MEAD — There’s no memorial in the fields where United Air Lines Flight 629 exploded in midair and fell to earth a half-century ago.
No placards or statues mark the rolling farmland as the site of the first successful sabotage of an American airliner and the worst mass murder in Colorado history.
The four engines on the Mainliner Denver, which blew up 11 minutes after leaving Denver en route to Seattle, punched craters as deep as 16 feet into the Heil family’s farm Nov. 1, 1955.
The tail of the DC-6B, which sheared away when a dynamite-stuffed suitcase exploded and ripped through the plane at 11,000 feet, landed almost a mile southeast of the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines.
Investigators quickly hauled the engines, tail and any other chunk of the plane they could find to a warehouse near Denver’s Stapleton Field to probe for evidence.
FBI agents ultimately arrested John Gilbert Graham, the 23-year-old son of Flight 629 passenger Daisie King, saying the Denver resident planted a homemade bomb in King’s luggage to collect on a life insurance plan he had purchased in her name.
In a sensational trial, a Denver jury convicted Graham of murder and sentenced him to die.
“It sort of ended the very short age of innocence in aviation,” said Andrew Field, who researched Graham’s crime for two years while writing “Mainliner Denver: The Bombing of Flight 629.” “We all think of the 1950s as this ‘Leave It To Beaver’ era of post-war prosperity. ... This sort of pokes a hole in that vision.”
Reminders of the bombing turned up for years on the Hopp farm, where the bodies of many of the 44 victims on Flight 629 landed.
“Years later, when we’d pick potatoes by hand, we’d find frames from eyeglasses,” Conrad Hopp told the Daily Times-Call in September, standing on his family’s old farm. “Sometimes, I think I remember better what happened 50 years ago than I remember what happened yesterday.”
‘My stomach hit the ground’
Conrad Hopp recalls Election Night 1955 vividly. He was 18 and had graduated a year earlier from Mead High School. He and his family had finished harvesting sugar beets on their 160-acre farm earlier in the day.
Hopp is a tall, white-haired man who laughs a lot and sells farm equipment within miles of the land his family cultivated from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s. But steering his white Cadillac Escalade down dirt roads southeast of Interstate 25 and Colo. Highway 66, he stopped chuckling and recalled the tragedy in a matter-of-fact tone.
“We had just finished eating — on the farm it’s supper — and there was a real loud explosion and it shook the house,” the 68-year-old said, motioning to the eastern horizon. “We heard the motors rev up, and the fireball was in the sky.”
Conrad and his older brother, Kenneth, saw flaming wreckage plummet to the ground east of their house, close to a few outbuildings. People 20 miles east in Fort Lupton saw the plane disintegrate, but the Hopp brothers were the first people to reach the crash scene.
They hurried a few hundred feet across the farm in Conrad Hopp’s ’54 Chevy to the wreckage.
Climbing out, they stumbled onto one of the plane’s wings. Chunks of scorched debris lay scattered around the field.
As the brothers looked around in shock, the autumn air began to sink in. Kenneth Hopp sent his younger brother to get their coats.
“I turned around to go back to the car, and there was a seat with a body in it right there,” Conrad Hopp said, pointing to a spot in the dirt from the driver’s seat of his car. “My stomach hit the ground.”
Most of the 44 people on Flight 629 lay somewhere in the fields where the Hopps grew sugar beets and alfalfa.
Within minutes, emergency crews swarmed the farm and helped hunt for survivors. They found only victims.
A searcher who spotted remains during the frantic hunt would alert emergency workers. The finder was told to stand by the corpse and wait for investigators to catalog the body and its location, Conrad Hopp remembered.
Weld County Coroner Ross Adamson set up a temporary morgue at the Greeley Armory to identify the victims, or in some cases, their body parts.
“The bodies were like picking up Jell-O,” Conrad Hopp said. “There was one body where the lady actually landed on her head, and it was inside her chest.”
Most of the dead on the Hopp farm left foot-deep indentations in the soil. The corpses lay next to the depression they made, having slammed into the ground and bounced out, Conrad Hopp said. For years after the disaster, alfalfa would not grow in the barren pockmarks left by the bodies, he said.
The blast that tore apart Flight 629 peppered southwest Weld County with silverware, serving trays, airline pillows and other small debris. The U.S. Postal Service would later search for and find missing mail scattered as far away as Platteville, 12 miles to the east.
Twelve miles west of the debris field, hundreds of Longmont residents piled into their cars that night and drove to the crash site.
“There were so many lookie-loos. It was pathetic,” Conrad Hopp said. “I think the whole town of Longmont came out.”
The 18-year-old spent days guarding his own property from looters with his National Guard unit from Longmont.
“For a few weeks, all these roads were closed,” he said, driving by the field where the tail landed. “If you didn’t live here, you didn’t get in or out.”
Investigators combed through debris for six days before deciding the plane had been bombed.
