Michael Finney's Last Flight
When Michael Robert Finney, a member of a black militant group called the Republic of New Africa, hijacked a Trans World Airlines flight to Cuba nearly twenty years ago, he saw himself as a freedom fighter against racism in America, an angry young man whose destiny was shaped by historical forces beyond his control. To authorities, he was simply a fugitive, a murderer, the most recent air pirate to commandeer a passenger jet.
In November 1971, only three days before Finney and two partners diverted the TWA jet from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Havana, D.B. Cooper, destined to become a legend in hijacking folklore, had parachuted out of a 727 he'd commandeered in Seattle, carrying the $200,000 he'd demanded as ransom. That was the golden age of air piracy, when airliners were being hijacked every few days, prompting a revolution in airport security. With the advent of X-ray machines and metal detectors, "skyjacking" soon went out of vogue.
Although the FBI continues to receive tips about his supposed whereabouts even to this day, the infamous D.B. Cooper was never found. The whereabouts of Michael Finney, however, are much easier for federal agents to pinpoint. Once he arrived in Havana, there was no turning back. He can't go home again, unless he wants to go to prison. So he remains suspended in Cuba's political time warp, like someone who has strayed into a Graham Greene political thriller and can't get out.
Nearly two decades after his arrival on the island, Finney lives in a modern but run-down apartment near downtown Havana, which he recently began sharing with Estela, his Cuban companera, and their two-year-old daughter Antar Ra. He owns things that are, in Cuba, considered luxuries: a two-cylinder Polish compact car; a color television set. He works as an English-language radio announcer, a coveted job in a nation undergoing a severe economic crisis. By American standards, of course, his lifestyle is modest, even Spartan. But Finney does have one thing in abundance: time to think.
Even Cuba's famous rum doesn't dim the nostalgia that haunts expatriate life. Finney shakes his head incredulously when he recalls the hijacking. "It's amazing that I'm alive. It's like a friend of mine said - if I had been born five years earlier or five years later, this never would have happened," he says with a smile that betrays equal parts amusement and sadness. It is a smile he wears often, like the ultradark sunglasses he keeps on, even in this cool, dim Havana hotel bar. When he tells his story it's as if he's talking about something that happened to someone else, somewhere else. And of course, in a way, that's true.
He still carries a snapshot of the Michael Finney he was back then, at age twenty, before he became an international fugitive. The proud father in the photograph, cradling his infant daughter in his hands, smiling a typical new-parent smile, has no inkling that his life is about to undergo a drastic change.
"As human beings, we are very much products of our times," says Finney. "And those were times of sweeping rebellion among black Americans that affected millions of people. Many were killed, incarcerated. Many became frustrated or joined the mainstream. Others probably became drug addicts. But it was the most widespread, deep-seated black rebellion in the history of America."
Finney grew up in San Francisco, and like many Bay Area youths of the Sixties, became politicized at an early age. He says his father was a pioneer, San Francisco's first black police officer. Michael was a pioneer, too - after attending a Roman Catholic school for the first six years of his education, he was among the first San Francisco students to be bused, from the predominantly black Balboa High School district to Lincoln High School, located in a white, affluent neighborhood. The kids, Finney recalls, were greeted by racist graffiti: "The only good nigger is a dead nigger" and "Niggers, go back to Africa." He says his first act of civil disobedience was his refusal to recite the portion of the Pledge of Allegiance that promises "liberty and justice for all" because he didn't believe it applied to blacks.
"I got into political activism in my high school years," Finney recalls. We had a black teacher, an English teacher, who tried to foment a group that she called SIR - Students for Interracial Relations, which she recruited me into." But as busing continued, Finney says, the racial polarization at his high school became acute, and SIR lost its relevance. "There were clashes and fistfights, a lot of fights. The cops had to come to school - that kind of thing."
At the same time, says Finney, the Black Panther Party was emerging. "I was a teen-ager at Lincoln when the Black Panthers invaded the Sacramento legislature - armed," he says. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated when Finney was seventeen, it seemed to vindicate the words of another assassinated black leader, Malcolm X: "I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense; I call it intelligence." That same year he attended The Mock Trial of Huey Newton. In the middle of the play, Bobby Seale and a group of other Black Panthers walked silently into the theater and stood in the back.
