“I Don’t Know Why I Killed Him But I Did”

14 Apr 17 One Comment

The true story of Earnest Pletch is hard to believe, even almost a hundred years later. Commonly referred to as America’s first hijack, I’m not sure where else there might have been an earlier one. Also, I think it should technically be referred to as in-flight theft of an aircraft, I guess, not to mention the whole murder thing. Considering how often I’ve complained about the mis-use of the term hijack (a pilot cannot hijack his own aircraft; I’m looking at you, MH370 conspiracy theorists), I really am not sure what the best description is. Take a look at the story and see what you think.

Born in 1910, Earnest P. “Larry” Pletch came from Frankfort, Indiana. His father was a prosperous farmer and a county legislator. He was known locally as “a genius with machinery” and is said to have tinkered with the tractors and cars rather than pulling his weight on the family farm. He was obsessed with the idea of flying and begged his father to buy him an aircraft. “I’ve always been crazy about flying. I would rather fly than eat,” he said later. His father said he would have to finish high school first. In response, Larry Pletch dropped out of high school.

It was 1926. He got married and, although he was only 16, he seemed to make a decent living as a mechanic.

He started studying flying in 1935, when he was 25, although he didn’t get the chance to actually fly a real aircraft until three years later. At that point, he decided he had learned all he could from books and watching airshows. He returned to Frankfort and stole an aircraft in the middle of the night. Amazingly, he was able to take off safely and flew 250 miles.

“It was the first time I had ever been at the controls. The boys said it couldn’t be done. I took off in that plane at three o’clock in the morning and flew it to Danville, Illinois, and landed it in a seven-acre field.”

He figured the aircraft would be reported missing so he kept going and took the aircraft to Vernon, Illinois. Although he had no experience before the joyride, he set himself up as a freelance pilot and was able to get a job with Royal American Shows, one of the largest travelling carnivals in North America.

“The second week that I’d been flying I gave exhibitions, did stunt flying, and put on a one-man show. A few days later I gave lessons to passengers.”

One of his customers was a seventeen-year-old girl named Goldie Gherkin. She asked for a ride in his plane and he was happy to oblige.

He was 29 by then, although he claimed to be 24 and was working under an assumed name. Larry Pletch fell for the girl and they spent five days together flying all over Illinois. He asked her to marry him but Goldie said no.

Larry Pletch didn’t do well at taking no for an answer. He abandoned her in a field and flew away.

It didn’t take long for her to be found. Her parents had been searching for her since her initial disappearance and were much relieved to find her safe in the field. They didn’t want to press charges: “The young man took such good care of our daughter.” The local police, on the other hand, were unwilling to let the escapade go and tracked him down. Pletch was charged with the theft of the aircraft and freed on bond. The press called him “the Flying Romeo.” His trial was due to begin the last week of October.

He rejoined the Royal American Shows and went with the carnival to Missouri, where he married what was apparently his third wife, Francis Bales of Palmyra, Missouri. I have no idea who the second one was: his flying escapades were better documented than his marital status. However, it is clear that wife number three left him after only a few days, according to some sources because he robbed her.

He didn’t seem to be in a rush to find out where she’d gone. It was over a month later, late October, when Pletch finally decided it was time to head out to find his missing wife. He either borrowed a car or stole his sister’s car, depending on which version you believe. The important point for our story is that Pletch ended up in Brookfield Missouri, where Carl Bivens worked as a flight instructor.

Carl Bivens was 39 years old and offered flight instruction in a friend’s two-seater Taylor Cub monoplane. The Taylor Cub, the forefather of the Piper J-3 Cub, had been fitted with dual controls and painted a fetching yellow.

A different Taylor Cub built in 1937 photographed by Alan D R Brown at Wellesbourne G-JTWO

It was the 27th of October of 1939 when Pletch asked Bivens for some advanced flying lessons. It probably was not coincidence that this was also the week his trial was to begin for the theft of the plane with which he’d taken Goldie Gherkin away. They completed two flight lessons which seem to have gone extremely well. According to Pletch, Bivens told him that he had a natural ability and that he should follow a career in aviation.

