Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Palmyra Island: mystery, murder and a curse

This is as close to the show "LOST" as you can get!

Palmyra is one of the last uninhabited islands in the Pacific.
Although officially listed as an island, Palmyra is actually an atoll. The difference between an atoll and an island is that an atoll is formed by the growth of coral around the rim of an ancient ocean volcano that has sunk below the surface of the sea over eons of geologic time, giving the classic atoll a circular or horseshoe shape. Hundreds of such atolls dot the massive area that is the Pacific ocean. (Perhaps the most famous of these is Bikini Atoll where the U.S. Navy tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s).

Palmyra island's coordinates are 5 degrees, 52 minutes North, 162 degrees, 6 minutes West, placing it near the very center of the Pacific ocean or about 1000 nautical miles south-southwest of Hawaii in the North Pacific Ocean, or about one-half of the way from Hawaii to American Samoa. The island measures approximately a mile and a half in length by a half mile wide.

Lying six degrees above the equator, [Palmyra consists of] about fifty islets covered with dense vegetation, coconut trees, and balsa-like trees up to 30 meters tall . . . the west lagoon is entered by a channel which will only accommodate vessels drawing 4 meters or less of water; much of the road, the landing strip and many causeways built during [World War II] are unserviceable and overgrown.

On a nautical chart, Palmyra is but a tiny speck in the middle of the mass of blue that represents the Pacific Ocean. The island lies well off of the major shipping lanes for vessels plying the Asian/American run and is geographically perhaps one of the remotest places on earth and one of the last few truly uninhabited islands left in the world. Local fauna consists of mosquitoes and other insects, lizards, land and coconut crabs, a huge bird population, palm and coconut trees and mangrove bushes. The interior is thick jungle. The coral reef and lagoons at Palmyra are also a breeding ground for gray and blacktip reef sharks whose aggressiveness is well known throughout the Pacific. This has been noted by every person who has ever ventured to the island, sometimes with fatal consequences. (Many visitors to the island found that swimming and even wading in the island's lagoons was completely out of the question because of the large shark population and their aggressive nature).

In 1855, a whaling ship was reported wrecked on Palmyra's dangerous reefs, but attempts to locate the ship and its crew turned up nothing.

In 1911, ownership of the island was granted to Judge Henry E. Cooper of Hawaii from a purchase price of $750.00. He eventually sold all but one small islet on Palmyra (Home Island), apparently believing the rumor that priceless Inca artifacts of gold and silver, part of the pirate plunder of the Esperanza, were still buried there under a tree. With the exception of Home Island, possession of the rest of Palmyra eventually fell, in 1922, to the Fullard-Leo family, who in 1940 became embroiled in a legal skirmish with the United States over ownership. The United States wanted jurisdiction of Palmyra assigned to the Department of the Navy in anticipation of World War II in the Pacific.

Although the private-ownership status of Palmyra was eventually resolved in favor of the Fullard-Leo family, the island was still used as a naval air facility during World War II in the Pacific. Palmyra also became a base of operations for air attacks against Japan. As a result, American military relics can be found in abundance there. Old gun emplacements, ammunition and fuel dumps, abandoned war equipment, machine-gun bunkers, underground tunnels and buildings, as well as what is left of the old landing strip, lend a timeless and ghostly feeling to the place.

Primarily, Palmyra functioned as a refueling station during World War II for long-range air patrols and extended submarine missions against Japan in the Pacific. The island itself was attacked only once when, on December 24, 1941, a Japanese submarine surfaced offshore and began shelling the beach and a dredging barge with its deck gun. A five-inch gun battery on the island drove the submarine off.

Hal Horton, a former Navy officer was stationed on Palmyra from 1942 to 1944 and had this to say about the island:

"Once one of our patrol planes went down near the island. We searched and searched but didn't find so much as a bolt or piece of metal. It was weird. Like they'd dropped off the edge of the earth. Another time, a plane took off from the runway, climbed to a couple hundred feet, and turned in the wrong direction. They were supposed to go north and they went south instead. It was broad daylight. We never could figure it out. There were two men aboard that plane. We never saw them again. We had some very bad luck on that island. Old salts in the Pacific called it the Palmyra curse. [The island] . . . is very small. You [could] fly over it at ten thousand feet and not see it if there [were] a few clouds in the sky. Once we heard a plane overhead trying to find us, but he crashed in the drink before he could find the runway. We didn't get to the poor guy fast enough. Sharks found him first."

It seems that many of these experienced and adventurous sailing people ventured to Palmyra expecting to find an island nirvana, but like Fletcher Christian and the mutineers of HMS Bounty who found that life on Pitcairn Island deteriorated into a grim struggle for survival, so perhaps did their romantic notions about Palmyra soon fall apart.

