The Christmas Bomb: The Unsolved mystery of the LaGuardia Airport Explosion

The Christmas Bomb
The Unsolved Mystery of One of New York's Deadliest Terrorist Attacks
By Bill Jensen 12/18/2003 2:48 pm

There it is.

A perfect fit, tucked in between the two luggage carousels shuffling out the suitcases on conveyer belts to all these people who have flown into New York City, the capital of the world.

Which locker will it be? One up high? Right down low? One in the middle?

Yes, that will be good.

The timer is set, a simple alarm clock. The battery is Eveready. The explosive is big.

When it happens, the cause will be known—splashed on the news, television, radio, Time magazine. Then people will understand.

Slip two quarters in the slot, listen to them drop to the bottom with a clink. Check the package one more time, then close the door, turn the key and disappear into the bustle.

In a cab/at home/walking down the street, the news is announced: An explosion has ripped through the Trans World Airlines Terminal at LaGuardia Airport. There is blood and chaos everywhere. Eleven people are dead.

My God, what have I done?

 

Replace a few details here and there—maybe change night from day, switch the motive from political to personal—and most of the people involved in the case believe this is how it went down that day.

 

An Unsolved Terrorist Attack

In 1975, bombs were going off twice a month in the city. And it wasn't just one enemy behind the blasts. It seemed like everyone with a cause and a grudge had a bomb and was willing to use it. But when a bomb went off in a row of lockers at LaGuardia Airport on Dec. 29, and no note, no letter to the papers, no call to 911 followed—to claim the blast in the name of freedom for Puerto Rico, for Cuba, for Palestine, for American blacks or left-wing whites—the entire city was scared, confused and desperately searching for answers.

At the time, it was the second bloodiest terrorist attack in the history of New York. Eleven dead, 75 injured. Its death toll remains higher than the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, than all of the city's sporadic bombings of the 1970s put together.

Yet there are no more answers today than there were the second it happened. Flatlined leads, pointed fingers and frustrated cops? Yes, we have those. In bunches. Was the timer set wrong, as simple as mixing up 6:33 a.m., when the blast would have injured few, with 6:33 p.m., when hundreds of people were milling about the terminal? Did the ultrasonic frequencies of the airport set it off? Someone jostling a nearby locker? Or did whoever planted it want it to go off at that exact time, so as to do maximum damage to the city of New York?

 

Time for Bombs

Today, with all the color-coded warnings and active threats looming over New York, the city lives day to day on the edge of terror. Yet, the last terrorist attack in New York—though far more horrific and deadly than anything prior—occurred more than two years ago, and there hasn't been another attack, or even a credible threat, since then.

In 1975, however, 32 bombs were set off within the city limits, most planted by terrorists. In February, the FALN, a group seeking independence for Puerto Rico, had culminated a year-long bombing campaign by killing four people at Fraunces Tavern in downtown Manhattan. A bomb went off in front of the Venezuelan Consulate in February. Four bombs shattered midtown office buildings on a late night in April. Another hit a bank in Rockefeller Center in June.

The city was certainly not the only target. Starting on Aug. 27, after an eight-month freeze, the IRA unleashed a vicious assault against fashionable London locales, exploding 10 bombs within a two-month period. At the end of November, while double-checking the restroom of an airliner preparing to depart Miami International Airport for the Bahamas, a maintenance man found a bomb. Then four bombs went off in Miami on Dec. 3. Two more a day later. A bomb went off at UCLA on Dec. 6. The next day, six bombs rocked Youngstown, Ohio.

According to the FBI, there were 1,088 bombing incidents in America that year, compared to 742 in 1973, and 893 in 1974, bringing with them $27 million in damages. But few of the bombs were fatal: In all 1,088 incidents, there were only 326 injuries and 69 deaths.

With the bombings came hundreds of menacing bomb threats, phony threats, and even phony bombs, like the one found at the 59th Street station IRT line in October, which snarled the commute for hours.

 

The Hand of Fate

On Dec. 29, LaGuardia Airport was buzzing with post-holiday travel. TWA flight 416, out of Indianapolis, had arrived on time at 5:58 p.m. Unusual, as the flight was habitually late.

