“I don’t say this to my people. They’d think I’m nuts. I think the CIA killed Dorothy Hunt”
Time, July 8, 1974
One workday morning in the capital, early in October 1972, McCord got a call from Gerald Alch, his CREEP-appointed attorney of that moment. Alch said he had important news to convey, could they meet for lunch. When they met, says McCord, Alch’s opening words were, “I have just come from Bittman’s office [White House attorney William Bittman]. Nobody gets up on that (witness) stand during trial. In return, they will get executive clemency, money while in prison and rehabilitation afterwards.” Alch assured McCord that this was a good deal under the circumstances. “Nobody,” he repeated, “gets up on that stand.”
Alch then asked McCord, “Why aren’t you taking the money from Mrs.Hunt?” In McCord’s account of Watergate, A Piece of Tape, from which I borrow this dialogue, he writes, “I went over my concerns that the whole business had the appearance of a control mechanism to keep the men quiet prior to the Nixon election by the use of money as a weapon and tool. Between that concern and the surveillance I had experienced on the 19th of September, I had decided to take no further money in order to be completely free to pursue whatever course of action my conscience dictated without being obliged.”
McCord says Alch “berated” him for taking this stand, then popped a question which McCord found “rather unusual in the wording and context.” Said Alch, “Just what would it take for you to turn state’s evidence?” McCord says Alch’s tone and manner made it clear that he was not sponsoring this alternative. It was “as though he were feeling me out for someone else.” McCord told Alch that he would follow his own course of action. Alch, he notes, “fell silent at that statement.”
MACHO BARKER: The next day I got a call. “Do you recognize my voice?” And I said yes. It was Dorothy Hunt. She told me to go to Miami and stay in the airport and meet the next flight of the same line. I made sure that Dorothy was not being followed, and then we went to my home. She said, “From now on I will be your contact,” and it was quite evident that the Dorothy that I had known had a split personality, because for the first time she used operational terms that Howard and I had always used. She said n ot to trust Rothblatt too much, that she didn’t like him. She said to start figuring out how much assistance we would need. Up to this time, we had not any at all. She said remember the spirit of the old organization – that if you are caught by the enemy, two things will be done: (1) every effort will be made to rescue you, and (2) all expenses and your family will be taken care of. Even today, the families of those who were lost at the Bay of Pigs are being aided, and that is something you expect on a mission.
Late October 1972. Dorothy Hunt called Colson’s office in an agitated voice demanding to speak to Colson, who declined. By Colson’s later account she was “upset at the interruption of payments from Nixon associates to Watergate defendants.”
November 15. Colson met with Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman in the Laurel Lodge presidential office at Camp David to play a tape of Hunt expounding his blackmail threat. That same afternoon, Dean flew to New York with this tape to play it for Stams and Mitchell, meeting in safe rooms at the Metropolitan Club. A week later, Hunt called Colson in order to have it recorded that “…we are protecting the guys who are actually responsible…and of course that is a continuing requirement, but at the same time, it is a two-way street….”
Late November. McCord: “In addition, Mrs. E. Howard Hunt, on or about November 30, 1972, in a personal conversation with me, stated that E. Howard Hunt had just dictated a three-page letter with Hunt’s attorney, William O. Bittman, had to read to Kenneth Parkinson, the attorney for the Committee to Re-elect the President, in which letter Hunt purportedly threatened to ‘blow the White House out of the water.’ Mrs. Hunt at this point in her conversation with me also repeated the statement which she too had made before, which was that E. Howard Hunt had information which would impeach the president.”
December 2 (Saturday). The president met at Key Biscayne with Colson and Rebozo to discuss the growing blackmail threat. Dorothy Hunt in Washington meanwhile was hounding Colson’s secretary, Joan Hall, with phone calls about “the problem.” She demanded that Hall get the word to Colson to get the word to Nixon “to get something done about it.”
Mitchell was ultimately reached, and he reached for Dean. Mitchell told Dean to use some White House cash to get the Hunt situation settled down. Haldeman came into the picture as well as their implicit electronic audience. His function indeed forces him in his ceremonial innocence (pretend ignorance) to teach the Nixon-person how to be the Nixon-president before an unseen listening audience which they both pretend not to notice.
Dean continues with a precise summary and an understated suggestion which manages to say to Nixon the man that he certainly must employ his own special resources in this flight to prop up the presidency. Though Dean always talks to the mask of Nixon-president, he still has his sense of limits, as though carelessly, laid across Nixon’s private parts. Thus the poignancy of Dean’s next speech:
DEAN: …. So what are the soft spots on this? Well, first of all, there is the problem of the continued blackmail which will not only go on now, but it will go on while these people are in prison, and it will compound the obstruction of justice situation. It will cost money. It is dangerous. People around here are not pros at this sort of thing. This is the sort of thing Mafia people can do ….
Now the dialogue unwinds, constantly returning to the question of Hunt.
NIXON: Your major guy to keep under control is Hunt?
DEAN: That is right….
NIXON: ….the vulnerable points being, the first vulnerable points would be obvious. That would be one of the defendants, either Hunt, because he is most vulnerable in my opinion, might blow the whistle and his price is pretty high….
…You can’t keep it out if Hunt talks….
…I think Hunt knows a hell of a lot more….
…You have no choice on Hunt….
And finally, breaking at last into a hole utterance:
…But my point is, do you ever have any choice on Hunt? That is the point. No matter what we do here now, John, whatever he wants if he doesn’t get it – immunity, etc., he is going to blow the whistle.
Then this cabalistic exchange at a later meeting the same day in which Haldeman and Ehrlichman sail in over Dean’s head:
DEAN:…Hunt has now sent a blackmail request directly to the White House.
NIXON: Who did he send it to? You?
NIXON: Or to me?
DEAN: Your counsel.
HALDEMAN: That is the interesting kind of thing, there is something there that may blow it all up that way and everything starts going in a whole new direction.
EHRLICHMAN: The he would hurt the Eastern Asian Defense. [?] Right there. That is blackmail.
The FBI and the Crash
The criticism of the official pilot-error theory of the Hunt crash has been overwhelmingly identified with Sherman Skolnick, a Chicago-based private investigator, and his colleague, companion, and bodyguard, Alex Bottos, who has a murky background and claims former FBI, CIA and narcotics connections. Skolnick and Bottos are a pungent Dickensian pair. Skolnick has been confined from birth to a wheelchair. He is intense, loud, overbearing, quick, suspicious, sometimes merry, all upper torso and arms, boisterous, gnomic-faced. Bottos is more somber and sepulchral. He says he was at Opalaka in 1960-61 with Hunt on the Bay of Pigs campaign. He carries a pistol and is fond of flashing it. He dresses with old-fashioned nattiness and polishes to a high gloss both his black hair and black patent leather loafers. Skolnick and Bottos have seen each other through great controversies. They project an ominous, swirling, shadowy atmosphere, Skolnick wheeling and challenging, Bottos in a tailored flak jacket brooding on collapse.
