Cubana Hijacking: A Tragedy Remembered, An Alleged Hijacker Living Free - NBC 6 South Florida

Cubana Hijacking: A Tragedy Remembered, An Alleged Hijacker Living Free

Victims recall the fateful crash of Cubana flight 495 while a former prosecutor argues the U.S. could press charges -- even 50 years later



    Cubana Hijacking Remembered

    As victims remember the hijacked Cubana plane crash of 1958, a former prosecutor says there's no reason the U.S. shouldn't prosecute -- even 50 years later. (Published Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011)

    The first-ever international hijacking operation originating on U.S. soil departed from Miami International Airport on November 1, 1958.

    Cubana Airlines flight 495 was forced to attempt to land on a small airstrip in eastern Cuba, but plunged into nearby Nipe Bay.

    Locals near the crash site remember the wreckage and the runway being too short for the four-engine prop jet.

    Fourteen people died in the crash, and six survived, including most of the hijackers who fled the crash and joined Fidel Castro’s 26 of July revolutionary movement, according to U.S. State Department documents. .

    Mike Medrano, whose father was the pilot of the plane, said he remembers his mother sobbing and looking at a photo of her dead husband.

    “I will never forget that sight in their bedroom holding a small photograph which I still have, just sobbing standing there sobbing. Everytime I think about that it always hits me,” said Medrano, who was five at the time of the crash.

    He and his sister Patricia Pita remember their father as a loving man who played the piano and was an accomplished aviator. He loved astonomy and devoted to his children.

    "Life changed completely for us. We were just a happy family. He was such a great and wonderful father,” said Pita.

    For years, unknown to family members of the passengers on the plane, one of the alleged hijackers has lived in Hialeah within miles of the victims.

    A property dispute over a house in El Portal exposed 70-year-old Edmundo Ponce de Leon because his sister wanted survivors of the crash to testify to his character.

    The legal action against Ponce de Leon made headlines.

    "I never knew it till the day it was in the paper,” said survivor Osiris Martinez, who lost his wife and children in the crash.

    Two crash survivors and a member of Ponce de Leon’s family identified him as one of the hijackers.

    Ponce de Leon is a U.S. citizen and Air Force veteran. He had said he was on the plane because he was going on vacation, but that doesn’t explain why he remained outside the U.S. until the early 90s.

    In Cuba at the time of the hijacking, Fidel Castro had all but wrapped up his revolution. The hijackers told the terrified passengers they were supporting the Castro 26 of July movement.

    Ponce de Leon’s cousin said he told her he participated.

    "He told them he could...get guns and ammunition to help the cause and they told him the revolution was almost over and told him we don’t need you,” said Solange McCargar.

    McCargar said Ponce de Leon told her the Cuban revolutionary leadership didn’t have a problem with the hijacking.

    "I asked him 'You were not authorized to do it? He said they are OK with it,'" she said.

    Wayne Smith, then attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, was sent to the crash site to oversee American interests.

    "It was accepted as a 26 of July operation, whether in fact it had been that way or not," Smith said.

    Ponce de Leon immediately joined the revolution after the hijacking, said McCargar.

    Documents reveal that right after the crash, the American Civil Aernoautics Authority, the FAA’s predecessor, declined to get involved.

    It was, after all, a Cuban airliner that crashed in Cuba.

    The case hasn’t been prosecuted so far because of the lack of evidence, and also because it was such an old event.

    The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami said in an email statement that the matter is under review. But despite FBI investigations over the years, no charges were ever filed against Ponce de Leon.

    "We are aware of the allegations and continue to review the matter to determine any appropriate action," said Alicia O. Valle, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney.

    NBC Miami found Ponce de Leon, and his wife said that he has terminal cancer.

    “It was 50 years ago,” he said when NBC Miami approached him for comment at his efficiency apartment in Hialeah.

    He refused to say anything else.

    But former federal prosecutor Christopher Bruno said it shouldn’t be the case, and he would like to see the case revived.

    "Just the fact that certain overt acts happened on U.S. soil is enough of a jurisdictional basis to prosecute this case,” Bruno said.

    Bruno said that since the plan was hatched in the U.S. and weapons were loaded onto a plane at the Miami International Airport, and U.S. citizens died, a grand jury should look at the case.

    “Every single overt act taken on U.S. soil constitutes a crime of conspiracy in the United States,” he said.

    Survivor Osiris Martinez also said the alleged hijacker should be prosecuted.

    "Yes, he should be prosecuted by this government. They never did. They never did anything about it,” Martinez said.

    Even Ponce de Leon’s cousin wants to see him behind bars.

    "I can’t see him being free and having all the benefits of being an American citizen when he has done what he did,” said McCargar.