Nancy Higgins got off that plane and checked in with the limousine company to arrange a ride to her family's home in Connecticut. She was told she would have to wait 30 minutes. She was annoyed.

Suitcase in hand, she turned from the limo counter and spied a wall of red lockers, three high, two across, near the luggage carousel where most of the passengers had just collected their bags.

She walked over to the lockers.

"Fifty cents," she thought to herself, frowned and decided she could deal with her bag for a half hour. So the 31-year-old librarian from Bloomington, Ind. bought a New York Times, walked over to the large plate-glass windows overlooking the road, and began to read.

She spotted Donald Kochersperger, a 57-year-old engineer with whom she had often shared a limo back to Connecticut. She thought about going over to him, but didn't.

Outside, limo driver Frank Musicaro had collected his passenger—headed for Wantagh—and was calling the dispatcher for his next assignment. Patrick Callahan, a lawyer from Indianapolis, was with his partner Steve Cline, waiting for a limo to see a client in Connecticut. Edythe Bull had missed her first limo to Connecticut, and was buying a ticket from Edgar Cooper of Westchester Limousine Service. LaGuardia was the first stop of a trip around the world for Bull, a 72-year-old from Brevard, N.C. Connecticut artist Enoch Stamey was also waiting for a ride up north.

Nancy Higgins looked up from her paper every few minutes to check the clock.

6:28.

"I was rather annoyed."

6:31.

Callahan walked outside and looked down the road to see if the limo was coming. Disappointed, he went back inside and leaned up against a column.

6:32.

At 6:33, hell arrived at Gate 22.

Ripped from the lockers and the carousel conveyer belts, shards of metal were thrown like javelins in all directions, slicing arms and legs clean off. Yards of 30-foot-tall windows that lined the terminal were obliterated, showering glass on the limo drivers and their fares. Smoke billowed. The ceiling fell. Those who were still standing scrambled.

"My brain was hanging out of my head," remembers Higgins. "I remember someone, presumably holding me, [and me] throwing up." She then went into shock.

A concrete fog enveloped the room.

"My ears, it was like a thousand cymbals going off," the lawyer Callahan remembers today. He stumbled out the door, where his partner noticed his arm bleeding. Callahan, in turn, stared at his partner's singed hair.

Kochersperger, the engineer, and Musicaro, the limo driver, were dead. Bull, the would-be world traveler, Cooper the limo ticket salesman and Stamey the artist were dead.

Did a plane crash into the building? Was it a gas explosion? The gunpowder smell choking the air made it clear to some that it was a bomb. Limbs had been tossed about the room. Published reports told of an employee finding a head on the sidewalk. The most repeated words of the next news day? "Mutilated," "Chaos," "Puddles" and "Blood," "Blood," "Blood."

"There was a young doctor with his foot that was severed. Looked like it was done in a butcher shop, it was so pristine," recalls Frank McDarby, then a detective in the arson/explosion squad, which arrived on the scene 20 minutes after the blast. "He looked like he was doing okay—he died before he got to the hospital."

A 6-inch-thick reinforced concrete ceiling yielded a hole you could drive a bus through. Clothing was everywhere. Bits of luggage. Locker fragments warped like pieces of damp cardboard. The luggage carousel splintered into a thousand jagged wire hangers. Dirt. Fistfuls of concrete. Insulation.

And then there was the water.

"It was a gruesome, gruesome scene, 'cause the pipes broke," remembers Ken Dudonis, a bomb squad officer at the scene. "There was an inch of water mixed with all that blood. It was like you're walking through tomato soup."

Water poured out of a hole in the ceiling, and met the water from the sprinklers. What five minutes earlier was the luggage claim area at Gate 22 of LaGuardia Airport had been transformed into a murky crimson swamp.

Drapes and Pine Boxes

Taxi drivers and Good Samaritans on the scene ferried the wounded to Elmhurst, Booth Memorial and Queens Hospital Center, among other area medical facilities. The first responders, trudging through the sludge of rush hour traffic, showed up 20 minutes after the explosion and carried out more.

Queens Homicide Detective Edwin Dreher had been investigating a triple homicide when he heard the call and raced to the terminal.

"We set up a system," he remembers. "We identified the seriously injured, got them out of the way. Then we set up a temporary morgue."

