By David Ovalle. Dovalle@herald.com. Posted on Fri, Aug.
16, 2002 in The Miami Herald.
The fear in the skies in 1980 was of disillusioned Cuban refugees hijacking
jets so they could return to their homeland.
On Sept. 13 of that year, two brothers armed with cigarette lighters and a
plastic bottle filled with clear liquid forced an Atlanta-bound Delta plane to
land in Havana.
On Thursday, 22 years later, the FBI arrested one of the accused hijackers
in Miami -- at an INS office where he was seeking legal U.S. residency.
Agents had been tipped that Miguel Aguiar Rodriguez, 55, was back in the
United States. They learned he had an appointment with the Immigration and
Naturalization Service Thursday and were waiting for him to arrive.
He was being held Thursday night in the federal detention center and will
appear in court today.
A New Orleans federal grand jury in 1980 charged Rodriguez and his brother,
Roberto Teodoro Rodriguez, with transporting a stolen aircraft and kidnapping.
FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said agents believe Roberto Rodriguez is dead,
although it is unclear where and how he died.
Delta Flight 334, a Boeing 727 with 81 passengers and seven crew members,
originated in San Francisco on Sept. 13, 1980, and took off from New Orleans
bound for Atlanta around 10:30 p.m. Thirty minutes later, the pilot radioed that
the plane was being hijacked by the liquid-toting men and that he needed a
heading to Havana.
''It was more like a joke. Both of them were shaking all over,'' a passenger
told The Herald at the time.
Crew described the men only as ''Spanish-speaking males.'' The plane landed
safely at Jose Martí Airport about an hour later, where the men were
arrested by Cuban authorities.
Passengers were allowed to buy souvenirs at airport shops and were flown
back to the U.S. with small bottles of rum, compliments of the Cuban government.
It was unclear Thursday if the brothers were imprisoned in Cuba. It was the
ninth hijacking to Cuba in a six-week period.
Miguel Rodriguez had arrived in the U.S. earlier that year, as part of the
massive Mariel boat lift that brought 125,000 Cubans to South Florida.
Fast forward to December 2000. Rodriguez, with Cuban documents bearing the
alias Ricardo Gonzalez, slipped in undetected to the United States through
Brownsville, Texas, according to Orihuela.
U.S. policy allows Cubans to remain in the country if they reach American
soil, but they must apply for residency.
It was unclear if Brownsville immigration agents sent Rodriguez's
fingerprints to the FBI. Even if they had, the FBI might have missed their man.
The fingerprints in Rodriguez's FBI file belonged to the wrong Miguel Rodriguez,
born eight days earlier, Orihuela said.
At some point, Rodriguez moved to Miami. A few months ago, someone overheard
in a Little Havana restaurant that he was in town.
''It was a little bizarre. The citizen did some research and put two and two
together,'' Orihuela said.
The person tipped off the Federal Aviation Administration. Word got to the
FBI and INS, where he was nabbed at the agency's office at 155 S. Miami Ave.,
seeking residency under his alias.
Agents matched his fingerprints, Orihuela said.