By that time Finney was emulating the Panthers, wearing a black leather jacket with buttons demanding liberty for jailed Panthers founder Huey Newton. Although he says he "never was much of a student," one of his teachers singled out Finney as a gifted youth, and he was admitted on an ecomomic-opportunity scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley. At Berkeley, he says, "I found myself in a totally radical atmosphere." During 1968 and 1969, he fought successfully for the formation of Third World College, an ethnic-studies program at Berkeley. "During a heated moment of the student protest," he recalls, "a group of our people was attacked by some white university jocks - they tried to rough us up, but we ended up roughing them up." Finney says he was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon after kicking one of the jocks in the ribs. He got off with a year's probation. "I actually turned myself in," he says. "I was one of the many major characters in that whole drama."
He says he also participated in the students' People's Park takeover. "Picture in your mind tear gas dropping out of helicopters, police cars on fire, police shooting tear-gas canisters and students throwing 'em back at the police," Finney says of the incident, smiling broadly at the memory.
While at Berkeley he would have joined the ranks of the Black Panthers, his former idols, Finney says, but the organization was falling into disarray - its leaders were murdered, fleeing the United States, escaping into alcohol and drugs, and hunted down as part of Cointelpro, the FBI program that targeted leftist movements. Instead of the Panthers, Finney joined the local chapter of the Republic of New Africa (RNA), a militant separatist group that wanted to form a black nation somewhere in the Deep South. "We were not looking at a mainstream solution. We were into [leftist theorists such as] Regis Dubray, Franz Fanon," he says. "Black nationalism has always been a strong political force within the black progressive community, due mainly to white racism."
As his political temperature rose, his enthusiasm for university life began to cool. "It seemed pointless," Finney remembers. "It had a lot to do with the frustrations of being a young black rebel at that time. You don't want to go into the mainstream, and yet you don't know exactly what you're doing." Finney dropped out of Berkeley in 1970. He got married that same year, and his daughter, Malaika, was born. Although he worked at a variety of jobs - a salesman, a laborer for a small, black-owned construction company - trying to find employment, he says, was "mostly just a whole lot of job interviews and turn-downs."
Finney began packing a pistol around Berkeley and participating in RNA paramilitary bivouacs in California state parks. A confrontation seemed inevitable. During one exercise in Los Padres National Forest in 1971, he says, "We were armed to the teeth, 30 or 40 of us. It was like a military retreat. The cops tried to bust us, but they didn't realize how well armed we were. They set up a roadblock, they said we could leave the park but we had to turn in our weapons. We said fuck that. We had 30 barrels sticking out of those cars - they backed off. We definitely promoted aggressive self-defense." The way he and other RNA members saw it, they were an insulted people, victims of racism that he says "has driven black minds to insanity and violence." Violent self-protection, as they saw it, was not an unreasonable strategy.
On August 18, 1971, Jackson, Mississippi, police raided a local RNA office. One cop was shot and killed in the ensuing shoot-out. Eleven members of the militant group were charged with murder and state treason, a crime that carried the death penalty. Days later, black militant George Jackson was shot, allegedly as he attempted to escape from Soledad state prison in California, although Bob Dylan wrote a song that summed up the feelings of the radical left, depicting Jackson's death as cold-blooded murder. Authorities were beginning to "harass" the Berkeley chapter of the RNA, Finney says. "People were tense, angry. It's amazing that I'm alive." Early in November 1971, RNA leaders asked Finney and two other members to come to Mississippi.
The three men rented a car, intending to drive to Jackson. But on November 8, before 11:00 p.m., eight miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, they encountered unexpected difficulties. Finney refuses to discuss the specifics of those difficulties. "While I was on my way to Jackson, Mississippi, there was a reported shoot-out on an Albuquerque highway where one cop ended up dead," he says. "And I was in Albuquerque at the time. I'm not gonna say whether I was there or not when the cop got shot. Let me just say that, according to the police, I was."
