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A Nashville hijacking 38 years ago set the standard on how not to handle hostage negotiations

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Susan Germaine Giffe, 25, spills out of a Cadillac and onto the tarmac in a mod-flower-print dress. It's 1:30 a.m. at the Nashville airport. Susan, a head-turner with dark, wide-set eyes and straight chestnut hair, is screaming at the pilots who are talking to her estranged husband less than 100 feet away.

"I'm being kidnapped! Help!"

The pilots and her estranged husband, George Giffe, Jr., 35, a 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound former college biology professor, approach the hysterical woman. Giffe's associate—a burly nightclub owner named Bobby Wayne Wallace—follows behind her.

The tarmac is black save for the lights tracing the runway borders and the floodlights from the nearby hangar of Big Brother Aircraft.

Giffe explains that he's a doctor; the screaming woman is his patient. He's taking her to Atlanta for treatment. Pilot Randall G. Crump wonders if she should fly in this condition.

"I'm being kidnapped! Don't believe what they say!"

Pilot Brent Downs, 29, asks Giffe for his credentials. Giffe pulls a 9mm pistol concealed by a tiger-stripe camouflage shirt and points it at the pilot. This is his credential. He orders Wallace—who allegedly thought he was just giving his friend a ride to the airport—to pull the 9mm Giffe handed him earlier.

"Everybody on the plane," Giffe shouts. Wallace will later claim that he too was forced to board at gunpoint.  

A Big Brother Aircraft employee sees the guns from a distance and phones airport security.

Inside the plane, Wallace sits behind the pilot. Giffe and Susan sit on a bench seat in the rear of the cabin. Giffe asks for a flask from the plane's mini-bar, then informs all aboard that the gray metal box on his lap contains plastic explosives. He claims to be working for the CIA. If the pilots interfere with his mission, he'll kill them.

The pilots are ordered to take off as Susan alternately screams and sobs. The aircraft taxis toward the runway.

Airport police have been notified and are radioing the control tower: Pilot Downs' aircraft, call sign 58 November, has been hijacked.

"58 November's rolling," Downs' voice cracks in the control tower.

"52 Ground, we're going down the runway," an airport police officer radios the control tower.

Two airport security vehicles tear after the plane, the slick macadam of the runway a kaleidoscope of flashing lights. The police pull along both sides of the aircraft as the pitch of its propellers grows deafening, nearing take-off speed.

"It don't look like he's gonna stop," a cop says over the radio.

The officers peel away as the plane's tires leave the runway.

"I guess you better call the FBI," someone says.

Ground control calls Downs and advises him to broadcast the recognized hijack code. "Commander 58 November, squawk 3100."

Each broadcast sounds through tinny speakers in the cabin. Giffe listens in, but he doesn't know the hijack code.

"OK, squawking 3100," Downs says.

"Good night."

Downs asks Giffe where he'd like to go. Cuba, comes the response.

That's a no-go, Downs replies—not in this aircraft, with its range. Giffe asks about Jamaica. Impossible, Downs tells him. But the pilot says they could make it to Freeport, Bahamas. To get there, though, they'll have to refuel in Jacksonville, Fla.

Giffe asks if the control tower knows what's going on. Downs says yes; "someone" will be waiting for them in Jacksonville. That someone is the FBI, and what's about to transpire on this day—Oct. 4, 1971—will still be discussed in classrooms nearly 40 years later as a textbook example of how not to handle a hostage situation.

"It was a wake-up call," says Dr. Tomas Mijares, a former Detroit cop and Pinkerton who discusses the hijacking in his courses at Texas State. "What it made people realize is that special circumstances require special responses.... At that particular time in our history, we didn't have any guidelines for how you prepare for this kind of thing."

58 November was one of nearly 200 American hijackings between 1968 and 1972. But the subsequent trials that arose from the incident would be the first of their kind. They proved that, even if law enforcement officials operate with the best intentions, they can be held accountable for poor preparation and bad decision-making.

As the aircraft navigates night skies over the Southeast and the jet-props fill the darkened cabin with a mechanical vibrato, the noise is so loud Wallace must relay messages between Giffe and the cockpit. But Giffe is mostly silent. The pilots don't see him taking pulls from a flask in what faint light is given off by the flashing red navigation lights outside. They don't see the gray metal box in his lap with his hand resting on its lid, gripping a pistol. Two more hours before they reach Jacksonville.

