By DeWayne Wickham
The excited voice on my answering machine was that of a woman who had read my recent column about Charles Hill, an American who skyjacked a plane to Cuba 38 years ago.
Hill and two other black revolutionaries were driving from California to Mississippi with a trunk full of high-powered weapons and dynamite the night of Nov. 8, 1971 when they were stopped outside Albuquerque, N.M. by New Mexico state trooper Robert Rosenbloom. In the ensuing confrontation, the trooper was shot dead.
For nearly four decades, there was no information on which of the three men — Hill, Ralph Goodwin or Michael Finney — had fired the fatal shot. If the cops had an idea, they didn’t say. And from their self-imposed exile in Cuba, the three fugitives revealed little about the fatal confrontation.
But the 66-year-old former flight attendant who left the message on my phone believes she knows.
Elizabeth Walthall was working TWA Flight 106 the day the three men, members of the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group, stormed aboard the jet as it sat on the tarmac at Albuquerque airport.
They demanded to be taken to Africa, but the plane wasn’t equipped for a transatlantic flight, so they settled for Cuba, she said in a telephone interview from her home in Pinehurst, N.C.
Walthall said the skyjacking occurred the day before Thanksgiving. The plane was scheduled to fly to Philadelphia, where it was supposed to arrive in time for her to have dinner the next day in her hometown of Camden, N.J.
When the three men came aboard the plane, Walthall said, Hill brandished a knife, Goodwin carried a briefcase and “Finney had the gun.” It was that gun, and what Finney said he’d done with it, that convinced her he killed Rosenbloom.
“I’ve already killed somebody ... I didn’t like it, but I could do it again,” she said Finney told her at one point during the flight when he tried to silence her nonstop chatter.
At another point during the flight, Walthall said Goodwin, who seemed very remorseful, told her of Rosenbloom’s death that Finney “got crazy and he shot him and killed him.”
Why did Walthall want me to know this? Because I’d written that improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba could prompt Cuba to send Hill back to the U.S. to be tried for skyjacking and murder. Walthall wants potential jurors to know Hill wasn’t the triggerman.
“I think I know enough that he didn’t commit that murder that it would be criminal of me not to say so,” she told me. “I’m in favor of capital punishment ... but I don’t believe in punishing someone for a murder they didn’t commit.”
When it comes to the death penalty, the passage of time probably will be a greater help to Hill — if he’s ever tried here — than any testimony Walthall might offer. Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill that abolished New Mexico’s death penalty.
But her testimony might help Hill , 59, get a lesser sentence than the life without parole that Richardson said will now be given to “the worst criminals.” With diplomatic contacts between the United States and Cuba on the rise, Hill could soon end up in an U.S. courtroom, where he will need a jury to hear what Walthall has to say about who killed Rosenbloom if he expects to ever see more than the inside of an American prison cell.