Early one November evening, United Airlines Flight 629 takes off from a Colorado airport with 44 people on board. Then, just 11 minutes into the journey, disaster strikes. The airplane bursts into flames, sending burning debris tumbling to the ground below. And, more heartbreakingly still, no one manages to escape from the blaze – and the subsequent crash – with their life. But when investigators take a closer look at the wreckage of the craft, they discover something suspicious in a victim’s purse – something, in fact, that may just explain how this tragedy came to pass.
Flight 629 had previously landed at Stapleton International Airport – the main airfield in Denver, CO – at 6:11 p.m. on November 1, 1955. Having begun its journey at La Guardia Airport in New York City, the aircraft had also stopped in Chicago before arriving in Denver.
While at Denver, the plane waited on the tarmac for refueling and for a new crew to take over. Then, at 6:52 p.m., it took off again, bound for Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. Sadly, though, the flight would never reach its final destination.
Just after 7:00 p.m., you see, Flight 629 crashed at a farm outside the Colorado city of Longmont. And from the very next day, representatives from both United Airlines and the Civil Aeronautics Board interviewed witnesses to try to uncover why the plane had gone down. Perhaps nothing could’ve prepared them, though, for the shocking climax to this particular case.
Over the course of three days, interviewers spoke to some 200 residents who lived within 140 square miles of the crash. Of these individuals, however, less than 40 gave testimony that was deemed to be useful. And in order to further dig up useful information as to the cause of the incident, agents from the FBI therefore joined forces with the Civil Aeronautics Board.
Then, as they combed through the wreckage of Flight 629, investigators made some unusual observations. For starters, they noted that the tail of the plane had been cleanly severed from the rest of the fuselage. Indeed, in the FBI’s own words, this section of the craft seemed “as though cut with a knife.” That wasn’t all, either. Bizarrely, the tail had come to rest a full mile and a half from the nose and engines.
Interestingly, both the nose and tail of the plane had also remained in almost pristine condition; the middle part of the fuselage, by contrast, had been devastated. And as they looked around, officials discovered pieces of that fuselage scattered across a wide area. But that wasn’t the only strange thing about the crash of Flight 629.
For five days, experts combed the wreckage in an attempt to determine the cause of the disaster. They eventually concluded, however, that there was no evidence to suggest a plane malfunction of any kind. And on November 7, the Civil Aeronautics Board officially announced its shocking conclusion: Flight 629 had been deliberately sabotaged.
Then, the very next day, the FBI launched a criminal investigation into the crash. And after gathering the testimonies of eye-witnesses, agents subsequently began to piece together a timeline of what had happened to the fateful flight. Apparently, as late as 6:56 p.m., the aircraft had sent a transmission confirming that the flight was proceeding as planned.
Soon enough, though, things went wrong. And on the ground, residents living near Longmont were witness to some terrible scenes. “[We] heard a big explosion – it sounded like a big bomb went off. And I ran out, and I saw a big fire right over the cattle corral,” Conrad Hopp told The New York Times in November 1955. “I hollered back to my wife that she’d better call the fire department and ambulance because a plane was going to crash. Then I turned around, and it blew up in the air.”
Eventually, investigators were able to determine that Flight 629 had exploded in mid-air. And even though the craft hadn’t shown any previous signs of distress, it had apparently detonated with some force. According to witnesses, the incident was immediately followed by streamers of fire falling from the plane.
Bystanders additionally reported seeing a flare ignite from the plane. Then, after the craft tumbled to the ground, another explosion occurred – one that was likely caused by the fuel tanks blowing up. And at the same time, an air traffic controller at Stapleton Airport spotted two strange lights in the sky.
So, after analyzing the witness reports, investigators finally announced the official version of events. At 7:03 p.m. on November 1, Flight 629 had exploded some eight miles to the east of Longmont. Afterwards, the craft had plummeted almost 11,000 feet to the ground, ending up in a fireball that nobody could survive.
Yes, although rescuers soon arrived at the scene, there was little that could be done for the 39 passengers and five crew members. And following the incident, the victims’ bodies were all taken to a temporary morgue at Greeley, CO, where the FBI began the heartbreaking task of identification.
Almost immediately after the crash, nine of the 44 bodies were identified and removed from the morgue. The process of putting names to the other victims proved more difficult, however, leading the FBI to conduct fingerprint tests in its search for answers. Then, when the results came back, agents found that 21 of the deceased were actually already on record.
Yes, while fingerprinting was not as commonly used in the 1950s as it is today, there were still a number of occasions in which individuals were obliged to commit these details to record. For example, as six victims had all once had jobs at defence plants during WWII, their prints were already in the FBI’s files.
Five other sets of prints were on file, meanwhile, as the people to whom they had belonged had previously served with the United States armed services. Another two victims had been employees of the U.S. government, while one Canadian couple had had their prints on record because they had applied for naturalization the previous year. On top of that, a further individual was identified because he had requested that the government keep a record of his prints.
Investigators were also able to identify all five crew members through fingerprints kept on file by United Airlines. And while there were still 14 victims that could not be named, relatives came forward to claim some of the men and women as the days progressed. Personal items that had been recovered from the wreck were matched with the victims, too.
Ultimately, then, the investigators identified every victim of the tragedy. The youngest had been a boy who was aged just 13 months old, while the oldest had been an 81-year-old woman named Lela McLain. But what – or who – was to blame for their senseless deaths?
In their attempt to get to the truth, the experts began poring over every inch of the wreckage of Flight 629. Piece by piece, the fragments of the craft were taken to Stapleton Airport, where it was reassembled in a warehouse that was kept under guard. And, soon, officials were able to pinpoint the location of the fatal blast.
