Bloody end to story of legendary hijackers

  • 2002-03-21
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

The notorious Brazinskas father-and-son pairing who hijacked an Aeroflot aircraft to flee the Soviet Union are again the center of attention following the death of the father, allegedly at the hands of his son.

Albert White, formerly known as Algirdas Brazinskas and a resident of Santa Monica has been charged by U.S. prosecutors with beating to death his 77-year-old father, Pranas Brazinskas, in the apartment they shared on Feb. 5.

White, 46, pleaded not guilty. He was released from custody after paying $1 million in bail. He has been ordered to return to court on March 25.

Both men were imprisoned in Turkey for the hijacking on Oct. 15, 1970 of an aircraft with 51 people on board, in the course of which a 19-year-old stewardess, Nadezhda Kurchenko, was shot dead and three others were wounded.

White was a teenager at the time of the hijacking of the plane, which took off from Batumi in Georgia bound for Sukhumi, also in Georgia.

During the flight the two armed men handed a letter to Kurchenko demanding that they be flown to Turkey.

They later claimed the shooting occurred in a gun battle with two armed state guards and likened their actions to a heroic concentration camp break-out.

On hearing news of the latest developments Kazys Bobelis, Christian Democrat leader and a former leader of Lithuanians in exile in the United States, sprang to their defense.

"They were the first people who managed to escape from the Soviet empire so our organization campaigned for them at the time," said Bobelis.

"The Turkish court failed to prove they had shot the stewardess, and even speculated that she was facing Brazinskases when she was shot in the back. So it could well be that the bullet was fired by the plane's crew or a guard."

Ankara refused the two their request for political asylum, yet also declined to hand them over to the Soviet authorities.

A Turkish court handed down an eight-year prison sentence to the father and a two-year sentence to the son. But under a general amnesty in 1974 they were both released to serve their sentences under house arrest.

They unsuccessfully pleaded for asylum in the United States at the country's embassy in Ankara in 1976 - before surfacing two weeks later in Venezuela. There, they booked a flight to Canada.

When their plane stopped over in New York the pair disappeared, but they were detained two weeks later by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In 1980 the pair were granted political asylum in the United States under newer asylum legislation - but this decision was overturned after an appeal by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

After Lithuanian Americans expressed outrage at the appeal, and it looked as though they may be sent back to the Soviet Union, the duo was allowed to stay in the country, although they were not given official political asylum.

Washington's refusal to hand over the pair was given by the Soviet Union as one reason for its boycotting of the Olympic Games in 1984 in Los Angeles.

According to a recent article in Lithuania's biggest-selling daily Lietuvos Rytas, the Soviets even hired Arab terrorists to kill them, but to no avail.

Following the end of Soviet rule the two made no efforts to return to Lithuania.

"They contacted the Lithuanian Embassy only once, asking for the phone number of the Turkish lawyer who had defended them. But it was to be their only contact with Lithuanian officials. They were people without citizenship," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Petras Zapolskas.

The death of the older Brazinskas has stirred up fierce debate on the Lietuvos Rytas Web site, with some readers arguing there was no crime in attempting escape from a totalitarian regime. Others say the duo's only goal was the good life in the United States and accuses them of lacking patriotic feelings.

Pranas Brazinskas was sentenced twice by the Soviet authorities in 1955 and 1965 for financial crimes involving state-run shops where he worked.

Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisans shot his father dead in 1949.

He moved from Lithuania to the central Asian Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan to marry a second time, to Alina Koreivo. There he changed his surname and became Pranas Koreivo before divorcing her and reverting to his former name.

White was his son by his first marriage.