Murder on Palmyra

In 1974, the grisly double murder of a sailing couple that became the subject of the book And the Sea Will Tell took place on Palmyra. The evidence at the subsequent trial for murder showed that Mac and Muff Graham of San Diego, who had ventured to Palmyra for an extended stay of up to a year, were probably killed for their expensive sailboat, the Sea Wind, and the large quantity of food stores it contained. (The murderer was an ex-convict and fugitive named Buck Walker who, along with his girlfriend Stephanie Stearns, had also taken up residence on the island. Walker and Stearns, described by some as "hippie types", had sailed from Hawaii to Palmyra on a small and very poorly outfitted boat. Walker was later tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the Grahams, while Stearns was acquitted, a verdict that remains controversial to this day).

It was a full six years after the murders that the skeletal remains of Muff Graham were discovered washed ashore on Palmyra by South African sailors Sharon and Robert Jordan during their own extended stay on the island in 1981. Although the Jordans had heard stories from other yachting people about the murders of the Grahams, they had never connected the event to Palmyra atoll until they discovered a stack of old newspaper clippings about the missing couple laid out on a table in a building in the jungle, apparently left behind by someone attracted to the island because of the notoriety of the murders (and who seemingly wanted to let others know about them, too).

Sharon Jordan concerning the murders: "When we arrived at Palmyra we discovered that someone had left a huge pile of newspaper clippings all about the Grahams, their sailboat, their sinister disappearance, etc. The one really strange thing was that I knew with absolute certainty that I would find the remains of at least one of the Grahams. And I did."

Indeed, she did. Days later, while out beach combing, Sharon found a human skull and other bones that had apparently fallen out of a metal box of World War II vintage that had washed up on the beach after a storm. The bones were later determined to have belonged to murder victim Muff Graham. (Sharon Jordan's discovery of Muff Graham's skeletal remains is in itself a long shot at the odds in that Sharon just happened to be walking along that particular stretch of one of the earth's most isolated beaches at what experts later determined was most likely the only time that the bones would ever be exposed. Evidence at the murder trial showed that the next tide would have most certainly washed the bones back out to sea to disappear forever).

The condition of the remains suggested that Muff Graham had been either shot or bludgeoned to death, her body dismembered, and then burned with an acetylene torch. Her body was then placed in a small metal storage container that had been removed from one of the old military rescue boats on the island and then finally dumped into the lagoon. Just what forces actually caused the container with Muff Graham's remains to surface is still a mystery. Vincent Bugliosi, author of And the Sea Will Tell, noted how the average human body, even when confined inside a container, usually floats to the surface in about ten days. Strangely, the container holding Muff Graham's body seems to have stayed submerged for almost seven years. (Sharon Jordan told me that she felt that it was possible that her and Rob Jordan's raising of a submerged boat from the bottom of Palmyras lagoon -- the same boat from which the two missing containers had been lifted -- might have somehow caused a disturbance that allowed the container to break free from the bottom). It is also a mystery as to how the heavy wire that had been wrapped around the lid of the container to hold it shut came loose. Sharon Jordan found the wire lying next to the container still bent in the exact shape of the box that it was once wrapped around. (Mac Graham's remains have never been recovered and are believed to have been hidden in a second missing container, perhaps somewhere on or near the island. That fact that Mac is still missing remains as one of the more enduring mysteries of Palmyra).


Tom Wolfe, a yachtsman who was on Palmyra just before the murders, testified at four different criminal trials in relation to the crime. Just one month prior to the trial, Wolfe had an experience that is either a further bit of testimony from the realm of synchronicity or a part of the strange residual power that affects those who have had contact with Palmyra: one morning, after a brutal storm had hit the coast along his beachfront home located on the Puget Sound in Washington, Wolfe went out for a walk along the shore to see what kind of flotsam the storm may have deposited on the beach. A mere forty feet from his house, he spotted a cylindrical object washed up on some rocks. Uncovering the object, he was astonished to discover that it was a cardboard mailing tube containing three copies of the Palmyra Island detail chart! Recounting this story later to one of the defense attorneys in the trial, Wolfe could only wonder at what strange forces could have caused the Palmyra chart to wash up literally on his doorstep on the eve of his scheduled testimony during a critical stage of the trial. He noted that "finding that damn chart was eerie [and] I'm not the superstitious type, but I'll admit, it really shook me. It was as if Palmyra, the island itself, had reached out and touched me from three thousand miles away." (If not a supernatural occurrence, one would have to wonder what the astronomical odds were of such a thing happening. In my correspondence with Tom, he told me that he still has those charts today, slightly warped with some bits of seaweed clinging to the outer edges).