“This point of explosion was further pinpointed as being almost directly across the cargo compartment from the cargo loading door,” the FBI later explained in its write-up of the incident. “These conclusions were based on the fact that the stringers at this point had failed in outward bending, and pieces of heavy fuselage skin recovered and fitted into the area had been shattered into small pieces.”
And although investigators studying the plane’s cargo were unable to trace any items of an explosive nature, they did recover five pieces of metal that appeared to have come from some kind of destructive device. Besides that, they also detected traces of materials that were consistent with the detonation of dynamite.
So, with human error ruled out and no cargo identifiable as the source of the blast, the authorities began to look for another explanation. Had someone intentionally smuggled an explosive device on board? And if so, who had been the target? Hoping to get to the bottom of the mystery, analysts therefore began looking into the backgrounds of the passengers.
Soon, in fact, the FBI began focusing its investigation on the passengers who lived in the Denver area, as they were the most likely to have been the target of a personal attack. And, interestingly, agents discovered that some of the victims had taken out substantial insurance policies before the trip.
According to reports, six of the passengers on board Flight 629 had insurance policies that each possessed a maximum value of $62,500. Meanwhile, four were each insured for up to $50,000, and an additional two were each secured for up to $37,500. Then investigators discovered a third $37,500 policy that had been taken out against the life of Mrs Daisie E. King – and this, as it happened, would prove crucial to the case.
The 53-year-old King had been on her way to visit her daughter in Alaska when she had perished in the crash. However, unlike some of the other passengers, she had left little trace of her fateful journey behind. In fact, only fragments of the suitcase that she’d brought on board were subsequently discovered – suggesting, perhaps, that her luggage had been near the explosion.
King’s handbag was a different story, though. Indeed, as they picked through the items inside, investigators were able to piece together many pieces of the tragic woman’s life. Within the purse, there was $1,000 worth of traveler’s checks, for example, along with a checkbook, a receipt for some rented secure storage and two keys.
But the real breakthrough came when the authorities discovered multiple newspaper clippings and letters inside King’s bag. Apparently, these covered the exploits of John “Jack” Gilbert Graham, who was King’s son from a previous marriage. And according to the reports, Graham was a criminal, suspected of forgery and wanted in Denver County since 1951.
Born in 1932, Graham had been placed in an orphanage when his father died, as the suddenly poverty-stricken King could no longer afford to care for her son. And even though King’s fortunes were ultimately reversed thanks to a flourishing business career, she did not return for her estranged child.
So, while King and her son eventually reconciled in 1954, Graham apparently bore a grudge towards the woman who had abandoned him. To add to that, investigators soon discovered that he was named as the beneficiary on his mother’s life insurance policy. Intrigued, the team therefore began to dig around in the family’s past for answers.
And, alarmingly, a sordid picture of Graham began to build. Apparently, a restaurant that King had previously owned had been once damaged in an explosion, and following the incident her son had cashed in on the property’s insurance. An acquaintance of Graham’s also alleged that the other man had recently collected a payout for a truck that he had intentionally wrecked.
In fact, the deeper they dug, the more suspicious Graham’s past became. According to records, he had been working as a payroll clerk in Denver back in 1951 and had subsequently gone on the run after forging checks to the value of $4,200. Graham remained at large for six months before he was arrested in Texas for a different crime.
Then, after completing a 60-day sentence for smuggling whiskey, Graham was released to face the forgery charge, for which he ultimately received five years’ probation. At the time, however, court records showed that the young man had had a troubled past and was not aware that he’d committed a serious crime. And for a while, at least, it seemed as though Graham really had reformed.
Graham went on to find work as a mechanic, in any case, and started a family with his wife. But had he really changed for the better? Well, on November 10, 1955, investigators conducted their first interview with King’s bereaved son. And at first, he seemed happy to discuss his mother and the events surrounding the crash.
Soon, though, Graham’s story began to unravel. You see, while he had told the authorities that King had been responsible for packing her own bags, his wife, Gloria, confessed otherwise. Instead, she claimed that she’d seen Graham preparing a package for his mother on the morning of November 1.
So, with suspicion mounting over Graham, investigators conducted a search of his home – and one that ultimately proved fruitful. In the garage, agents found bomb-making supplies that matched those recovered from the wreckage of Flight 629. More life insurance policies were also dug up, and in total these were worth a small fortune – although they had not been signed.
In the face of this overwhelming evidence, then, Graham confessed. Apparently, he had hidden dynamite within a small suitcase and then given the bomb to his unsuspecting mother to take on board. However, when the suspect finally appeared in court under charges of murder, he attempted to argue an insanity defense, and this led to him being sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.
And while Graham was being interviewed at the facility, his case took a bizarre twist. Reportedly, he told psychiatrists that his confession had been inspired by a photograph on the FBI office wall. This image, he claimed, showed explosives being dug up in the Second World War, and it had motivated him in turn to invent the dynamite story.
Ultimately, Graham’s plan did not work, and the psychiatrists deemed him sane. The suspect was therefore sent back to jail, where he attempted to take his own life. Nevertheless, Graham survived and went on to reiterate that he had murdered his mother. And although he was aware of the innocent victims who had been caught up in his vendetta, he was said to have showed little remorse about their deaths.
Graham was subsequently convicted of King’s murder and executed on January 11, 1957. But, as it turned out, the criminal’s actions had consequences far beyond his own death. At the time of the crash, you see, there was no measure in place that made it illegal to bomb an aircraft. Eight months after the the tragedy, then, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a new bill specifying that attacks on commercial airliners were, of course, against the law. And so the legislation remains, as the strange legacy of a family feud that got way out of hand.