Dreher ripped down a giant drape from its shattered window and covered the bodies, shielding them from the onlookers and the flashbulbs of the press. Michael Baden, then the city's deputy chief medical examiner, arrived soon after and began preliminary examinations of the bodies.

Unlike many large wartime explosions, in which the concussion of the blast ruptures the lungs, the deaths at LaGuardia were caused by shrapnel, mostly metal from the lockers where the bomb was hidden.

"One guy had a 1-inch shard of metal in the right side of his neck," says Baden. "It cut right through the carotid artery."

Police officers served as pallbearers.

"One of our first duties was carrying out fatalities in boxes. Pine boxes," remembers Frank Tabert, a retired Port Authority cop who arrived on the scene within 30 minutes of the explosion.

While victims, emergency workers and investigators were wading through the horror, they also had one more thing on their mind: another bomb.

"Everybody was frightened and scared to death, waiting for the next one to go off," remembers Edwin "Buzz" Schwenk of Southampton, who was in the men's room on the second floor of the terminal when he heard the blast. "It was Dante's Inferno, it was hellfire and brimstone in there."

The entire terminal was evacuated and checked, and police dogs were brought in. One dog, named Brandy, was checking a row of lockers about 150 feet from the blast site when she suddenly sat down—the signal that she had found something.

The officers carefully opened the locker.

"There were kosher frankfurters [inside]," remembers Dreher.

The rest of the building was checked, but no other bomb was found. Twenty-seven hours after the blast, the airport reopened.

The investigation had gotten underway even as the airport was being evacuated. Jack Ryan, then a young assistant district attorney in Queens, heard news of the explosion and was at the scene in minutes.

"I got looks like, 'What are you doing here?'" remembers Ryan, who answered, "'Well, we have a job to do here, too.'"

New York City Mayor Abe Beame told the papers that the bombing was the highest priority for the NYPD, and all the city's resources were at the investigators' disposal.

All New York City transportation hubs were called upon to shutter all their lockers. Other airports, from Chicago's O'Hare to Washington's National and Dulles, followed suit, as did the commuter bus terminals in New York, as well as the PATH station under the World Trade Center.

After a bombing in a public locker in August the previous year, Los Angeles International Airport had implemented a system in which passengers could access lockers only after all of their baggage was checked by security screeners. New York had no such system—that's how the bomb got into the locker in the first place. You could drive right up to the terminal, walk to a locker and put in a bomb—no security checks.

In the days that followed the LaGuardia bombing, as the usual copycat threats came in to airports across the country, investigators were faced with a case with no eyewitnesses and few material clues. The investigation turned to motive.

"President Ford gave us 600 FBI agents," says Ed Dreher, who was put in charge of the investigation two days after the blast. "Each one of those injured people and each one of those dead people, I established as a target: 'Who would want to kill them?'"

There were some eyebrow-raising leads: An undercover FBI agent was seriously injured in the blast. A deep-cover CIA agent was also at the scene. Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel, had passed through the terminal just an hour before the blast. Despite interviews with 2,000 people in 26 states, no credible leads turned up. The investigators also peered deep into the terror groups of the day.

PLO. IRA. PFLP. JDL. Authorities were drowning in the alphabet soup of the '70s. But the first letters in everyone's heads, from the injured to the investigators, were FALN.

 

The Usual Suspects

Eleven months earlier, on the afternoon of Jan. 24, 1975, the explosion that tore through Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan had killed four and injured more than 50. It was the first major bombing in New York City since 1920, when anarchists were blamed for killing 35 with a wagon full of explosives on Wall Street (in what could be called the first car bombing in city history).

Later that day, an anonymous caller directed police to a note in a phone booth.

Jimmy Motherway, a Smithtown resident now 70 years old, was a lieutenant in the major cases squad when he got a call to go downtown to retrieve the note, which was taped to the bottom of an armrest in a phone booth near the tavern. "It said we're FALN, blah, blah, blah, all political stuff," remembers Motherway.

"We, FALN, the Armed Forces of the Puerto Rican Nation," read the note, "take full responsibility for the especially detornated [sic] bomb that exploded today at Fraunces Tavern with reactionary corporate executives inside."