The ruling wasn’t news to anyone standing on the Hopp farm, breathing in the overwhelming gunpowder stench in the air on Election Night 1955.
“You could smell dynamite,” he said. “It was so prevalent. You didn’t have to be too smart to know it was a bomb that did it.”
An uneasy relationship
By Sunday, Nov. 13, the FBI had a suspect in custody.
John Gilbert Graham confessed to the slaughter after a six-hour interrogation at the bureau’s Denver offices.
FBI agents searched the home where Graham lived with his wife and two children and found wires they thought could have been used to assemble a bomb. Graham’s mother, Daisie King, had helped him buy the house and lived there part time before the crash.
Graham had an uneasy relationship with his mother, according to Andrew Field’s book on the case and Times-Call archives.
Graham was born in 1932. His father, a failed prospector, died a few years later. His mother was poor and sent the boy to a Denver orphanage in 1938.
She remarried in 1941, settling with a wealthy rancher in Toponas, Colo. But King kept her 9-year-old son in the orphanage, despite his pleas.
By age 23, Graham had spent a few undistinguished years in the U.S. Coast Guard and later worked as a mechanic in Alaska and Grand Junction. He had drifted from state to state and racked up a criminal record, including a felony forgery charge.
King, by then a well-off widow, saved his neck by paying off $4,300 in bad checks.
Graham married in June 1954. King helped buy a home for the couple and invested in a burger joint on Federal Boulevard in Denver, with the understanding that Graham would manage it.
The business venture was rocky. Employees at the Crown-A Drive-in later told the FBI of extraordinary screaming matches between mother and son.
As the holidays approached, King made plans to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with family in Alaska. She booked a flight for Nov. 1.
That afternoon, Graham drove her to the airport after stuffing 25 sticks of dynamite, two blasting caps and a timer in her suitcase.
He told King he had hidden a Christmas gift in the luggage.
The bomb pushed King’s luggage 37 pounds over the airline’s weight limit, for which she paid a $28 surcharge.
Before she boarded the plane, Graham purchased $37,500 in life insurance at a vending machine in the Stapleton Airfield terminal for $1.50.
Minutes later, Graham vomited while eating at a restaurant in the airport as he waited for the plane to depart.
Flight 629 had left New York earlier that afternoon, stopped in Chicago and arrived in Denver at 6:11 p.m., slightly behind schedule. At 6:52, the plane took off for Portland on its way to Seattle. It flew 35 miles to the north before the bomb exploded at 7:03 p.m.
On Nov. 11, a friend of Graham’s mother-in-law called the FBI, saying she had heard that Graham had stuffed a Christmas gift in his mother’s luggage before the doomed plane took off. After two interviews with the FBI, Graham confessed and was arrested.
His trial in the spring of 1956 made headlines nationwide, due in part to a landmark ruling that made Colorado the first state to allow cameras in the courtroom.
Graham stood trial for murdering his mother, since no criminal statute against sabotaging a commercial plane existed until President Eisenhower signed one into law later that year.
The suspect ordered his defense attorneys to rest his case in the middle of the trial. A jury convicted and condemned him in just over an hour.
Guards at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City executed him in the gas chamber Jan. 11, 1957, just 14 months after his arrest.
Graham didn’t simply bomb the plane to kill his mother, Field argued recently.
King and Graham had taken several hunting trips together, during which Graham could have shot her and called it an accident, Field said.
“He had plenty of opportunities to kill her in a less extravagant manner,” Field said. “It’s my thesis that the main reason he did this had nothing to do with the insurance, but had to do with calling attention to what happened to him in his childhood.”
On some level, Graham succeeded.
“Here it is 50 years later, and we’re still talking about the bombing,” Field said.
‘I can still see the debris’
When a major anniversary of the Flight 629 disaster rolls around every 10 years, reporters show up on the doorstep of June Nelson, who has lived just south of the crash site for decades.
Standing by her patio garden in white sneakers, jeans and a Southwestern-design shirt, Nelson groaned when asked to repeat her account of the crash but politely obliged.
On the night of the tragedy, June’s husband, Harold, had just finished installing a new propane tank at their home. They sat down to eat dinner and heard a bang outside.
At first, they suspected Harold had goofed up while installing the tank.
Then the Nelsons walked outside and saw mail sailing through the sky above them. A white parachute carrying a bright emergency flare slowly drifted downward.
“I can still see the debris floating around in the air up there,” June Nelson said. “When I think back on what we saw, it doesn’t leave you. There was luggage and clothing everywhere.”
She also saw bodies, but she stopped herself from talking about the sight when she began to tear up.
“I can still remember that guy’s name: John Gilbert Graham,” she said, reciting the words deliberately. “That guy was scary. How he could do that to his mother, I don’t know.”
Brad Turner can be reached at 720-494-5420, or by e-mail at email@example.com.