LaGuardia Christmas bombing remains unsolved 27 years later
By John Springer
(Court TV) NEW YORK -- The New York-bound shuttle bounced lightly onto a runway at LaGuardia Airport after a short, uneventful flight from Boston. Businessman Mike Schimmel got off the airplane and headed toward ground transportation, eager to board an airport shuttle to his mother's home on Long Island.
It was four days after Christmas in 1975, and LaGuardia was teeming with holiday travelers like Schimmel who were looking forward to ringing in the New Year with loved ones.
Americans had a lot to toast as the year drew to a close. The Vietnam War, which severely divided the country, finally ended. President Gerald Ford had escaped two assassination attempts. Watergate was becoming water under the bridge and democracy, American-style, would celebrate its 200th birthday soon.
But none of that was on Schimmel's mind as he ducked into a crowded limo in front of the Eastern Shuttle Terminal at about 6:30 p.m. on that chilly Monday night on December 29.
"We were full and ended up stopping in front of the TWA terminal," recalled Schimmel, then 27. "A second, larger limo pulled up next to us and double-parked. We were told to get into the bigger car."
Schimmel got inside the second car and had just slammed the door shut when it happened.
A bright blue flash. A blast of air. Deafening noise. Broken glass rained down.
Momentarily dazed, Schimmel looked around him and saw that no one inside the limo was hurt. The driver, however, had been on a pay phone outside the car. He now lay on the ground, bleeding from the neck.
The occupants of the larger shuttle got out and surveyed the smaller limo. It was destroyed, but its curbside location had provided a buffer that saved the lives of everyone in the larger, double-parked vehicle.
A plane must have crashed, Schimmel thought as he entered the darkened terminal.
Inside, water spewed from broken pipes. Electrical wire and broken sections of the ceiling that weren't already on the floor hung precariously. The odor of gun powder filled the air.
"I walked into the terminal maybe 15 feet. It was black and full of smoke," said Schimmel, who now lives in New Jersey. "A girl, a young lady in her 20s, popped out of the smoke. I said something like, 'You'll be all right' and carried her out. Her coat was smoking and she was blackened."
A severed foot was visible on a ledge and Schimmel immediately surmised that many people lay dead or injured somewhere beyond the smoke that filled his eyes.
He was right about that. But it was a bomb -- not a plane crash -- that caused the carnage in Queens, New York, that night 27 years ago.
Victim: 'It was evil'
Queens Chief of Detectives Edwin T. Dreher was investigating a drug-related murder in the neighborhood of Astoria, less than two miles from LaGuardia, when his radio crackled with a report of the explosion.
Dreher, 48, immediately directed his driver to rush to the airport. On the way, the seasoned, 24-year department veteran launched what at the time was the largest NYPD investigation in history, using his radio to summon all available detectives from New York's five boroughs.
Ambulances were just arriving when Dreher's car screeched to a stop at the TWA terminal.
"There was the residue of the bomb. You could smell whatever it was in the air and see the huge explosive force that had blown the floor and ceiling out," Dreher, now 73, retired and living in South Florida, told Courttv.com. "All the windows were blown out."
A police lieutenant had set up a makeshift morgue and triage center. Dreher ripped down some of TWA's drapes to shield the victims from the gathering horde of television cameras. Nowadays, the dead would have been left where they were until photographs were taken and measurements made to aid in reconstructing the scene. But forensic investigations were not as sophisticated in 1975.
Dreher and his senior commanders quickly settled on a plan of action. One group of detectives was sent out to write down the plate numbers of every vehicle parked at the airport. Another group was dispatched to area hospitals to interview survivors and gather information about the dead.
Eleven dead, 74 injured was the final toll.
But the number of dead and injured could have been much higher. The baggage claim area where the bomb went off was mostly cleared of passengers when it exploded. For the most part, the victims were airport employees, limo drivers, people waiting for rides, and passengers who had just picked up their luggage.
One of the survivors was H. Patrick Callahan, a 27-year-old lawyer from Indianapolis en route to see clients in Connecticut. Callahan and his law partner at the time, Stephen Cline, 41, were shielded from the blast by a concrete support.