The instrument of their collaboration is Skolnick’s Citizens Committee ot Clean Up the Courts. Their most spectacular hit so far – until United flight 553 – was Chicago’s once-immaculate liberal, Governor Otto Kerner, whom they discovered and exposed in a race-track payoff scheme. Skolnick and Bottos have also helped put away several Illinois Supreme Court judges on corruption counts.
Skolnick was instantaneous in charging that the crash of United flight 533 was the result of sabotage and that there was a big Watergate connection. IN the weeks immediately following the crash, he claims to have received a flood of information from protected inside sources supporting him in this belief. He also tried to make that information public, thus to generate a controversy and a demand for a new investigation of the crash.
In the furor of claim and counterclaim that followed, Skolnick’s voice often reached an intensity that many found hysterical. Anyone who disagreed with him about anything (your author included) he denounced as a secret agent of the CIA. The controversy over his personality came to interfuse with the controversy over the crash. He made it easy for his detractors to ridicule him for rampant paranoia and to ignore his specific claims as wild raving.
Yet in the instances in which the dispute has been resolved by a subsequent factual disclosure, Skolnick’s contentions have been substantially borne out. The question of FBI involvement in the crash investigation is the perfect case in point.
The Boeing 737 had barely hit, said Skolnick, before the crash site was aswarm with large numbers (he sometimes said “carloads”, sometimes “200,” sometimes “dozens”) of “federal people” who shouldered Chicago police and firemen asise and kept to themselves why and on what authority they were doing so. When I first encountered the array of Skolnick’s arguments about the crash, I dismissed this particular item – the 200 FBI agents prowling the wreckage within moments of the crash – as an improbable piece of melodramatic adornment. In my original summary of Skolnick’s case in the Boston Phoenix (May 15, 1973), I left the point out altogether, concentrating on what I regarded as his more impressive arguments.
But then came the disclosure, as a result of Skolnick’s agitation in Washington, of the two letters which I reprint in their entirety below. The first is from the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, John Reed, to acting FBI Director William Ruckelshaus. The second is Ruckelshaus’s reply. The NTSB is a putatively independent branch of the Department of Transportation with responsibility for investigating all accidents involving commercial airliners. It investigated the crash of United 533. The NTSB chairman’s letter is dated June 5, 1973.
Dear Mr. Ruckelshaus:
As you may know, the National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating the aircraft accident of the United Air Lines Boeing 737, at Midway Airport, Chicago, on December 8, 1972. Our investigative team assigned to this accident discovered on the day following the accident that several FBI agents had taken a number of non-typical actions relating to this accident within the first few hours following the accident.
Included were: for the first time in the memory of our staff, an FBI agent went to the control tower and listened to the tower tapes before our investigators had done so; and for the first time to our knowledge, in connection with an aircraft accident, an FBI agent interviewed witnesses to the crash, including flight attendants on the aircraft prior to the NTSB interviews. As I am sure you can understand, these actions, particularly with respect to this flight on which Mrs. E. Howard Hunt was killed, have raised innumerable questions in the minds of those with legitimate interests in ascertaining the cause of this accident. Included among those who have asked questions, for example, is the Government Activities Subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee. On the basis of informal discussions with the staff of the Committee, it is likely that questions as to what specific actions were taken by the FBI in connection with this aircraft accident, and why such actions were taken, will come up in a public overhearing at which the NTSB will appear and which is now scheduled for June 13, 1973.
In order to be fully responsive to the Committee, as well as to be fully informed ourselves about all aspects of this accident so as to assure the complete accuracy of our determination of the probable cause, we would appreciate being advised of all the details with respect to the FBI activities in connection with this accident. We would like to have, for example, the following information: the purpose of the FBI investigation, the reasons for the early response and unusual FBI actions in this case, the number of FBI personnel involved, all investigative actions taken by the agents and the times they took such actions (including the time the first FBI agents arrived on the scene), and copies of all reports and records made by the agents in connection with their investigations (we already have copies of 26 FBI interview reports; any other documents should be provided, therefore).
While we have initiated action at the staff level between our agency and yours to effect better liaison and avoid engaging in efforts which may be I conflict in the future, we have determined that some formal arrangement – in the nature of an intra-agency memorandum of agreement of understanding, for instance – would seem appropriate. It would clearly delineate our respective statutory responsibilities and set forth procedures to eliminate any future conflicts. We would therefore appreciate it if you would designate, at your earliest convenience, an official with whom we may discuss this matter and with the authority to negotiate such a formal agreement with the Safety Board.
In the interim, however we would like to receive, in advance of the scheduled June 13, 1973, public oversight hearing, the specific information concerning the actions of the FBI in connection with the Midway accident and the reasons therefore, in order to enable us to be as fully responsive as possible to the House Subcommittee.
(Original signed by John H. Reed, Chairman)
FBI Director Ruckelshaus answered on June 11, 1973.
Dear Mr. Reed:
Your letter dated June 5, 1973, concerning the FBI’s investigation into the crash of a United Air Lines Boeing 737 at Midway Airport, Chicago, Illinois, on December 8, 1972 has been received.
The FBI has primary investigative jurisdiction in connection with the Destruction of Aircraft or Motor Vehicles (DAMV) Statute, Title 18, Section 32, U.S. Code, which pertains to the willful damaging, destroying or disabling of any civil aircraft in interstate, overseas or foreign air commerce. In addition, Congress specifically designated the FBI to handle investigations under the Crime Aboard Aircraft (CAA) Statute, Title 49, Section 1472, U.S. Code, pertaining, among other things, to aircraft piracy, interference with flight crew members and certain specified crimes aboard aircraft in flight, including assault, murder, manslaughter and attempts to commit murder or manslaughter.
FBI investigation of the December 8, 1972, United Air Lines crash was instituted to determine if a violation of the DAMV or CAA Statutes had occurred and for no other reason. The fact that Mrs. E. Howard Hunt was aboard the plane was unknown to the FBI at the time our investigation was instituted.
It has been longstanding FBI policy to immediately proceed to the scene of an airplane crash for the purpose of developing any information indicating a possible Federal violation within the investigative jurisdiction of the FBI. In all such instances liaison is immediately established with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) personnel upon their arrival at the scene.
Approximately 50 FBI Agents responded to the crash scene, the first ones arriving within 45 minutes of the crash. FBI Agents did interview witnesses to the crash, including flight attendants. Special Agent (SA) Robert E. Hartz proceeded to the Midway Airport tower shortly after the crash to determine if tower personnel could shed any light as to the reason of the crash. ON arriving at the tower, SA Hartz identified himself as an FBI Agent and explained the reason for his presence. He was invited by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) personnel at the tower to listen to the recording made at the tower of the conversation between the tower and United Air Lines Flight 553. At no time did SA Hartz request to be allowed to listen to the tapes, SA Hartz identified a sound as being that of the stall indicator on the aircraft. The FAA agreed that SA Hartz was right and immediately notified FAA Headquarters at Washington, D.C.
