Long before strange Middle Eastern men with strange motives started blowing up America’s commercial aircraft, Americans were blowing up planes for more understandable reasons.
To collect insurance money.Four days after Bill Gates was born and four days before racial segregation was outlawed on America’s buses and trains, a gift-wrapped bomb exploded in the cargo hold of United Airlines Flight 629.
On the night of November 1, 1955, United’s DC-6B, tail number N37559, was en route from Denver to Portland, Oregon. 39 passengers and five crew members were aboard when it exploded over Longmont, Colorado.
The flight’s captain was WWII veteran Lee Hall. He lifted off at 6:52P Mountain Standard Time. Eleven minutes later twenty-five sticks of dynamite, packed into a suitcase with two primer caps, a timer and a six volt battery exploded. The suitcase bomb shattered the plane into pieces which rained down over a six square mile chunk of sugar beet farming country in Colorado’s Weld County.
Investigators immediately smelled explosives in baggage compartment #4. They knew the bomb went off in the aft of the fuselage and immediately shattered the tail. Suspicions were confirmed by analyzing the strange soot which covered fragments of sheet metal, a chemical reaction caused only by exploding dynamite.
Thirteen days later the FBI had their suspect in custody.
The investigation began by looking into the passengers who had purchased life insurance at Stapleton Airport prior to take off.
Daisie Eldora King was one of them. Her son had a criminal record. He had been arrested on a forgery charge in 1951. There had been an explosion at the Crown A Drive In, which he managed, an explosion that resulted in an insurance settlement. And he had given his mom a handsomely wrapped Christmas present to pack in her suitcase.
It didn’t take much for the FBI agents to have John Gilbert Graham singing like a canary.
I then wrapped about three or four feet of binding cord around the sack of dynamite to hold the dynamite sticks in place around the caps. The purpose of the two caps was in case one of the caps failed to function and ignite the dynamite … I placed the suitcase in the trunk of my car with another smaller suitcase…which my mother had packed to take with her on the trip.
The good news for John Gilbert Graham; in 1955 there were no laws which made it illegal to blow up an aircraft. So he was tried for the premeditated first degree murder of his mother.
Graham recanted his confession. He did not mount a credible defense. The evidence was damning. On January 11, 1957, John Gilbert Graham was executed in the gas chamber of the Colorado State Penitentiary.
Over the next seven years, three more commercial flights would be blown up, and insurance fraud was the detonator for each.
National Airlines Flight 967, a DC-7B, tail number N4891C, crashed into the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Louisiana on November 16, 1959. The aircraft was owned by Delta Air Lines and operated by National Airlines. Frank Eugene Todd was the captain. Making its final approach into New Orleans on a flight from Tampa, there was light rain and fog and a 1,200 foot ceiling when the aircraft plunged into 300 foot deep waters and killed all 42 people onboard.
A member of the U.S. Coast Guard staffing a lookout tower in nearby Pilottown, Louisiana, thirty miles west of the crash site, saw unusual activity in the sky that night.
He described it as a reddish light which glimmered for a few seconds. Then came a white trail of light which fell from the sky to the sea. He saw this at the time of the crash and in the vicinity of the crash. He heard nothing.
Could this have been something else? According to federal investigators with the Civil Aeronautics Board;
Subsequent investigation has failed to reveal the use of any marine signal flash or pyrotechnic, which might have had a somewhat similar appearance, at the time and place.
Thirty one months after the crash, an unusual delay, the Civil Aeronautics Board released its official report on National Flight 967 in June, 1962.
Because of the lack of physical evidence, the probable cause of this accident is unknown.
But because of the wide area across which wreckage was scattered, an explosion was suspected. And there was marvelous motive.
One of the passengers, William Taylor, was traveling with a ticket issued to a convicted criminal, Robert Vernon Spears. Taylor had called his boss and said he would be late for work. Then he showed up at the Tampa airport, bought a $37,500 insurance policy, and boarded the National flight for New Orleans.
The manifest showed Robert Vernon Spears aboard the flight, not William Taylor. Not only did Taylor take out insurance for himself, but Spears had a $100,000 policy in his name.
Taylor and Spears knew one another. They had served time together in the Florida State Prison at Raiford. Investigators were able to place Spears, who lived in Dallas, in Tampa on the day of the flight. But it could never be proven that Spears tricked Taylor into taking the flight and checking luggage loaded with a bomb.
