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Flight 629: Explosion at the Drive-In

By and large, Americans have short memories. Few citizens could tell you why anyone should “Remember the Maine,” a propaganda-filled phrase that played out in Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers to lead the country into war. Most American voters couldn’t tell you how or why the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution. Hint: the simplest answer is that the original thirteen states wouldn’t have ratified the basic Articles of the Constitution without those ten amendments. That’s right, there were ten to begin with. Do you know how many amendments there are now?

We like to think we are up to date on the first or latest or biggest of everything, but few people are aware of the historical “tells” that could remind us not to repeat them. Then there is the common truth that historical firsts are often singular, individual acts. No matter how stupendous or horrific at the time, these firsts and biggest events slip from memory in less than a lifetime.   

John Gilbert Graham entered this world a dark-haired, round-faced infant amid a Denver winter at the depths of the Great Depression in 1932. His name derived from a well-respected grandfather, Gilbert Walker, who for years served Colorado as a prosecutor and district judge. 

Graham’s father died when the boy was but three. His mother, Daisy, placed John Gilbert in an orphanage for the next seven years. Around 1940, his mother married a successful Colorado rancher named King and her son returned to live with them. He finished elementary school in Denver then attended small town schools throughout junior and senior high in the northwestern Colorado town of Kremmling.

Along the way, J.G. Graham enlisted in the Coast Guard at age sixteen. Nine months later, having been absent without leave for sixty-three days, underage to boot, the Coast Guard discharged the teenager. He returned to his stepfather’s ranch near Yampa, Colorado, until May 1949 when he made his way to Alaska where he labored at multiple construction jobs. 

Back to Colorado once more, he finished high school then off and on for the next two years matriculated in the business administration department at the University of Denver. When not at college, Graham worked for a truck trailer manufacturer. During the autumn of 1951 he made off with company checks, forging his name and cashing $4,200 worth. With much of the proceeds he purchased a brand new convertible and drove southeast. In route he acquired outlaw whiskey and sold enough of it that authorities chased after him for a bootlegging charge as well as forgery.

State troopers radioed ahead to authorities in Lubbock, Texas, that Graham might be headed their way. Sure enough, the wanted teen sped straight into Lubbock, plowing the convertible directly into the roadblock. The vehicles involved sustained greater damage than Graham. Texas law sentenced him to sixty days on the bootlegging charge then, within days, sent him back to Denver to face the consequences of his foray into check forgery. 

His mother paid $2,500 toward restitution of the $4,200 forgery. At his December, 1951, court hearing, the report for a possible probation read in part, “He shows very little concern over this present offense. For the past couple years, he led a wild life—spent most of his money on drinking parties and women.” 

The report included this assessment of his mother, Daisy. She “appears to be a type who has overprotected her son.”

In an apparent turn, Graham got a job, and made regular restitution payments. He married and labored steadily as a mechanic in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the town prospered near a uranium mining boom. Graham lost the job in December, 1954, when he deliberately damaged an engine. He agreed to have the damages deducted from his final wages. His boss said of the culminating incident, “He wasn’t really a bad sort of fellow—he just blew his top.”

Graham worked for awhile at the Atomic Energy Commission, earning “AEC security approval.” In the spring of 1955, with financial backing from his mother, he opened a drive-in restaurant in southwest Denver. Reactions to his role as employer were mixed. One carhop described frequent arguments between Daisy King and her son John G. Graham. The same young woman said he used foul language and leered at her. Another carhop said, “He was changeable—he could be just as nice one moment and bite your head off the next.”

The owner of a competing drive-in found Graham to be “a nice guy” who would swap ideas about business and share food supplies. During the middle of the night on September 5, 1955, Graham’s Crown A Drive-In exploded. Graham told others that he believed burglars had blown the building up after being frustrated at finding no cash in the place. Denver Fire Department investigators concluded that gas lines had been intentionally disconnected and the leaking gas ignited by a pilot light.

About two weeks prior to the drive-in blow up, Graham had jumped from his brand new pickup truck as it sat stalled on a railroad track. Seconds later a southbound train demolished the vehicle. The local justice court fined Graham $50 for careless driving. He refused to pay, spent a night in jail, only to be released after his mother paid the fine.

That autumn of 1955, Dr. Earl Miller, a family friend of twenty years who described Graham as bordering on being a mechanical genius, accompanied the young man and his mother on a hunting trip not too far from Yampa. Miller and Jack Graham (as those close called him) returned from the hunt one day, rifles in hand. Not far from their hunting cabin, the two men passed a wooden shack. Graham pointed toward the building. “If you want some action shoot that shack.” Later the doctor found out the site stored a good deal of dynamite.

By this time Graham and his wife Gloria, a year his junior, had two children. He had paid all but the last $104 of restitution in the check forgery case. On November 1, Graham, his wife, and one of their children accompanied his mother to the Denver Airport for her trip to Alaska to visit Graham’s sister, Helen, with a stopover in Seattle first. Graham carried his mother’s luggage, which he had carefully bound with web straps, all the way to the check-in counter. As they waited near the passenger gate for her flight, she asked her son to “get some insurance for us.” She gave him cash and Graham exchanged it for quarters before filling out the paperwork, with his wife’s assistance, on $37,500 worth of flight insurance. The insurance application required signatures on multiple pages. Graham’s mother signed in all three places then he deposited quarters in a coin operated machine to fulfill the insurance deal.

