As the Boeing 737 made its final approach into Miami, a man calling himself “Lieutenant Spartacus” handed a note to a flight attendant.
Unless the pilot diverts the aircraft to Havana, the note said, the passengers would be shot and the plane blown up.
The hijacker identified himself as a member of the Black Liberation Front. He criticized U.S. government involvement in Nicaragua and wrote about freedom for his “brothers and sisters” in South Africa.
He also demanded $5 million, but never got any money. After the Piedmont Airlines Flight 451 landed in Havana, officers surrounded the plane and took William Potts Jr. into custody.
More than 50 passengers were on board that day, March 27, 1984. No one was hurt and few of them realized the plane had been hijacked until it landed in Havana.
Potts was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison.
“I was a very troubled and angry man, angry about everything,” he said later.
Potts served 13 years and went on to start a new life, getting married and raising two daughters.
On Nov. 6, 2013, he surrendered to U.S. authorities in Havana and returned to Florida. His daughters had settled in Georgia by that time and he wanted to be with them.
At his July 17, 2014, sentencing in Miami, Potts apologized to the captain, crew and passengers of the plane, and expressed deep regret.
“I really passed that threshold of remorse many, many, many years ago while I was in prison in Cuba,” Potts told the court. “Your Honor, I didn’t get away with anything. I served a long prison sentence in a very bad place, a very bad prison.
“I came out better for it. I wanted to come home. When you become a parent, everything changes and your priorities change and that’s what happened to me. I sent my children on ahead. I got them out of Cuba and they’re here.
“I haven’t seen my children in like two years and it’s driving me crazy. Everybody says I’m a great dad…. it just comes natural to me. I’m not the same person. The whole world has changed. And I’ve changed a long time ago, not just now because I am here before you.
“I always considered myself one of the good guys. I made a mistake back then, I don’t know really how it happened, but I went down that road and now I’m trying to get back. And if you just give me that chance, Judge, I’ll do you proud.”
Public defender Robert Berube told the court:
“My client went to Cuba. He was not greeted as a conquering hero, he was thrown in jail for 15 years and served 13. I’m just saying that has to be looked at because nobody else will look at it but yourself.”
Undeterred, District Court Judge K. Michael Moore slapped Potts with a 20-year sentence and a $50 fine.
Potts appealed, saying his sentence “was arbitrary or capricious amounting to a gross abuse of discretion.”
On April 9, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld Moore’s decision.
More than six years later, Potts’ family is eager for him to be freed. Court documents say he would be eligible for parole after serving roughly 6.6 years of his sentence. The best I can figure, he passed that point about two months ago.
His daughter, Assata Potts, told me she misses her father.
“He’s a very wise person. I know that for sure. I know he’s not a bad person. I’m not saying it because he’s just my dad, but I know he’s not a bad person.
“The crime that he did – he didn’t harm anyone. He was very young. People make mistakes when they’re young. He didn’t kill anybody.”
Assata Potts, 20, said she emigrated to the United States with her younger sister nine years ago. She said her father did his best to prepare her for the journey.
“I remember I was in elementary school and my dad will always talk to me every day about how life will be. He will be like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be far away from me for a long time.’ And I’ll be like, “All right.’ Like I was, I was a kid. I don’t think, like, I don’t think it will hurt me this much because when you’re a kid, you don’t think. I would just tell him, ‘OK, OK. I just want to go to the United States.’ Those were the last memories in Cuba.”
She was named after Assata Shakur, a Black militant who escaped a New Jersey prison in 1979 after a murder conviction and made her way to Cuba, where she has lived since 1984. She is one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives.
Her younger namesake said she is concerned about such issues as police violence against Blacks, but is not a political activist.
“To be honest, I don’t think about political things. Of course I have an opinion. Like I’m upset that this is happening to the black people in this country, that the justice system is very unfair. I know what’s going on,” she said, but “I’m not like my dad. I’m a totally different person.”
She said she is grateful for the opportunities she has in the U.S., but also misses Cuba, especially her friends.
“I just miss the people, like the way we are with each other over there. It’s not the same as here. People are more friendly.”
She hopes to work in health care one day.
“I want to be a nurse registered nurse. I always liked that career, working in a hospital, making people feel better.”
Her father is being held at a medium-security federal prison in Edgefield, South Carolina. Records show his scheduled release date is Dec. 14, 2026.
She said she hopes her father is released from prison much sooner than that. She said she last saw him during a visit to Edgefield about three years ago when she was in the 10th grade.
She said he told her he felt bad that he has missed much of her teenage years.
“He just wants to spend the rest of his life with his family at home. He’s getting old.”
She sees her father’s continued imprisonment as “very unfair.” He has “learned a lesson. There is no purpose of him being locked up. I hope that he gets out.”
Her big hope is that her father’s years in prison will not be in vain.
“I have to do something in my life, you know, because … my dad, he brought us over here to this country while you can become someone. He gave me the opportunity.”
Further reading: Download documents and letters in the case.