"My law partner and I had gone outside to see where the limo was," Callahan said. "We had just gone back and we were leaning against one of those big columns. The people who died were standing next to us."
Callahan does not know if he was unconscious for five seconds or five minutes. When he got to his feet, all he could see was dust. He could not even see Cline, two feet away and slightly injured. Callahan, whose hearing did not return fully for a week, is grateful he could not see the bodies through the dust.
"People had left except those of us waiting for rides. A lot more people would have been dead. The bomb appeared to have been placed in the lockers directly adjacent to the carousel that the luggage was on," Callahan said. "It was evil."
Investigators quickly determined that an explosive device was, indeed placed in one of those coin-operated lockers that were once commonplace. The explosion ripped apart the lockers, propelling large and small pieces of sharp, jagged metal at great speeds.
"The people who died were hit by shrapnel," said nationally known forensic pathologist Michael Baden, who was then deputy New York medical examiner and who performed several of the autopsies.
Callahan still has two scars on his left arm, reminders of the deep gashes patched up by doctors at Jamaica General Hospital. He also has the leather belt that someone -- he doesn't know who -- strapped to his arm as a tourniquet.
At the hospital, Callahan said there was speculation that the Puerto Rican nationalist group, FALN, planted the bomb. "That's what we were led to believe," he said.
Searching for a suspect in the rubble
The FALN was first on Dreher's list of unofficial suspects. The group, which sought independence from Puerto Rico during the 1970s and early '80s, claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings in New York and Chicago.
Almost a year before the LaGuardia bombing, the FALN claimed responsibility for the January 24, 1975, bombing that killed four and wounded 50 at New York's historic Fraunces Tavern.
Absent a claim of responsibility, police sifted through the rubble at LaGuardia as the starting point for their investigation. The crime scene investigation was slowed by two anonymous calls about additional bombs, which prompted Dreher to shutdown the airport. Police thought they might have found another device when a dog trained to sniff explosives sat down near a locker in another part of the terminal and then returned to it after being pulled away.
No one was amused when the locker was opened. A package of frankfurters, innocently left by a passenger, had attracted the police dog's attention.
In telephone calls police received days after the bombing, no one claimed responsibility for the deadly explosion. To this day, no individual or group has ever made a "credible claim" of responsibility, according to Dreher, who retired in 1983.
Leading a task force of 120 NYPD detectives, 600 FBI agents, ATF agents and Port Authority investigators, Dreher was determined to learn who planted the bomb and why. But first they had figure out what actually exploded.
Using an empty hangar to store evidence, investigators meticulously sifted through debris removed from the terminal. Based on what was found, they concluded the bomb had the equivalent of 25 sticks of dynamite and was composed of either TNT or plastic explosives. According to Dreher, the device was controlled by items most of us might have lying around the house -- a Westclock alarm clock and an Eveready 6-volt lantern battery.
Meanwhile, teams of detectives and investigators began chasing leads.
A few days after the explosion, for example, a Midwest police chief called Dreher to report that his department had lost track of a paroled political activist who was imprisoned for a previous bombing.
Police determined that the parolee's brother had been arrested at LaGuardia on a fraud charge the day before the bombing. When they found the parolee a few days later, according to Dreher, he was visiting the White House with his politically active mother and was taking photographs of senior administration officials. That lead fizzled after investigators determined the parolee had an alibi.
Almost from the beginning, detectives were assigned to look into the background of each of the dead and injured to see if there was even a remote chance that the bomb was intended for one person alone. An FBI agent was among the injured and a dead Connecticut man was reputed to have CIA ties, Dreher said, but investigators eventually discounted simple murder as a theory.
Whoever planted the bomb was making a statement, investigators agreed.
No one claimed responsibility
As the months passed and the LaGuardia bombing task force's numbers dwindled, investigators were still wondering why no one claimed responsibility for what was obviously a terrorist act. It still remains just a theory, but investigators arrived at a hunch that the bomb may have been intended to go off 12 hours earlier or 12 hours later, exploding at dawn when the baggage claim area presumably would have been empty.
