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: Raffaele Minichiello
Date: Oct. 31, 1969
Flight Info: Trans World Airlines Flight 85 from Baltimore to San Francisco, with scheduled stops in St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; and Los Angeles
The Story: With the exception of an inebriated oil worker who wished to visit his estranged wife in Arkansas, the first several dozen American skyjackers were interested solely in obtaining passage to Cuba. The airlines thus geared their hijacking protocols toward getting planes to Havana as quickly and safely as possible. All planes were outfitted with navigational maps of the Caribbean, for example, and pilots were issued phrase cards to help them communicate with Spanish-speaking hijackers. These measures proved useless, however, when Raffaele Minichiello inaugurated the skyjacking epidemic’s second, more chaotic phase.
A native of Melito Irpino, Italy, who had immigrated to Seattle as a teen, Minichiello earned a Purple Heart as a Marine in Vietnam. Upon his return to California’s Camp Pendleton in April 1969, he came to believe that his unit’s paymaster had shorted him $200 in salary. Despite the relative pettiness of the disputed sum, the 19-year-old Marine considered himself the victim of a great betrayal.
One night in May 1969, Minichiello decided to exact his own form of justice. He guzzled eight cans of beer and broke into the Camp Pendleton post exchange, where he took precisely $200 worth of radios and wristwatches. When he was court-martialed for the burglary in September, Minichiello opted to flee the country rather than face trial.
Carrying a bag containing a disassembled M1 rifle and 250 rounds of ammunition, Minichiello took a bus to Los Angeles International Airport and bought a ticket for TWA Flight 85 to San Francisco. After downing two shots of Canadian Club aboard the Boeing 707, he put together his gun in a lavatory, then pointed it at a stewardess and asked to be taken to New York.
The plane stopped in Denver first, where Minichiello released the passengers. As the jet refueled, he informed the captive crew that New York was not his ultimate destination: He was actually trying to get back to Italy, a country that would understand why he considered the Marines’ $200 slight such a grave affront to his honor.
The FBI tried to stop Minichiello at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where the jet made a second refueling stop. Agents in bulletproof vests surrounded the parked plane, hoping either to frighten Minichiello into surrendering or to mount a decisive assault. Minichiello responded by firing an M1 round into the roof of the fuselage. The startled agents backed off and allowed the plane to depart on its long journey to Rome, via Bangor, Maine, and Shannon, Ireland.
Minichiello avoided capture at Rome’s airport by taking a carabiniere officer hostage and stealing the policeman’s car. He found brief sanctuary in a rural church, where police tracked him down on Nov. 2, 1969. “Paisà, perchè m’arresti?” he asked as he was hustled away—“Countryman, why are you arresting me?”
admirer squealed to an Italian reporter, referring to a handsome star of spaghetti Westerns. “I would like to marry him!” Movie producer Carlo Ponti, the man behind such hits as Doctor Zhivago, vowed to make a hagiographic film about Minichiello’s life entitled Paisà, perchè m’arresti?.
The Upshot: After the Flight 85 affair, American skyjackers realized they were free to divert planes to locations other than Cuba. The Italian government, meanwhile, refused to extradite Minichiello to the United States, deciding instead to try him in Rome—though only for relatively minor offenses such as weapons possession. Minichiello was convicted of a single charge and ended up serving just 18 months in jail. After his release, he signed a contract to star in a spaghetti Western, though he ended up working as a waiter when his movie career didn’t pan out. He now lives in his native Melito Irpino, where he maintains a small yet charming YouTube channel.