Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Skyjacker says he's in Cuba to stay

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA - When you talk to Charles Hill, you sense that he knows more than what he says about how his time in Cuba will end.

A wanted man who has spent nearly two-thirds of his 59 years on the lam, Hill and two other men skyjacked a plane from Albuquerque, N.M., to Cuba in November 1971. They fled the country after one of them (Hill won't say who pulled the trigger) killed New Mexico state trooper Robert Rosenbloom during a highway confrontation.

In the years since the three fugitives - members of the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group - arrived in Cuba, Ralph Goodwin drowned while trying to save another swimmer and cancer took the life of Michael Finney. Hill is the lone living member of the trio wanted for Rosenbloom's murder - a crime for which he thinks he's done his time.

"I paid my price for that. I paid for that with the 38 years that I've been here in exile," he told me Saturday.

The murder and skyjacking charges he faces won’t be satisfied that easily.
In fact, the FBI and New Mexico prosecutors, no doubt, hope the thawing relationship between the Obama administration and the government of Raul Castro will cause Cuba to ship him back to the United States.

At first, Hill told me he doesn't think that's going to happen. "Cuba is now my home and the Cuban government won't turn its back on me after all these years. I have no worries about that," he said during an interview outside the Hotel Nacional, which was once a favorite haunt of the Cuban elite and American mobsters before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

But Hill has good reason to worry. Late last month, Bisa Williams, the deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, headed a U.S. delegation that was in Cuba for a one-day meeting to discuss re-establishing direct mail service between the two countries. Instead of returning to the U.S. after the talks ended, Williams quietly extended her stay for five days and held unannounced talks with a senior official of Cuba's foreign ministry - the first such high-level talks in seven years.

Despite his denial, Hill knows movement towards normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba doesn't bode well for him and dozens of other American fugitives in this Caribbean Island nation. It'll ratchet up the pressure for his return to the U.S. to face murder and skyjacking charges.

"If it happens, it happens," he said, just moments after assuring me that Cuba won’t return him to the U.S.

"I need someone to write a book about my life,' Hill said.”I need someone to tell my story who understands what could happen back then when a cop stopped a car with three black men wearing Afros.

"I regret that a life was lost, but it had to be that way. He drew his gun and he was going to kill us," he said of the deadly encounter with Rosenbloom. That's his version of what happened, which New Mexico prosecutors would love to challenge in court.

I don't know if they'll ever get that chance, but I think Hill does. I think, in his mind, he's already written the final chapter of his life. I think he's scripted his ending and is prepared for whatever will come.

"I'll be here forever," he said, with a glassy look in his eyes. "This is where I live and this is where I'll die."


John Milton Wesley said...



The headquarters for the Republic of New Afrika was in Jackson, MS my home town and where I worked as a reporter for WLBT-TV, (1971-1973) for the local NBC affiliate. I covered the trial of members of the RNA after a city policeman was killed during an early morning raid involving the FBI and local police. The raid took place following a national meeting the group had held in Milwaukee,WI (I think), and law enforcement knew President Imari Obadele, Secretary of State Wayne James, Chokwe and other RNA officers would be returning to Jackson after the meeting. Following the early morning raid and the killing of the officer all of the occupants of the house were charged with murder, including the women. Murder charges against the females were eventually dropped. Wayne James's wife (who was pregnant at the time) stayed (secretly) in my home during his trial, and the trial of his colleagues who were later convicted and sent to Parchman State Penitentiary in MS with life sentences.

President Obadele was defended by Attys. Fred Banks, and Reuben Anderson, and I last saw Obadele in 1990, or 1991 at a national NAACP convention in Houston.
The rise and fall of RNA is a fascinating story, one that is not only unique because of when it took place (late '60s to early '70s) in "the movement", but also because of where it occurred, (Mississippi of all places) and the organizations unique quest to form a separate nation and secede from the USA with the help of a United Nations charter.

Charles Hill's story is not only compelling because of his escape to Cuba, but because of the similarities between the “soldiers” associated with the “Black Panthers,” and the “Republic of New Afrika.” But then so is how many members of the RNA escaped the barrage of police bullets with the help of a tunnel dug under the house that stretched almost two blocks from their headquarters to Lynch Street allowing members to escape.

It is a story that was very important to me as a reporter when I covered it, and one I hope someday to write about in full.

John Milton Wesley

omoore said...

This is a sad, but poignant story. It was insightful and an easy read. Thank you for always bringing life to the story. I hope you are the one to write this gentleman's book... I am sure you've already thought of that...