The murder of Officer Robert Rosenbloom is still an open investigation, and the state police refuse to release their files. But newspaper clippings from the days that followed, along with documents provided by the Albuquerque office of the FBI, offer some insight into the story. Rosenbloom, 28 years old and a six-year veteran of the state police force, stopped a green 1972 Ford Galaxie on Interstate 40 that night. At 10:47 p.m. Rosenbloom radioed headquarters that he was about to stop the car for a check. Six minutes later he called again and requested a computer check of the car's California license number. At 10:55 p.m. the state police radio dispatcher attempted to contact Rosenbloom to tell him the car had neither been stolen nor was wanted. There was no answer.
Capt. Robert Trippeer, a New Mexico state trooper who knew Rosenbloom, says now that stopping rented cars for checks was routine at the time. "The men were in a rental car. A lot of rental cars came through there and we checked their papers because people were renting cars and not returning them. It was part of the routine duties to stop them and ask for license and ID, which at the time we didn't need probable cause to do," he says.
At 11:11 p.m. the radio dispatcher received a call on Officer Rosenbloom's car radio: "One of your policeman has been injured - send an ambulance." The call came from a Colorado motorist who later told police that he had passed Rosenbloom's car and the green Ford just off the interstate as he headed east toward Albuquerque. As he drove past, he saw what looked like "a body flying through the air." Moments later the green Ford sped past him. Suspicious, he turned around and returned to the patrol car.
When police arrived at the scene, the passenger door of Officer Rosenbloom's car was open. His revolver lay on the ground, out of its holster. Rosenbloom, who was clutching a flashlight in his left hand, had been shot once in the throat. His hat had rolled down an embankment.
A "Wanted" flyer distributed by the FBI at the time adds a few more details to the picture: "The suspects fled the murder scene in a 1972 Hertz rental car which was later abandoned and recovered in the South Valley area of Albuquerque, along with the suspects' clothing, personal belongings, guns, and explosives."
"I made the death notification to Bob Rosenbloom's wife," recalls Capt. Trippeer. "He had two children, one two years old and one three years old, who grew up without even knowing their father. As far as I'm concerned they are murderers. Killers."
The FBI's "suspects" were Ralph Goodwin, Charles Hill, and Michael Finney. During the three-week manhunt that ensued, rewards were offered, routes out of Albuquerque were sealed with roadblocks, and helicopters combed the search area. "We were on the run, house to house. We used to sit in different hide-outs and watch ourselves on TV," Finney recalls. "At one point I put on pink pants, a wig, and make-up and left the house in drag. They got to that house six hours later, after we had left."
A local radical organization that sympathized with their plight tried to find a route out of Albuquerque for the fugitives, but to no avail. "By the time we ran out of hide-outs and money, it was obvious we had to catch a plane out or go down," says Finney. "And we had never planned on trying to hijack a plane that whole time."
On November 26, their last day in the United States, a sympathizer dropped off the three men in the desert outside Albuquerque, promising to return. He never came back; Finney says the police caught up with him and he spent a year in jail for helping them. That night, Finney says, he and his companions buried themselves in the desert sand. "We had to dig in with just our heads sticking out. We were in the desert for eighteen hours. Then we hiked to the outskirts of town at midnight. We had ten dollars between the three of us. We hadn't eaten or drank."
The three walked to a gas station and called for a tow truck, saying their car had broken down and they were stranded. When the wrecker arrived, they greeted the driver with their guns drawn. "He said, `I know who you guys are,'" says Finney. "He didn't lose his cool."
At 1:30 a.m. they ordered the tow truck driver to take them to the airport, where TWA Flight 106 was waiting on the tarmac. "We got out and ran up the stairs, one by one," Finney recalls. The crew said, `Don't be nervous, the plane is yours. There are no heroes here. Just tell us where you want to go.' We closed the airplane door, unsure of what was happening."