Motherway was familiar with the group. Short for Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, FALN was seeking Puerto Rican independence from the United States. But this was a dramatic change in tactics for the group.

"The FALN was blowing off little bombs that didn't hurt anyone," Motherway remembers. "I guess they got tired of shattering glass." The group's five-month bombing campaign had begun the previous August with the uprooting of a tree by a time bomb at a park in Lincoln Center. The group would claim bombings outside Newark City Hall and Police Headquarters, the simultaneous blasts of five Manhattan banks and a bomb planted in Harlem (where an officer lost an eye while attempting to disable the explosive). But no one died in these incidents.

"Fraunces was unique, because it hadn't been done like that before, they didn't strike restaurants," remembers Harold Schryver, who would soon be put in charge of the Fraunces investigation.

The note claimed the bombing was in retaliation for what the FALN referred to as "the CIA- ordered bomb" that "murdered" two Puerto Rican nationalists, as well as a 6-year-old child, in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico two weeks earlier.

Schryver, with the help of Motherway, had one week to swell the arson/explosion squad from a sergeant and 10 men to more than 200 police officers, which, after the LaGuardia bombing, would draw in the FBI and Port Authority and become what was essentially the city's first anti-terrorism task force.

In the first effective large-scale cooperation between the FBI and the NYPD, who were often at each other's throats as turf rivals, the task force blitzed New York looking for the perpetrators. One needle-in-a-haystack plan called for sending out detectives to probable targets at night, hoping to catch a FALN member planting a device.

"We would saturate the city," says Motherway, "putting one FBI with one detective. 120 guys out a night, trying to catch them in the act."

"Operation Watchdog" was laughed at by some veteran officers. The hundreds of local and federal officers on the case, as well as the lure of a $50,000 reward, did not turn up any FALN suspects. (The FBI had once put the group's numbers at 12. The agency was later proven wrong—though not by much.)

Ten months after Fraunces—two months before the LaGuardia bombing—nine simultaneous blasts ripped through a series of corporate and government offices in New York, Washington and Chicago. Nine bombs in three different cities, all set off around 2 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, in an operation as tightly coordinated as Al Qaeda's 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But in this case, the FALN was only looking for attention, not a body count. No one was killed.

But as likely as they were, there were positively no leads in the LaGuardia case directing the authorities to FALN.

Spinning Heads

As 1976 rolled around, the task force began eyeing other groups as suspects in the LaGuardia bombing—and they saw enough bombs in the month of January to give them plenty of new ideas.

• A shopping bag packed with three bombs—explosives wrapped closely to small propane tanks—was found near the United Nations building.

• Two pipe bombs were found outside the Iraqi mission to the UN.

• A pipe bomb exploded outside the Polish consulate. A call to United Press International claimed the blast for the Jewish Armed resistance ("Poland and India have learned tonight that there is justice outside the walls of the United Nations"). The United Nations delegates were discussing the Middle East at the time, and Poland and India had made comments that equated Zionism with racism.

On the West Coast, a Seattle electrical substation and a Safeway stores office were damaged by a blast, which a caller to a radio station claimed was the work of a group calling itself the "George Jackson Brigade," in reference to the slain black activist. January came to a close with the Weather Underground setting off a bomb in the State Department in Washington. The bomb went off at 1:17 a.m., presumably meant to damage property, not people. The same day, an anonymous caller directed police to a bomb in a federal office building in Oakland, where the device was disposed of.

The Weather Underground had been on New York City's radar since 1970, when three members blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village apartment while trying to make a bomb. But by 1975, the Weather Underground was a splintered organization.

Two weeks after the LaGuardia bomb, FBI director Clarence Kelley had gone on the ABC program Issues and Answers and theorized that domestic left-wing terrorists were responsible for LaGuardia. "The new Left—the Weathermen and others of that stripe," Kelley said, could very well have been behind the blast.

"The people running the show were committed and obsessed with the Weather Underground," says Joe Coffey, a detective whose surveillance expertise was tapped by the arson/explosion squad after Fraunces Tavern.

"Everything that happened coming down the pipe was Weather Underground....They sent me all over the country and it was an exercise in futility."

The major target in the Weathermen theory was an activist named Jerry Rosen.

Coffey tracked him to Seattle, where a tracing device called a Wackenhut was installed on Rosen's car, enabling the police to track his movements.