And the list of strange things that occur in connection with Palmyra keeps growing; like the Sirens of Greek mythology whose sweet singing lured sailors to their deaths on rocky coasts, Palmyra also seems to beckon:

  • In 1977, sailor Amanda Lane and four friends, while sailing to Hawaii from Micronesia, made a stop at Palmyra only to be frightened off the island after just a single night by a group of strange "hippies" who had taken up residence there. According to Lane, she and her group fled in fear from the island after the hippies told them a weird story about the possible deathly fate that might have befallen one member of their group, a tale that Amanda and crew took to be a sort of veiled threat of violence and that the hippies might have been trying to imply that it was not wise of them to stay for very long on Palmyra. Years later, Amanda came to believe that the hippies might have been fully aware of the fate that had befallen the Grahams and may have been trying to take advantage of that notoriety in order to have Palmyra all to themselves.
  • In 1981, John Harrison, a Canadian yachtsman, along with his two daughters, were marooned on Palmyra after their sailboat was struck by a typhoon and de-masted. With the help of fuel air-dropped to them by the Coast Guard, Harrison and his daughters managed to motor their disabled vessel to Palmyra. There they subsisted on fish, coconuts and what they had salvaged from their vessel, supplementing this diet with canned goods supplied by Palmyra's only permanent resident at the time, self-appointed caretaker and island hermit, Ray Landrum. They remained on Palmyra for over a month while a somewhat bizarre legal entanglement and the foot dragging of both the United States and Canadian governments ensued over who should be responsible for assisting the three castaways. They were eventually rescued by plane after spending days clearing the old runway on the island.
  • In 1987, after acting on a tip from a fishing vessel, a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft sighted a sailboat just southeast of Palmyra. An aerial inspection revealed no sign of life onboard the drifting sailboat and Coast Guard personnel noted that the mast was broken off and that the sails were torn and shredded. A week after the sighting, the vessel was boarded by Coast Guardsmen. who found the skeletal remains of owner Manning Edward onboard. The cause of death was undetermined. But prior to leaving on his extended three-year voyage through the Pacific, Manning had spoken excitedly about his plan to visit an uninhabited island called Palmyra.
  • In 1989, another sailboat named the Sea Dreamer, in transit from San Diego to Hawaii was caught in a storm that pushed her far off course to the south, and onto Palmyra Island. After a brief stay on the island, the boat again departed for Hawaii and then disappeared. An extensive search by the Coast Guard between Palmyra and Hawaii and even along the coast of the United States failed to turn up any trace of the Sea Dreamer and the four members of the Graham Hughes family that were her crew. (Again in the spirit of synchronicity, you will recall that the murdered couple, Mac and Muff Graham, were also from San Diego and their vessel was named the Sea Wind).
*All recognition goes to And The Sea Will Tell authors Vincent Bugliosi Bruce B. Henderson. Check out that book!
*Thanks also to Curt Rowlett for his further research. Check out his site and book.


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Anonymous said...

thanks for this good info...i needed it for a collage paper and this helped out since its hard to find good info on Palmyra Atoll.

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sharon said...

Wow, I'm writing a book and came acros this site. It sure did bring back a flood of memories. What I wouldn't do to go back!
Sharon Jordan

Ms Rose said...

Hey Sharon, I would love to talk to you about Palmyra Island; if interested let me know... :)

Miami Web Design said...

wow such a beautiful place for a tragedy like that.
at least the woman is now resting in peace!!!
I hope someone can find her husband

viagra online said...

Somepeople said that Palmyra island is haunted, is that true ? there's a rumors about zombies too...

Coral Cashes said...

Very interesting! I came across this site after Googling the coordinates 4.815 n 162.342 w. If you're a fan of LOST, you know the significance of these numbers. Palmyra is the nearest land mass to these coordinates. Between missing planes, the island not being able to be found by planes, small windows of time for finding human remains, maps turning up thousands of miles away, similar ship name carrying related family both with mysterious endings... I would not be surprised if Palmyra was the inspiration for the TV show. This just amazes me. My mind is blown!

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Anonymous said...

Hi this is Sharon M.Jordan, finder of Muff Grahams remains on Palmyra Island. The book I have just written, "One Woman's Journey" is available onhttp://www.amazon.com/dp/0620550805/ref=rdr_ext_tmb
I have included 2 chapters on Palmyra Island and my find there. Feel free to contact me on wildcoast.s@gmail.com

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Anonymous said...

Mr. Rowlett - I have only read an article about your book, but I can tell you that basing it on Vincent Bugliosi's ridiculous book is basing fantasy on fantasy. Bugliosi defended Stephanie Stearns in her murder trial. So, of course the book is biased. Why didn't you ever talk to any of the folks that were on Palmyra when all of this went down? Many of us that were there have been silent for years, living in fear from these two murderers. But Buck is dead now and I bet Stephanie isn't as perky as she used to be either. We were kids back then, but these two terrified us. Nobody ever asked US what happened. Nobody listened to what we had to say. There is no need to make up stories about what happened there. The real story is bad enough.

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sharon said...

Okay, so I finished my book - lots of new stuff on the old Palmyra story.
If you're interested you can order it on http://www.amazon.com/One-Womans-Journey-Sharon-Jordan/dp/0620550805

Anonymous said...

I wish the anonymous person that alluded to being on Palmyra when everything went down with regards to the Grahams and Wesley Walker would write a book or tell us all what really happened. I am most interested in knowing. Neffuri@dishmail.net I would love to know.

Anonymous said...

What ever became of their boat? The Sea Wind? I believe Stephanie was totally guilty. I'd love to hear what others thought of her. Bugliosi sugar coated her in his book.

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