The Los Angeles Times: An Astonishing Terror Bombing

From serial killer John Jourbet last week, this week we look at another bombing case. In 1910, labor unrest led to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times office building.

The Los Angeles Times is Bombed

At 1:07 a.m. on October 1, 1910, a powerful dynamite bomb blasted the three-story Los Angeles Times building at First Street and Broadway. The bomb consisted of a suitcase containing 16 sticks of dynamite and a windup alarm clock as a detonator. The bomber left the suitcase in an alleyway known as “Ink Alley” between the Times building and the Times annex. Nearby were barrels of flammable printer’s ink.

The Los Angeles Times building at First and Broadway in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Times building at First and Broadway in Los Angeles

Even with 16 sticks of dynamite, the bomb didn’t have the power to destroy the entire Times building. But the explosion ignited the natural gas piped into the building. As a result, the building was almost completely devastated. At least 20 Times employees working on an extra (the Times was a morning paper) lost their lives. Many more suffered injuries.

A second bomb was placed outside the homes of Harrison G. Otis and Felix Zeehandelaar. Otis owned the Times. Zeehandelaar was secretary of a company having a dispute with the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union.

Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1910
Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1910

The Los Angeles Times Investigates

Otis printed numerous anti-union editorials. He was also leader of the Merchants and Manufacturing Association, a well-connected group of business owners. Believing he was the intended target of the bomb, Otis hired detective William J. Burns to find the bombers. (Burns would later head a little-known bureau in the Justice Department called the Division of Investigation. At least he did, until J. Edgar Hoover replaced him.)

Detective William John Burns arrested the McNamara brothers for the Times bombing
Detective William John Burns arrested the McNamara brothers for the Times bombing

Burns’ investigation led straight to the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union and its treasurer, John J. McNamara. After wringing a confession out of one Ortie McManigal, Burns tracked down McNamara and his brother, James. Skipping the legal niceties of extradition, Burns got the two brothers to California where they faced prosecution for the bombing.

James (L) and John (R) McNamara, the Lost Angeles Times bombers
James (L) and John (R) McNamara, the Lost Angeles Times bombers

Union members and supporters raised a substantial defense fund. The union pleaded with famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow to take the case for $50,000. Darrow reluctantly agreed.

The Los Angeles Times Bombers on Trial

Public opinion clearly supported the McNamara brothers. But Darrow’s own investigation kept turning up evidence that the brothers were guilty. Worse still, members of the defense team were trying to bribe the jury. But in all fairness, they were only trying to match the prosecution’s own bribery tactics.

Defense attorney Clarence Darrow
Defense attorney Clarence Darrow

Darrow managed to work out a deal where the brothers would avoid the death penalty by pleading guilty. Consequently, they did. As a result, James confessed to setting the explosives and received a life sentence. His brother, John, received 15 years in prison for an unrelated bombing.

Attorney Earl Rogers got a mistrial in Darrow's bribery trial
Attorney Earl Rogers got a mistrial in Darrow’s bribery trial

Epilogue

Nobody was truly happy with the compromise verdict. Otis arranged for Darrow’s prosecution on bribery charges. Earl Rogers, a notorious alcoholic but also a formidable defense attorney took Darrow’s case and won a mistrial. Later, a second trial acquitted him.

The Iron Workers union left Clarence Darrow in the lurch. It refused to pay his fee for the McNamara case and declined to help with is bribery case. Therefore, he had to fight the charges on his own.

A 2015 book by Lew Irwin, Deadly Times, discusses the case.

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Olympic Park: Powerful Bombs Make for Terror and Panic

This week we leave the mountains of southwestern Utah, where last week we learned about the massacre at Mountain Meadows. Now we focus our gaze on Atlanta, Georgia. It was there, in 1996 that powerful pipe bombs exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park. Miraculously, the blast only killed one person (another died of a heart attack). The low death toll was because of the heroic actions of security guard Richard Jewell. Sadly, the FBI initially suspected Jewell and the media vilified him, but the real bomber was Eric Rudolph.

Centennial Olympic Park

Summer of 1996 saw the Olympic Games came to Atlanta, Georgia. As part of the millions spent on infrastructure improvements, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games created a 22-acre park. The ACOG envisioned the park, named Centennial Olympic Park, as the “town square” of the Olympics.

Centennial Olympic Park in 2011 (Flikr: Olympic Park Panorama by Veggiefrog)

On July 27, 1996, thousands of people gathered in the park for a late-night concert by Jack Mack and the Heart Attack.

Bombs in Olympic Park

Shortly after midnight, someone planted a military field pack under a bench near the concert’s sound tower. The pack contained three bombs consisting of nitroglycerine dynamite and a pipe filled with smokeless powder, surrounded by 3-inch masonry nails. The pack contained steel plates intended to focus the force of the bombs in a specific direction. When the bombs exploded, the nails would act as shrapnel, ripping into anyone and anything nearby.