Graham’s mother kissed him, his wife, and their small child then boarded the United Airline flight. The young family watched the plane taxi down the runway and take off. The Grahams stopped into an airport coffee shop for breakfast, lingering there for about an hour. As he paid the check, a somewhat ashen cashier told young Mr. Graham an airplane had crashed about forty miles away. 

Bud Lang, a twenty-year-old farm boy, working on his automobile in a shop outside his parents’ home at Longmont, Colorado, heard something like a loud gunshot. He rushed outside. Debris, the size of tiny particles, fell all around. His mother stepped out also, into a sky flaming a bright red for several minutes while the particles settled in her graying curls. 

The engines and forward part of the United airliner plunged into a sugar beet farm a mile north. A large metal bin for storing food trays slammed down a mere foot or two from the Lang farm’s front gate. The plane’s tail assembly hit a half mile south of the Lang home. All five crew members and all thirty-nine passengers, including Mrs. Daisy King and an infant, were killed. 

The fire chief at Fort Lupton heard the crash and said it sounded like a dynamite blast. Indeed, that’s what investigators came to conclude as well. The plane had been in the air only seven minutes according to experts’ conclusions.

One of the first breaks in the case came from a district sales manager employed by United. The night of the crash he received a telephone call. The caller said, “My name is Graham and my mother was supposed to be on that flight.”

The United employee offered condolences. Graham responded, “Well, that’s the way it goes.”

The sales manager thought, ‘this guy is one cold cookie.’ A later phone call about Daisy King’s effects further convinced the United man that John Gilbert Graham was the most calm and collected fellow he’d ever encountered in an emergency situation. Perhaps, too calm and collected. The Federal Bureau of Investigation moved in on the case. The insurance purchased minutes before Daisy King boarded the airliner turned further suspicion toward her son. Less than two weeks after the crash, the U.S. attorney in Denver brandished a signed confession from John Gilbert Graham about how he had planted dynamite in his mother’s luggage; how he sweated out the last minutes in the airport staring at his watch and calculating the exact seconds because the devise had an hour and a half timer on it; how he strained to listen from the coffee shop, thinking he might hear the explosion from there.

Graham’s trial for the mass murder was scheduled for April. On February 10, 1956, inside his Denver County Jail cell, the accused knotted socks around his neck, twisting them tight within the cardboard core of a roll of toilet paper. Guards discovered him moments after he lapsed into unconsciousness and revived him. 

Along with the $37,500 flight insurance, Daisy King’s will provided that her son would inherit one-fourth of her estate which included two ranches, two drive-in restaurants, a house, and additional property in Florida. A longtime neighbor said Graham had recently stated that he would do anything for money.

Not only did Graham confess in writing and in the presence of the U.S. Attorney along with F.B.I. agents, the defendant provided them with a detailed sketch of how he fashioned the dynamite bomb, its fusing, and electric timer. The trial carried on well into May before a jury convicted John Gilbert Graham and sentenced him to death. He then took up residence in the Canon City Prison, one of forty-four on its death row. As he awaited intake formalities, a reporter hollered at him from a distance. Graham  lolled against a wall sporting an unconcerned air. “I don’t want to talk to anyone.”

A few minutes later, as the prisoner walked away toward a receiving room, one of the Denver County deputies who had been guarding him for months called, “So long, Jack.” Graham turned slightly, smiled, and waved at the deputy before disappearing inside the interior walls of the state prison.

In October, 1956, the Colorado Supreme Court turned down Graham’s appeal. Occasionally, his wife visited. His round face grew pudgier, and his demeanor more sullen. He remarked, “I can already smell the gas,” from the newly redesigned death chamber.

He possessed a few books in his small cell. Citizens continually mailed copies of the Bible. Graham shunned them all. He complained to a fellow prisoner, “If I get anymore of these Bibles I’ll start selling them.”

The other prisoner asked, “Why don’t you keep one and read it?”

Graham retorted, “What do I need with that stuff where I’m going.”

His wife visited him once more in the first week of January, 1957. On the night of January 12th, John Gilbert Graham walked calmly to the death chamber. Blindfolded, he appeared to lean into and gulp at the cyanide fumes pumped into the room. The twenty-four-year-old father of two emitted a shrill groan, lapsed into unconsciousness in a few seconds, and a doctor pronounced death twelve minutes later.

At the time, no one used the terms terrorist or terrorism to describe the worst mass slaying by bombing in the nation’s history. “Sabotage” proved the harshest term used to describe the act.

When the time had come for Graham to leave his cell for the walk to the gas chamber, a Catholic priest and the warden accompanied him. As they made the walk, Graham turned to the priest. “Oh, chaplain, there are seven cigars in my cell. You smoke ‘em on me.”

“God bless you,” the priest said. “I hope God will forgive you your sins.”

In a preparatory cell Graham undressed, donning only a pair of shorts. The warden led him toward a chair in the gas chamber. Heavy leather straps shackled his arms and legs. An elastic band dangled a stethoscope against his bare chest. Before leaving the chamber the warden patted Graham on the shoulder.

“Thanks warden,” Graham muttered—his last known words.

* “By and large” derives from sailing terminology. Essentially, “by” means sailing directly into the wind and alternately “large” refers to the point of sail in which the wind is hitting the vessel abaft the beam, or behind its stern.

One Comment

  1. chuck dunbar January 3, 2022

    What a terrible thing John Graham did. I’m usually against the death penalty, but in this case he earned it by killing a bunch of humans for rather paltry financial gains. Truly an evil deed. Nicely told, Malcolm, thanks.

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