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Two weeks before the hijacking, George Giffe pays a visit to his father, George Sr. These visits are rare and usually occasioned only when the younger Giffe needs money. He's never really been able to stand on his own feet—one of many reasons his first wife cited (along with mention of nonsupport and adultery) when she took his child and filed for divorce. The couple spent their entire marriage living with his parents.

Giffe then married Susan Germaine Lakich just months after his divorce was final. He used to be a biology professor at George Peabody College in Nashville. Now he's a part-time real estate agent who also hawks cheap suitcases called Val-A-Paks.

To hear him tell it, Giffe has his fingers in many pots. He's a fountain of get-rich schemes, his speech rapid-fire and his hands moving, as though his voice alone can't convey the ins and outs of each deal. The various ventures never seem to pan out—an oil scheme in Texas, a gravel and sand scheme in Atlanta.

Susan, on the other hand, was a master's student in elementary education when she met Giffe. But she gave up her dream of teaching to become a stay-at-home mom when they married. She gave birth to a child who is now nearly 2. A friend of hers remarked that Susan had once told her she wanted to live the glamorous life of a movie star, and to marry a wealthy man.

But money is a source of friction between the couple. It got worse when Giffe was involved in a car accident in 1970 that left him homebound for months due to a bruised kidney and a spine jerked out of alignment. He was on prescription medication for severe headaches. After less than three years of marriage, Susan recently moved back home with her parents—retired Army Maj. Joseph Lakich and her mother Jewel. This is their eighth separation. Her mother will later recall in a deposition how Susan would show up at their doorstep and say "Mom, George and I have had an argument." She'd trudge upstairs to her room and brush her long hair. But before she'd finish, there'd come a knock on the door. The couple would talk it over, and Susan would leave with Giffe.

But the relationship seems to be taking a darker turn. Their fights have turned violent. Giffe's father recalls seeing his son with scratches on his face. Susan has told her mother that Giffe pulled her hair so hard that his fists held clumps of her prized brown locks.

So Susan applies to teach at Metro Nashville schools, but must wait several months for the next semester to begin. In the meantime, she's working as a cashier at King of the Road Motor Inn on North First Street to provide for herself. Giffe isn't providing, she tells her parents, and she's tired of the constant hounding of creditors.

Giffe, meanwhile, is a man under pressure. If he wants his wife back, he needs a steady income. But that isn't George Giffe. Friends and family say he's a talker, not a doer. When he's not entertaining friends with impromptu séances—Giffe claims he's a warlock—he's hinting at vague associations with the CIA, the Mafia or flashing an Interpol gun carry permit for the pistol that's invariably tucked into the waistband of his pants. He says he needs it sometimes to collect commissions on real estate deals.

So it is that when he visits his father two weeks before the hijacking, he's strapped for cash and Susan has just moved out.

"Son, if you don't get this thing settled and get some relief from your financial pressure that's on you, and your domestic pressure, something tragic is going to happen out of it," Giffe Sr. will tell him. "Your daddy has been in the Army, and you can't operate under pressure for a prolonged period without something happening."

Two weeks later, during the afternoon before the trip to the airport, he shows up to Susan's parent's home. He pulls into their driveway in a Cadillac, which he'd bought by trading in a trusty Ford sedan his father loaned him the money to buy. Susan comes out of the house and gets into the car. Mrs. Lakich no longer allows Giffe in her home. It always ends in a fight between the couple. She's undergoing hormone therapy and can't handle the turmoil anymore.

Susan and Giffe talk. Giffe is supposed to be bringing her money along with the jewelry she left in their apartment. Mrs. Lakich watches the voiceless faces of the couple through the kitchen window and reads her daughter's exasperated face. She can tell that Giffe arrived empty-handed. She sees Susan open the door to get out, but Giffe grabs her by the arm and restrains her. Mrs. Lakich flies out of the house and into the driveway. She picks up a potted plant and holds it over his beloved new car.

"George, now just go on," she says. "Susan has got to go to work. Just get in your car and go."

"Don't hurt me, I'll go," Giffe says, according to testimony from Maj. Lakich, who is watching from the garage.

Giffe backs out of the driveway and speeds off. He heads home and calls Big Brother Aircraft at around 5 p.m. to charter a flight to Atlanta. A few hours later Giffe visits his ailing mother, who has been hospitalized for several months with complications from diabetes. He paces the room and tells his father he's going out of town for a few days.

"Are you going to drive or fly?" his father asks.

"I haven't made up my mind yet."

He kisses his father on the forehead and leaves. Giffe doesn't tell his dad much about his steadily unraveling life these days. Mrs. Giffe is dying. Father has enough to worry about.

