By Sam Garfield


Just twelve minutes after taking off from Denver’s Stapelton Airfield in the early evening of November 1, 1955, a DC-6B airliner, United Airlines flight 629, exploded in the skies of northern Colorado, killing all 39 passengers and a crew of five. The flaming wreckage fell over eight miles of farmland near the community of Longmont, in the St. Vrain River Valley. Following an investigation by the FBI and the Civil Aeronautics Bureau, the father of two small children confessed to placing dynamite in his mother’s suitcase. He had hoped to cash-in on the $37,000 worth of insurance policies he had taken out at an airport vending machine just before his mother boarded the airline.

Jan. 12, 1957 

(Denver) –The life of John Gilbert Graham, 24, ended yesterday in the gas chamber of the Colorado State Penitentiary. The surreal developments –from explosion, to investigation, to confession, to a federal charge of sabotage and a Colorado charge of murder, to confession recantation, to attempted suicide, to trial, to murder conviction– of the past year or so have unfolded in Poe-like fashion, leaving scores of families scarred forever.

Jack Heil, farmer

My family and I heard this explosion. We looked at each other and then we ran outside and it looked to us like a skyrocket. We could hear it coming closer and closer and I thought it was going to hit the house. It sounded like the motor was still running after the first explosion. Minutes after the plane hit, there was another explosion.

W.A. Patterson, United Airlines

As indicated by the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Longmont accident was caused by an explosion, while the aircraft was at normal altitude on its assigned course of flight. The explosion was completely foreign to the aircraft or airline operation.

John Gilbert Graham, his confession to the FBI

After my mother checked her bags, my wife and I went to the passenger gate and said good-bye. I watched the plane taxi away. I was nervous because the whole thing was late. When the plane was in the air I took my family to the airport restaurant. Before we left I heard there had been a plane crash 40 miles away. Later on that night at home my wife and I heard on the radio that everyone aboard was killed. I collected parts of the bomb –the dynamite– on October 18th or 19th. Yes, I was thinking that early of putting it in my mother’s baggage. I got 25 sticks or half sticks of dynamite. Then I got a clock with a 90-minute duration, and two dynamite caps. I bought a six-volt dry cell battery and eight feet of wire. I wrapped the dynamite around the battery and caps. I connected the battery to both caps. This was in case one cap failed to go off when the timer made the connection. I wanted to make sure.

Gloria Graham, his wife

I’m not going to believe a thing until I see Jack. I still love him and I’m right behind him…they (FBI) said Jack had confessed he sabotaged the plane. I collapsed. I haven’t been able to find out anything. They haven’t allowed me to see him.

John Gilbert Graham, his jail cell recantation

I don’t remember signing any statement for the FBI. At no time did I put anything in her luggage. All I did with mother’s suitcases was carry them for her. One of them had a broken hinge and I bought straps from an army surplus store and strapped it up. My wife and son, Allen, went with me when I drove mother to the airport. We checked mother in for Flight 629, then went to the insurance vending machines. We didn’t know how to work them. Finally we had five policies. One was blank and mother signed three of the others. The last one we just didn’t get her to sign.

– – — –

Because the severest federal penalty for peacetime sabotage at the time of Flight 629 explosion was 10 years in prison, the FBI turned Graham over to Colorado authorities. He was prosecuted on a single murder charge, the simplest possible route to conviction: the murder of his mother, Mrs. Daisy King, 55, by placing a dynamite time bomb in her luggage. In February of last year, Graham attempted to hang himself in his Denver jail cell. A guard, who noticed Graham’s irregular breathing, thwarted the attempted. He tore the makeshift noose from Graham’s neck and applied artificial respiration. On May 4, 1956, a Colorado district court jury convicted Graham of first-degree murder and recommended he be executed. Graham waived his right to appeal.


John Gilbert Graham, just before his death

As far as feeling remorse for these people, I don’t. I can’t help it. Everyone pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.


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