Once the plane was in the air, a few hippie passengers passed the hijackers a poem they had written in honor of the occasion, celebrating "three black warriors taking over the belly of a silver bird." When the crew of Flight 106 landed in Miami later that morning, a flight attendant describing the ordeal told reporters that some of the hippies even offered to accompany the trio to Cuba. "They told us the youngest one, Michael, had killed the officer in New Mexico," she added. "They said [the trooper] was the enemy."
The plane made a stop in Tampa, where all 43 passengers were released, and then flew on to Havana, landing at Jose Marti International Airport at 8:49 a.m. In Cuba, the hijackers had giddily anticipated a heroes' welcome - the triumphant revolutionaries who had made their daring escape - but they were in for a more low-key reception. "There were no red carpets, no limousines, no interviews with Fidel Castro," Finney says with a wry grin. Instead a uniformed agent from Cuba's Department of State Security boarded the jet and asked the three, in English, what they wanted in Cuba. "Political exile," they answered. After surrendering their weapons, they were led to the terminal, searched and interrogated, then taken to the State Security detention center in Havana. "They put us in a cell that night, together," Finney recalls. "It wasn't an iron-bar dungeon, it was like a room, with a porthole to pass food. We played chess and cards and got taken out to a back patio. We wrote a lot of letters. We sang Motown tunes, and when the Cuban guards told us to be quiet, we didn't understand.
"Almost the only thing I knew about Cuba was Che Guevara," Finney adds. "My ideological understanding about radical politics was not that old."
Cuba, on the other hand, was well acquainted with foreign radicals, especially two of America's most wanted black militants, Black Panthers Tony Bryant and Eldridge Cleaver. Bryant, who hijacked a plane to Cuba in 1969, spent nearly a dozen years in a Cuban jail before returning to the United States to face a possible life sentence. "Communism is humanity's vomit," he said upon his return to the U.S. "Wipe it out." Cleaver, once the Black Panthers' minister of information and author of the then-celebrated autobiography Soul on Ice, spent only eight months as a fugitive in Cuba during a seven-year international odyssey. Eventually Cleaver returned to California and served ten years in prison for assault with intent to commit murder, a charge that stemmed from a shoot-out between activists and Oakland police. Cleaver, too, is now a born-again Christian, an avowed anti-Communist, and a Republican who even staged an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. Cleaver was quoted by a reporter in 1986 as saying, "The oppression of the United States was nothing compared to that of countries like Cuba and North Korea. In Cuba we wore fatigues and grew beards as revolutionary gestures, but I began to realize that the people viewed those fatigues as a symbol of repression."
"We suffered a lot of flak for Cleaver's visit," says Finney. "He was known to be a sexist, machista, abusive individual. It was him who left a bad name for those who came behind him." Other hijackers, he adds, have caused trouble for the Cuban government over the years, some through political protests, but most through a failure to adjust to life on the island.
After six weeks in the state security department cell, the three hijackers were transported to a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of Havana. "I walked inside and there was this real fine-looking Asian chick coming down the stairs. I was standing there wondering what to say to her when she smiled and said, `Hi,' asked us how we were doing, in perfect English. She was American."
And like Finney, she was a hijacker. For the next several years Finney lived in the mansion with between 30 and 40 of his fellow fugitives, about half of whom were Americans. Finney, Goodwin, and Hill began working almost immediately, cutting cane in the sugar fields. Six months later, they switched to construction work. Finney and his partners asked to be sent to Africa to help with anti-colonial struggles there, but they had no American passports. (Friends of Finney's say one exile managed to slip off to Jamaica, but he was discovered and beaten to death by Jamaican police.)
"Adapting to the profoundly different world of Cuba, and accepting the idea that this was our permanent home, was very difficult," Finney says. "Being a hijacker was a stigma. [The Cuban government] didn't want people hijacking planes to Cuba."
In the early Eighties he married, but that relationship only lasted a year and a half. Finney blames his own restlessness. He began taking college history courses in 1980, but dropped out in 1983. That same year, he tried to leave the island. "We made a serious effort to leave - me and [Charlie Hill] one of the brothers that came down with me," he says. "We weren't sure exactly where we were heading - not from a real heavy sense of frustration but from a clear kind of unemotional sense that there was nowhere to go, there was no room to move here. We didn't see ourselves as capable of living normal lives here."
