PDX-bound airliner was blown out of sky for mom’s insurance
Jack Graham had planned for the airliner to explode over the Wyoming mountains; but the plane got out late, and the bomb went off a few minutes after takeoff — while he sat with his wife and son in an airport cafe.
By Finn J.D. John — November 26, 2017
Stapleton Airfield, Denver, Colorado — Nov. 1, 1955. The killer is sitting with his wife and young son at a little airport coffee shop, chewing on his fingernails, trying to act natural.
No doubt he’s going over the numbers again and again in his mind. According to the schedule, United Airlines Flight 629 was supposed to arrive at 6 p.m., and be on its way to Portland at 6:30. That’s what the killer planned for when he slipped a sack containing a 25-stick dynamite bomb into his mother’s suitcase after they arrived at the terminal at around 5:30 p.m. He set the timer for 90 minutes, so that it would go off 30 minutes into the flight. By that time, he calculated, it would be over some of the most rugged, mountainous country in Wyoming. Everyone would assume the plane had crashed into one of those mountains, and even if they got wise, they wouldn’t be able to get to the wreck site until the late-spring thaw — leaving him with plenty of time to cash out his inheritance and collect the payouts from the various life insurance policies he’d taken out on Mother.
It was a well-thought-out plan. But the airplane was already 11 minutes late when it arrived from New York. And now, sitting at that coffee shop table waiting as the scheduled 6:30 departure time comes and goes, the killer is meditating on how badly awry things could go, and trying to keep his nervous excitement secret from his family.
It turns out one of the other passengers — President Eisenhower’s deputy secretary of public health, Harold Sandstead, who’s on his way to Oregon State University to give a speech — is running late. Sandstead’s connecting flight from D.C. has been delayed, and he’s a big enough VIP that they’re holding the flight for him.
So there he sits, this killer, with his family, at that little airport coffee shop, trying to eat, occasionally hurrying to the bathroom to vomit his nerves as the clock ticks on and the doomed airliner waits on the tarmac: 6:48 ... 6:49 ... 6:50 ... will the plane be delayed long enough for it to still be on the ground at 7 o’clock? If so, will the blast kill Mother, or will she survive ... and figure out what he tried to do? Is he about to lose ... everything?
What a sigh of relief he must have breathed when Flight 629 finally taxied into position and, at 6:52 p.m., launched itself into the black Colorado night sky.
The airliner was supposed to explode over the mountains, but it never even made it out of sight of the airfield. At 7:03 p.m., the air traffic controllers in the tower saw two bright lights appear suddenly in the sky northwest of the airport, then fall toward the ground. When they reached the ground, the bottoms of the clouds were suddenly lit up with another bright flash. It sure looked like an explosion.
Controllers got on the air and called for welfare checks from all the aircraft in the area. Flight 629 did not respond.
Meanwhile, telephone calls were pouring into law enforcement agencies from witnesses who had seen it. And some of those witnesses were already suspicious. If the plane had exploded in flight, how could it explode again when it hit the ground?
All that night and the next day, local first responders worked to recover the bodies — all 44 of them. The next day, FBI agents arrived. At the time, identification wasn’t required to get on an airplane, so the airline didn’t know who everyone was; with its extensive file of fingerprints, the Bureau was able to help.
But the Bureau was also looking into the cause, and quickly figured out what had happened. There was explosive residue all over the remains of the checked baggage, and the tail had been blown clean off the plane.
They looked at the luggage that was most heavily damaged in the blast; a 53-year-old businesswoman named Daisie E. King was on that list. They checked to see which of the passengers had air-crash insurance, purchased from vending machines in the airport; Daisie E. King was on that list too. Then they looked into her background, and quickly figured out who their number-one suspect would be: Ms. King’s lean, squirrely 23-year-old son from a previous marriage, Jack Gilbert Graham.
