Hijacking airplanes to Fidel Castro's Cuba became a popular crime before the introduction of metal detectors and other security measures at airports a decade ago. Few people remember what happened to those sky cowboys, buy in the southwestern tip of West Virginia lives a coal miner named Larry Rhodes who wants to break years of silence to tell his skyjacking saga.
When he boarded a Delta Airlines flight in Tampa in February 1968 with a gun, Rhodes kicked off a spree of similar hijackings to Cuba from this country-18 that year and 31 in 1969. When captured or returned to the United States, some of those hijackers spent years in jail. Others were committed to mental institutions on the grounds they weren't competent to stand trial.
But Rhodes didn't spend any time in jail for hijacking. He lived a bizarre two years in Cuba, where the government arranged his marriage to a 16-year-old woman who was supposed to have been a member of the Cuban secret police. And when he decided to turn himself in to a U.S. embassy after the Cubans deported him in 1970, Rhodes was still a mystery figure, a man the Cubans suspected was a CIA agent. Now, because he wants to write a book about his experiences, Rhodes is willing to publically say why he hijacked that jet from Tampa: he intended to assassinate Fidel Castro.
"I had my reasons," says Rhodes, 39, who has returned to the coal mines near Justice, W. Va. "I had known some Cubans, friends of mine, who had gotten some pretty raw deals. I knew them in Florida and Chicago [where Rhodes had spent some time]. I sympathized with them. That was just what my heart said, and that's what I did."
In those days Rhodes listened to his heart frequently, and the advice wasn't always good. For example, while in Chicago in 1967 Rhodes served a year in jail for shooting a man in a bar. And just a year and a half ago he was released from the West Virginia Penitentiary after serving time for the theft of $12,000. That was the amount of money in the safe of a coal mining company Rhodes robbed three months prior to his departure to Cuba.
With that cash and a valid passport, Rhodes traveled to and from South America for unexplained reasons. He won't say whether his skyjacking was premeditated, largely because he avoided conviction on federal charges of kidnaping and hijacking when doctors testified Rhodes had been mentally incompetent that day in Tampa. To admit he plotted the affair could reopen questions about that assertion.
But when Rhodes stepped off the plane in Havana in 1968, no one was happy to see him. He says he was interrogated for a month and never fully trusted during his stay in Cuba. His arranged marriage -though he says he and his wife eventually came to care for each other-permitted the state to keep an eye on him. He was given a job and permited freedom of movement.
"But they watched me like a hawk. They had pictures of me with certain Cuban groups in South America. I told them it was trick photography," says Rhodes, who acknowledges now that it was not trick photography.
Increasingly suspicious, the Cubans finally put him on a one-way flight to Spain in 1970 after accusing him of various crimes. Rhodes said the charges that he helped smuggle Cubans out of the country and stored rifles secretly were bogus. He says when he was put on a plane for Spain, groggy from day of torture, he considered himself lucky to be alive.
The Cubans' instincts were correct; Rhodes hated Castro.
"Yeah, I though about killing him," says Rhodes. "You can take him, but you got to go with him. I saw him four or five times in crowd situations. You never know whether you're seeing him or one of his doubles. He has five doubles, you know."
Once in Spain, Rhodes decided, "I could have just kept movin' on, but it's no good." Through the U.S. embassy, he arranged to return to the United States.
"I'm more responsible and more educated now," says Rhodes, who served some years in prison for the robbery of the coal mining company's payroll. "I don't make no waves, and I don't get known. I learned a lot in 10 years. Before I had no respect for nobody, including myself." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Maurice Kaplan