The FBI’s investigation in the matter was terminated within 20 hours of the accident and on December 11, 1972, Mr. William L. Lamb, NTSB, was furnished with copies of the complete FBI investigation pertaining to the crash after it was determined there was apparently no violation of the DAMV or CAA Statutes.
In order to avoid the possibility of any misunderstanding concerning our respective agencies’ responsibilities and to insture continuing effective liaison between the NTSB and the GBI, I have designated SA Richard F. Bates, Section Chief, Criminal Section, General Investigative Division, FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C., telephone number 324-2281, to represent the FBI concerning any matters of mutual interest.
William D. Ruckelshaus
Based on the facts agreed upon by both sides, it is at least apparent from these letters that the FBI was all over Dorthy Hunt at the time of the crash, despite Ruckelshaus’s protest that Dorothy Hunt’s presence on 553 was “unknown to the FBI at that time.” There is no obvious way such a large response as fifty agents within the hour could have been generated from a standing start as of the moment of the crash itself. The closest FBI office is forty minutes from the crash site and there are never fifty agents available at once without warning. It is tradition that FBI agents do not gather in offices waiting for calls but stay in the field. When a really obvious intelligence agent, Hungarian Freedom Fighter Lazlo Hadek, died in a crash the next summer at Boston’s Logan Airport, leaving a trail of secret NATO nuclear documents strewn down the center of the runway, the FBI was barely able to get a solitary agent to the scene on the same day as the wreck. That this same FBI could get fifty agents to the scene of the Chicago crash within an hout is to my mind an interesting piece of information. How could the FBI have done this if it had not had Dorothy Hunt’s airplane, for whatever reason, under full company-scale surveillance before the crash ever happened? And why might the FBI have been doing that?
Note in this connection that it was specifically the airplane itself that was being followed, and not the person of Dorothy Hunt. That is, no FBI agent was aboard the plane. If the FBI was tailing Dorothy Hunt, why was she not being followed on the plane? Was it that her flight was too sudden? But it was delayed on the ground for fifteen minutes. Michelle Clark of CBS, who was on the same flight, knew she was going to be on it and may have been her companion in the first-class cabin. The Hunts took enough time at the airport to buy $250,000 worth of flight insurance.
Ruckelshaus does not meet Reed’s main questions. He reads the book with a straight face as though Reed had asked him what were the statutory grounds of the FBI intervention instead of why, suddenly, this time and no other time, and so massively, and hence with such a semblance of advance contrivance, were these grounds taken up and acted upon. One understands that the FBI will always be able to demonstrate a rudimentary legal basis for whatever it takes in its head to do. What we wan to know is where these whims and fancies bubble up from.
We wonder finally what in the world made the FBI think 553’s crash might have been a case of “willful disabling of a civil aircraft,” or of “crimes aboard the aircreft in flight, including assault, murder and manslaughter?” Not that any of this necessarily happened or did not but the FBI does not usually behave as if it might have. Does it? How does Ruckelshaus account fro this, especially in view of his assertion that the FBI acted with no knowledge of Dorothy Hunt’s presence? What was the chain-of-command activity and what were the reasons that so many FBI agents waiting to move when the plane came down?
The Plumbers and the Crash
The White House also responded immediately to the crash. Nixon moved Egil Krogh, Alex Butterfield, and Dwight Chapin, three of his remaining special agents, to positions of vantage around the crash investigation.
Krough was the organizer of the Nixon White House’s Special Investigative Unit, the “Room 16” group. Chapin was a key Haldeman aide who recruited and directed Segretti in his sabotage and espionage tasks. Butterfield, who so airily exposed the White House secret taping system on Friday, July 13, was a Haldeman man from UCLA, where their wives were sorority roommates. He has an Air Force background and some of his biographies say he flew with the Blue Angels. He served Nixon as White House liaison with the CIA.
There is how these agents were deployed in the days following the December 8 crash.
On Saturday, December 9, 1972, Krough was suddenly made an undersecretary of the Department of Transportation, the DOT being the seat of larger bureaucratic responsibility for the crash investigation. There was no prior announcement of this appointment. There was no explanation of why it had to be implemented the same day it was announced, a Saturday, not normally a business day in Washington. Once installed in the DOT, Krough proceeded to pressure the NTSB to speed up its reports and restrain its criticism of DOT or face “discipline.”
Ten days later, on December 19, Butterfield was appointed administrator of the Federal Aviatioin Administration, the parent body of the actual technical-investigation arm, the Bureau of Aviation Safety. Butterfield’s appointment was delayed to March because of a provision prohibiting any military or retired military officer from holding the position Nixon wanted to move him into. As when General Alexander Haig joined Kissinger’s National Security Council later, Butterfield had to resign his commission temporarily.
Early in January, Chapin left the White House behind a story that he was being drummed out because of his role in the activities of CREEP. He soon joined the staff of United Air Lines Chicago office as a “director of market planning.” He was present every day at the NTSB public hearings into the 553 crash that opened on February 28, 1973, in Chicago. He spent some of his time fending off Skolnick and Bottos and some of it intimidating the media with licensing threats.
Then there is the matter of Richard Spears.
In May 1973 stories reached the Senate Commerce Committee, overseer of the NTSB, that “officials of the White House or the Department of Transportation were trying to improperly influence members of the [Safety] Board in the pursuit of their lawful duties.” On May 3, Charman Warren Magnusen (D-Wash.) asked Chairman Reed to respond to these stories.
On May 9, exposed as a Plumber in the Fielding burglary, Krogh resigned his post as number two man in the DOT.
Magnussen’s inquiry motivated Reed and the Senate Commerce Committee to convene the sessions of May 21 and 23. These sessions were attended only by Senator Howard Cannon (D.-Nev.), although Senator Frank Moss (D.-Utah) submitted two questions to each witness remotely suggesting a suspicion of sabotage. But the most important development at these hearings was the clash between a Nixon appointee to the NTSB, General Manager Richard Spears, and the director of the Bureau of Aviation Safety, C.O. Miller.
Spears became a “consultant” to the NTSB in January 1971 shortly after the end of the term of Senator George Murphy (R.-Cal.), whom he formerly served as administrative assistant. Spears moved in as the head of the NTSB after a Nixon-inspired change in the regulations created the position of “NTSB general manager” and defined it as a political-patronage job. Spears had no former experience in the field of aviation safety, a specialized technical field.
According to Miller, Spears immediately began trying to run the NTSB. A quarrel developed between them. It boiled up in February 1973 just as the NTSB hearings into the Hunt crash were opening in Chicago. As BAS director, Miller was the boss of the technician, William Lamb, who would oversee the entire program of investigation, analysis and report on the crash of 553.
