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Monday, December 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Helicopter swoops down to Puerto Rican prison, flies away with five escaping prisoners

The Associated Press

PONCE, Puerto Rico — A helicopter swooped down to a maximum security prison in this city in southern Puerto Rico and flew away with five "extremely dangerous" convicts today, authorities said.

The charter helicopter later landed at Isla Grande airport in San Juan without the convicts and the pilot told investigators he had been kidnapped.

The pilot said two people hired him to fly from San Juan to Ponce, police Lt. Col. Jose Caldero said, without identifying the pilot.

During the flight both pointed guns at him and ordered him to fly to Las Cucharas prison, Caldero said.

"When they arrived at La Cucharas, the helicopter couldn't land and it flew over the roof. And the individuals were there, and they climbed on," Caldero said.

The pilot then was forced to drop off the prisoners in central Puerto Rico, said Miguel Pereira, the U.S. territory's corrections secretary.

After dropping off the prisoners, the pilot alerted authorities to the hijacking by activating a radio signal on an emergency frequency, said Miguel de Jesus, of the police force's air unit.

Authorities were investigating why guards didn't shoot at the helicopter to prevent it from leaving the prison in Ponce.

Authorities described the escaped convicts as "extremely dangerous" and said they included Jose A. Perez Rodriguez, who was serving a 319-year sentence for murder, and Orlando Valdes Cartagena, serving a 254-year sentence for murder and weapons violations.

The other three were also serving sentences of longer than 100 years each, but it wasn't immediately clear on what charges they were convicted.

The five had been confined in the prison's maximum-security wing with 384 other inmates, said Jaime Lopez, the prison's regional director.

Authorities said the helicopter picked them up at 9:20 a.m. , while they were outside during a recreation period.

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