The next day, after being refused permission to dock at Tartus, the hijackers singled out Klinghoffer, a Jew, for execution, shooting him in the forehead and chest as he sat in his wheelchair. They then forced the ship's barber and a waiter to throw his body and wheelchair overboard. Marilyn Klinghoffer, who did not witness the shooting, was told by the hijackers that he had been moved to the infirmary. She only learned the truth after the hijackers left the ship at Port Said. PLO Foreign Secretary Farouq Qaddumi said that the terminally ill Marilyn Klinghoffer had killed her husband for insurance money.
Initially, the hijackers were granted safe passage to Tunisia, but US President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. fighter plane to force the get-away plane to land in Italy. After an extradition dispute Italian authorities arrested and later tried the terrorists but let Abu Abbas, the Palestinian who had served as a mediator, fly to Yugoslavia.
The body was found by the Syrians on October 14-15 and returned to the United States around October 20. Leon Klinghoffer was buried at Beth David Memorial Park in Kenilworth, New Jersey. Four months after her husband's murder, Marilyn Klinghoffer died of colon cancer. The Klinghoffers are survived by two daughters, Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer.
The hijacking was made into a television movie in 1990, Voyage of Terror – The Achille Lauro Affair starring Burt Lancaster and Eve Marie Saint. American minimalist composer John Adams' second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the events of 1985 opened to great controversy in 1991. The concept for the opera was suggested by director Peter Sellars and it featured a libretto by Alice Goodman. The Los Angeles Opera shared in the works' commission but never presented it. A Prix Italia-winning television version of the opera, starring Sanford Sylvan and Christopher Maltman, and directed by Penny Woolcock, was screened by United Kingdom's Channel 4 in 2003.