Olympic Park security guard Richard Jewell noticed the field pack under a bench leaning against the 40-foot-tall NBC sound tower. He alerted agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to the suspicious package. The GBI in turn called in the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). As the bomb squad prepared to investigate, Jewell and other security guards began clearing the area.

Richard Jewell
Richard Jewell

Two to three minutes into the evacuation, and while it was still underway, the bombs exploded. However, because security personnel had started moving spectators away from the area, the human damage was much less than it could have been. There was only one fatality from the explosion. Forty-four-year-old Alice Hawthorne died when a masonry nail pierced her skull. Another man, 40-year-old Melih Uzunyol died of a heart attack while running to the scene. Uzunyol was a cameraman for Turkish Radio and Television Corporation.

Shrapnel damage (R) to Olympic Park sculpture
Shrapnel damage (R) to Olympic Park sculpture

Richard Jewell Falsely Suspected

Security guard Richard Jewell’s actions in discovering the bomb and starting to evacuate the area probably saved many lives. Yet before long, the hero came under suspicion of setting the bombs. Although the FBI never arrested Jewell, they identified him as a person of interest and searched his home. Agents also dug extensively into Jewell’s background. Eventually, though, it became clear that Jewell had nothing to do with the bombings.

Bomb damage to the NBC sound tower at Olympic Park (Don Ramsey Logan)
Bomb damage to the NBC sound tower at Olympic Park (Don Ramsey Logan)

After clearing Jewell, the FBI had little to go on until the following year. Then additional bombings in Georgia and Alabama made it clear that the real Olympic Park bomber was still active.

The bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama killed police officer Robert Sanderson and seriously injured nurse Emily Lyons. However, Lyons was able to give investigators a partial license plate number, which led them to identify Eric Robert Rudolph as their suspect.

Olympic Park Bombing Solved

Eric Rudolph went into hiding, dodging law enforcement for more than five years. He made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in 1998 with a $1 million reward offered

FBI wanted poster for Eric Rudolph
FBI wanted poster for Eric Rudolph

On May 31, 2003, at 4:00 a.m., rookie Murphy, North Carolina police officer Jeffrey Postell was on routine patrol. Postell saw what he though was a burglar prowling around behind a Save-A-Lot grocery store. It was Eric Rudolph, foraging for food in the store’s dumpster.

On April 8, government officials announced that Rudolph would plead guilty to four bombings, including the one at Centennial Olympic Park. Rudolph’s rabid anti-abortion and anti-gay views motivated the bombings. His confession formally exonerated Richard Jewell.

Epilogue

Richard Jewell did achieve his goal of becoming a police officer and later worked as a deputy sheriff. He died at age 44 on August 29, 2007, of complications from diabetes.

Eric Rudolph is serving four consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole at the ADX Florence supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. He still manages to have vitriolic screeds published through ultra-right-wing outlets.

Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph
Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph

Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwin published a book on the case, The Suspect, in 2019. That year also saw the release of Richard Jewell, a biopic about the hero security guard.

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Graham Backhouse: Scheme for Easy Profit Turns to Murder

This week, we continue the English crime theme with the case of Graham Backhouse. In 1984, Backhouse, a sheep farmer, tried to kill his wife. He then murdered his neighbor to try to cover up that crime.

Graham Backhouse Tries to Murder His Wife

Graham Backhouse worked as a hairdresser when his father died in 1979, leaving him Widden Hill, a sheep farm. There is no record of how skilled Backhouse was as a stylist, but he was a lousy sheep farmer. By 1984, he was heavily in debt. His solution? Insure his wife for £100,000 and kill her for the proceeds.

Graham Backhouse inherited Widden Hill Farm from his father in 1979
Graham Backhouse inherited Widden Hill Farm from his father in 1979

April 9, 1984 was an ordinary day in the small village of Horton in Dorset in Southwest England. Margaret Backhouse had some errands to run and her husband, Graham Backhouse, offered her the use of his Volvo station wagon. As soon as she turned the ignition key, a pipe bomb exploded. The bomb contained with nitroglycerine and 4,500 shotgun pellets. Its blast lacerated Margaret’s body with hundreds of pellets and nearly tore off her legs. But neighbors found her and took her to a local hospital, where she eventually recovered.

Detective examine Graham Backhouse's Volvo after the bomb explosion (Weston Media Publishing)
Detective examine Graham Backhouse’s Volvo after the bomb explosion (Weston Media Publishing)

Graham Backhouse was a natural suspect but claimed he was the victim of a vendetta and the intended target. A few days earlier, a worker on the farm found a severed sheep’s head impaled on a fence post. A note accompanied it that read “YOU NEXT.” Another threatening letter arrived at Widden Hill the same day as the bomb explosion. Backhouse claimed that he had had sex with several women in the area and that might be the motive for the attack. He also pointed the finger at his 63-year-old neighbor, Colyn Bedale-Taylor as a possible suspect. The two had an ongoing dispute over property lines.

