On a cool night on November 1st, 1955 the skies over Longmont, Colorado were briefly aglow with a strangeness that would grip not only the small farming community but also the nation. The United Airlines Flight 629, taking 39 passengers and five crew members from Stapleton Airport in Denver, Colorado to Portland, Oregon, was blown apart only 11 minutes into its flight. All lives were lost, and many more were changed in an instant.
There are a great deal of ways this case can be presented, but I would like to first take some time telling just a little about the victims of this tragedy. The passengers and crew were everyday folks just like you or me; some could have been our close friends or relatives. In fact, there were some that were taking their first airplane trip across the country. Others who were returning home, starting new lives somewhere else. There was even a mother and infant son traveling to be with a father serving in Japan, who had only seen his son briefly after he was born. It is sad all these lives were lost in this horrific incident; I would like to keep the victims first in our thoughts as their families have suffered greatly because of this.
A nation in mourning brought about a pretty amazing timeline of events following the crash. In fact, the FBI was assisting in the investigation the very next day, November 2, 1955. The local news papers, The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, were carrying multiple articles on their front pages that were also being broadcasted on TV all across the country. It was a much different time than we modern folk are accustomed to: news or events back then took time to reach across the nation like days or weeks, not anything like our instant information access of today. It was an amazing feat to bring all of these national agencies together and all of them working with local law enforcement: United Airlines personnel and even the plane’s manufacturer, Douglas Aircraft, were bringing new investigative techniques, utilizing new identification methods, and so many other tactics all before the nation’s eyes. Congress would pass laws within a year from this horrific event, Colorado also saw some of its laws weren’t ready for something like this of this magnitude, the state also would enact many changes because of this as well.
I grew up in a sleepy town in Colorado myself so, I can relate to the slowness of yesteryear but not everyone can. In farming communities like the one I grew up in, life has a different pace, it can seem there are two rates, slow and slower. Even today when I am around that area, it is not uncommon to be caught behind a farming tractor going down a highway at only 15 to 20 miles an hour. If I am being honest, this impacts my choices of roads I travel at certain times of the year. I have spent too much time in cities where the pace is rushed here and there, so while I appreciate the hard work of farmers and ranchers, I forget that it does take time to do what they do. I hope this gives just a smidge of an idea of just how amazing it was that so many folks were able to come together so quickly. And the importance all of the people involved with investigating this must have felt. There was clearly a sense of urgency to get answers. Why did this happen? What caused it? What can we as a nation do to avoid this from happening again? And as the investigation answered some of these questions, it raised new questions.
Let’s go back to that yesteryear and try our hand at being gumshoes to see what we can find. Our story is more than just a timeline of events so we will start with the crash and then move on to the investigation and conclude with some individual history information about the victims and their lives.
November 1, 1955, United Airlines flight 629 took off on its flight at 6:52 pm. At approximately 7:03 pm, the first bright light and explosive sounds were heard and seen over Longmont in Colorado. Within only a minute or two, a second explosion was felt and heard when remnants of the DC-6B fell to the ground on a sugar beet farm near highway 287 and Highway 66. The local farmer and his two sons rushed to the scene. The local authorities were called to the area shortly thereafter. Within only a few hours, searchers were organized and inspected several miles where an area of wreckage was determined and there was not any evidence of survivors. The next morning on November 2, the FBI fingerprint experts arrived from Washington D.C. and joined the Denver Field Office of the FBI, the Civil Aeronautics Board, United Airlines officials, and local law enforcement to begin their investigation. A temporary morgue was set up in Greeley at the National Guard Armory and the identification of all passengers was started. All the wreckage from the plane was gathered and taken to a large warehouse at Stapleton Airport from November 2 through November 7, 1955. As all of this was taking place, four teams were sent out into the local community and over 200 interviews were conducted of locals and documented. Each of the four teams of interviewers consisted of a Civil Aeronautics Board member, United Airlines official or employee; some of the teams also had assistance from local law enforcement or a member of the FBI. Of the 200 interviews, the FBI reported that 37 were of value to the investigation.
In Greeley, the identification of the victims began. When the fingerprint experts arrived to begin their work they were informed nine people had already been identified by relatives and friends or by personal effects and had been removed from the armory. The remaining 35 bodies were fingerprinted, and 21 were positively identified with fingerprint analysis from various files of the FBI. Stop and think about this a second Grim folk, this was 1955 and they had over 60% of the victim’s fingerprints on file. I have to shake my head at this, it just seems unreal to me. This alone is pretty amazing, but within 48 hours of the crash every victim was identified.