For months, the short list of suspects included the FALN, the Jewish Defense League and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
"A lot of things were happening at the time with FALN, JDL, PLO," said Kevin McMurray, a freelance journalist and author who has been researching the case since 1996. "The thinking was that the timing device was miss-set or malfunctioned. That would explain the lack of credible claims. A lot of innocent people were killed."
The investigation remained active through the spring and summer of 1976 but every promising lead went nowhere. Then a prime suspect emerged.
The arrival of a prime suspect
TWA Flight 355 was bound for Chicago when it took off from LaGuardia on Sept. 10, 1976. The plane, with 86 passengers and a full crew aboard, was taken over by five hijackers a short time later.
They claimed to have bombs.
The leader of the group, Zvonko Busic, was fighting for independence for Croatia from then-Yugoslavia. With him were his American wife, Julienne Busic, and three sympathizers.
Their plane "bombs" were determined later to be fakes. But Busic had a plan to convince authorities in New York that he meant what he said. He planted a bomb in a coin-operated locker at Grand Central Station in New York and told police where to find it.
The hijacking was already being taken seriously. But the bomb in the locker caught the attention of Dreher and others still investigating the nine-month-old LaGuardia bombing.
"We found the bomb sometime about 5:30 p.m. We took the bomb up to Rodman's Neck [a police firing range] in the Bronx," Dreher said. "They were working on it at about 9 or 10 p.m. when it went off."
One cop was killed and another was seriously injured. Although the timing mechanism and battery Busic's group used were different than the ones used by the LaGuardia bombers, investigators had strong suspicions the two incidents were somehow related because they had both been placed in lockers.
"Naturally, we got excited," Dreher said.
The hijackers finally surrendered in Paris, after French police shot out the tires of the plane and talked them into giving up. The hijackers were taken back to New York on another flight.
Dreher sent a couple of his best interrogators, detectives Joe Coffey and Frank McDarby, to meet the flight. He wanted confessions before any lawyers showed up. But the FBI thwarted their efforts. Federal agents interrupted the interrogation to take Busic to court for an arraignment on the hijacking charge.
"We thought we would get some form of admission. We were terribly disappointed," said Dreher.
McDarby, who is retired, told the television program "America's Most Wanted" in 1993 that Busic gave conflicting accounts of how he had learned of the LaGuardia bombing. At one point, Busic said he had heard the news on a radio in a taxicab. Another time, he said he heard of the bombing on the news at home.
Busic told the show, as well as McMurray, the writer, that he had nothing to do with the LaGuardia bombing. Busic also claimed that he been awake for more than 100 hours when he was interrogated.
Busic was sentenced to life for the death of the police officer and for the hijacking and is being held in a Leavenworth, Kansas, federal prison. According to a transcript of a 1997 interview with McMurray, Busic said the death of the police officer could have been avoided and that he regretted it immediately.
He also insisted that after police knew he planted the Grand Central Station bomb and engineered the hijacking, there would have been no reason not to admit his involvement in La Guardia bombing.
"My offer still stands ... I am volunteering to be hypnotized, to take sodium pentothal [a so-called "truth serum"], to take [a] polygraph test, and also [a] DNA test, or any combination of the above, and then submit to questioning about [the] LaGuardia bombing," Busic wrote in a July 1997 letter to McMurray. "... If you know some people who are seriously interested in knowing the truth about me, I am at their disposal."
Busic is regarded as a national hero in Croatia, which finally won its independence after he had spent 21 years in prison. The Republic of Croatia has been lobbying Washington to transfer Busic to his homeland to serve out of his sentence. So far, there has been no public response.
McMurray and Dreher both wondered aloud whether Busic, who has been denied parole several times, is still being held because of lingering suspicions about the LaGuardia bombing. In the meantime, his co-conspirators remain free.
Dreher said that after 27 years, he would not jump up and down in protest if Busic were sent to Croatia, provided he tells what he knows, if anything.
"There are 11 graves out there crying for an explanation," Dreher said. "I regret it like mad, but I am satisfied that everything that could have been done was done at the time. It's just a [shame] that we didn't break the case."