The Final Flight of Martin McNally

He hijacked a plane at Lambert — and nearly got away with $500,000. It would take years to return to St. Louis

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The Final Flight of Martin McNally

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McNally landed hard in a barren field, narrowly missing a grove of trees. He had made a mistake, panicked on approach, thrusting his heels into the soil and causing his body to whip backwards into the ground. His head bounced on the soil, leaving him concussed. His vision danced with stars that were not really there.

The money was gone. It had disappeared, eaten by a blanket of clouds in a moment that imprinted itself in McNally's mind like a nightmare. There was nothing he could do. He didn't even know where he was; the lack of discernible landmarks on the ground made triangulation useless. Of the $502,000 he'd had in his hands, all he had now was $300 that he'd pocketed before the jump.

McNally peeled himself off the ground. Around him, the sound of dogs barking echoed through the night. He gathered the parachute and clambered over a barbed wire fence surrounding a thicket of trees. Finding a suitably covered spot, he laid out the parachute and collapsed for two hours.

At dawn, woozy and shivering, he dragged the chute deeper into the woods, where he covered the canvas with leaves and shrubs. He climbed into the parachute's folds as if it was a cocoon and slept until noon.

McNally awoke to helicopter blades thumping overhead. The search parties were already on the move, hoping to sniff out the skyjacker and the loot.

He decided to wait for dusk before moving from the forest's tall canopy. In the meantime, he napped, buried the parachute and cleaned his clothes and shoes as best he could.

Again crossing the barbed-wire fence, McNally walked 500 feet before coming to a gravel two-lane road. In one direction, he perceived a white glow against on the horizon, possibly a city or town. He began trudging in that direction, the monotony broken only by a few cars with Indiana license plates passing by.

An hour and a half later, one car stopped short about a quarter-mile down the road. In the driver's seat was Richard Blair, the police chief of Peru, Indiana. Chief Blair had been driving back to Peru with his wife, and the sight of a lone pedestrian on the road so late at night tugged his interest.

McNally introduced himself as Patrick McNally (his older brother's name) and displayed a Michigan driver's license (a forgery) that corroborated the ID. Though McNally's two credit cards were issued to a "J. McNally," he explained to the chief that he had borrowed the cards — with permission — from his brother.

The chief asked McNally what he was doing out on a country road after 9 p.m.

McNally claimed he had recently traveled to Peru from Detroit on a mission to retrieve his brother from a nearby farm. Alas, McNally continued, his brother had gotten drunk earlier that night and beaten the snot out of him, leaving McNally in this sorry state.

McNally's eyes and cheeks were heavily bruised, his chin was gashed open and he sported several cuts on his forehead. He really did look like he'd taken a beating. Chief Blair offered a lift to Peru, and McNally gladly took him up on it.

Before climbing into the car, McNally quickly slid the handgun from his pocket and tossed it to the side of the road.

("He did not frisk me," McNally would later recall. "If the chief had said anything about patting me down, I would have pulled out this pistol from my right pocket, cocked it and said, 'You'll search nothing.' He and his wife would probably have been killed at that point.")

On the drive to town, Blair warned McNally that it was a bad time to be alone on the road, what with so much traffic speeding back and forth. Hadn't he seen the news? Search parties were scouring the area for a hijacker and a bag of money. McNally answered vaguely in the affirmative, and thanked the chief for saving him the long walk and potential hassle. Blair dropped McNally off at the Peru Motor Lodge, across the street from police headquarters.

It was late, and McNally hadn't tasted food in more than 24 hours. He also hadn't had a chance to look in a mirror. Sitting down for a burger in a nearby bar, he felt the eyes of the other patrons evaluating him from all angles. He wasn't losing his mind to paranoia. In the bar's bathroom, McNally stared in shock at his bruised and puffy reflection. No wonder he was getting weird looks.

McNally returned to the motor lodge and bought a room for the night. The elderly desk clerk accepted his explanation about the mismatched driver's license and credit cards, but she couldn't help but notice the condition of his face.

"You aren't that skyjacker, are you?" she asked.

McNally laughed it off as a joke. "No," he said. The hijacker, he added, was probably a long way off by now.

Using the payphone in the lobby, McNally tried calling an accomplice in Detroit — a fellow hustler to whom McNally had confided the hijacking plan. Hitchhiking from Peru was out of the question; he needed someone to extract him from this hellhole. But there was no answer, so McNally returned to his room to watch TV coverage of the unfolding manhunt. A sketch artist had provided a composite portrait based on witness statements; it flashed on screen, showing a culprit with shaggy hair and aviator sunglasses.

On Sunday, McNally paid for another day in the motel, and made another call to Detroit. Still no answer. He was getting worried: Along with the bruised hijacker, the motel also served as lodging for a half-dozen FBI agents who were in the process of hunting him down. On his way downstairs, McNally passed two agents walking to a different floor; they were oblivious now, McNally thought, but how long could that last? He really had to get out of Peru.

By Monday, in desperation, McNally phoned his chauffeur, Walter Petlikowski.

"I thought you were dead," said Petlikowski.

By now, both had seen the latest breaking news on the search for the hijacker — the bag of money had been recovered in a bean field. The find was made by an elderly farmer, who, perhaps naively, had chosen to report the bag's contents to the authorities rather than keep it for himself. (The farmer's selfless act would later be enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most cash ever returned to its owner.)

By the time Petlikowski arrived in Peru the next day and the two men took off, the motel was swarming with FBI agents — who by now had picked up McNally's scent. A search party had discovered the handgun he'd hastily deposited on the side of the country road. The FBI knew the hijacker was nearby.