In the warehouse the airplane investigation was no less impressive, this was only the second case of domestic terrorism (our modern term) in US history. To help determine what might have happened to bring the plane down so soon after takeoff, the investigators reassembled, the plane; this was a new technique that is still used today to investigate crashes. And they managed this in a week! Y’all I have spent that long working on a 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzle so, yeah, for me this speaks volumes of the investigator’s determination and passion to find answers. Once the plane was reassembled the investigators were able to determine the explosion originated in luggage compartment four of the underbelly of the plane and that explosives were the cause.
So many things happening at once, wow! On November 7th, the investigation turned to the passengers, digging into their lives, their families, friends, business dealings to see who could be responsible for planting a bomb on the plane. No stones were left unturned, these officials had a mission. They ultimately ended up interviewing one of the passenger’s. Daisy Walker King’s son Gilbert Graham who was ultimately found to be responsible for bringing down flight 629.
The FBI file on “Jack” Gilbert Graham goes into great detail about his motivations for making the bomb, his volatile relationship with his mother, his psychological abandonment issues, and his laundry list of previous crimes. I am only going to briefly summarize these, but if anyone would like further details there will be links to the references at the end of this article. I want to focus on other aspects of this case. Having said all of this, let’s get back to our story, shall we?
When the FBI first interviewed Jack, and his wife, they were initially just trying to gather background on his mother, verifying he and his family had seen her off on her flight from Denver, and what the nature of her trip was for. But Jack’s answers seemed to differ a bit from his wife’s so this caused further investigation into his history and well, they turned up with more questions. These investigators were sharp. Some of the inconsistencies were around Jack adding a “gift” to his mom’s luggage and his purchase of a life insurance policy at the airport in which he was the sole beneficiary. The FBI began to scrutinize Jack and found he had quite the history, so they dug deep and found that his criminal history included forgery, theft, allegations of arson, and reports of domestic violence on his wife reported by his sister. As well as a potential insurance fraud on a newly purchased truck. The FBI found reports of the volatility between mother and son from employees of the restaurant Daisy owned and Jack managed. There were statements that they fought like cats and dogs reported in various Rocky Mountain News articles published in November 1955. Eventually, all this ended up with in depth questioning of Jack and while, I found some conflicting information on what exactly led up to his confession, so I am going to go with the FBI documentation. Soon after his confession he transferred all his possessions to his wife and sought a public defender from the state. He ended up with three lawyers representing him once he was arrested officially.
The arrest was an item of interest for the state of Colorado, the prosecutors wanted to charge Jack with multiple murder, something for bringing down the plane, but none of these laws existed at the time. All the state of Colorado could charge Jack with was a single murder, for that of his mother, Daisy. Let this sink in Grim folk, seriously, there is a confession that includes making a bomb out of 25 sticks of dynamite, his motivation was insurance money ($37,500 then which would be $354,293 today) and to get his mother out of his life. He understood clearly and acknowledged that in the commission of his mother’s murder others would die. This man had serious issues, which are unquestionable. I just have the hardest time with the limitation on Jack’s charges, I am questioning if justice was truly served. This case was a clear indication some laws needed to be changed or added to address the level of destruction and tragedy.
Jack attempted suicide on February 10, 1956, however a guard at the Denver Jail foiled his attempt. From this point, Jack was taken to the Colorado State Hospital and his sanity was evaluated by four different psychiatrists to verify if he was mentally sane and competent to stand trial. He was cleared and the trial was set to begin on April 16, 1956.
Before the trial could begin though there were other firsts the judicial system had to face and this would be the first televised trial for the state of Colorado. In addition, there were telephone wires to record the audio to be broadcast for immediate coverage by newspapers. In our modern lives, we routinely watch court TV but this was truly a first for Colorado and the nation. Nineteen days after the trial began the jury came back with a guilty verdict after only 69 minutes of deliberation. The jury had found Jack guilty of murder of the first degree punishable by death.
“Jack’s defense team filed an appeal and Jack took the stand and said he did not wish a new trial and he did not want his case reviewed by the supreme court; his defense team filed the appeal without his consent. The judge sentenced Jack to be put to death the week of August 26, 1956, the day, the hour, and the minute to be selected by the warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary, in Canon City Colorado.” This was a direct excerpt from the FBI report from their website.
Again, Jacks defense lawyers filed another appeal that was later denied and a new execution was set for the week ending January 12, 1957. Jack was executed in the gas chamber at the Colorado State Penitentiary on Friday, January 11, 1957. Jack died just 12 days before his 25th birthday, he was cremated and, in a bit of irony, his ashes were scattered around his mother’s grave in Denver.