Spears vanished after the crash. Following a national manhunt, he was arrested hiding out with his friend Bill Turska who lived on the outskirts of Phoenix. Spears was driving William Taylor’s car. While Spears was lying low in Arizona, his wife in Dallas was working the phone from their Gaston Avenue home trying to make arrangements for the Fidelity and Casualty Company in New York to pay the $100,000 settlement.
When Turska learned his houseguest Spears had supposedly been killed in the crash of National Flight 967 he called his lawyer, who advised moving Spears out of the house. The next day, FBI agents picked up Spears at the Bali Hi Motel on Grand Avenue in Phoenix. Inside the Plymouth owned by Taylor and being driven by Spears, agents found dynamite and caps.
At the time of his apprehension, Spears was free on $10,000 bail pending charges of criminal abortion. He carried a record of seven jail terms for fraud, forgery, larceny, impersonation, armed robbery.
But Spears was never charged with any crimes in connection with the crash of national Flight 967.
The Board (NTSB), with the aid of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has thoroughly investigated Mr. Spears’ activities in order to determine whether they might have had a bearing upon the accident. We have been unable to find any such relationship.
Robert Vernon Spears died in a Dallas hospital in 1969.
Just 51 days after the crash of National Flight 967, another commercial flight exploded in mid-air. It was another National Airlines Plane, Flight 2511, tail number, N8225H, a DC6-B en route from New York Idlewild to Miami.
A set of unusual circumstances preceded the take off. The regularly scheduled aircraft, a Boeing 707, was taken out of service because of cracked glass in a cockpit window. Some of the passengers were placed on the DC6-B and some flew to Miami on a Lockheed Electra.
There were 34 passengers and crew onboard the DC6-B. Dale Southard was the captain. At 3:31 in the crew checked in with National’s ground crew in Wilmington, NC, and reported a normal flight. At 3:38 an explosion shattered the plane and wreckage fell across Brunswick County, not far from the South Carolina state line.
At daylight a farmer in Bolivia, NC, called National Airlines to let them know wreckage was scattered across his fields. His fourteen year-old son who had gone out to feed the hogs was the first to see the wreckage.
Investigators arrived on the crash scene, where the plane was split into two sections. Most of the passengers were strapped to their seats,
Father John B. McGuirk came from St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in nearby Wilmington and walked through the site to administer last rites.
The local school was closed. Its gym became a morgue.
Investigators soon determined the body of one of the passengers was missing. They could not find Julian Frank.
Frank was a dashing young attorney. He lived in Westport, Connecticut, practiced law in New York City, and was acknowledged as one of the best bridge players on the New Haven Railroad commuter trains.
He was also under investigation by the FBI, the New York District Attorney’s Office, and the New York State Bar Association was churning through the first phases of a possible disbarment investigation.
Frank was a con artist. Claims against him prior to his death involved a mortgage swindle in Arizona, bogus fundraising for Missouri hospitals, and a real estate scheme.
While investigators, assisted by U.S. Marines, studied and retrieved wreckage from the swampy crash scene, they expanded the search for Frank’s body. It turned up three days later, discovered by a local charter pilot flying a Piper Cub. The dismembered body and a section of the DC6-B with three passenger seats was spotted in Snow’s Marsh, near the Cape Fear River, 16 miles from the crash scene outside Bolivar.
Frank’s body, missing a leg and a foot, was riddled with metal fragments and pieces of wire. The autopsy revealed he had been injured by a dynamite explosion which took place either on his lap or under his seat. When investigators studied the seat he had been assigned and nearby sections of fuselage they found both bone and bomb fragments.
Julian Frank’s widow Janet was not cut from the grifter’s cloth. In 1953 she arrived in New York City from Galesburg, Illinois as one of twenty young women chosen from 1,500 applicants to be guest editors at Mademoiselle. This celebrated group of interns lived together for the month of June at the Barbizon Hotel for Women at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street.
The most celebrated member of the group was Sylvia Plath, whose novel, The Bell Jar, was published in 1963. The novel draws largely on Plath’s Mademoiselle internship and one of its characters, Betsy, is modeled after Janet.
Plath arrived in New York as the winner of the fiction writing competition. Janet was the winner of the non-fiction, for a piece she wrote based on an interview she had done with Carl Sandburg.
