Walter Moody: Startling Mail Bomb Murder for Revenge

Our case last week was that of Thomas Piper, the infamous 1875 Boston Belfry Murderer. This week takes us to Birmingham, Alabama where in 1989, Walter Moody killed two people with mail bombs.

Walter Moody

Walter Leroy “Roy” Moody, Jr. was born and raised in Georgia, where he showed a measure of mechanical ability. After graduating from Peach County High School, he served in the military until 1961.

Walter Leroy Moody
Walter Leroy “Roy” Moody

When his military career ended, Moody considered becoming a neurosurgeon. He took classes at a small college but didn’t make grades good enough to get into medical school. Later, he took some law school classes.

Walter Moody’s First Bombing Conviction

On May 7, 1972, Walter Moody’s wife, Hazel, opened a package she discovered in her kitchen. The package contained a pipe bomb that exploded when she opened it. She survived but required six surgeries to repair the damage caused by the bomb.

Moody apparently made the bomb intending to send it to a car dealer who had repossessed his car. In a somewhat odd compromise verdict, a jury convicted him of possessing the bomb but acquitted him of making it. He received a sentence of five years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary (Moody served four years). Not surprising, Moody and Hazel divorced shortly after his conviction.

Moody’s Mail Bomb Murders

It was almost Christmas, Saturday, December 16, 1989. Federal appeals court judge Robert S. Vance was at his home in Mountain Brook, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. When he opened a package that had come in the mail, the bomb inside exploded. The blast killed Vance instantly and severely injured his wife, Helen.

Federal appeals court judge Robert S. Vance was Moody's intended target
Federal appeals court judge Robert S. Vance was Moody’s intended target

Two days later, another mailed bomb exploded in the Savannah, Georgia office of civil rights attorney Robert Robinson. Robinson, too, died when he opened the package.

Civil rights attorney Robert Robinson, the second victim
Civil rights attorney Robert Robinson, the second victim

Authorities intercepted two more bombs before they reached their destinations. One was addressed to the Eleventh Circuit Court in Atlanta. The second targeted the NAACP office in Jacksonville, Florida. Neither of these bombs injured anyone.

Walter Moody Arrestws and Convicted

The FBI attempted to build a DNA profile from the bomb packaging, including the stamps. But their break came from an ATF explosives expert. He recognized the 1989 bombs as similar in design to the 1972 bomb that injured Moody’s first wife, Hazel. With this lead, a thorough investigation was able to link all four of the 1989 bombs to each other—and to Walter Moody.

Moody in shackles on his way to Federal Court
Moody in shackles on his way to Federal Court

Police arrested Moody and his second wife, Susan McBride, on July 13, 1990. McBride agreed to testify against her husband in exchange for immunity. Prosecutor (and future FBI director) Louis Freeh presented the government’s case. A federal court jury convicted Moody on all counts, and he received a sentence of seven life terms without the possibility of parole.

The federal trial was for charges related to making and sending the bombs. After the federal court convictions, the State of Alabama tried Walter Moody for the murder of Judge Vance. He was convicted in that case, too, and sentenced to death.

Walter Moody shortly before his execution (Alabama Department of Corrections)
Walter Moody shortly before his execution (Alabama Department of Corrections)

Epilogue

On April 19, 2018, Walter Leroy Moody died by lethal injection at the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, Alabama. At 83, he was the oldest inmate executed since executions in the United States resumed in 1976.

Moody never officially explained his motive in murdering Judge Vance. Prosecutor Louis Freeh believes the Vance murder and the Eleventh Circuit bombs were twisted revenge for the Court’s refusal to expunge Moody’s 1972 conviction. Ironically—and tragically—Vance was not on the panel that reviewed Moody’s case, nor was he involved in the decision. The murder of Robinson and the attempt to bomb the NAACP office were red herrings to make investigators think the bombings had a racial motivation.

Ray Jenkins published a book about the case in 1997, Blind Vengeance: The Roy Moody Mail Bomb Murders. An earlier book, Priority Mail, by Mark Winne appeared in 1995.

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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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