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Was 'Passenger' on Downed Flight a Hijacker?

POSTED: 04:00 PM ET, 11/19/2008 by Derek Kravitz

Fidel Castro and unidentified soldiers. (UPI)

For years, Edmundo Ponce de Leon has maintained he was a passenger on a Miami-to-Cuba flight that was hijacked in 1958 by pro-Castro rebels and crashed in the waters off eastern Cuba, killing 14.

Now, U.S. State Department records and interviews with Ponce de Leon's relatives tell a different story, The Miami Herald reports: Ponce de Leon might have been one of the hijackers.

The hijacking of the Cubana Airlines plane 50 years ago on Nov. 1 came during a rash of similar hijackings by rebel Cuban troops ahead of the country's general election. Press reports of the incident describe the events:

The Cubana Airlines flight took off at about 4:48 p.m. from Miami en route to Havana with a stopover at Varadero, a resort town about 100 miles east of Havana. About 45 minutes into the flight, two of the hijackers took control of the passenger bay, while two to three others burst into the cockpit and took the pilots hostage.

The pilot, Capt. Ruskin Medrano, was told he would be shot if he did not fly to the northern coastline of Cuba. He later died in the crash.

The pilot tried to land the four-engine, British-made Viscount at an American-owned air strip, the Preston Sugar Mill, but the strip was not equipped for nighttime landings. The hijackers apparently identified the landing site because of its proximity to the Sierra Cristal region, which was controlled by Fidel Castro's brother, Raoul Castro.

Press reports at the time said 17 people, including five American citizens and four hijackers, were killed when the plane crashed in the dark waters of the Bay of Nipe. Cuban army troops took custody of the wreckage. It was later revaled that plane was secretly loaded with arms for Castro's rebels. (Castro denied any advance knowledge of the plan.)

Miami Herald correspondent George Southworth reported that Ponce de Leon was one of the hijackers. But at the time, no one was able to find him, Wayne Smith, an embassy diplomat who interviewed survivors, told The Herald.

Press reports gave conflicting accounts. One of those listed as dead was a passenger -- identified by the UPI as "Edmund Ponce de Leon, 22" and by The New York Times as "Edmund Ponze." He was identified as a U.S. Air Force veteran born in Cuba and raised in New York and Miami.

The questions about Ponce de Leon's role largely faded until earlier this year when he and his sister got in a dispute about family property and an attorney for his sister asked to interview survivors from the crash. The property dispute was settled, but two survivors interviewed by The Herald identified Ponce de Leon as one of the four armed hijackers.

Ponce de Leon, now 72, who lives in Miami, disputed to The Herald that he was a highjacker, saying he had been a passenger on the plane. He said he was taken prisoner by Cuban rebel forces, eventually escaped, started his life anew, married and moved to Florida with his family in 1994.

By Derek Kravitz |  November 19, 2008; 4:00 PM ET
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