"There comes a time when his car needs servicing for brakes," remembers Ed Dreher. "[The mechanics] look under the car and say, 'What is this?' They found the Wackenhut!" Rosen was notified of the device and the jig was up. But he eventually turned up clean for the LaGuardia bombing.

 

No Suspects

Back at LaGuardia, 55-gallon drums full of debris were carted to an empty hangar. The task force, containing members of the Port Authority, FBI, ATF and NYPD, chalked out a grid on the floor, 3 squares by 2 squares, mimicking the lockers, and placed piece after twisted piece, trying to determine the origin of the blast. They meticulously sifted through each fragment and clump of dust, cataloging evidence on blue tables in Hangar One. By February, debris was being examined for chemical traces at the Picatinny Arsenal in Dover, N.J.

But physical evidence was scant.

"Firemen, by what they did that night, they ruined all the evidence," says Coffey, who was given an office in the same TWA terminal that had been decimated. "They watered the whole place down and blew our chances for picking up the pieces of the bomb." (Others on the scene blame the water less on the firefighters than the broken pipes.)

On New Year's Eve, a police search dog found battery fragments (a six-volt lantern battery). The department had also located components of a timing device—a Westclox alarm clock. Based on the damage, as well as a blast reconstruction using an identical set of lockers, officials calculated that the bomb was equivalent to 25 sticks of dynamite.

Police had sent out an alert through the media for a woman who had called 911 40 minutes after the blast to say she had heard two men in a telephone booth talking about a bomb. The lead went nowhere.

The FALN suspicions dissipated. In 1979, suspected FALN leader Willie Morales blew eight of his fingers off in his Queens apartment while making a bomb. He was arrested, but later escaped. The group continued its activities until 1980, when 12 members were found guilty of "seditious conspiracy." Arrests of major leaders soon followed and the FALN lost its steam (16 members were granted clemency by President Clinton in 1999).

After the Seattle fiasco, the Weathermen theory died down as well. PLO leads went nowhere. Investigators got a tip that explosives were going to be transported through New Jersey and that the perpetrators of LaGuardia might be involved. LaGuardia investigation chief Ed Dreher remembers an elaborate roadblock on the New Jersey Turnpike. Several arrests were made, only "these weren't the LaGuardia [suspects]," he says. "It was the JDL [Jewish Defense League] who blew up the Russian Mission," along with many other targets in New York in the mid-1970s.

Coffey was frustrated. Nine months after the blast, the investigation into the LaGuardia Airport bombing was at a standstill—until two lovebirds who called each other "Punky" hijacked an airplane.

A Little-Known Cause

On Sept. 10, a TWA Boeing 727 leaves LaGuardia for Chicago, carrying 86 people. High above western New York, five passengers rise from their seats, announce they have bombs—bombs that would turn out to be large gray cooking pots covered with electrical tape and filled with Silly Putty—and tell the pilot to fly to Montreal.

Zvonko (Taik) Busic, a 28-year-old Croatian waiter who lives on the Upper West Side, puts his American wife, Julienne, an English teacher, in charge of watching the passengers. Then he tells the pilot to send a message to the NYPD, directing them to go to locker 5713 in Grand Central Station. There, police find a note telling the world who the hijackers are: "Fighters for Free Croatia." The cops also find a bomb, telling the world these Croatians aren't bluffing.

"Our goal was to present an accurate picture of the brutal oppression taking place in Yugoslavia," the note states. Inside the locker is also a manifesto the freedom fighters want published in four major newspapers.

The bomb squad removes the device, which is sealed in a Dutch oven, and brings it to the bomb range in the Rodman's Neck section of the Bronx. With other officers shielded by a 15-foot mound of dirt, the squad tries to detonate the device by remote. It doesn't blow. Four officers—none wearing protective gear–—go over to inspect. The bomb goes off. Officer Terry McTigue is blinded in one eye. Officer Brian Murray is fatally wounded.

As Murray lies dying in the Bronx, the TWA plane is being diverted to Newfoundland. The hijacker's plan is to fly over Yugoslavia, which is having a large religious festival, open a door on the plane and drop leaflets advocating Croatian independence and protesting the policies of Yugoslavian President Tito. But the plane they have hijacked isn't equipped to do that. The plane stops in Montreal, where Busic leaves the leaflets for officials who comply. The leaflets are put on another plane, which travels in front of the hijacked plane to drop them over London and Paris.