At about 9:30 that evening, Mrs. Lakich is worried that Giffe will show up at the motel and bother Susan. She can't help but love the garrulous Giffe, but she doesn't trust her son-in-law, so she calls him.

"George, you haven't brought Susan money and things like you promised," Mrs. Lakich recalls in a later deposition. "I'm going to be down at King of the Road tonight when you come. I don't want you harassing her. If you have anything to give her, I want you to hand it over without any arguing."

Giffe placates her, calling Mrs. Lakich by his pet name for her: Mama Mia.

"Well, I'm going away for a while on a little trip," he says. "Don't come. Let me...I'm going to give Susan some money. I'm going to give her some for you to take your trip to Europe, and I'm going give her her jewelry. Just let us have our goodbye alone."

"Well, I don't know whether I'll be there or not," Mrs. Lakich says. The woman works undercover for a security company, monitoring the practices of lazy and inattentive store clerks.

"But if I am," she continues, "You won't know where I am."

Giffe says he won't be bothering them anymore, but that he'll send her postcards from exotic countries all over the globe. Mrs. Lakich isn't sure how to take this last statement, but she doesn't sense real finality.

Throughout the evening, Giffe makes trips to the waiting aircraft at the Big Brother hangar, loading bags and a gray metal box onto the plane. These are the days when cars are allowed to park right next to planes, and charter customers board aircraft nearly unsupervised.

At about midnight, Mrs. Lakich receives a call from Susan at the motel. The young woman sounds happy for a change. The books are balanced and she'll be home soon.

Around the same time, Giffe drops in at the Labri Lounge on Jo Johnston, a nightclub owned by Bobby Wayne Wallace. Wallace is behind the bar. He hands Giffe a beer. The new club is flourishing. Giffe says he's interested in investing $26,000. Wallace has heard this all before. He's only known Giffe for a few months, but he knows the man is all talk. There's no money behind the promises.

Giffe asks Wallace to give him and Susan a ride to the airport in his Cadillac. The couple are going on a little trip to patch things up. Wallace is a busy, tired guy. Not only is he running a nightclub; he's managing Minnie Pearl's Country Dairy on Main Street and Furniture Lease Co.'s warehouse. But Giffe's a hard guy to say no to—very likable, even if he is full of shit.

"Sure," Wallace tells him.

At 1 a.m., after picking up two chicken dinners for the plane, Giffe and Wallace pull up to King of the Road to get Susan. She sits between the men in the front seat, probably under the impression that she's being given a ride home. When she figures out that they aren't heading toward her parents' house, she begins to protest. When Giffe says they're headed to the airport to board a plane, she begins to scream and curse.

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Giffe writes letters at some point before the hijacking: One to Susan, one to his father, one to an apparent lover.

The letter to his wife is at times accusatory but mostly maudlin, professing unending love: You could run a blade through my heart and I would kiss you with my dying breath!

The letter to his father takes on a decidedly different tone, hinting at shadowy shot-callers in some unnamed underworld and a not-so-veiled intent to murder the woman he professes to love: ...because (Susan) knows too much about me and what I have done in the past—I have been given the order to silence with most haste—but Dad, it isn't easy because, you see, she is my life—my breath—my sunshine. To execute the order is to kill myself also.... If the tapeworm kills the host, it is dead also.

P.S. I have lived before. I shall live again.

This is followed by instructions to burn the letter.

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Pilot Brent Downs is headed to the airport. He hadn't planned on picking up an extra charter flight. His wife Janie is pregnant and he doesn't want to leave her, but they need the money.

Big Brother doesn't pay much. Downs would love nothing more than to work for a commercial airline. Those pilots make good money, but there are height restrictions and, at 5-foot-8, the fresh-faced pilot is too short. He's working on his real estate license to supplement the family income, but he loves to fly more than anything else in the world.

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It's late and Susan hasn't come home. Maj. Lakich is asleep, but Mrs. Lakich is worried and very much awake. She listens to the staticky voices coming over a police scanner. An officer is calling in the license plate of a suspiciously parked car whose owner may be involved in a hijacking that occurred only minutes ago. The unusually observant woman has memorized her son-in-law's license plate. She calls police, but can't get answers to her questions. At around 3 a.m. she gets a Sgt. Ellis on the phone.

"A plane's been hijacked," he tells her.

"Well, was there a girl with him?"

"Yes, with long brown hair."

