The Mass Murderer No One Has Ever Heard Of

Sept 2009

International terrorism.  A bomb on an airplane.  Federal courts convict another group of conspirators. 

Unfortunately, all of these are headlines we are now growing accustomed to living with as part of our daily lives.  Nothing strikes more fear into the hearts of air travelers than the thought of a terrorist slipping past security and pulling off the unimaginable. 

In light of the recent “compassionate release” of Libyan terrorist Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at a similar incident with a much different outcome – at least for the suspect. 

December 21, 1988, was one of those days most people will be able to look back and recall exactly where they were when they heard the news that a Pan American Airlines Boeing 747-121 Jumbo Jet was blown up over Lockerbie Scotland.   A bomb in the cargo hold detonated and sent the giant plane crashing into the ground.  243 passengers and 16 crew members were killed that terrible day. 

Unfortunately, it was not the first time an American airliner had been blown out of the sky in such a manner.  To find that dubious honor one would have to go back more than fifty years. 

November 1, 1955.  Flight 629, a United Airlines DC-6B, took off from Denver’s Stapleton Airport bound for Portland Oregon and eventually Seattle Washington.  The pilot was Lee Hall, an experienced WWII veteran.  The plane was only minutes into the air when a huge explosion literally blew the plane into thousands of pieces.  Flaming wreckage was scattered over tracts of farmland and sugar beats near Longmont Colorado. 

Of the forty four on board there were no survivors. 

On November 7, 1955, the Chief of Investigations of the Civil Aeronautics Board officially stated that there were indications of sabotage.  At the same time, he asked the FBI start a criminal investigation.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover responded with eight agents to assist in the investigation.  Agents began by interviewing witnesses to the crash and employees handling the plane prior to the crash.  The agents also traced all cargo, mail and baggage on the plane and conducted background investigations of the passengers and crew. 

On November 13, 1955, the FBI announced pieces of the wreckage revealed foreign deposits of sodium carbonate and sulfur compounds.  Now they were looking for a bomb. 
Days later, the focus of the investigation moved towards a twenty three year old man named John Gilbert Graham.  Several tips had come in that just moments before the flight was set to depart, Graham was feverishly feeding money into an insurance policy vending machine in one of the airport terminals.  A check of the passenger roster revealed Grahams mother, Mrs. Daisie King, was on the flight and Graham would collect more than $37,000 upon her death. 

Police took Graham into custody and he ultimately confessed to placing a bomb in his mother’s luggage however it was not for the insurance.  Graham claimed he was simply motivated by how his mother treated him as a little boy. 

The sensational trial that followed resulted in Colorado becoming the first state to officially sanction the use of television cameras to broadcast criminal trials. 

May 5, 1956: The jury only deliberated sixty-nine minutes before finding Graham guilty of first degree murder and recommending the death penalty.  Two of Graham's attorneys immediately appealed however the request was denied just ten days later.   Graham then made it clear he did not wish to appeal his sentence any further.  With that, justice moved fast for Graham, on January 11, 1957, he was executed in the gas chamber at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City.

In 2005, a book about the Graham case was published on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing: Mainliner Denver: The Bombing of Flight 629 by Andrew J. Field (Johnson Books, 2005).

John G. Graham in his jail cell awaiting trial
The remains of Flight 629