They started a third lesson at 4pm that afternoon. Forty minutes into the flight, they were cruising at 5,000 feet with Bivens instructing from the front seat and Pletch in the back.

Something seems to have snapped. With no warning and apparently for no good reason, Pletch shot his instructor in the head.

“I had a revolver in my pocket and without saying a word to him, I took it out of my overalls and I fired a bullet into the back of his head. He never knew what struck him.

The aircraft went into a dive. Pletch shot him again, even though he was already slumped over the controls.

“The ship began to pitch and then to dive. It went crazy and I remembered reading about a dying man ‘stiffening’ at the controls and then I fired another shot into the back of his head.”

“I reached forward and pulled his body away from the controls, and after a few seconds I got the plane straightened out.”

Pletch managed to get control of the Taylor Cub and pulled the aircraft out of the dive at 1,500 feet.

He landed in a field near Cherry Box, Missouri and pulled Bivens out of the plane, pocking his wrist watch and cash. Then he disposed of the body, hiding it in a thicket of trees. When he took off again, he was heading towards Frankfort, Indiana. He landed in another field and spent the night in a farmer’s barn.

He circled over his parents’ home. Initially he claimed he flew there to wave at them but later he told a much more gruesome version.

“I flew to Frankfort with the intention of smashing the plane into the side of my father’s barn but lost my nerve.”

He continued flying across Indiana. As dusk arrived he began looking for a new place to land.

Two young boys were doing chores when they heard the aircraft and ran out to see the the yellow monoplane circling low over the treetops. One of them, Bobby Joe Longsdon, was six years old that day and seventy years later still remembered it clearly.

“My brother and I were crazy about aviation. I never saw or heard an airplane fly that low before and it was real exciting.” But something even more exciting was about to happen. “I heard the pilot cut his engine and then he landed in the field right behind our house! Jimmy and I wanted to go over there and just touch the pilot, but our father wouldn’t let us go.”

Pletch landed in a cow pasture on Meredith Dillman’s land, just outside of Bloomington in central Indiana. Dillman and her family had also seen the aircraft circling and went out to speak to him.

Pletch was described as “a young man in his 20s, good-looking, with wavy hair swept back in a pompadour.” He told the Dillmans that he was flying to Bedford but had to land as it was getting dark. His blue overalls had blood on the front of them, which Dillmann claimed was from a nosebleed caused by high altitude. He asked if there was anywhere to get something to eat.

He was sent to Williams & Wampler General Store, which served hamburgers and coffee.

Bertha Manner, Clear Creek’s telephone switchboard operator, heard about the low-flying aircraft from multiple residents. “People commenced calling in when the plane kept flying so low.”

By now Biven’s body had been discovered and the hunt was on for the missing Taylor Cub. The telephone operator was listening to a football game on the radio when she heard a news bulletin that a man suspected of murder in Missouri was flying a stolen yellow plane which had been last seen circling over Frankfort. She called the Bloomington police to tell them about the forced landing. The police had been looking for a fugitive pilot since the morning and asked her to contact the farm to check the registration. It matched that of the stolen aircraft they were searching for.

Meanwhile at Williams & Wampler General Store, Pletch ordered two hamburgers and a cup of coffee. While Bill Wampler was frying up the hamburgers, the phone rang. It was the police, who told Wampler to say only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to their questions. Wampler confirmed that the pilot was there and that he would try to stall him. Bobby Joe Longon talked about it in his interview.

“Bill was frying the hamburgers for the pilot. He was a nervous, jittery kind of a guy, but he just scooted the burgers over to the cool part of the grill so they wouldn’t cook so fast.”

State and local police surrounded the general store. Pletch had just started eating when they confronted him. He surrendered without a fight, handing over the .32 caliber revolver, and they put him into handcuffs and took him away.

Pletch initially denied the shooting until he was confronted with the fact that the murder weapon was a .32 calibre revolver, the same type as he was carrying. It was quite clear he’d killed Bivens and taken his aircraft. What no one understood was why.

He came up with various answers.