Not long after, FBI agent Roger Meyers calls the Lakich home. Mrs. Lakich tells him that Giffe is a "psychopathic liar and a neurotic." She tells the agent that Giffe is always armed and not to be trusted.

For reasons unknown, this information never makes it to the FBI agents who will soon converge on the Jacksonville airport.

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It's a little before 5 a.m. inside the darkened cabin. Pilot Downs and co-pilot Crump are preparing for their descent into Jacksonville. They've been instructed by Giffe to place a few requests to air traffic control.

"All right, sir, we've got an unusual situation here, uh...uh, we're going to need some fuel at Jackson and, uh, we can't have anybody around except the fuel truck and the man fueling. Uh, nobody else in the area. We will need floatation gear and, uh, if there's any way possible, I need some charts and approach plates for Freeport. Yeah, we need jet fuel. And if you can't, wish you could work out some flight plan...vector us to Freeport. And we need to make sure that there is nobody—and I emphasize that—nobody around the airplane except the fuel truck and the attendant," Downs transmits.

"58 November, Jacksonville copied it all. Copied it all," Jacksonville air traffic control confirms.

"All right. We need floatation gear. This is a, uh...this is an eight-place airplane..."

"58 November, everything will be ready. Everything will be ready as specified."

"All right. And, uh...all right, they say to clear the area for at least 200 to 300 yards around the airplane and make sure there is nobody around it."

"58 November, copied. Copied."

"Center, have another unusual request. Uh, two bottles of scotch....Chivas 12 if you can get it."

Air traffic control hands 58 November over to the Jacksonville control tower. FBI special agent Francis Burns is sitting next to the tower operator, monitoring the conversation.

"Has our request been complied with?" Downs asks.

"We're checking on it for you right now, sir. We've been advised by aircraft services that they're trying to...attempting to get your request completed," the operator says.

The plane begins its descent. Giffe remains in the rear. He hasn't spoken much, other than to reiterate his demands. He seems calm, but Susan and the pilots are continually reminded of the explosives in Giffe's lap. He says a timer must be reset every ten minutes or the bomb will detonate. It's Wallace's job to check his wrist watch and remind Giffe to reset it.

Susan sits across from Giffe. Blue cloth curtains are drawn on both sides.

"Y'all going to maintain clearance around the plane about 200-300 yards?" Downs asks the operator again.

Downs must have noticed by now that the assurances he received earlier have become less certain.

"That information has been forwarded," the tower responds.

The plane touches down. Downs asks if the fuel truck is waiting.

"Affirmative."

"They are going to keep this area clear. Is that correct?"

"Affirmative."

The aircraft is directed to taxi to an isolated corner of the airport. Giffe notices a suspicious-looking car with its headlights off, sitting to the side, just off the pavement. Inside of the government car is FBI special agent-in-charge James O'Connor and agent George Murphy. None of the agents on the field have any real training in dealing with hijacked aircraft.

"All right. What's that car sitting off to our right?" Downs asks the tower.

Special agent Burns instructs the operator to tell Downs it's an airport vehicle.

"Does he have a radio in it?" Downs asks.

"Say again, 58 November."

"Can you have it moved away from over there?"

The plane turns 180 degrees and faces the runway it taxied down.

For the first time the FBI announces its presence: "58 November, this is the FBI speaking. Cut your engines."

Downs gives no immediate response. It's still dark out and the aircraft's landing lights pool on the sun-bleached pavement. The droning twin prop engines swallow all sound for at least a few hundred yards. Downs has retracted the flaps which, in hijack parlance, means the pilot wants law enforcement to leave the plane alone. In these situations, according to FBI protocol, the pilot makes that call.

Another car sits behind a fuel truck some 250 to 300 yards away. Inside it are agents Dalton Mayo and James McBride. McBride, a former firearms instructor at Quantico, has a .308-caliber rifle cradled in his lap—a weapon used by military snipers. He exits the car and observes the plane through the scope.

"58 November, this is the captain speaking. We're going to cut the engines and we're gonna need some fuel. But I request that everyone stay away."

Agent-in-charge O'Connor can't hear the transmissions from Downs from his car. So Burns relays the transmissions to O'Connor, who in turn instructs Burns how to respond. But O'Connor is basing his instructions on a secondhand summary. He can't hear Downs' voice.

"58 November, advise when your engines have been cut."

Downs doesn't respond.

"58 November?" Burns asks again.

"This is 58 November. Uh, this gentleman has about 12.5 pounds of plastic explosives back here and...uh, I got no...uh, yen to join it right now so I would please expr--, uh, appreciate it if you would stay away from the airplane."