The attempt, which entailed a trip to another Caribbean island Finney refuses to identify, wasn't successful. "Immigration authorities in the country we went to did not accept our documentation - in fact there was a lot of suspicion since we had come from Cuba, and we were sent back to Havana the same day."
After the initial frustration of being sent back to the island, Finney says, it finally began to sink in that he wasn't going anywhere - at least for the time being - and that he had to try to make the best of the life he was living. In the mid-Seventies Finney had moved from the halfway house for hijackers into a hotel; due to Cuba's severe housing shortage, he spent the next ten years living in a series of hotel rooms. In 1985 a law was passed that stipulated that all permanent hotel residents were entitled to apartments of their own, and Finney moved into his own place. The following year, after having worked at jobs he saw as "temporary," he was finally given the radio announcer's position.
Life on the island has involved more than just the ordinary red tape. As part of Cuba's compulsory AIDS testing program, he was notified that he had been selected for screening, most likely because of his frequent contacts with Americans, who are considered a high-risk group in Cuba. He ignored that notice, he says, as well as several others that followed. Finally a state official showed up while Finney was at work and checked him into a hospital for testing.
The test result was positive. As is the practice in the United States, Cuban doctors commonly run blood through two HIV detectors. The first is relatively inaccurate, and it often registers false positive results. The second test is more precise and more expensive. Finney was forced to remain in the hospital until the second test could be completed, fully aware that if that resulted in an HIV-positive reading, he would be sent to a sanitorium outside Havana to live in quarantine.
"It was weird," says Finney. "I just lay there in the hospital thinking, `Wow, man, am I gonna die?'"
The second test was negative.
Facing an AIDS test alone was a sobering experience for Finney. But his family has not been completely absent from his life. His mother has visited twice during his exile, and his father made the trip in April 1990, ending an eighteen-year separation. "It was very heart warming, very moving for both of us," Finney recalls. "My old man has always, in his own way, cheered for me. When I began to get into radical politics, he said, `Look, I know you're a good kid and I know you know the difference between right and wrong. I just don't want to have to identify your bullet-riddled body in some morgue.'"
Finney says his most difficult - and joyous - moment came in 1988, when he was reunited with his daughter Malaika. Nearly 21 years old now, about the same age Finney was at the time of the hijacking, Malaika is in college, studying acting. She arrived in Havana accompanied by her mother, Michael's first wife.
"It was both exhilarating and painful," Michael says, recalling the reunion. "I went to the airport to meet a person whose diapers I had changed, who I'd loved, held, and fed. I wanted to see a little girl run up to me, throw her arms around me, and say, `Daddy.' Instead I saw a very mature, somewhat standoffish lady who was sizing me up, trying to figure out who I was. She was coming to see someone she didn't know, with a certain amount of resentment at me for not having been there."
By now, of course, Finney's Spanish is fluent. But his status in Cuba is that of a temporary resident; legally, he's still a United States citizen. He continues to follow American political and cultural trends as closely as he can, from books, magazines, radio, and vistors from the States - Spike Lee came to Cuba in December 1989, and a few rap groups have also been to the island. But terms such as "cat," "heavy," and "brother" still crop up in his speech. He has become resigned to the permanent sense of limbo that pervades his existence, but he says he's still jarred when forced to confront the profound schism between his past and his present. A few years ago, he glanced up at a wanted poster hanging in the U.S. Interests Section, the only American diplomatic presence in Cuba. Staring back at him, he realized, was the frozen likeness of a skinny youth - himself.
From his exile's perspective, he sees in America a nation that still has not delivered the equality it promises. "I don't see progress having occurred in the States, except to a very small part of a black middle class that didn't exist 30 years ago," Finney observes. "The great majority seem worse off. In fact, the Eighties generation was the first since slavery that cannot hope for a better future for their children. Social programs are being defunded. It is consumer society at its most monstrous," he says. "Alienation at its most frightening. Blacks have become an expendable class."
