A Pan American aircraft is given a water salute
A Pan American aircraft is given a water salute Reuters

A man who had hijacked a Puerto Rico-bound Pan American flight 281 to Cuba four decades ago and then voluntarily returned to the United States in October 2009 and surrendered to federal authorities so that he could see his family again, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison without parole.

Luis Armando Pena Soltren, 67, was one of three men accused of hijacking Pan American flight 281, which was bound for Puerto Rico but was taken to Havana, Cuba, on November 24, 1968.

After 41 years of living as a fugitive in Cuba, Soltren voluntarily returned to the United States in October 2009 and surrendered to federal authorities. He was charged with committing air piracy, interfering with flight crew members and kidnapping and pleaded guilty to his charges last March before Manhattan Federal District Court Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein.

Through an interpreter, Soltren expressed regrets to the court, to his family, to the passengers and crew of the airplane he helped hijack.

Soltren then threw himself at the mercy of the court, saying, I beg you to please take into consideration my age today and that I turned myself in voluntarily, completely voluntarily, to justice in this country.

But the judge was unmoved and did not take the crime lightly. He sentenced Soltren on Jan. 4 to 15 years in a federal prison without the possibility of parole.

People have to respect the law. Sometimes it's important to have a strict sentence, Hellerstein said.

The judge said he considered Soltren's actions as considerably more serious than those of his co-conspirators.

I try to imagine how I would feel if someone put a knife to my throat or a gun to my back, and I wonder how many nightmares would follow. I wonder even in your private moments with God whether there can ever be enough remorse, the judge said.

According to the complaint and indictment previously filed in Manhattan federal court and the guilty plea proceeding, Soltren along with co-conspirators Jose Rafael Rios Cruz and Miguel Castro, had boarded Pan American flight 281 bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico.

During the hijacking, Soltren and the two other men took control of the Boeing 707, armed with knives and pistols that they had smuggled aboard.

They had ordered the pilot to divert the flight to Havana, Cuba. At that time of hijacking, nobody was injured, and the crew and 103 passengers returned safely to the United States.

Cruz was apprehended in 1975 and Castro was apprehended in 1976. Both ultimately had pleaded guilty to threatening the lives of flight crew members. They were sentenced to 15 years in prison and 12 years in prison, respectively, for their roles in the flight hijacking.

Although Soltren was part of a radical Puerto Rican group calling for independence, he took part in the hijacking only because he wanted to go to Cuba to see his sick father in the hospital. At that time, it was difficult to get permission to visit Cuba.

Soltren said he returned to the United States because he wanted to be with his wife, who left Cuba for the United States in 2004.

A fourth man, Alejandro Figueroa, who was not on the flight, a leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, was charged as a co-conspirator but was acquitted in 1969 after a bench-trial before U.S. District Judge Edward Weinfeld.