"Engines cut?"

"Negative."

"Stand by."

"Where's the fuel truck?"

Burns doesn't immediately respond. He's relaying the information to O'Connor, who tells him there will be no refuel. "This is a waiting game," O'Connor says.

"58 November?" the agent says.

"58 November, go ahead."

"This is the FBI. There will be no fuel. Repeat. There will be no fuel. There will be no starter. Have you cut your engines?"

There is no response. Giffe has overheard the agent. He reminds Downs that he will kill everyone aboard and orders him to take off. Downs tells him that's impossible. There isn't enough fuel to go anywhere, or so he says.

"Uh," Downs gasps audibly. "Look, I don't think this fella's kiddin'. I wish you'd get that fuel truck out here."

"58 November, there will be no fuel. I repeat. There will be no fuel."

"This is 58 November. You are endangering lives by doing this and, uh, we have no other choice but to go along and, uh...uh, for the sake of some lives we request some fuel out here, please."

Burns relays this to O'Connor. Tower operator Bernard Sloan will later say that he hears doubt in Burns' voice. "I think he may have said it to me, 'Maybe we ought to let this guy go.' "

But O'Connor is taking a hard line. He will not negotiate.

Co-pilot Crump isn't entirely sure how loyal Wallace is to Giffe. Wallace's pistol is tucked into the waist of his pants and easily reachable. But he doesn't go for the gun. He's not sure exactly how to use it. If the safety's on and he can't figure out how to disengage it, he could be shot. Wallace notices the shaking of Crump's hands. Downs, on the other hand, seems composed.

"58 November, what is the status of your passengers?" Burns asks.

"Ah, uh, well, they're okay if that's what you mean."

"Are they monitoring this conversation?"

"Yes, they are."

"Do you have two passengers aboard?"

Downs does not answer.

"What's your present fuel status on that aircraft?"

"We're down to about 30 minutes."

For whatever reason, Downs has understated his fuel. There's actually an hour-and-a-half in the plane—just enough to get to Freeport. But pilots are supposed to have a 45-minute buffer for emergencies.

"The decision will be no fuel for that aircraft. No starter. Run it out, anyway you want it. Passengers, if you are listening, the only alternative in this aircraft is to depart the aircraft," Burns says.

Downs does not respond. Giffe has decided to allow co-pilot Crump to deplane and negotiate with the agents for fuel. The pilots power down the right engine so that Crump can exit. But Crump expects Giffe to shoot him in the back before he steps onto the tarmac. As he opens the door, he looks toward the rear of the cabin. The gloaming of early morning is only beginning to tint the night sky. It's still dark inside, but he can see Giffe in silhouette, the box and pistol still in his lap. He mutters an oath: "I'll blow this plane up."

As Crump's feet hit the tarmac, he's intercepted by two FBI agents, pistols raised—one of them is O'Connor. He identifies himself as the co-pilot and is escorted past the tail of the aircraft and into the backseat of a parked government car. He tells O'Connor that Giffe has been drinking, that he has a bomb and that he may force Downs to take off without refueling. O'Connor says that's a "bunch of malarkey"—12.5 pounds of plastic explosives is overkill. Giffe has no bomb.

Crump also refuses to get back on that plane.

"The co-pilot is in the car and will not return to the aircraft," the agent radios Downs.

There is no reply. He tries to raise Downs again: "58 November?"

The FBI will not receive another transmission. As the moments pass, Giffe becomes more desperate. Had the profile from Mrs. Lakich made it to agents in Jacksonville, they would know that Giffe's not the kind of man to be cornered. Wallace can sense this and asks Giffe if he can negotiate with the FBI for more fuel. Giffe says no.

Wallace is on his knees, inching toward the door, asking Giffe again and again. Finally, Giffe relents. Five minutes after Crump, Wallace deplanes and is intercepted by O'Connor. The agent removes the pistol from his waistband and marches him at gunpoint to the rear of the plane, where he throws him down onto the tarmac. Wallace tells him that he's been sent to negotiate for fuel, but has no intention of getting back on the plane.

"You're not going anywhere anyway. You're under arrest for air piracy," O'Connor tells him. He does not question the man further and orders another agent to guard him.

Agent McBride takes a few steps toward the plane, glassing it with rifle scope. He hears O'Connor's voice come over the radio in Mayo's car, but can't tell what he's saying. The agent-in-charge is telling Mayo to move the car in front of the aircraft to block its exit. McBride begins to run toward the car.

