Despite Guilty Verdict, Mystery of Palmyra Lingers On : Sister Sat Through Trial, Hoping for Clues to Brother’s Death in South Pacific
Mary Graham McIntosh wants to know what happened in the summer of 1974 on Palmyra Island, a remote atoll rich with coconut palms some 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, in tropical waters teeming with sharks. That was the time and place that her brother, Malcolm (Mac) Graham, and his wife, Eleanor (Muff) Graham, disappeared.
So, 11 years after the fact, the middle-aged Seattle woman sat hour after hour, day after day, for 2 1/2 weeks in the front row of the hard pew-like benches in a San Francisco federal courtroom. Her husband at her side, Mary McIntosh watched the trial of Buck Duane Walker, the man accused of murdering her sister-in-law, Muff, and widely suspected of slaying her brother, Mac.
“I like being able to see what’s going on,” she said, smiling pleasantly, during a break in the trial last week. “He’s my only brother, and I love him dearly.”
Her smile disappeared, her eyes watered. “And I want them to know he’s real,” she said, her voice tense and trembling. “I’m going to sit there and make them see that.”
Mary McIntosh was waiting for the denouement to a mystery story--a tale, as prosecutors portray it, of piracy and cold-blooded murder on a tropical island. The story is replete with plot turns, suspense and clues: Muff Graham’s skeletal remains washing up on the Palmyra shore; testimony that Mac Graham was forced “to walk the plank”; the extensive forensic analysis that suggests a macabre scenario for Muff’s demise.
Late Tuesday, the story reached what may be its final chapter. After deliberating 2 1/2 hours, the jury found Walker guilty of first-degree murder in Muff Graham’s death.
But even with a guilty verdict, nobody knows with absolute certainty what happened to the Grahams, a seafaring San Diego couple--except, perhaps, for Buck Walker and his then-girlfriend, Stephanie Stearns. Stearns is to be tried separately, starting in September, in the murder of Muff Graham.
But if Walker and Stearns know, they aren’t saying.
Mac and Muff Graham loved the sea and they loved the Sea Wind, their classic 37-foot ketch. Mac Graham, a native of Stamford, Conn., attended college in Michigan and worked for General Motors in the 1950s. Then an uncle died, leaving Mac a trust. Mac Graham was not fabulously wealthy, friends say, but the inheritance enabled him to live the life of his choice--the life of a yachtsman.
Mac Graham already owned the Sea Wind when he moved to San Diego in the late 1950s. It was there that he met Muff, a native San Diegan whose family “had no money at all,” a friend said. They were married in 1961 in La Paz, Mexico, and promptly set sail on their honeymoon--a six-year circumnavigation of the world.
The Grahams, who had no children, lived aboard the Sea Wind for several years in the marinas of San Diego Bay; they weren’t home so much as home-ported. With his friend Carl Kneisel, Mac Graham operated a boat building and remodeling business in the early 1970s.
As a couple, the Grahams made friends easily. Muff was a gracious hostess, friends say, who kept fine china, crystal and sterling silverware on the Sea Wind. Mac took charge of navigating and keeping the boat in repair; Muff handled the cleaning and cooking.
“You’d meet them and you’d say, ‘Aren’t they nice people?’ You’d say, ‘Isn’t he nice? Isn’t she cute?’ ” recalled a friend, Marie Jamieson.
Mac Graham was a scuba diver and an avid and fine chess player. But it was as a sailor that he truly excelled. “In my experience,” Kneisel testified last week, “he was the best.”
In 1974, the Grahams set sail again. This time they envisioned a two-year cruise, island-hopping in the Pacific. They planned first to go to Hawaii, then to Palmyra for an extended stay, perhaps six months or a year. After that, there was no definite plan. They might proceed to the Fiji Islands or Tahiti, or they might return to Hawaii and San Diego.
The nice couple from San Diego --43-year-old Mac, 42-year-old Muff--made it to Hawaii without problems. Then on June 24 they set sail for Palmyra Island, arriving on July 2.
Mac Graham was said to have a romantic vision about Palmyra, well-known to yachtsmen as a resting point between Hawaii and the South Pacific. Its lagoon provides a secure anchorage, and with an average rainfall of more than 100 inches a year, there was plenty of fresh water in the catchment basins the U.S. Navy built there during World War II. Besides, as one sailor said, “Yachtsmen always dream of stopping on a deserted island.”
In fact, the Navy made Palmyra what it is today. A volcanic formation sprouting with coral, Palmyra was--and, depending on the tides, still is--really a series of smaller islands. Seabees used bulldozers to connect the isles, creating something like a misshapen U turned on its side, its open mouth facing west. The channel was dredged to allow ships to move easily into the deep interior lagoon. An airstrip was constructed for Navy bombers; buildings, Quonset huts and fortifications were erected for a base that quartered up to 5,000 men.