  • Initially, Pletch claimed that Bivens was in financial difficulty and wanted to get away from Brookfield, so they had conspired to steal the aircraft. He said they were heading for Frankfort when Bivens learned he had a pistol, whereupon Bivens threatened to land the plane and turn Pletch over to the police.
  • He later explained that he had invented “extremely high-efficiency aviation fuel”. that he and Bivens had agreed to steal the plane and fly to Mexico to test it. They argued, with Bivens wanting to back out of the plan, and Pletch shot Bivens.

“I told him that he was not going to double-cross me.”

  • In one version, he claimed that Bivens had reached back and attempted to grapple with him, losing control of the aircraft. Pletch said he shot the man because he feared they were about to crash. Later he admitted that the aircraft only entered the dive after the instructor was dead.
  • Pletch also said had lost touch with his family and that he’d stolen Biven’s plane so that he could fly it into the side of his father’s barn.
  • In court, he finally simply admitted, “I just don’t know why I killed him but I did.”

Even though it was quite clear that he had killed Bivens, the legal case had problems. It was the first hijacking case in the US, although the word wasn’t in use yet. The Chicago Tribune called it the first airplane kidnap murder on record and the Associated Press called it the fantastic airplane slaying. But no one knew exactly where it had happened – or if Pletch knew, he wsn’t saying. They’d flown over three Missouri counties and the aircraft crossed the state line, which meant it was unclear who had jurisdiction and who, if anyone, had the authority to prosecute. As one law professor quoted in the Bloomington Evening World put it, none of the existing statutes took mid-air killings into account. If it was impossible to prove the county over which the offence occurred, could the murder be prosecuted?

The prosecutor for Shelby County, where the body had been found, believed that it could and filed murder charges. But the aircraft had been flying over Macon County for most of the flight before the landing and the prosecutor there argued that Pletch’s confession had to be accepted, which put the murder in his jurisdiction. Pletch was brough to court in Macon County immediately – there was some concern that he might be lynched if they didn’t act quickly – where Pletch waived his right to a preliminary hearing.

On the 1st of November, just five days after the murder, Pletch plead guilty to first-degree murder.

In Missouri, the penalty for murder was death in a lethal chamber; however Carl Bivens’ wife Etta told the judge that she didn’t wish to seek the death penalty. Apparently this carried some weight, because the judge sentenced Pletch to life after a promise that he would never apply for pardon or parole.

Pletch died in 2001 and was buried in Camdenton, Missouri. The adjoining grave is marked as Avis Pletch, Wife of Earnest Pletch, 1904-1973. Some articles state that he died in prison at the age of 91, after serving 61 years in Missouri State Prison. However, more recently it’s become clear that this wasn’t the case.

Mike Dash’s article on the subject is excellent and in the conclusion, he points out that Pletch’s place of death is cited as Eldridge, Missouri, and there are no prisons there. Further, he found two references to a man named Pletch in the Kansas Star: in 1964 he’s said to be selling a new ranch type house and in 1965 he was auctioning a service station along with several items of personal property. He dug deeper and discovered that a man named Earnest Pletch got married the day after Christmas in 1973 and was described as having worked as a pilot for Cox Aviation, almost certainly the same man. It seems likely that, despite the widow’s wishes, he was released early, probably as a part of a scheme to reduce the overcrowding of prisons.

For more on this, I recommend:
America’s First Highjacking
The killer who fell from the sky: a true-life B-town crime story
Confessed Air Killer Started Back to the Scene

Category: History,

One Comment

  • Sylvia, another top-notch piece of entertainment. A good idea to insert something light in between all the serious stuff.

    I had not heard this story before but, when reading it, I doubt very much that anyone can get away stealing an aircraft without ever having in one before and becoming a professional pilot, even a stunt pilot, just a few days later.

    I remember the J3 well, I did quite a bit of time in them when I was getting my very first lessons. And my first solo, from the rear seat. The tank was just in front of the windscreen behind the engine with a cork and a spoke through a hole in the filler cap acting as a fuel gauge.

    The range was not great and with a cruising speed of just about 75 mph would not be able to cover the distances suggested in your narrative.

    It would seem that the story over the years of re-telling got better and better, but still… it makes for a very amusing read.

    The aircraft in the photo looks like a J3 to me but then, the Taylorcraft was nearly identical, Mr. Piper just took over.

    So, to add a rather lame joke: “He got paid by the Piper”

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