Late in February, Miller took off from his normal duties to attend a sixty-day Federal Executives Institute. When he was safely out of the building, Spears replaced him in the BAS directorship and let it out that his duties would be different upon return. Before Miller could return to challenge this personally, Spears himself rewrote the NTSB’s definition of “probably cause” of a crash, directed NTSB investigators to make fewer safety recommendations, and called for quicker completion of investigations and reports on all projects, including the 553 crash.
Miller returned for confrontation in April. He testified that Spears told him, “I have got orders from the only people that hire and fire me to become chief operating officer of the NTSB.” Asked by Senator Cannon how he interpreted this, Miller said he thought it meant that Spears “had some knowledge of some power base in the executive branch. One of the very serious impacts on the effectiveness of our Bureau, in my opinion, has been the use of this reference to outside power to, in a sense intimidate the people who perhaps are a little more concerned about their jobs than I am, to get things done without question.”
Miller’s appeal to the full NTSB was successful. He was restored to his former position as BAS director. Somewhat later, however, he began complaining of heart trouble and was obliged to retire.
What are we to make of Nixon’s evidently intense interest in the crash of the Hunt plane? FBI men intervening so quickly at company-level force; the three secret Nixon agents fanning out to positions of control around the crash investigation; Spears going to the report-writing center, cutting directly into the 553 investigation: What might all this mean?
This brings us to the detailed technical analysis of the NTSB report on the crash. It is a boggy and noxious area to explore because in entails necessarily technical exposition. At the same time, it is in the technical areas that our institutions have found strength before, so let us plunge ahead.
The Analysis of the Crash
We briefly and tersely dismissed Sherman Skolnick’s claims. We investigated thoroughly and found not a shred of evidence indicating the Dorothy Hunt plane was sabotaged.
September 23, 1974
The technical questions of fact and interpretation in the crash of United 553, for better or worse, have taken from in the course of a polemic set in train by Skolnick’s early accusations of sabotage and cover-up. In this section, we will take up several particular questions emerging from this polemic.
We begin with the question of cyanide poisoning not because it is the strongest of Skolnick’s claims – indeed it is much the weakest – or because it is the most important, which it is not, but because it is the question on which Skolnick’s critics have concentrated most of their fire.
Then we will move to consider the more substantial technical doubts about the precise mechanisms of the crash, most of which involve questions also first articulated in some form by Skolnick.
Finally we will take up the theory of the crash developed by the NTSB and advanced in their final report, “Aircraft Accident Report 73-16, United Airlines, Inc., Boeing 737, N9031U, Chicago-Midway Airport, Chicago, Illinois, December 8, 1972,” dated August 29, 1973.
The Question of Cyanide
James Walsh, administrative assistant to the Cook County coroner, told James Brady of New York magazine, “We found seven bodies which contained enough cyanide to kill them. We are not saying cyanide killed them, but that there was enough of it to have done so.
Brady notes that Walsh refused to say whether or not the pilot’s body contained cyanide. But Skolnick had already unearthed FAA technical exhibit No. 6A, docket No. SA-435, entitled “Human Factors Group Chairman’s Factual Report,” by C. Hayden LeRoy. Page 8 of this exhibit contains in its entirety a typewritten table introduced by the words, “Federal Aviation Administration, Civil Aeromedical Institute, Aviation Toxicology Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, examined specimens from three aircraft occupants. Results were as follows.” Among other things, the table shows that the three whose bodies were examined by the Civil Aeromedical Institute were Captain Whitehouse, Flight Officer W.O. Coble, and a first-class passenger otherwise unidentified. (According to NTSB spokesman Slattery, Dorothy Hunt was flying in the first-class cabin forward, just behind the cockpit.) By the item, “Cyanide (Conway Diffusion, NaOH),” the value entered for Captain Whitehouse is 3.9 micrograms per milliliter. In the columns for Coble and the first-class passenger there are hyphens indicating that the test for cyanide was not carried out on them.
What does it mean that Whitehouse had 3.9 micrograms per milliliter of cyanide in him? For the record, let us first note that the NTSB had some trouble in establishing that figure. The Chicago coroner’s office reported to begin with that Whitehouse’s blood showed cyanide in the amount of 0.211 milligrams per milliliter, an extremely high tamount which by itself would establish a prima facie case of foul play.
A defender of the no-sabotage theory, Ronald Dorfman, editor of the Chicago Journalism Review (true to character Skolnick denounces it as a CIA front), wrote that he checked this figure out with Dr. Paul W. Smith, chief of the Aviation Toxicology Laboratory of the Civil Aeromedical Institute and that Dr. Smith told him, “We were very unhappy, and frankly don’t know how they did their measurements.” He is talking about the Chicago coroners, a handful of whom were fired for “incompetence” on account of this controversy. Smith continued, “They picked up cyanide in ten or twelve victims and they were all very high. Then they realized they probably made an error, which they interpreted to be a decimal error, and they altered their report. In moving the decimal their figures become innocuous – all less than one microgram.”
There are a few problems with this simplification, however.
Dr. Smith proceeded to analyze a blood specimen from the pilot (but not the others) to see how much cyanide actually was present, and the value he came up with was not “an innocuous” 0.211 micrograms per milliliter, which is the value arrived at by assuming that there was an error in the placing of the decimal point. Rather, it is the 3.9 micrograms per milliliter value we found in Exhibit 6A. That value, in the first place, does not bear our the Chicago coroners’ guess that their assumed error was in the decimal; there is still a difference of a whole magnitude between their adjusted value of 0.2 micrograms per milliliter and Dr. Smith’s new value of 3.9 micrograms per milliliter. And in the second place, 3.9 micrograms per milliliter is not an innocuous level, a fact which even Dorfman concedes indirectly when he notes that this “is the highest blood cyanide reading [Dr. Smith] has ever recorded in a crash victim.”
Dorfman continues: “A research toxicologist I consulted confirmed that while a concentration of 3.9 micrograms is more than enough to kill, it is quite possible – depending on the concentration of cyanide gas in the air and the physical condition of the victim – to inhale that much before death occurs.
Very well, but observe how far this shifts the grounds of the argument. A moment before, we were being told that the pilot died a normal cyanide death, period. Now we are only being told that it is not absurd on the facts to speculate that he did.
The NTSB report states (pg 13) that “elevated hydrogen cyanide levels were found in the captain and in six fatalities in the crash,” but it says nothing of the new record poor Whitehouse set and does not pause to tell us what these “elevated levels” were, even though it notes (p. 14) that “smoke inhalation with carbon monoxide asphyxia and blood cyanide accumulation” was finally determined to have been the cause of the captain’s death. It merely explains that the plastics used extensively in the cabins of commercial airliners give off hydrogen cyanide as a gas when burned.
