In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States suffered through a skyjacking epidemic that has now been largely forgotten. In his new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan I. Koerner tells the story of the chaotic age when jets were routinely commandeered by the desperate and disillusioned. In the run-up to his book’s publication on June 18, Koerner has been writing a daily series of skyjacker profiles. Slate is running the final dozen of these “Skyjacker of the Day” entries.
Name: Patrick Dolan Critton
Date: Dec. 26, 1971
Flight Info: Air Canada Flight 932 from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Toronto
The Story: Most of the American skyjackers who fled abroad eventually elected to return to the United States, having tired of life on the lam. These homecomings typically involved prearranged surrenders to the FBI, in the hopes of earning lenient sentences. But a few skyjackers managed to sneak back into the U.S. undetected, and to live peacefully for years until they were finally caught. The boldest of these clandestine returnees was Patrick Dolan Critton, whose story might be much better known if he had been captured just a few days earlier.
Harlem-born and a onetime honor student at DeWitt Clinton High School, Critton joined the militant Republic of New Africa movement in his early 20s. He was allegedly involved in the manufacturing of explosives at an East Village tenement, and he later participated in the botched robbery of an Upper West Side bank. In the wake of that robbery, which left one of his accomplices dead and a bank teller gravely wounded, Critton fled across the border to Canada. He obtained a handgun and a grenade while on the run, and he used these weapons to commandeer Flight 932 shortly before its scheduled landing in Toronto. The hijacking note that he handed to a flight attendant read: “Think. We have fragmentation grenades and a .38-caliber revolver. Take me to the captain, we are going to Havana. This is no joke.”
Like most American skyjackers, Critton was confined for a spell in Cuba, at a decrepit south Havana dormitory known as Casa de Transitos (Hijackers House); residents of this dorm, which at one point held as many as 60 hijackers, were allotted just 16 square feet of living space. After eight months, Critton was allowed to find work on a sugar cane plantation, where he spent the next two years. In 1974 he left Cuba for Tanzania, where he married, had two sons, and became a history teacher.
The lure of home proved too much for Critton, however, and in 1991 he applied for an American passport, using his real name and personal information. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, his application was approved without a hassle. Three years later Critton returned to his native New York, where he taught SAT prep classes for the Board of Education. He later moved to Mount Vernon, N.Y., and became a popular mentor at a Westchester County youth shelter.
Critton’s good deeds would prove to be his undoing. In March 2001 a Canadian detective stumbled upon a newspaper article about Critton’s work with troubled teens. The detective was flabbergasted that Critton might actually be living under his real name—most fugitive skyjackers had the good sense to assume false identities. Undercover police in New York helped confirm Critton’s identity through an act of subterfuge: They obtained his fingerprints by handing him a flier for a missing child. Those prints were then matched to ones that Critton had left on a ginger ale can while flying to Havana in 1971.
Critton was arrested at his Mount Vernon home, where he greeted the cops by saying, “What took you so long? I’ve been waiting for that knock on the door for seven years.” News of Critton’s capture did not break until three days later—on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Upshot: Critton was extradited to Canada, where he was sentenced to three years in prison. He served just a third of that sentence, after which he returned to New York to live with his mother in the Bronx. He later wrote a self-published memoir.