By many news reports, the hijackers were overly polite. In Newfoundland, they asked the passengers if anyone had any medical conditions.

"I told them I had a blood condition," Paul Forbrich, an investment banker from London who was traveling to Chicago to pick up his family, remembers of his fib to get off the plane. "The guy behind me said he had a heart condition, and he [was allowed to leave the plane]." Busic laughed at Forbrich's claim, the banker says, but Julienne was quick to defend him. "Maybe he does," she said, according to Forbrich. The hijackers didn't buy it. Zvonko Busic was "very controlled, very sensitive to what was going on," Forbrich, who can laugh about the episode today, says of the hijacker. "Julie was the one who was soft."

Thirty-five passengers were allowed to leave the plane in Newfoundland. "Some of the passengers appear to be relieved to hear that we are not Arabs," Julienne Busic later writes in her self-published memoirs, Lovers and Madmen.

The hijacked plane stopped in Ireland and London, then touched down in Paris. There the Busics received an ultimatum from French police: Surrender now or face execution. Sharpshooters took out the plane's tires. Stuck with a plane that couldn't take off, backed-up toilets and an empty liquor hold (the passengers had cleaned it out), Zvonko Busic gave up. The 31-hour ordeal was over. One of the passengers returned home with pieces of the fake bombs that the hijackers gave him as a souvenir.

 

The Interrogation

The hijackers were put on a plane back to New York, where they were taken to FBI offices in Manhattan for interrogation.

"Me and a female FBI agent [Margo Dennedy] interview Zvonko Busic's wife Julienne," remembers Joe Coffey. Officer Frank McDarby and another FBI agent went into another room to interview Zvonko Busic.

"As an afterthought, I say to McDarby before he goes into the room: 'Ask him about LaGuardia,'" Coffey recalls.

Inside the interrogation room, McDarby went to work on Busic.

"Before I got him to admit anything, he was very stalwart," McDarby says today. "He kept saying, 'I am a soldier, these are my commandants. They did nothing wrong, they were just following orders.'"

McDarby changed tactics.

"I said, 'You're a failure. Your mission was a failure.' He didn't like to hear that.

He said, 'I am not afraid of prison. I am not afraid of death.'"

With the threats of both death and prison stolen from the interrogator's arsenal, McDarby changed tactics again.

"There is a way [your mission] can be a success," McDarby told Busic. "Tell the world the truth. That you did what you did, it went awry, and you're sorry."

McDarby says Busic then opened up and confessed to the hijacking and planting the bomb, which he had learned to make from The Anarchist Cookbook—even going so far as to draw a picture of the bomb for McDarby, New York County Assistant District Attorney Robert Tanenbaum and bomb technician Ken Dudonis. Busic also said that the others had no clue about his plans, and the entire idea was his (though the evidence proved otherwise).

With the hijacking confession firmly in place, McDarby broached the subject of LaGuardia.

"When I got to LaGuardia, his lips started to quiver, his palms were sweaty. All the body language was there."

McDarby says he asked Busic what he was doing on the day of Dec. 29.

"I was at LaGuardia Airport," McDarby says Busic told him, saying he was there to pick up his wife.

"Holy s**t," McDarby thought.

"We get nowhere with the girl," remembers Coffey. "[McDarby] comes out to me and says, 'This guy just confessed to LaGuardia.'"

McDarby, the one in the room with Busic, is more vague about the conversation, saying only that Busic was "ready" to crack but did not actually confess—though he still believes that Busic did LaGuardia.

Busic's wife says the interrogation didn't go down that way at all.

Julienne Busic says her husband had flown into LaGuardia from Cleveland, where he was visiting his sister, the day before the bombing. When asked by the police, Busic said he had been there "a few hours beforehand, which wasn't true, that was just his recollection," says Julienne.

Coffey and Tanenbaum went into the room to "get the thing documented."

"Busic kept saying, 'I'm tired, I want to go to sleep,'" says McDarby. "We had him on the ropes."

Then their possible break was pulled out from under them.