The crash was indeed followed by an intense fire in the center section, mainly in the first-class cabin where Dorothy Hunt and Michelle Clark were traveling. But there was little fire in the captain’s half of the cockpit, possibly because the nose and cockpit section broke off from the cabin and split in half. The NTSB report states (p. 12): “The left side of the cockpit and the left forward entry door were relatively intact. The captain’s seat was intact and sustained only minor fire damage.” And in any case, not to be too elementary, the possibility of a crash-normal cyanide gas poisoning would hardly cancel out the possibility of a non-crash-normal cyanide gas poisoning (as with a canister delivery mechanism). The existence of a convenient explanation (as in the use of potassium and cortisone as poisons) is actually the leading advantage of such a method.
It is certainly true, as Dorfman says, that Skolnick goes beyond the evidence in a self-discrediting way in claiming that the shadows like the above demonstrate intentional poisoning in the 553 crash. Here Skolnick seems at his most lurid, turning, in Dorfman’s words, every “assumption” into a “conclusion,” every “hunch” into a “fact”.
Still, Skolnick’s informed misses teach us more of the truth of Watergate power politics than the baseless reassurances Dorfman prefers. That is because, first, Skolnick’s overall conception of what goes into politics, wheat constitutes it, what comes out, is currently rooted in real experience. So even wandering at his most hysterical through dismal swamp, as perhaps with the cyanide question (and perhaps not), Skolnick still makes more sense and does more good teaching than those who use modest rhetoric to tell us there is nothing wrong. Something in fact may be quite wrong, the wrong may be of Satanic magnitude, and there is no way the standard statistic-ridden, political-sociology models employed in conventional federal-academic discourse can even focus the structured character of what is wrong. These models, these assumptions, give us a lone madman here and a lone madman there, as though our time’s violent assault on presidential figures were the purest contingency, purest acts of God, unstructured, random events lying outside the events constitutive of “politics” proper and of no greater interest to the “political scientist” than the normal airplane accident or normal heart attack.
Finally, as inadequately supported as it no doubt is, Skolnick’s assertion about 553 and cyanide poisoning still ought not to be dismissed altogether. A palpable residue of doubt remains, partly because the authorities have seemed so anxious to shut the question up, but also partly because these are not bare, naked allegations. In view of the extreme political sensitivity of Dorothy Hunt’s death, it might appear to the trusting among us that the public officials responsible would bend over backwards to follow every shadow of doubt all the way through to the end. What had they to fear? As it was, the very day after the crash, even as Plumber Krogh was being scrambled to the number two spot at the Department of Transportation over the FAA and NTSB, the official voices began their choral chant that there was no possibility of sabotage,” not a shred of evidence,” and let slip no chance to heap more vituperation on Skolnick. The FBI was saying no sabotage within twenty hours of the crash, before it was even announced to the public that Dorothy Hunt was among the victims, and NTSB spokesmen were saying it early in May at a moment when the analysis of the data had barely begun. There is too much intensity in this, too much head-shaking. Too much protest betokens fear of some discovery. It reeks of cover-up whether it is one or not.
In view of the report of the Cook County coroners and Dr. Smith’s own results in the retest of the captain’s blood, for example, why did Dr. Smith and the NTSB not press to examine the other seven or ten or twelve bodies said to contain “elevated levels” of cyanide? In view of the queer behavior of the FBI, why was not every angle looked into, every doubt openly faced, before the curtains started being closed on the play?
I have been nagging some version of this question, or it me, through many passages of this book: why the cover-up? A paragraph from the short-lived polemic that flared up between Dorfman and me in the Nation contains what may be a hint of an answer. Dorfman wrote:
I do not disbelieve in conspiracies. I have helped uncover a few myself. My quarrel is not even with Oglesby’s own treatment of the December crash, which he suggests has been carefully hedged about with distinctions between what is known and what needs to be known. Rather, I take issue with, and he defends, a style of political thinking [i.e. Skolnick’s] which turns assumptions into conclusions and hunches into facts, which are in turn [note:] broadcast to an increasingly receptive public content that, since the forces at work are not only beyond their reach but omnipotent, there is nothing they can or need do about public problems.
In other words, gentle reader, it is you despair that Dorfman fears. If you come to think that such theories as the sabotage theory of the Hunt crash are not crazy on facts, and that such things can actually happen and the offender not be caught, then your faith in politics will wither and die, and where shall we all be then.
To this I answer, first, that there is no point in trying to set preconditions on the truth. Either the airplane was sabotaged or it was not, just as John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and George Wallace either were or were not attacked by conspiracies acting behind cover stories of lone, mad, diary-writing gunmen. And either we can do something about this or we cannot. Nothing whatever is served by hiding from the question. If we cannot, then indeed the age of politics is behind us and we are the creature of new millennium.
Second, Skolnick’s track record does not entitle his detractor to such airy contempt. Dorfman may be unable to muffle a boast about helping to “uncover a few” conspiracies himself (he is too modest to remind us what they were), but Skolnick is something else. We have already noted his major works: the bust of some half-dozen federal and other judges in Illinois and Indiana, including three members of the Illinois Supreme Court, and the exposure of Kerner in 1969.
Finally, something in the turn of Dorfman’s last phrase in the above passage reminds me again that what academic liberals are typically so worried about is not the lapse of people’s faith in politics so much as the lapse of their faith in the politics of the current system. But it is the power and invisibility of that system’s demonstrated current corruption that threatens political demoralization, not the fact that a handful of people with virtually no resources are trying to expose it, analyze it, name it, and raise in public forums the question of direct political action to do something about it. To Dorfman I say, if that is what we are really talking about, preserving the people’s faith in a corrupt political system, I know I am not the only democratic-minded patriot who will say, let it bleed.
Skolnick and others have raised much more substantial questions about the actual mechanisms of the crash of United 553: that the in-flight recorders were stolen from the wreckage, that the altimeter was sabotaged, that the runway system at Midway was used irregularly on this landing, that an electronic landing aid was unaccountably switched off at a crucial moment, and that the crew failed even to take not of, much less to act on, the actuation of a cockpit stall-warning signal designed expressly to be imperative.
The Flight Recorders: The Boeing 737 caries two data-recording systems, both designed to survive crashes of much greater violence than that of 553. In the shock test, each package must withstand the blow of a five-hundred-pound steel bar dropped from ten feet. This is because their only purpose is to help crash investigators determine as absolutely as possible the cause or causes of a crash.
One is the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), a super-quality but otherwise ordinary tape recorder system wired through a network of microphones to tape a whole range of cockpit sounds – the distinctly different clicks, chimes, rattles, horns, and whirrs of the controls – besides every word of cabin conversation and any signals incoming from outside the aircraft, as from a tower, another airplane, or an electronic beacon on the ground. In other words, it is designed to record the total acoustical signal environment of the crew. This record of the cockpit acoustical environment is so sensitive that General Electric engineers, working with a tape that had been badly damaged (see below), were nevertheless able to reconstruct from its acoustical data precise thrust settings, left and right, for each of the 737’s two tail-mounted jet engines, right up to the moment of impact.
