U.S. citizen, and at least two co-defendants brought pistols and large knives aboard in a baby's diaper bag. The pilots were forced to divert Puerto-Rico bound Pan American Flight 281 from Kennedy Airport to Havana.
His lawyer, James Neuman, said Pena Soltren had wanted to come back since at least 1979 because he was remorseful.
Two of the men were arrested in the mid-1970s and pleaded guilty to their roles in the skyjacking. One co-defendant ended up serving 7 years in prison while the other served 4 years.
Another man, who was not on the flight but was described as a leader of the Puerto Rican Movement for Liberation, was indicted in the hijacking. He was found not guilty on all charges.
Neuman argued that Pena Soltren should serve less time than the other two because he had a lesser role.
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