After the war, it was all abandoned--equipment rusting, lush vegetation overgrowing the buildings, pillboxes slowly crumbling in the tides. Some visitors say there is a ghost-town feel to the place. There are no permanent residents, though a few years ago a Christmas Island businessman with a crew of Micronesian laborers tried (and failed to profit from) harvesting the 100,000 or so coconut palms that grow there.
Within days of the Grahams’ arrival, another seafaring couple arrived at Palmyra. They went by the names Roy and Stephanie Allen. Authorities would later identify them as Buck Duane Walker and Stephanie Stearns.
No one at Palmyra realized that Walker was in fact a fugitive from justice and had a prison record. Convicted of armed robbery at the age of 18, the Stockton, Calif., native had served time in San Quentin. In Hawaii he was arrested on charges of selling illegal drugs and pleaded guilty. Then, out on bail awaiting sentencing, he managed to obtain a passport under a false identity--even using a photo of himself in a clerical collar. Avoiding authorities, he rebuilt the 27-foot Iola and sailed off with his girlfriend to Palmyra.
Over the next several weeks, the Grahams and the “Allens” would coexist on Palmyra, but not on friendly terms.
To the Grahams and some other yachtsmen who passed through the island that summer, Walker, then 37, and Stearns, then 27, were known as “the hippie couple.” Walker had wild red hair, a bushy beard, no front teeth and tattooed arms. They brought three dogs with them on their small, decrepit boat.
The Iola had been rendered unseaworthy by the journey from Hawaii. The engine had broken down, and when Walker tried to enter Palmyra’s harbor, he ran aground, damaging the hull. The boat was towed in by others already at the island.
The life styles of the Grahams and “the hippie couple” were in sharp contrast. The Sea Wind’s freezers were packed with tins of ham, turkey and roasts. They often invited other couples at Palmyra to dinner on the Sea Wind, serving champagne in crystal goblets.
Walker and Stearns were not welcome on the Sea Wind, other yachtsmen recalled. “The hippie couple” reportedly had envisioned living off the land, but the seeds they tried to plant were eaten by sand crabs, rats and birds. They bartered, mooched and scrounged for food. Walker on occasion tried to kill fish by shooting them with a pistol. He used a chain saw to bring down coconut trees. Muff Graham was said to be afraid of the couple’s dogs--and of Walker himself.
Marilyn Pollack and her husband, of Hanalei, Hawaii, were among those who visited Palmyra that summer. She testified that she had also grown to fear Walker because he would “row his dinghy past our boat. He would be looking at our boat . . . (he) would come close to our boat. I would speak. He wouldn’t.”
Walker, she said, “looked very hard-eyed. It was very upsetting.”
She and her husband decided to leave Palmyra, leaving the Grahams alone with Walker and Stearns.
“Muff cried and urged us not to go,” Pollack testified. “She said she was afraid she would never leave the island alive.”
Curtis Shoemaker, a ham radio operator in Hawaii who regularly communicated with Mac Graham, also testified about the Grahams’ fractious relationship with Walker and Stearns.
But one time, Shoemaker testified, Graham remarked that Walker was coming over that evening. He recalled Graham as saying, “I guess they’ve made a truce . . . They’re bringing a cake over.”
That was the last time he heard from the Grahams.
About two months later, well after Shoemaker reported that he could no longer contact the Grahams by radio, the Sea Wind returned to Hawaii. It was disguised by a coat of lavender paint over the original blue, a new name, and the fact that Walker and Stearns were piloting the craft. Walker told people he had won the boat in a series of chess games with a care-free millionaire, and that the millionaire had sailed off in the Iola, which has never been found.
But yachtsmen, aware that the Grahams were missing, recognized the distinctive vessel as the Sea Wind. Walker and Stearns were arrested and ultimately convicted of stealing the yacht. Stearns was sentenced to two years. Walker was sentenced to 18 years because of the additional conviction for drugs and his flight.
Walker and Stearns said they didn’t know what happened to the Grahams. They said they had been invited to the Sea Wind for dinner, but when they arrived, the Grahams weren’t there. Walker and Stearns said they figured that the Grahams had gone fishing, but the couple never returned.
The next morning, Stearns told the Honolulu Advertiser, “we started looking and we found the dinghy overturned.” The dinghy--an inflatable Zodiac boat--had washed ashore, they said. Walker and Stearns said they could only surmise that the Grahams had gone out in the boat, somehow flipped over, and had either drowned or been eaten by the sharks that infest Palmyra’s waters.
It became clear that the nice couple from San Diego were never going to return.
More than six years passed. Then, in 1981, a South African yachtswoman named Sharon Jordan, taking a stroll along Palmyra’s lagoon, noticed something on a coral shelf, glittering in the sunshine.
Jordan, as she later described in testimony, approached the object and discovered it was a bit of gold--a gold-crowned tooth that was still attached to a human skull. Other human bones lay nearby, along with an aluminum chest that appeared to have served as a crude casket for the bones.