The other is the Flight Data Recorder (FDR). It is by far the more important of the two from the standpoint of technical crash analysis. The FDR keeps a continuous graph-paper trace on the stat of the aircraft’s nerve center, the Central Air Data Computer, mounted with the FDR in the tail because that is the safest part of the aircraft. The FDR records such parameters as air speed, barometric (coarse) altitude, transponder (fine) altitude, and aircraft roll and pitch angles, and it also records instrument presentations to the crew in order that errors in instrumentation can be discriminated from errors in sensing or servomechanization or the like.
The critical points in connection with the CVR and the DRR are threefold:
First, the NTSB did not recover these instruments from the crash, even though its technical team was already in the field early Saturday morning. News accounts at the time said that both recorders were turned over to the NTSB team by James McConaugh, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, who actually held a little ceremony of handover to which he invited a handful of newspeople. No one asked, however, what the Department of Streets and Sanitation was doing with these instruments. They could not have simply tumbled into the street. The NTSB report tells us in fact that the nose and the tail sections of the aircraft suffered relatively little damage. News accounts incuriously note that the two recorders “had been recovered from the wreckage.” They do not pry into such questions as: By whom where they recovered, and in what way, and under what power and authority, whether by streets and Sanitation people or others?
What would Streets and Sanitation people know about extracting these recorders from a still-burning wreckage? Not that they could know nothing, but what did they know? In the immediate aftermath of a horrifying mid-afternoon plane crash in the heart of a residential neighborhood, when there were survivors still screaming in the wreckage, why would Streets and Sanitation people be in such a hurry to save the flight-data recorders? Not that there could be no innocuous explanation for this, but what is it? And if Streets and Sanitation gog the recorders from the FBI agents also present, as seems likely, then the question is: Why was Pat Gray’s FBI so hot to get its hands on the technical instruments needed for a precise reconstruction of the crash?
The second critical point bears on the state of the Cockpit Voice Recorder. A Dwight Chapin-inspired Chicago news story from the March NTSB hearings in Chicago ran as follows:
“United Air Line investigative committee members are suggesting that hydraulic pump failures may have contributed to the crash. They point out that the Cockpit Voice Recorder was filled with hydraulic oil when recovered from the wreckage, and some four days were required in the laboratory to clean the tape sufficiently for it to be played back to Safety Board listeners.
There is no mention of this oil, however in the NTSB’s final report, or of any need to treat the CVR tape in any way whatsoever, never mind for four days, before unnamed minds accounted it fit to be heard by the NTSB investigators.
The report reads, ‘Although the CVR showed evidence of extreme fire and heat damage, the entire tape was recovered with only moderate damage to a non pertinent area” (p.8); although another passage tells us that the normally high fidelity “CVR tape contained a high-level background noise which tended to mask meaningful frequency data.” (p.16); and in another context (p.8) notes without explanation that there were “variances” of up to six seconds in the “times of identical events recorded by Air Traffic Control sources [ground based] and the CVR.” The transcript of the last eight minutes of the CVR tape, printed in the NTSB report as Appendix F, shows fourteen “unidentified voice” entries and ten “unintelligibles,” ever so reminiscent of those other transcripts boiled in oil.
Or was Haig’s Sinister Force at Chicago, too?
The third critical point involves the all-important Flight Data Recorder, the one mounted in the tail near the Air Data Computer. The FDR shows that the crew did not get a suggestion of any FDR failure until about eight minutes later than that, and that up until about five minutes before the crash, the circuit and tape functions were still indicating positive.
Without exploring this side canyon, the NTSB report nevertheless acknowledges the importance of the simultaneous loss of capability in both recording systems at once: “The absence of FDR information, the [inherent] imprecision of the data, and the high ambient noise level of the CVR recording preclude a precise determination of the nature and tempo of events during the 60 seconds from the call for the final descent check until impact” (p.26)
The altimeters. Skolnick claimed shortly after the crash that the flight instrument actually sabotaged on 553 was the altimeter. He said his information from an FAA source inside the investigation was that the diaphragm of a barometric-pressure-sensing device had a pinprick in it. The NTSB established that the pilot’s altimeter had no such pinprick and showed that the copilot’s instrument was smashed too badly in the crash for a positive determination to be made.
There the NTSB laid the matter to rest and proceeded with its own reconstruction. In the course of this reconstruction, however, it appeared that there were indeed serious technical peculiarities in the performance of the altimeter system as a whole.
There are actually two independent altitude measuring and display systems on the Boeing 737, one for the pilot and one for the copilot. Each system begins with a barometric-pressure-sensing device mounted outside the aircraft on “independent Pilot-static probes which have no common connections.” The signals from each sensor go to one of two Central Air Data Computers (CADC) which continue the parallel redundancy of the system. Each CADC then supplies inputs to identical and independent altitude indicators, one at the pilot’s instrument console and the other at the copilot’s.
Indeed, the altitude-measuring system’s only catastrophic failure is the situation in which both the pilot’s altimeter and the copilot’s altimeter fail or malfunction in precisely the same way, in precisely the same magnitude, at precisely the same time. I am not a mathematician and will not try to compute the probability that these three conditions will ever be met in actual performance, but one’s inner ear says that the chance would be low, all the more so because of the unsurpassed reliability performance record of the Boeing 737. The only wreck this model ever had was the wreck it got into a mile and a half short of Midway.
What do you know, these three conditions appear nevertheless to have been met in the case of the crash of 553. “Both CADC units were capable of normal operation,” reads the NTSB report (p. 24), “but their altitude synchros, as recovered, showed an altitude higher than that of the crash site. The altitude differences, which could have been transmitted from the [independent] CADC units to the captain’s and first officer’s servo altimeters, were 157 feet and 103 feet, respectively.”
These are not trivial errors in either altimeter by itself, and it is putting it mildly to say that they are not trivial when they occur in the two independent systems at once.
Runway Utilization: Midway is an old airport with few of the modern electronic instrumentation systems which jet flight has come to depend on. One of its runways, however, runway 13R, is longer than the others and better equipped for jets. It has an electronic glidescope, a system that automatically tells the captain whether he is descending at the right altitude and rate throughout the whole length of the initial approach. Wind not being a factor (a light 4-6 knots at the time of the crash), it is the runway normally assigned to the few airline jets that still land at Midway instead of O’Hare. Use of this runway is all the more appropriate under conditions of low overcast, as on December 8, when the ceiling was about five-hundred feet.
The question of when and why flight 553 was reassigned to runway 31L, which is shorter and lacks a glidescope, is lost in the confusion of the lost “approach clearance,” that is, the word given, or in this case not given, by O’Hare tower (which handles all the graffic circulating around Chicago) and Midway’s story was never told. The whole question of O’Hare’s hand-off of 553 to the Midway tower is muddy with irregularities.
