The Mystery of the Lost Clipper

The Civil Aeronautics Board and the FBI abandoned the case 47 years ago, but two amateur detectives are still looking for the cause of the Pan Am 944 crash

Twenty-five victims were never found, including Bill Fortenberry. For years, his son Ken believed the navigator was awaiting rescue on a desert island. (NASM)
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We began our own inquiries by posting questions on a pair of Web sites maintained by former Pan Am employees, asking for information about 944’s crew members from those who might have known them. We were surprised to be deluged with responses from more than two dozen pilots, navigators, flight engineers, and flight attendants. And we learned from them that the airline, back in 1957, suspected one of its own.

Former colleagues revealed that 944’s 46-year-old purser, Eugene Crosthwaite, had previously been in trouble with Pan Am for erratic and sometimes bizarre behavior. Crosthwaite once bragged that he had deliberately dropped a meal on the galley floor before serving it to an unsuspecting captain, who he felt had insulted him. Furthermore, Crosthwaite blamed Pan Am for several misfortunes, including the tuberculosis he’d contracted in Shanghai before the war, while serving as a purser on the airline’s flying boats.

Though fully recovered from the disease, Crosthwaite had been despondent following his wife Julie’s death from cancer three months earlier. She was a raven-haired beauty some 13 years younger, whom he had met and married in China. Her death had left Gene the sole guardian of Tania, his wife’s 16-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

Relations between Crosthwaite and Tania were stormy. On November 3, just days before the flight, Crosthwaite had called the county sheriff’s office to complain about the girl, whom he called “a demon” and blamed for his wife’s death. Crosthwaite even amended his will the morning of the flight—disinheriting Tania unless she “lived a moral and upright Catholic life”—and left a copy of the document in the glove compartment of his car, which he parked at the airport.

Pan Am considered the changed will a smoking gun—an indication that Crosthwaite had planned to die. The CAB too assigned one of its investigators, Claude Schonberger, to look into Crosthwaite’s background. Schonberger’s investigation seemed to strengthen the case against the purser. According to his report, Crosthwaite’s father-in-law remembered the suspect showing him a handful of blasting powder a few days before the flight, and despite an exhaustive search, neither Schonberger nor the purser’s father-in-law could find the explosive on Crosthwaite’s property after the crash. For Schonberger, the most damning evidence was a chance remark that Tania made to the sheriff. The sheriff testified that Tania thought it “probable that [Crosthwaite] might have taken his life and destroyed the 40-odd passengers on the flight ‘because he was too chicken to go alone.’ ”

But just as Pan Am seemed ready to conclude, 10 months after the tragedy, that the purser did it, a new suspect suddenly entered the case. William Harrison Payne, 41, listed as a passenger on Romance of the Skies, was reportedly on his way to Hawaii to collect an overdue debt. Payne owned the Roxbury hunting lodge, outside Scotts Bar, California, a small town near the Oregon border. Among the more curious details about Payne—whose body was not recovered—was the fact that the purported debt amounted to less than the price of the one-way ticket to Honolulu he had purchased. Even more remarkable was the fact that Payne had taken out a total of three life insurance policies on himself—one of which paid double in the event of accidental death—shortly before the flight. The two most recent policies, from separate companies, would pay a total of $125,000 to his wife Harriet, and had been purchased only three days prior to 944’s departure. But perhaps the most arresting aspect of Payne’s life was his career before becoming an innkeeper: he had been a Navy frogman—a demolitions expert.

Payne’s story came to light in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner, under the banner headline “Blast Plot Hinted in Mid-Pacific Air Crash.” The source for the story was Russell Stiles, an investigator for Western Life Insurance Company. Pending the results of Stiles’ inquiry, Western Life was withholding payment to Payne’s wife on the $10,000 double-indemnity policy Payne had bought two weeks before the crash. Upon learning of Payne’s background, Stiles had gone to the FBI and, frustrated by the bureau’s inaction, had alerted the Examiner’s crime reporter.

Stiles’ investigation only deepened his conviction that Payne had brought the airplane down to collect the insurance money, and had in fact never been aboard Romance of the Skies. Stiles discovered that the suspect had previously been in trouble with the law for trying to collect tolls on a public road used by logging trucks. Threatened with arrest, he had set off a dynamite charge in the road, making it unusable. Payne had also fired three shots at a business associate for reasons no one could discover and was overheard to boast that he could build a delayed-action detonator using only a length of wire and two flashlight batteries.

After interviewing people who had known Payne, Stiles also discovered a possible motive for the crime: Payne owed his mother $10,000 for the hunting lodge, which was losing money and was up for sale.

As Stiles dug, the story got even stranger. In June 1958, seven months after the loss of 944, Harriet Payne got married in Tijuana to a friend and former neighbor of her husband’s. Two days later, while the newlyweds were still on their Mexican honeymoon, the heavily insured Roxbury Lodge burned to the ground. Although the authorities suspected arson, the insurance underwriters, faced with the prospect of a lawsuit from Harriet, quietly agreed to settle the claim. Meanwhile, the postmistress in Scotts Bar told Stiles, in confidence, that Harriet and her new husband had begun receiving mysterious letters and packages from overseas. There was never a return address.


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