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Fugitive killer knew U.S. ambassador in Africa; Wright used real name in Guinea-Bissau in '80s

A convicted American killer who disappeared after a 1972 hijacking lived openly in West Africa under his real name for years and even socialized with U.S. Embassy officials there, a former U.S. ambassador said Thursday.

The comments by John Blacken, a retired U.S. ambassador to Guinea-Bissau, raised new questions about a decades-long FBI manhunt for George Wright, who managed to elude authorities for 41 years until he was arrested Monday in Portugal.

Blacken told the Associated Press he was stunned to hear about Wright's arrest because he knew him and his wife. She might have even worked on translation projects for the U.S. Embassy, but Blacken had no idea that Wright was a fugitive.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department had no immediate comment.

Wright's years on the lam took him across the globe -- from New Jersey to Detroit to Algeria to France to Guinea-Bissau and then Portugal.

Blacken served as ambassador from 1986 to 1989 in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, years after Wright had escaped from jail in New Jersey in 1970 while serving time for murder and was wanted in a 1972 hijacking by the Black Liberation Army of a U.S. plane to Algeria.

"All this was a big surprise, my goodness, murder and everything else," Blacken said in an telephone interview from Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau. "No one imagined him being a murderer. Of course we didn't know him that well. He seemed like an ordinary person and not radical at all."

Blacken said he was never alerted by U.S. law enforcement officials about Wright's background.

"If we had received such a cable, we would have responded," he added. "He was known as George Wright here, and it's strange that [U.S. officials] never tracked him down here."

Michael Ward, head of the FBI in Newark, N.J., said it wasn't unusual that Wright could have lived undetected overseas for so long.

"Obviously communication abilities were much less back in the '70s and the '80s than they are today," Ward said. "You're dealing with someone with a common name who is living a low-key lifestyle, and those factors would have contributed to him going unnoticed at the time."

Blacken could not recall what sort of work Wright did in Guinea-Bissau, a tiny nation on the Atlantic Ocean. He knew Wright's Portuguese wife, Maria do Rosario Valente, better because she had worked as a freelance Portuguese-English translator, possibly even for the embassy.