Graham Backhouse Kills His Neighbor

On April 30, someone at the Backhouse home dialed 999 (the British equivalent of 911). When police arrived, they found Graham Backhouse lying on the floor covered in blood. At the foot of the stairs lay the body of the neighbor, Colyn Bedale-Taylor, dead from two point-blank shotgun blasts to the chest. When police first arrived, Bedale-Taylor held a Stanley utility knife in his hand. But a young constable removed the knife before crime scene analysts got there.

Graham Backhouse
Graham Backhouse

Graham Backhouse suffered deep knife wounds to his face and chest and required medical attention. Police interviewed him in hospital. He said that Bedale-Taylor came to the farmhouse and accused him of having a part in the death of Bedale-Taylor’s son, Digby. (Digby had recently died in an accidental car crash.) Backhouse said he asked Bedale-Taylor if he had planted the bomb and Bedale-Taylor said he had. According to Backhouse, his neighbor also admitted writing the threatening notes and setting up the sheep’s head. Bedale-Taylor then lunged at Backhouse with the knife, which he had carried with him.

What Really Happened?

The story Graham Backhouse told them about the attack and killing of Bedale-Taylor made little sense to police. Blood spatters at the farmhouse were round. This indicated the blood had dripped rather than being flung off in a struggle. Furthermore, there were blood spatters under furniture supposedly knocked over during the struggle. This meant the blood had been there before the purported fight.

Margaret Backhouse
Margaret Backhouse

Backhouse’s wounds were also inconsistent with his story. There were no defensive cuts on his hands as he would have had if he had been fending off a knife attack. And then there was the deep cut across his chest. That wound, said pathologist Dr. William Kennard, could only have been inflicted if Backhouse had stood perfectly still and not struggled with his attacker.

The police began looking at other evidence in the events swirling around Graham Backhouse. They had been unable to identify the obviously disguised handwriting on the “YOU NEXT” note. But document examiner Mike Hall noticed the faint impression of a doodle on the paper containing the note. Detectives found a matching doodle in a notebook tucked away in a drawer at Backhouse’s farmhouse. They also found a fibre clinging to the threatening letter that matched one of Backhouse’s own sweater.

A detective holds up the "YOU NEXT" note at the Backhouse trial (Weston Media Publishing)
A detective holds up the “YOU NEXT” note at the Backhouse trial (Weston Media Publishing)

Epilogue

Graham Backhouse went on trial for murder and attempted murder at Bristol Crown Court in early 1985. The prosecution contended he planted the bomb to collect his wife’s life insurance and murdered Bedale-Taylor to divert suspicion. He was convicted of both crimes. In giving him two life sentences, the judge remarked, “You are a devious and wicked man. The enormity of the crime that you have committed is very grave.”

Backhouse suffered a fatal heart attack in June 1994 while playing cricket at Grendon Underwood Prison. He was 53. Margaret Backhouse died in her sleep at age 48 on March 13, 1995.

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Jack Graham: Killer for Wealth and Revenge

Old West outlaw John Wesley Hardin, who we met last week, was a killer. But he made no bones about it. He even exaggerated the number of men he killed in his autobiography. This week’s subject is Jack Graham. Graham killed 44 people by blowing up an airliner in a scheme to collect his mother’s life insurance.

Jack Graham

Jack Graham (born John Gilbert Graham) was the child of his mother, Daisie’s, second marriage. He was born in 1932, when the Great Depression was at its worst. When his father died of pneumonia, his mother was destitute. Consequently, she sent young Jack to an orphanage.

John Gilbert "Jack" Graham
John Gilbert “Jack” Graham (FBI photo)

Daisie Graham married for a third time to Earl King, who died shortly afterward. Daisie used her inheritance from King to establish herself in business. Despite her new status as a successful businesswoman, though, she did not retrieve Jack from the orphanage. Mother and son remained estranged until 1954, when Graham was 22.

At the time Jack and Daisie reconciled, she owned a successful chain of restaurant. Graham worked for his mother at one of them, the Crown-A Drive-In in Denver. Their relationship remained rocky, however. Witnesses often saw the two arguing.

In 1955, a suspicious gas explosion destroyed the Crown-A Drive-In. Graham had insured the restaurant and collected on the property insurance. He probably caused the explosion, though this was never proven.