Similar feelings are shared by the small community of American leftists whose sense of alienation from conservative, post-Sixties America ties them to the island. At the same time, though, many of them have become increasingly critical of the Marxist state.
Jane McManus, for instance, remains in Cuba by choice with her male companion, a former Oakland Black Panther and a stranded hijacker. In the Fifties, McManus says, she worked as a political journalist. When she came to Cuba in the Sixties, she fell in love and stayed. "It was a romantic, revolutionary country," she says. "People were attracted to Che and Fidel."
Now middle-aged, with short, gray hair, McManus looks more like a suburban housewife than a feminist renegade. In fact, she's given up political writing. "I don't think I can be honest and still live here," she says, explaining that in spite of the recent political relaxation in the Soviet Union, Cuba remains intensely restrictive. "There's a lot at stake, not just personal power, but the goodies," says McManus. "The people at the top live a better life." Currently, McManus is busy organizing Cuba's first international dog show.
Another self-exile, Ron Ridenour, burned his passport in front ot the U.S. Interests Section in Havana the day after the Gulf War began. As Cuban television cameras captured the moment for posterity, Ridenour hollered that U.S. officials could take the charred passport and "shove it." A 51-year-old native of Los Angeles, Ridenour now draws a salary from Cuba's ministry of culture, and he's just published a book, Backfire: The CIA's Biggest Burn, about moles who infiltrated the CIA for Cuba's Department of State Security.
"American people are not out to do anything significant to transform their condition," says Ridenour. "All they are about are their corn flakes. I began to hate them, and you can't organize people you hate."
Ironically, Ridenour hasn't found it any easier to "organize" in Cuba. "I'm the least political I've been in my life," he muses. "Everything is closed. The media is closed. You can't demonstrate."
Of the dozens of black militants who hijacked planes to Cuba in the late Sixties and early Seventies, only a handful remain. Some are dead. Some have slipped away to Africa or parts unknown. Others have returned to face charges in the U.S. One, Raymond Johnson, left the island for Miami in 1986, saying that he would have more liberty in an American jail cell than as a free man in Havana.
According to Michael Finney, hijacking partner Ralph Goodwin drowned in 1975, trying to save a stricken Cuban swimmer. Finney's other partner in the crime, Charlie Hill, 42 years old now and graying at the temples, has dedicated himself to the Santeria religion. He lives in a comfortable, three-room house.
"I was a young cat then," Hill says of the days that led up to the TWA hijacking. "Everyone hung out with the Panthers. If you believe in something, you die for it."
Neither Hill nor Michael Finney has any intention of returning to the States to stand trial. The two still face charges of murder and air piracy, both of which are punishable by the death penalty. In Albuquerque, Doug Beldon, an FBI special agent, knows where Finney and Hill are, but he also knows there isn't much the FBI can do about it. "People in the law enforcement business face all kinds of risks every day," says Beldon. "They get real upset when officers get hurt in the line of duty. [Officer Rosenbloom's killers] still haven't paid the price."
The United States today bears no resemblance to Sixties America, but changes may be on the horizon in Cuba as well. To some, the fall of Communist leaders in Eastern Europe prompts the question of whether Fidel Castro will suffer the same fate. Even if Castro's government is not toppled, some say, el sistema will be forced to adapt to cuts in Soviet aid and the loss of preferential trading status with Eastern bloc nations. Any change in Cuba's diplomatic relations with the United States could affect Michael Finney's status.
But after nearly twenty years in Cuba, Finney says he's not particularly concerned about the crumbling of the Soviet bloc. "It doesn't make me nervous," he says. "I'm not afraid."
And what about that tumultuous November night? If he could replay those decisive moments, would he select the path that led him here? Would he again choose a life in exile? Finney won't even speculate. "It's not the same moment in history," Finney explains. "There is not an anti-colonialist revolution going on in Africa. There is no Black Panther Party. Conditions are different. The Nineties are not the Sixties.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.