His notorious past was rapidly closing in, Edmundo “Freddy” Ponce de Leon was about to cheat the scales of justice. Yet, America’s first accused international hijacker got one more chance to tell the truth.
On Nov. 1, 1958 Ponce de Leon and four other supporters of Fidel Castro’s revolution hijacked Cubana Airlines Flight 495 over the Florida Keys. They brandished their weapons, and ordered the Vickers Viscount prop jet to land in eastern Cuba. But the airplane crashed, killing 14 people. Six people survived including Ponce de Leon, who is the accused ringleader.
For survivors and family members of those killed, the 50th anniversary memorial Mass for the victims carried a sense of frustration. They believe one of the hijackers was living in Miami Shores.
“The evidence we collected certainly pointed to his involvement and we were in the process in seeking justice,” said FBI spokesman Mike Leverock.
In October 2011, NBC 6 aired a two-part series about the hijacking, in which Ponce de Leon was confronted. At the same time, the FBI, armed with new evidence and investigative tools, pursued the then-53-year-old case. They also questioned Ponce de Leon.
“Our agents took this extremely seriously. Let’s not forget how many lives were lost that fateful night,” Leverock said. “It was truly a shock to everybody how it ended.”
It ended in death. Riddled with cancer, Ponce de Leon died the day the NBC 6 story aired. The case was closed, but there was no closure for relatives of the victims, survivors. They were now well aware that he had been living among the free since a mysterious return from Cuba in 1994.
According to documents obtained by NBC 6, there is what relatives call a confession and what the FBI calls an admission that could have led to an indictment.
Survivors say that even in his dying days, Ponce de Leon continued to lie about his role, even to the FBI.
“To me, he was the leader of the group. He denied it all the time,” said Osiris Martinez, who lost his wife and children in the crash.
In the documents, Ponce de Leon claims he was a member of the July 26 movement, that he happened to talk to the other hijackers before they took over the plane. He said Castro supporters asked him to help with the hijacking and that he helped pass out weapons and held a gun to control the passengers. He said that he could have declined to help the hijackers, but he did not, telling the FBI: “This was what had to be done at this time. We did it.”
That was good enough for the FBI.
“He admitted his role in the hijacking to the point where you can go forward and produce documents and other evidence in support of it to try and obtain an indictment. Was that coming? We were working on it, sure,” Leverock said.
Mike Medranos’ father Rustin Medrano was the plane’s pilot.
“It makes it better at least there was no doubt that he was involved,” Mike Medrano said. “They were going to nail this guy because they had the evidence.”
The FBI investigation gave a sense of closure for some people, including the pilot’s daughter.
“Finally, I feel there is some closure. This man confessed,” said Patricia Pita, the pilot’s daughter. “I am truly grateful to the FBI people that we able to get this information out of ponce de Leon before he died."
But the fact that Ponce de Leon, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was buried with full military honors was not easy to take for Ormara Gonzalez, a crash survivor.
“They buried this man, a coward, an assassin,” she said.