"An FBI agent busts into the room and says, 'If you don't let him go, I'm going to arrest both of you people for obstruction of government administration,'" says Coffey.

"I said, 'What are you talking about?'"

The agent replied, "'I have to have him downtown by midnight, or we blow this case.' Which was a lot of bulls**t. So we were forced into giving him up, figuring we'd get him the next day. But the next day, he's lawyered up, and that's the end of that."

But if you can place a guy who just planted a bomb in a locker at a major transportation hub at LaGuardia less than 24 hours before the explosion in December, you have a solid lead.

"All these things add up, boom, boom, boom," says Coffey. "So I was convinced, and am convinced to this day, that Busic and Julienne put that bomb in that locker."

Still No Answers

Both Coffey and McDarby feel that the Dec. 29 attack was a failed attempt at the hijacking/bomb-in-locker plot Busic executed nine months later.

"They did not intend for it to go off," Coffey believes, suggesting that "ultra-high frequencies transmissions at the airport" set off the blast. But one has to question that if the terrorists did not want it to go off, why was there a timing device? The bomb at Grand Central had no timing device. Though if the LaGuardia bomb had gone off accidentally, that was all the more reason to change the style of bomb the next time around.

Go to Jimmy Owens—an FBI agent who is certainly no fan of Coffey—and he still has the same conclusion. "I'm convinced it was the Croatians. I think LaGuardia was an accident."

But Ken Dudonis is convinced that the Busics weren't involved—and that the bomb at LaGuardia was a pipe bomb, not a Dutch oven bomb. Bring this up to the old FBI veterans, and it's like the old days.

"I told Kenny, 'Don't even talk about pipe fragments to me,'" says Owens, who recently saw Dudonis and other bomb squadders last month at the bomb squad's 100th anniversary party in Manhattan. "That was not a pipe!"

Jack Ryan, now Queens chief assistant district attorney, interviewed Busic as well and believes he could have been involved in both attacks. "That incident had a lot of parallels," Ryan says of Busic's September hijacking/bombing and LaGuardia. "My recollection was the story he told us [about the hijacking], there was more there...he said he bought the explosives from a guy in a bar, things like that."

"I did the interrogation," says McDarby. "And it was one lie after another."

The circumstantial evidence against Busic and company was intriguing, but they were never tried for LaGuardia. In July of 1977, he and Julienne were sentenced to life in prison (which was later downgraded to 30 years) for the hijacking. During the sentencing, the judge stated that "Zvonko Busic's influence over [Julienne] reminds one of the hypnotism that Svengali exercised."

The 11 Victims of the LaGuardia Bombing

Edythe Bull, 72, Brevard, N.C.
Ollie May Cockerm, 38, Far Rockaway, N.Y.
Edgar Cooper, 38, Bronxville, N.Y.
Donald Kochersperger, 57, Greenwich, Conn.
Othlyn Elaine Little, 25, Yonkers, N.Y.
Frank Musicaro, 48, Bay Shore, N.Y.
Lawrence Nicholson, 31, Farmingdale, N.Y.
Bynum Patterson, 37, Stamford, Conn.
Ronald Presslaff, 32, Long Beach, N.Y.
Marjorie Rice, 70, Bronxville, N.Y.
Enoch L. Stamey, 38, Woodbridge, Conn.

 

Julienne Busic was released in 1989 after serving 12 and a half years and she eventually moved to Croatia. Zvonko has been denied parole for 20 years, but his sentence is up in 2006. Both Busics still emphatically deny any involvement in the LaGuardia bombing.

"Any time, any place, he'll take a lie detector test. They can hypnotize him, they can give him a truth serum," says Julienne Busic from her home on the Adriatic Coast. Zvonko did take one test, which authorities and Julienne agree was inconclusive, possibly due to test conditions.

"They can do whatever they want, and nobody has ever expressed any interest to do any of that," Julienne continues. "We've been dealing with this for years and years. I can't tell you how painful it is."

The Republic of Croatia, which achieved the hijackers' goal of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, has requested that the U.S. government return Busic to Croatia, where he is something of a national hero.

"There has been a request, formal or informal, about [transferring] Busic to Croatia, where he would serve the remainder of his sentence," says Alan Vojvodic, second secretary of the Embassy of the Republic of Croatia to the U.S. "We would like to have him over there."