Forensic experts would soon match the dental pattern in the skull to that of Eleanor (Muff) Graham.
The experts also found troubling signs: the jawbone had been smashed in three places, as though by a sledgehammer or large rock. There was a hole in the side of the skull, just above the temple. Was it created by a bullet?
And there were strange signs that both the skull and the aluminum chest had been through an intense fire. An effort to disfigure or perhaps even cremate the remains?
A federal grand jury in 1981 agreed that it looked like murder. They returned indictments against Walker and Stearns.
But once again, Walker was a fugitive. Forty-two months after he entered prison, he escaped from the minimum-security prison on McNeil Island in Washington state.
According to the testimony of Noel Allen Ingman, a former McNeil Island convict now participating in the government’s witness protection program, Walker hooked up with Ingman and two other McNeil “alumni” to traffic marijuana from Mexico to the United States. Walker lived much of the time in Oaxaca, Mexico, trading guns for narcotics “at a very beneficial rate,” according to Ingman.
The enterprise lasted about two years but collapsed when Ingman, by then a heroin addict, went to authorities. Given immunity from prosecution, a new identity and protection by the government, Ingman provided information that led to the arrests that broke up the drug ring.
There was no effort to prosecute Walker on the drug charges; he was already facing the murder count and charges for his escape. But Ingman also helped prosecutors with their case against Walker.
On at least one occasion at McNeil Island, Ingman said, Walker laughingly boasted about how he had robbed a man of his yacht at Palmyra Island.
“He talked about a hassle he had with the couple,” Ingman testified last week. “He mentioned forcing the man to walk the plank . . . to walk off the end of the boat . . . He mentioned that the man was (defecating) all over himself and he mentioned the man was sniveling while he was walking the plank.”
Ingman testified that Walker said he killed the man.
“A statement was made about offing, knocking out of the box, blowing away"--typical prison slang, Ingman said, for murder.
On another occasion several months later, Ingman said, while they were trafficking drugs together, they had another conversation about that summer on Palmyra Island. The discovery of Muff Graham’s remains had triggered a spate of news stories, and Ingman said he mentioned to Walker that it was “funny that that box should come up after all this time.”
“He said, ‘That’s bull . . . about the box. I didn’t put her body in a box.’ . . . He didn’t say what he did.”
So what happened to Mac and Muff Graham?
In closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutors reiterated what they had admitted from the start: They don’t know precisely how Muff Graham died. But they argued that it is clear that she was murdered and there was a deliberate effort to dispose of her remains.
During the course of the trial, forensic experts suggested possibilities, though. For example, one testified that the outward conical shape of the hole in Muff Graham’s skull was consistent with the effect of gas pressure of a gun fired with the muzzle pressed tight to the victim’s head. A gun that could produce such a wound was seized from the Sea Wind.
Prosecutors suggested that evidence strongly indicates that after Muff Graham was killed, her body was placed in the aluminum chest and set afire. Forensic experts found that the interior of the chest had been subjected to a heat of about 1,100 degrees, indicating that an accelerant such as gasoline had been used. The exterior was not exposed to such heat, indicating that the box was in water when the fire occurred.
Moreover, a whitened patch on Muff Graham’s skull indicated it, too, had been subjected to intense heat. The irregular margins of the patch suggested that the remainder of the skull had a protective covering, such as flesh, experts testified. An acetylene torch could have produced such heat, it was noted --and such a torch was seized from the Sea Wind.
Then, according to the scenario offered by prosecutors, the chest was dumped in the lagoon. Over time, experts testified, the decomposition of the body produced gas that could cause the chest to rise, allowing it to be washed ashore. The box was found upright and open with the bones nearby.
Walker’s motive to commit murder was the theft of the well-stocked Sea Wind. “The strongest (reason) anyone could have. His freedom depended on it,” prosecutor Elliot Enoki said. “The motive was so strong it almost overwhelms the rest of the case.”
Lead defense attorney Earle Partington stressed that what evidence was offered was largely circumstantial and not sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Repeatedly, the defense lawyers had sought to deflate the prosecution’s theory, saying the forensic evidence proved mere possibilities, not certainties. For example, the hole in Muff Graham’s skull might have been caused by something other than a bullet fired at close range, forensic experts acknowledged. The defense contended there was no clear evidence that Muff Graham’s bones were ever inside the aluminum chest. And Partington argued that Ingman was “a paid Judas” and “an appalling, worthless liar.”
But defense lawyers chose not to argue any alternative theories to explain the wide array of forensic evidence, such as the burns on Muff Graham’s skull.
As for Mac Graham, the only clue to his disappearance and presumed death is found in Ingman’s testimony. His remains have never been found.
However, there is another theory about what happened to Mac Graham. It has been noted that the aluminum box that served as a casket for Muff Graham was originally a supply box on an Air Force rescue boat left on Palmyra after the war.
In fact, the rescue boats had four such chests as standard equipment.
One of them is missing.