McNally was already dreaming of his next hijacking. If he could take one plane, he could do it again, he told Petlikowski. He was thinking of hitting the airport in Indianapolis.

But there would be no second chance.

By the time McNally returned to Detroit, FBI agents were already staking out his home and awaiting an arrest warrant. Investigators had linked the forged "Robert Wilson" Navy discharge papers to McNally's actual Navy records. And in Detroit, two of McNally's criminal confidants had immediately ratted him out to the feds.

Six days after leaping from a plane and losing a fortune, McNally was arrested outside his home without incident. He was charged with air piracy, which at the time carried a potential death sentence, and held on a $100,000 bond. Not long afterwards, Petlikowski turned himself in as well.

In a turn of good luck for McNally, the U.S. Supreme Court had recently instituted a moratorium on the death penalty. After a quick trial in 1972, McNally was found guilty and given a more humane punishment: a life sentence, which at the time meant just 30 years in prison.

On a summer evening in 2016, McNally nudges a black-and-white cat off his coffee table and lights the first in a long chain of cheap cigars. The smoke billows in the cramped, shotgun apartment. Lying on a threadbare sofa, facing a television playing the news on mute, McNally kicks his feet up on the coffee table.

"Nobody knows my real history," he says. "These neighbors and stuff, they don't know what I'm about, where I came from. They don't know what I'm capable of doing."

After his conviction for the hijacking, McNally decided he wouldn't go down without a fight. He appealed, arguing that FBI agents had illegally searched his home while gathering evidence for the 1972 criminal trial. But his argument failed to sway a judge. When the appeal was denied in 1974, McNally concluded that the courts had been corrupted, and he resolved to free himself by any means necessary.

"I immediately got into escape mode," he says.

In Leavenworth, McNally met the perfect escape partner, a hijacker of some renown. Garrett Brock Trapnell was serving a life sentence for commandeering a TWA flight over Chicago about five months before McNally's exploits in St. Louis. Armed with a .45 pistol smuggled inside a plaster arm cast, Trapnell was ultimately shot and apprehended by FBI agents after landing in New York City.

But Trapnell was more than a hijacker. A highly successful manipulator, he had left a trail of bank robberies across Canada in the mid-1960s, and he became famous for exploiting the legal defense of "innocent by insanity." Upon capture, Trapnell would present symptoms of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder, committing to the role until a judge granted admittance to a mental hospital instead of prison. Time and again, Trapnell was either released upon "recovery" from his bout of madness, or he simply escaped.

McNally and Trapnell were obvious allies.

"At one point, we made a commitment to each other," McNally remembers. "If I ever got out, I would skyjack a plane to get him out. Or, he would skyjack a plane to get me out."

Before the two could plan an escape from Leavenworth, however, McNally was thrown into a series of high security cells owing to his repeated run-ins with guards. The two men didn't see each other again until 1977, when McNally was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, the country's first "supermax" prison, dedicated to housing the country's most dangerous criminals. McNally and Trapnell found themselves sharing the same cellblock.

One afternoon in February 1978, Trapnell stopped by McNally's cell and knocked politely on the bars. McNally waved him in. In careful whispers, Trapnell sketched out an escape plan that was elegant, crazy and ethically vile. McNally loved it.

Decades later, McNally looks back on the plan with regret.

"It makes us look like monsters," he says. "We destroyed a family."

Trapnell's offer was simple: "How would you like to leave this place in a helicopter?"

After McNally listened to the details, the two set their minds to refining the plan's moving pieces: First, an outside accomplice would hijack a helicopter at gunpoint and force its pilot to fly to Marion, where Trapnell and McNally would be waiting in a designated spot. From there, they could hijack a plane at the nearby airfield in Perryville, Missouri. The next step could be improvised from there.

The key to the plan was Barbara Oswald. A 43-year-old former Army staff sergeant who had served as an air-traffic controller in a helicopter squadron, she happened to be in love with Trapnell.

Even behind bars, Trapnell maintained an air of celebrity, which only increased after the publication of a biography in 1976. The book, The Fox Is Crazy Too, was anything but a scholarly tome. A lengthy subtitle touted its epic contents: "The true story of Garrett Trapnell, Adventurer, Skyjacker, Bank Robber, Con Man, Lover."

The book had fallen into Oswald's hands. In its pages, Trapnell was presented as a tragic figure, a modern-day pirate who lived life freely and made fools of psychiatrists and prosecutors across North America. Oswald was smitten.

She wrote to Trapnell in prison, and she was rewarded with a flood of love letters. So strong was her passion that Oswald convinced prison officials to place her on Trapnell's approved list of visitors, and soon she was regularly visiting the object of her infatuation. On a few occasions, Oswald even brought her two teenage daughters along for the trip.

It was only a matter of months before Trapnell asked Oswald to help him escape. In letters, he promised her a new life on a 2,000-acre planation he owned in Australia. He sent her photos of a palatial estate where they could live together, happily ever after.

Of course, Trapnell owned no plantation in Australia. And Oswald would never find that happily ever after with Trapnell — or, as it turned out, anyone else.

In McNally and Trapnell's preparations, Oswald represented a tool to be used and abandoned at the earliest opportunity. She wasn't part of Trapnell's post-escape plan, which encompassed robbing a handful of banks with the assistance of McNally and the third member of the escape crew, a convicted bank robber named Kenny Johnson.

Shortly after 6 p.m. on May 24, 1978, the trio of inmates shuffled around the recreation yard alongside a couple hundred prisoners. The day was hot, and many of the inmates were shirtless and wearing shorts.

McNally sweated under a jacket, heavy fatigues and boots. He watched the sky, and waited.

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