Jack Gilbert Graham was born in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. When, five years later, his father died, Daisie was forced by poverty to lodge young Jack at an orphanage. And although Daisie remarried in 1941, to wealthy rancher John Earl King, she didn’t bring Jack home from the orphanage.
Doubtless that’s because new husband King refused to allow it. Whether it was because of abuse suffered in the orphanage, or just a natural baked-in sociopathy, Jack turned out to be the very prototype of a bad seed. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and embarked on a career as a small-time hoodlum. His rap sheet soon grew to include bootlegging, gun possession, and a serious forgery case in which he stole checks from his employer, cashed 43 of them at $100 each, bought a convertible with the proceeds and went on the lam.
But by 1954, he seemed to be doing better. He was married, with two kids. Daisie, his mother, very much hoped he was ready to settle down; and after the death of her new husband, she found herself in a position to help him. So she opened a fast-food restaurant in Denver — a broasted-chicken joint called the Crown-A Drive-In — and set Jack up as manager.
This did not go especially well. Worse, being entrusted with high-value things seemed to have inspired Jack to get into insurance fraud. Soon there was a strange gas explosion at the new restaurant, from which Jack collected $1,200 in insurance money. Shortly thereafter, he turned in an insurance claim for his new 1955 Chevrolet pickup, which he said had stalled on the railroad track just in time to get hit by an oncoming locomotive. Nobody had been able to prove anything, but given Jack’s track record, it seemed funny.
And now he was in a fair way to collect a whole lot more insurance money, wasn’t he?
Jack Graham, of course, denied everything when the FBI started asking questions. But after the Bureau searched his home and found bomb supplies there (along with another $37,500 in insurance policies taken out against his mother’s life, on which he apparently intended to forge her signature), he confessed.
In preparation for the trial, federal authorities found, no doubt to their astonishment, that there was no law against blowing up an airplane. Of course, this oversight was quickly rectified; but that didn’t help them with prosecuting Graham. The most they could get him for was “sabotage during peacetime,” which carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Luckily, though, there was a law against murder — a state law, not a federal one. So the case was thrown over to the state of Colorado — which immediately got busy preparing to send Graham to the gas chamber.
This appears to have been the point at which Graham actually realized how much trouble he was in. Before that, as the Life Magazine reporter noted, his attitude was sullenly optimistic. “He seems to feel he’ll be able to get out,” a jailer told the reporter at the time.
But when the case was turned over to the state district attorney, and the phrase “gas chamber” started getting bandied about, suddenly Graham was recanting his confession and exploring the possibility of an insanity plea.
Psychiatrists evaluated him at the state hospital. To them, he said some very odd things; whether they were sincere, or represented him pretending to be crazy, is unclear. “(I) realize that there were 50 or 60 people carried on a DC-6,” the FBI file quotes him saying, “but the number of people to be killed made no difference to me; it could have been a thousand. When their time comes, there is nothing they can do about it.”
But then he followed up that cold-blooded morsel by adding that it was a great relief to tell the doctor about it, because he had been “quite conscience-stricken.”
Unimpressed, the doctors certified him as sane.
After that, the outcome of the trial was never really in doubt. Jack Graham was convicted on one count of first-degree murder on May 5, 1956; and, after the usual round of appeals, he was ushered into the gas chamber at the Colorado State Penitentiary on Jan. 11, 1957. In his final words, there by the gas-chamber door, he doubled down on what he’d told the doctors earlier.
“As far as feeling remorse for these people (the 43 other passengers), I don’t,” he said. “I can’t help it. Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.”
And that was just the way it went for Graham as well, about 10 minutes later, at 8:08 p.m.
(Sources: “Famous Cases: Jack Gilbert Graham,” fbi.gov, 12 Jun 2007; “A Case of 44 Mid-Air Murders,” Life, 28 Nov 1955; Bovsun, Mara. “Justice Story: Son Plants Bomb in Mom’s Suitcase ...,” Long Island Daily News, 4 May 2013; Curtin, Dave. “Victims en route to varied locations,” The Denver Post, 30 Oct 2005)