O'Connor is worried that Downs will be forced to take off with low fuel, a move that could end in "complete disaster." He reasons that if the plane is disabled, Giffe will give up. "Firm measures" are in order.

O'Connor orders the agent guarding Wallace to shoot out the plane's right rear tire. The agent puts two rounds into the tire with his service revolver. The reports are sharp and snap off of nearby hangars. But the small-caliber pistol cannot penetrate the heavy-ply rubber.

McBride's vehicle pulls up in front of the aircraft broadside. O'Connor edges up to the windshield of the aircraft and glances inside. Then he rounds its nose in a crouching shuffle, his pistol out and up. O'Connor identifies himself, shouting over the single running engine, instructing Giffe to come out with his hands raised.

McBride is out of the car now, peering with the rifle scope into the cabin. Downs is stock-still. Then his head begins to slowly crane, as though he's looking back at someone approaching from the rear.

As O'Connor rounds the nose, two muffled concussions sound from within the plane and two bullets pass by Downs ' neck, through the windshield and over the agent's head. Glass and broken plastic shower the ground around the agent's feet. O'Connor approaches the door and hears two more muffled shots inside.

McBride sees Downs slump against the console and disappear from view. The agent has never seen a man die by gunfire, but he knows Downs must have been shot.

Three more shots, audible only to those within 15 to 20 feet of the plane, sound from within. The thwop of the engine swallows O'Connor's instructions. McBride approaches O'Connor, who tells him to shoot the engine with his rifle. McBride puts two closely spaced rounds into the engine sheath, severing an oil line. The Hawk Commander's prop grinds and coughs sparks and hot oil out of the exhaust. When the engine finally winds down, there is absolute silence.

O'Connor opens the door to the cabin and peers into the darkness. He hears faint, gurgled breathing. Downs is sprawled over both seats in the cockpit—one round passed through the seat and into his chest; the second grazed the thigh of his gray trousers and bounced off of his kneecap. Susan is in the rear, slumped in a position almost of extreme repose, her nylon-clad legs stretched out in the aisle. She looks peaceful except for the black-looking stain forming in the fabric of the seat beneath her.

Then O'Connor sees Giffe. He is doubled over on the bench seat. The Walther is in the aisle. There's blood behind his ear, but he's still alive. O'Connor calls for the paramedics. He retrieves the gray metal box and runs with it to a safe distance from the plane. Ordinance removal techs will later open the box, only to find personal papers and a picture of a partially nude woman who is not Susan.

It is 5:34 a.m. Less than 20 minutes after the FBI announced its presence to the passengers and crew aboard 58 November, two of them are dead.

When George Giffe arrives at an area hospital a short time later, doctors announce that he is dead on arrival.

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Bobby Wayne Wallace is tried for air piracy—the first time someone has been charged with the crime in the U.S. According to his Nashville lawyer, Jim Neal, the case hinges on two big points. One is the principle of duress: Neal argues that Wallace aided Giffe in the hijacking, but only because he thought he'd be shot.

The second was something much more mundane: Neal asserts that only two chicken dinners were purchased before they arrived at the airport —one for Giffe, one for Susan. The government claims there were three, signifying intent on Wallace's part to join in the hijacking. But the prosecution could only produce two chicken dinners. Wallace is acquitted.

Downs wife Janie and Susan's parents will later sue the FBI and the federal government for wrongful death, another first involving air piracy and crisis negotiation. Their attorneys argue that the government is liable for O'Connor's break with protocol—negligence that ended in death. It was a difficult assertion to prove—namely because the government is less than forthcoming.

"We had to practically hold them in contempt of court," says Downs ' former attorney, Judge Gilbert Merritt Jr., now a U.S. appellate judge. "[FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover had himself drafted the rule that the FBI was supposed to follow about not intervening. And I finally got a copy of that rule after a huge battle—after the government claimed everything from national security to all the different FBI secrets."  

The judge—sitting without a jury—finds that agent O'Connor has not been negligent. But the U.S. Court of Appeals reverses that finding, ruling that O'Connor has acted rashly by ordering agents to disable the plane and failing to exercise caution when innocent lives are at stake.

The court awards Janie Downs nearly $270,000; the Lakiches receive $57,000 as guardians of Susan's daughter.

The hijacking of 58 November forced police agencies across the country to train for nearly every scenario. It gave rise to organizations like the National Tactical Officers Association. The deaths of Brent Downs and Susan Giffe also caused the death of ad hoc approaches to crisis management. From October 1971 on, there would be an accounting.

Email bhargrove@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9403.

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