Related to the evident uncertainty in the cockpit of 553 about the landing procedure is the question of the light private plane, a two-prop Aero-Commander, that landed just ahead of 553 on Runway 31L. The more appropriate runway for such a small plane was 31R, which parallels 31L. Indeed, at one point the CVR transcript shows that Midway considered having the Aero-Commander go to that runway, but then changed its mind.
Less than twelve seconds later, with no communications intervening, the Midway tower sent its next and last message to 553: “United five fifty-three, execute a missed approach, make a left turn to a heading of – one eight zero, climb to two thousand.”
Nineteen-and-a-half seconds later came the crash. There were no future communications between the tower and 553 either way. The reason Midway gave for the wave-off was that 553 was going too fast and the distance between it and the Aero-Commander had closed to an unsafe margin. ON its first approach to the runway, 9VS had been well ahead of 553, some three miles. Unaccountably, its pilot requested a missed approach clearance from Midway tower and was given permission to pull up, circle, and come back for another try, all without giving place to 553 coming in behind it out of its holding pattern. The reason for the Aero-Commander’s missed-apporach request is not given in the NTSB report.
The Kedzie Outer Marker: Skolnick’s original claim was that the Kedzie Localizer/Outer Marker was turned off as 553 passed over it. This is a vertical electronic beam emitted by a transmitter located on Kedzie Avenue, 3.3 miles from the runway, on direct line with runway 31L. Especially in overcast conditions, it is needed to ensure that landing aircraft are headed in properly toward the runway.
The NTSB report ignores Skolnick’s assertions and puts a good face on the performance of the Outer Marker. The CVR transcript shows the Kedzie beacon tones sounding just after 553’s approach is handed over from O’Hare to Midway tower, a little less than two minutes before the crash. No irregularities are noted, and in its only remote approach to the point, the report says only (p.7) that “all navigational facilities associated with this approach procedure were flight-tested by the FAA immediately after the accident and wer found to be operating within prescribed tolerances. None of the flights using the localizer before or after the accident reported any problems.”
One must have access to the part of the CVR transcript not published with the NTSB final report to know of the following snatch of dialogue from the cockpit:
“Is Kedzie Localizer off – off the air, is that it?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Is Kedzie Localizer off the air? There’s an inbound, ah, there’s an in-bound on 31.”
As to the significance of the shut-off of the Kedzie Outer Marker, the NTSB report scatters fragments of the answer throughout its pages and never brings them together so that the meaning can come out clearly. On page 9 it tells us that 553 crashed “1/4 mile to the right of the localizer approach course.”
From the report in Appendix D, we learn that the magnetic heading of the path of the wreckage across three city blocks, hence the heading of the aircraft at impact, was 340 degrees.
From Appendix E we learn that the magnetic heading of runway 31L was 312 degrees. Thus, a little more than a mile-and-a-half after it had crossed the suddenly turned-off Kedzie beacon, in spite of the fact that its crew was turning 553 left for the missed-approach exercise in the moments just before impact, it was still a quarter-mile off course to the right on a magnetic heading in error by 28 degrees. This is precisely the kind of error that the electronic marker system is installed to prevent.
The Stickshaker: The eeriest technical oddity about this crash is the behavior of the flight crew when the stickshaker went off.
The stickshaker is a no-uncertain-terms warning device installed in the cockpit expressly to warn the flight crew if the airplane is ever in danger of going into a stall. It is operated by the Air Data Computer, which constantly monitors and reflects upon the airplane’s total flight state, including the airspeed, engine thrust, and aerodynamic configuration. By aerodynamic configuration is meant the positions of the variety of movable surfaces on the wings and tail – tabs, flaps, spoilers, landing gear, etc. – that affect the drag and lift of the airplane while moving through the airstream. Under some combinations of airspeed, thrust, and aerodynamic configuration, drag exceeds left, the nose spools up, and the aircraft stalls. If a stall happens at a high altitude, the plane will go into a spin; if at a low altitude, as with 553, it will crash tail first.
The stall is thus an eventuality not to be trifled with, and the designers of the super-safe Boeing 737 make it as unlikely an event as they can, partly by building into the crew’s control system a stall-warning device designed for absolute infallibility.
The warning system has two parts. One is a noisemaker in the roof of the cockpit. Its alarm is described as sounding something like a rattlesnake but louder. It is made to sound as alarming as possible, since its purpose is to get the crew to do something. The other part of the stall-warning system, from which the over-all system gets its name of “stickshaker,” is a mechanism for actually shaking the flight controls in the pilot’s and copilot’s hands. It produces something like the jerking felt in the steering wheel of a car when load exceeds power and the engine begins to lug, except that the stickshaker action is purposely mor eintense.
Commercial airline pilots say the stickshaker warning system should b ehard and felt only during training flights. “The sound of the shaker,” says the NTSB’s chief investigator, William Lamb, “should trigger an immediate alarm” in the crew.
The fact is that in the case of 553 it produced no apparent reaction whatsoever, though it came on twenty seconds before the crash and stayed on all the way to the end. The transcript of the well-oiled, well-cleaned CVR tape has it that two seconds after the stickshaker alarm went off, and unidentified voice in the cockpit spoke “two to three hurried words at very low amplitude and masked by noise of the stickshaker” (p. 52): the stickshaker went off simultaneously with the word “execute” in Midway tower’s abrupt command, “United five fifty-three , execute a missed approach.” Six seconds later, Flight Officer Coble “was almost languid” (NTSB report, Appendix F) in response to the tower’s command to “make a left turn to a heading of – one eight zero, climb to two thousand.” “Okay,”
Coble radios the tower, “left turn to one eight zero – left turn, okay?” A preliminary NTSB statement said, “The inquiry, which is far from concluded, has found that the final words of the plane crew showed no concern or alarm about the planned landing” and that “no vocal or other indication was received from United’s three-man flight crew that an emergency had developed onboard. Instead, the voice of Second Officer E.J. Elder [the final NTSB report assigns this speech to Coble] was almost languid as he responded to Midway tower’s instruction to ‘take it around again, you are too close to the Aero-Commander ahead.’” (This last language, incidentally – about being too close to the Aero-Commander – is quoted here in the NTSB statement as though it were the actual language of the tower, but no such words can be found in the CVR transcript or Appendix F.)
The stickshaker warning signal that was not evidently noted by the crew of 553 was not noted by tower personnel either until (in the story Ruckelshaus told Reed) FBI Special Agent Robert E. Hartz “proceeded to the Midway Airport tower shortly after the crash to determine if tower personnel could shed any light as to the reason for the crash….After listening to the [tower’s] tapes, SA Hartz identified a sound as being that of the stall indicator on the aircreft. The FAA agreed that SA Hartz was right and immediately notified FAA headquarters at Washington D.C.”