She was later discovered at the Stork Club by Eileen Ford and appeared as a model in Ladies Home Journal, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, New Yorker, Life and Cosmopolitan. Janet met Julian Frank while the two were volunteering for the 1956 Adlai Stevenson campaign.
Five months after the crash of National Flight 2511, The Occidental Life Insurance Company of California filed suit in U.S. District Court, New Haven, requesting a declaratory judgment confining its liability in Julian Frank’s death to the amount of the premiums he had paid on the $500,000 insurance policy, rather than the face amount of the policy. The insurance company claimed that Frank “died by suicide.”
The Civil Aeronautics Board Report was released July 29, 1960.
The Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the detonation dynamite within the passenger cabin.
The following year, Julian Frank’s widow Janet, who had two young children, remarried and eventually settled in Menlo Park, California.
Continental Airlines Flight 11, tail number N70775, was en route from Chicago to Kansas City when it crashed into an alfalfa field west of State Highway 5 in Putnam County, Missouri the night of May 22, 1962.
A band of heavy thunderstorms was wedged between Chicago and Kansas City. Captain Fred Gray took the 707 to 39,000 feet and adjusted the flight plan to arc north of a squall line near the Mississippi River.
The explosion went off in the right rear washroom. It caused the tail section to sever from the fuselage.
All 45 people aboard were killed. One of them, Thomas G. Doty, had purchased a $300,000 worth of life insurance.
Witnesses on the ground saw a flash of fire in the sky between nine and nine thirty.
The landing gear was down and locked. The flaps were up. Investigators figured the plane had no horizontal speed when it pitched nose down, the engines were torn off and it crashed straight into the fields.
The Civil Aeronautics Board released its official aircraft accident report August 1, 1962.
Evidence clearly revealed that a high order detonating force had emanated from the lavatory. The physical evidence further showed that this force had originated in the waste towel bin underneath the wash basin counter of the right rear lavatory and had acted in all directions from this point.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory analyses of residues collected from the right rear lavatory and surrounding structure established that the explosive used was dynamite.
One of the FBI agents who investigated the crash was W. Mark Felt, who revealed before his death that he was Deep Throat, a key Watergate source for Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Felt, at the time the special agent in charge of the Kansas City bureau, assembled the team which determined that Doty had purchased dynamite before the flight.
They found out where he bought the explosives and what he paid. Twenty-nine cents a stick.
Doty was an erstwhile businessman driven by misguided ambition. Perennially boastful, even when an honor student in high school and at the University of Missouri, he seemed predisposed to easy money and suspicious of hard work.
A company Doty launched to manufacture fiberglass coffins failed. He took a job as a sales manager with Luzier Inc., a Kansas City cosmetics firm which is still in business. Two months before the crash he was forced to quit because of womanizing. One of the people he worked with at Luzier, Geneva Fraley, with whom he was planning to launch a new business, spent her last night alive with him at the Hotel Sherman at Clark and Randolph in Chicago. The site is now occupied by the State of Illinois’ James R. Thompson Center.
Three days after the crash, Doty was scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing in Kansas City court. He had been charged with assault and theft after allegedly beating a woman with a pistol, stealing her car and her purse.
Doty was a cocktailing diabetic raging out of control. Before leaving Kansas City to rendezvous with Geneva Fraley in Chicago, he bought a new Ford Fairlane. According to the finance department at Mission Motor Sales in Kansas City, Doty was adamant that life insurance would pay off any balance due in the event of his death.
When Doty was with Fraley in Chicago’s fading Hotel Sherman, his pregnant wife and his five year old daughter awaited his return. She said little of him after his death, and spent the rest of her life playing bridge and working in the Montgomery Ward credit department. Unable to collect anything more than a $12.50 premium refund on his $300,000 worth of life insurance, Naomi Doty died in Shawnee, Kansas in 2008.
And that was the last of it. Continental Flight 11 was the last of the flight insurance inspired bombings. Commercial aviation enjoyed a quiet and profitable stretch before the hijacking era arrived in 1968.
In 1969, there was an average of one and a half skyjackings a week.
D.B. Cooper became a folk hero. John Gilbert Graham, Robert Vernon Spears, Julian Frank and Thomas Doty became forgotten footnotes.