A judge sentenced a man who hijacked a plane from New York to Cuba four decades ago to 15 years in prison Tuesday, citing the fear that must have spread among passengers and the flight crew when he put a knife to the throat of a flight attendant and a gun to her back and then entered the cockpit.
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein announced the sentence for Luis Armando Pena Soltren, 67, who returned to the United States from Cuba in October 2009 to face charges of conspiracy to commit air piracy, interfering with a flight crew and kidnapping. He pleaded guilty in March.
"This is a very serious offense. Sometimes it's important to have a strict sentence," Hellerstein said as he rejected pleas for leniency from a defense lawyer who insisted Pena Soltren joined the hijacking only to get to visit his father in a Cuban hospital and then lived an honorable life afterwards.
"Hijacking is a frightening crime," the judge said. "I tried to imagine how I would feel if someone put a knife to my throat and a gun to my back, and I wonder how many nightmares would follow."
Pan American Flight 281, which had 103 passengers and crew, was traveling from New York's Kennedy Airport to Puerto Rico on Nov. 24, 1968, when Pena Soltren rose from his seat and attacked the flight attendant before entering the cockpit. No one was hurt.
Speaking through a Spanish translator, Pena Soltren apologized and said he wished for forgiveness from the flight attendant "and all those people who felt threatened by my desperate attack."
"I'd like to express my remorse," he said. As he finished his statement, he began to cry and slumped into his seat. On a bench where his wife and daughter watched the proceedings, his daughter dabbed tears from her eyes.
The hijacking was carried out when Pena Soltren and at least two co-defendants brought pistols and large knives aboard in a baby's diaper bag. The pilots were forced to divert the flight to Havana.
Defense lawyer James Neuman said Pena Soltren had wanted to come back to the United States since at least 1979 because he was remorseful.
Two other men were arrested in the mid-1970s and pleaded guilty for their roles in the skyjacking. One ended up serving seven years in prison; the other served four years.