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11-Year Mystery May Be Unraveled : Macabre Tale of Terror at Sea Told by Witnesses at S.F. Murder Trial

Times Staff Writer

“X” marks the spot in a trial going on in U.S. District Court here. It was drawn in black ink on a map of little Palmyra Island, a usually deserted atoll about 1,200 miles south of Hawaii.

That is where they found all that remains of Eleanor (Muff) Graham, just a skull and some other bones--not a complete skeleton, but perhaps enough to convict a man named Buck Duane Walker and a woman named Stephanie Stearns of murder. If that happens, it will officially put to rest a macabre, 11-year-old mystery--a story, as prosecutors tell it, of terror at sea.

What really happened to Muff and Malcolm (Mac) Graham? In 1974, the San Diego couple sailed their yacht into Palmyra’s calm lagoon, and then disappeared.

Bones Washed Ashore

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Was Muff Graham really murdered? Her bones were found washed up on Palmyra in 1981. But was that hole in her skull caused by a bullet? Was that damage to her jawbone caused by a person wielding a sledge hammer or a large rock?

And what about Mac Graham? A government witness gave testimony this week suggesting that Mac Graham was forced to “walk the plank.” Is that why his remains have never been found?

Federal prosecutors are trying to prove that, one way or another, Walker committed the premeditated murder of Muff Graham. Prosecutors initially also sought to press a count of murder during the commission of a robbery, but U.S. District Judge Samuel King this week agreed to drop that count.

After the verdict is rendered on Walker--and Judge King says the case could go to the jury as early as next week--Stearns will be put on trial. Two well-known lawyers have been retained as defense counsel--Vincent Bugliosi, who as a Los Angeles County prosecutor won convictions against the Manson “family,” and Leonard Weinglass, who helped defend the Chicago Seven.

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Boat Painted, Name Changed

This much is certain about the Palmyra Island mystery: In 1974, some weeks after the Grahams were reported missing, the Sea Wind sailed into Hawaii with a new name, a new paint job and a new crew--Walker and Stearns. At the time, Walker was a fugitive from drug charges.

Authorities arrested the pair after yachtsmen recognized the Sea Wind. Walker and Stearns were ultimately convicted and imprisoned for stealing the yacht.

All along, the pair said they didn’t know what happened to the Grahams. They explained that they had sailed their own boat to Palmyra and, for two months, shared the lagoon with the Grahams while other yachts came and went. Then one night they went to the Grahams’ boat for dinner, but the Grahams weren’t there.

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They said they searched for the Grahams for three days, but only found the couple’s inflatable boat overturned in the lagoon. Figuring the Grahams had drowned or been eaten by the many sharks around Palmyra, they decided to sail the well-provisioned Sea Wind back to Hawaii.

It was on the way back to Hawaii that Walker and Stearns got the idea of keeping the boat--or so they said at the time.

Gold Tooth Spotted

Then, in 1981, a South African yachtswoman spotted something glinting in the sunshine on a Palmyra beach. It turned out to be Muff Graham’s gold tooth. Her skull was connected to the tooth, and several other bones lay nearby. There was also an aluminum chest on its side. It appeared that the chest had contained the bones and had washed up from the lagoon.

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Dental tests confirmed that the remains were those of Muff Graham, and damage to the bones indicated she had met a violent death.

So authorities decided to put Walker and Stearns back on trial. The fact that they had to capture Walker--he had escaped from a minimum-security prison--combined with legal maneuvers to delay the trial until now. It was scheduled for federal court in Hawaii, but a change of venue was ordered because of publicity surrounding the case there.

The macabre nature of the mystery is accentuated by the trial itself.

Walker, 47, a hulking figure at 6 feet tall and about 200 pounds, sits at the defense table. When jurors look his way, they can also see in the background some of the prosecution’s evidence.

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Smashed, Burned

The aluminum chest found near Muff Graham’s bones is kept handy in the courtroom, as are the bones themselves, stored in individual plastic bags. Several times expert forensic witnesses have held up Exhibit No. 24--the skull of Mrs. Graham--to show how it was smashed and even burned, as though there had been an effort to cremate the remains. The map with the “X” on it is also kept handy.

Testimony this week was pivotal. Noel Allen Ingman, a social studies teacher-turned-heroin dealer now participating in the government’s witness protection program on another case, testified that Walker, with whom he had served time in federal prison, once laughingly told him how he had stolen a boat at Palmyra.

“He mentioned forcing the man to walk the plank,” Ingman said. “He mentioned that the man was . . . sniveling.”

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Ingman said Walker told him he killed the man. “A statement was made about offing, knocking out of the box, blowing away"--typical jailhouse terms, he said, for murder.

In cross-examination, Earl Partington, Walker’s defense attorney, sought to demonstrate that Ingman is a former heroin addict and a well-practiced liar who has been paid by the government to snitch on his former colleagues in the drug trade.

Next week, Partington said, he will call as a witness Ingman’s stepmother. She will testify that Ingman provided his own son with heroin--the heroin that his son used when he died from an overdose.


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