Websites run petitions with hundreds of signatures—most apparently from Croatian-Americans—urging Busic's release. Many claim he is being denied parole because of lingering suspicions about his role in LaGuardia. In news reports, Busic's cause, if not Busic himself, is often noted as the LaGuardia culprit. In a timeline on terrorism on Feb. 19, 2001, the CBS News website listed "1975: Croatian Nationalists detonate a bomb in New York City's LaGuardia Airport, killing 11."

"Believe me, if he did it, I would know," Julienne says today. "If he had any connection, I would know. I mean, that's how close we are. He would never be able to live with that, 'cause he's the type who believes you should take responsibility for what you do. That's why he tried to take all the responsibility in our case."

Dudonis, the bomb expert, agrees. "I think he was confessing to get his old lady out of the can." Dudonis feels LaGuardia was the work of a mad bomber, "a loner, a psycho."

"Extreme pressure was put on Mrs. Busic and her husband that day, and they held up," says lead investigator Dreher.

Whenever Dreher flies into New York from his home in South Florida to see his kids, he passes through the ill-fated terminal. "Awful, just awful," he says of the feeling he gets. He keeps a file on LaGuardia at his home. "Every so often I go through it, saying, 'Did we miss something?'"

As with any unsolved murder, the LaGuardia case is still open. In 1998, the FBI got word that Vinko Sindicic, a Croatian hit man who spent 10 years in a Scottish jail for the attempted murder of a Croatian dissident, had information about the bombing. Sindicic was willing to talk under certain conditions. The U.S. refused, and that was the end of that. (The FBI would not comment on the case.)

Today, Danny Calemine, an NYPD detective and member of the FBI/NYPD Joint Terrorist Task Force, is in charge of the LaGuardia case. Calemine says he has resubmitted all available evidence of the bombing to be reanalyzed by the FBI labs, "just to take advantage of some of the new techniques and procedures that have been developed."

Calemine is combing through file after file of interviews and evidence once again.

"Part of the laboratory analysis will compare evidence from this to other bombings, to see if there are any similarities, whether it be the type of device used, or m.o. or how it would be put together."

If there are any charges ever brought, the case would be tried federally. There is no statute of limitations in murder cases.

Post Script

Eighteen years after the LaGuardia blast, a bomb goes off in a van in the parking garage deep beneath the World Trade Center. Six people are killed, more than 1,000 injured.

The organization that was formed in response to the terror attacks of 1975 springs into action.

Ironically, before Ramzi Yousef and others were nabbed for that bombing, some media pundits first pointed fingers at Serb or Croatian groups, suggesting the bombing could have been a response to President Bill Clinton, who a day before the blast announced plans to airdrop humanitarian aid to Bosnian Muslims.

Two days after the 1993 WTC bombing, investigators found a key piece of evidence, a portion of a van's chassis with a vehicle identification number. Less than a week later, suspects were in custody.

In 1993, the task force got their men.

But after 28 years, the bombers of LaGuardia remain free.

As Ed Dreher looks through his old files, as Nancy Higgins feels the metal plate in her head, as Pat Callahan flies to see a client, someone out there knows the answer to the riddle that has been plaguing these people for 27 years.

Waking up in another country/New York City/hell. Turn off the alarm clock—more sophisticated than the one strapped to the lantern battery and the 25 sticks of dynamite 27 years ago. Get out of bed and breathe a sigh of relief for another night of freedom. Walk to the bathroom and look in the mirror. The great thing about bombs is all the evidence gets blown away. He/She/They deserved what they got. No one will ever know.

Replace a few details, here and there—maybe change night from morning, switch the motive from political to personal—and most of the people involved in the case think this is how it goes down every day.

 

If you were at LaGuardia on Dec. 29, 1975, or even the day before, you would be doing every victim, victim's family and law enforcement officer involved in this story a great service by giving Dan Calemine a call at the FBI/NYPD Joint Terrorist Task Force. Even if you talked to police back in 1975 and think you have nothing more to offer, he would still appreciate a five-minute call.

Call the Joint Terrorist Task Force at 212-384-4804 or email Bill Jensen