Bombing of United Flight 629

On November 1, 1955, Daisie King planned to travel to Alaska to visit her daughter, Graham’s older half-sister. She boarded United Airlines Flight 629 at Stapleton Airport, which was then Denver’s main airport. Unknown to Daisie, Graham had purchased $37,500 wort of life insurance policy from a vending kiosk in the airport ticket lobby. Such machines were common in airports until the 1980s.

Jack Graham used a similar machine to buy insurance policies on his mother's life.. An intact airport flight insurance vending machine in the collection of the Smithsonian's "America By Air" online exhibit.
An intact airport flight insurance vending machine in the collection of the Smithsonian’s “America By Air” online exhibit.

Flight 629 originated at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The Douglas DC-6B named “Mainliner Denver” stopped in Chicago before flying on to Stapleton. At Denver, Captain Lee Hall, a World War II veteran, took command for the segments to Portland and Seattle. Hall took off from Stapleton Airport at 6:52 p.m. At 6:56, he made his last radio transmission to report he had passed the Denver omni (a flight navigation signal).

Jack Graham used a similar machine to buy insurance policies on his mother's life. Travel Insurance Kiosks at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport, 1954. Part of the “Old News” collection at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Travel Insurance Kiosks at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport, 1954. Part of the “Old News” collection at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Seven minutes later, the airplane was over Longmont, Colorado. It was then that Stapleton air traffic controllers saw two bright lights in the sky, north-northwest of the airport. The lights were visible for 30-45 seconds and both fell to the ground at the same speed. Next, they saw a flash bright enough to light up the base of the clouds (the ceiling was 10,000 feet). Controllers then contacted all aircraft in the area and accounted for all but one: Flight 629.

Investigation

Flight 629 broke apart while it was still in the air. Major parts of the wings, engines, and center ended up in two craters 150 feet apart. The aircraft had refueled at Stapleton and its load of fuel ignited on impact. It burned intensely for three days. Eyewitnesses described a violent mid-air explosion. This led to speculation that something other than pilot error or mechanical failure caused the crash.

The tail of the plane was discovered on a Colorado farm (FBI photo)
The tail of the plane was discovered on a Colorado farm (FBI photo)

The Civil Aeronautics Board (forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration) led the investigation. They determined that the plane began to disintegrate near the tail. The explosion fragmented the aft fuselage in a way unlikely to have resulted from any aircraft system. There was also a strong smell of explosives on items from the number 4 baggage compartment in the rear.

Investigators soon discovered chemical byproducts of a dynamite explosion on some of the wreckage. The FBI, convinced that a bomb was responsible, began conducting background checks on the passengers. Investigators also theorized that the bombing may have been the result of a labor dispute between United and a local union. But they quickly discarded that theory.

The wreckage of Flight 229 was carefully laid out in a Denver warehouse, helping investigators solve the case (FBI photo)
The wreckage of Flight 229 was carefully laid out in a Denver warehouse, helping investigators solve the case (FBI photo)

The investigation turned to Denver locals. Daisie King was one of those locals and had also purchased flight insurance. In her purse, they found newspaper clippings about Mrs. King’s son’s 1951 arrest on forgery charges. The focused their attention on Jack Graham and learned that he held a grudge against his mother for placing him in the orphanage. They also found out about the restaurant explosion.

Jack Graham Confesses

A search of Graham’s house and car turned up wire and other bomb components matching those found in the wreckage. They also found an additional $37,500 insurance policy hidden in a small cedar chest. Graham told FBI agents that his mother had packed her own suitcase. However, Graham’s wife, Gloria told agents that he had wrapped a “present” for his mother on the morning of her ill-fated flight.

With evidence mounting and inconsistencies undercutting his story, Jack Graham confessed to placing the bomb in his mother’s suitcase.

November 28, 1955,  an unidentified sheriff's deputy escorts the handcuffed John Gilbert Graham, 23, out of a car for his arraignment on charges of dynamiting a United Airlines DC-6B which exploded and crashed near Longmont, Colorado, November 1st, killing all 44 persons on board, including Graham's mother. He was given a two-week continuance while his attorneys, newly appointed by the court, have time to study the case. (Image © Bettmann/CORBIS)
November 28, 1955, An unidentified sheriff’s deputy escorts a handcuffed John Gilbert Graham, 23, to his arraignment (Image © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Authorities were shocked when they discovered that no federal law made it illegal to blow up an airplane. Instead, they charged Graham with a single count, premeditated murder with his mother, Daisie King, as the victim. His defense tried to have his confession excluded but the court denied the motion. Regardless, a mountain of physical evidence left little doubt that Graham was the bomber. He was convicted and, after a few short delays, executed in the Colorado gas chamber on January 11, 1957.

Epilogue

As a result of the Flight 629 bombing, Congress passed a bill making the bombing of a commercial airliner a federal crime. President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on July 14, 1956.

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