How is this to be explained? What chance is there that the sound of the stickshaker was electronically imposed on the tapes by some Startrekish internal device as the “de-gaussing gun” with which Charles Colson once considered erasing the White House tapes from a position beyond the White House grounds? I do not know if an instrument that can do that exists, but we know for a fact that the CVR tape transcript published in the NTSB report gives not the slightest indication of any vocal or operational reaction by any of the three flight crew members to the activation of a warning system designed to be irresistible. That intrigues me. If I had been the NTSB and known that the tapes had been in the possession of the Nixon-Gray FBI and Shicago Streets and Sanitation and/or others for twenty hours, I should hav einquired further into it.
The NTSB did not. But then, Krogh and Spears and Butterfield were telling them to hurry.
To sum up the is much, I am saying that we face serious technical doubts in six areas connected with the crash of this airplane:
1: The elevated levels of cyanide shown in the pilot’s body and at least six others aboard the flight.
2: The fate of the flight recorders, including:
a) the missing fourteen minutes of the FDR record;
b) the oil-pollution and “special treatment’ to which the CVR tape was subjected for four days and the garbled nature of its final input to the investigation;
c) the irregular way these vital instruments came into the hands of the NTSB though Streets and Sanitation.
3: The parallel and common errors occurring simultaneously in the captain’s altimeter system and the copilot’s altimeter system, physically independent of each other.
4: The irregular utilization of the runways.
5: The malfunction of the Kedzie Outer Marker on an apparently exclusive-to-553 basis, leading 553 a quarter-mile astray inside a mile and a half.
6: The apparent failure of the crew to respond in any way to the activation of the stickshaker stall-warning system.
I am not saying that these technical doubts cannot possibly be resolved in innocuous ways or that they constitute by themselves a proof of the sabotage theory of the plane crash. I am saying only that they have not yet been resolved, innocuously or not. In the Appendis to this book, I argue further that the NTSB’s technical explanation of the crash, a “pilot-error” theory, is based on assumptions contradicted by the NTSB’s own technical findings. What remains to be seen is whether a more likely reconstruction of the event can be put together.
The Sabotage Theory
I have mentioned Skolnick’s bodyguard and companion Alex Bottos. Following is ann outline of the story he tells of the Hunt crash.
In September 1971, Bottos and other Skolnick associates quietly began investigating records of the Lake County Coroner’s Office in connection with a number of mysterious deaths of people figuring in one way or another in court actions pending in Hammond, Chicago, and Omaha against former executives of Northern Natural Gas Company and an assortment of public officials in Hammond and East Chicago.
This is the same Northern Natural whose lawyers Blodgett and Krueger will bring the so-called Mitchell documents aboard United 553 a year and a half later.
Northern Natural had been accused of a basic big-utilities bribery scheme involving the regional price structure and the seduction of pliant officials in a variety of levers-of-power positions. The indictment was originally to have been drawn in June of 1972. It was delayed by the stir created by new Skolnick-Bottos disclosures to the effect that the case had precipitated a string of cover-up crimes including murder and the falsification of death records. By September, when the information was that the documents finally brought $5 million on the underworld market.
As Bottos saw it, this meant that the Sarelli mob had something to do with the 553 crash. The way he pieced the story together, a group which Bottos occasionally follows General Haig in calling “the Sinister White House Force” was strongly desirous that several passengers aboard 553 not reach Chicago alive: Dorothy Hunt, because of her involvement in the blackmail operation; Michelle Clark of CBS, because she could put Dorothy Hunt on the gib stage; Krueger and Blodgett, because they had the Mitchell documents, part of the Huntmail. Because of the short time in which the technically difficult job had to be contracted for and carried out, the Sinister Force betook itself to the Syndicate group with the greatest technological capability of carrying it out, the Sarelli group. The hit group then employed a technique classically indicated for do-or-die situations, the use of double cutouts, i.e., of a number of independent hit-men each acting in ignorance of the others to get rid of the same people. The kill mechanisms employed overlapped and produced the overkill of 553. Bottos claimed also the elements of the FBI and other federal agencies were involved.
The 553 investigation was meantime heating up on its own burner and Skolnick and Bottos, pressing their views where they could were demanding, but not winning, a chance to present evidence at the NTSB public hearings.
On March 1 Skolnick presented the NTSB Board of Inquiry chairperson, Isobel Burgess, with a letter outlining his claims and requesting an opportunity to present them in a regular public session. Burgess rejected this petition on the spot without comment or explanation.
On March 2, Skolnick denounced the hearings as “a sham and a pretense” and filed suit against Burgess in the Cook County District Court.
On March 5, Bottos was suddenly taken prisoner by federal marshals acting on the order of another Chicago federal judge.
Without formal charges, hearing, or trial, Bottos was spirited away for sixty days of “mental observation” at the Federal Medical Facility in Springfield, Missouri, a prison-hospital long reckoned by the cognoscenti to be the main high-technology dungeon of the high-technology state, a “Clockwork Orange” subcellar. Bottos was released without harm after about forty days owing to the intervention of the Northwest Indiana Crime Commission, a citizen’s watch agency connected with Skolkick. By this time, however, the Sarelli case had gone by and he had not given his testimony.
Bottos is convinced that it was to keep him from testifying in the Sarelli trial that he was taken off to Springfield. A point cited against him in the “mental observation” period, in fact, was that he had been pushing so irrationally hard to be heard as a witness in that case. Davidson and Roller wanted him out of the picture, he came to believe, because they were protecting the Sarelli-White House link in the 553 crash.
This was only obliquely denied by Peter Vaira, Davidson’s successor as head of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force in Chicago. Vaira told me in a telephone interview in late September 1974 (before all the CIA stories broke). “We did not put Alex on the stand because once he gets started, God almighty, he’d be all over the place. He talks about the CIA, the Bay of Pigs, all kind of weird stuff. Says he knew Howard Hunt at the Bay of Pigs. We figured the jury’s got enough problems. So we used the agent who listened into Alex’s conversations.”
The result even so was convictions for Sarelli and Chiodo. But as Vaira added sadly, “Unfortunately for us, they both got quick probation. I’d have thought they’d have done time. They got a lot of money.”
One of course lacks the means to evaluate the Skolnick-Bottos version of events from a distance; no doubt it is lurid and frightening. It goes beyond the image-frame of normal politics and so gives us an unwelcome, vertiginous sense of suddenly not understanding politics anymore. The act imputed is indeed so monstrous tha the imputation itself seems a monstrous act. Would this Sinister Force of ours really kill so many innocent people to protect itself? Would it actually do that? In the time of Mai Lai? Secret wars? Allende? Dallas? Memphis? Los Angeles? Laurel? Fred Hampton’s bedroom in Chicago? The Audubon Ballroom in Harlem? The road to Selma? Jackson State? Kent State? Watergate?