Metal detectors. Long lines at security. Grouchy guards. Bag searches.
Most travelers think these airport customs have their roots in Sept. 11, 2001. Actually, the conventions reach back more than 40 years, when it was not jihadists threatening the skies but another sort of air pirate.
These skyjackers, according to Brendan Koerner, author of the newly published book The Skies Belong to Us (Crown, 336 pages, $26), were “frazzled veterans, chronic fabulists, compulsive gamblers, bankrupt businessmen, thwarted academics, career felons, and even lovesick teens. Each had an intensely personal, if sadly deluded, rationale for believing they could skyjack their way to better lives.”
It was the heyday of skyjacking, from 1968 to 1972, a period when 130 planes were hijacked in the United States.
In that era, flying was luxury travel: free booze, gourmet food and a swift walk to your jet. You could board a plane without a ticket. The only downside? The possibility that somebody with a gun would demand that the pilot fly to Cuba.
The 1971 hijacking of a plane by D.B. Cooper—who boarded a 727 in Portland, extorted $200,000 and parachuted into a hailstorm somewhere above the Columbia River—is perhaps the most infamous of the period.
But the most important, if lesser known, skyjacking of that time was by a young couple, a white party girl and a black Army veteran.
From Coos Bay, Oregon.
Cathy Kerkow and Roger Holder have been mostly forgotten in Coos Bay, 223 miles southwest of Portland. The coastal town’s historical society contains no tribute to the duo, who managed to control stolen planes for more miles than anyone before or since—and got away with it.
Kerkow was a high-school track star and classmate of Steve Prefontaine before she drifted down to San Diego to work in a massage parlor. Holder was a troubled veteran of four tours of duty in Vietnam, who wanted retribution for being pushed out of the Army for smoking dope.
“Operation Sisyphus” was his credulous plan to hijack an airplane, land it in San Francisco, rescue radical UCLA professor Angela Davis from her murder trial and whisk her away to North Vietnam. Holder persuaded Kerkow to join him. She asked him what she should wear.
The crime did not go according to plan. It grew to include the Black Panthers, a trip to Algeria and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Kerkow and Holder became two of a mere handful of hijackers not to end up dead or in prison. Holder died two years ago in San Diego. Kerkow is still at large.
But their feat was the last gasp of the skyjacking craze. Within months, the Federal Aviation Administration jump-started the security measures we now trudge through before each flight.
In this excerpt from The Skies Belong to Us, Koerner shows how the gears for Holder and Kerkow’s skyjacking were set into motion years before, in a timber town four hours from Portland. AARON MESH.
The following is excerpted from The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner. Copyright © 2013 by Brendan I. Koerner. Reprinted by permission of Crown Publishers. All rights reserved.
The knock on the door came at an inopportune moment for Cathy Kerkow, right as she was working a gob of shampoo through her long brown hair. Though she wasn’t expecting any visitors that January afternoon in 1972, she was far too genial a soul to ignore the caller. She wrapped a kimono-style bathrobe around her slender body and hurried from the shower, leaving a trail of soapy water in her wake.
Kerkow opened the door to discover an exceptionally tall, rail-thin black man with close-cropped hair and manicured sideburns. A pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses shielded his sleepy eyes from San Diego’s midday glare. He grinned at the lovely sight before him, a scantily clad twenty-year-old girl with rivulets of water sluicing down her cleavage.
Kerkow flashed back a coy smile, pleased to know that her abundant charms were working their standard magic.
The man asked if he had the right apartment for an acquaintance of his, a young lady by the name of Beth Newhouse. Kerkow replied that Beth was her roommate, and that he could probably find her shopping at the local drugstore. The man promptly left without saying goodbye; Kerkow stood in the doorway and watched him speed off in a yellow Pontiac Firebird. As the car vanished around the Murray Street bend, she thought, I know him from somewhere.
Twenty minutes later the man and Newhouse returned to the apartment together. Apologizing for his prior rudeness, the man now introduced himself to Kerkow as Roger Holder. He explained that he had once been Newhouse’s downstairs neighbor, back when she lived near Ocean Beach.
Newhouse was less than thrilled to see Holder again. She had always considered him something of a creep—not least of all because he had used a different name, Linton Charles White, when they had first met the year before.
But Kerkow didn’t want Holder to leave just yet—not while she was still trying to piece together why he looked so darn familiar. To delay his departure, she suggested they all share a quick joint; the girls were small-time marijuana dealers who never lacked for pungent grass. Holder readily accepted the offer.
As the joint circulated around the trio, Kerkow and Holder kept making eyes at each other, lobbing signals back and forth. Before he left, Holder asked the two women if he could repay their kindness by treating them to breakfast that coming Saturday. Newhouse declined, but Kerkow said yes to the morning date.
Two days later Holder picked her up in his Firebird and took her to a diner on University Avenue. As they spooned sugar into their coffees, Holder made a confession: he had been driving himself crazy trying to figure out where he and Kerkow had met before. He had the strangest sense this wasn’t the first time their paths had crossed. But try as he might, the memory of their previous encounter was eluding him.
Kerkow admitted that she, too, had felt a powerful twinge of recognition upon seeing Holder at her apartment door. But how could that be? She had been in San Diego for only five months, scarcely enough time to forget such a memorable face. Prior to that she had spent virtually her whole life in Coos Bay, a logging town on Oregon’s southern coast. Surely there was no way Holder had ever passed through such an isolated place.
Holder set down his coffee and leaned back in the booth. He rubbed his chin and mouth in thought, then filled his lungs with soothing Pall Mall smoke.
Coos Bay. Yes, he said, he knew Coos Bay. He knew it very well.
When Catherine Marie Kerkow was born in October 1951, Coos Bay was in the midst of a splendid postwar boom. Located on a thickly forested peninsula dotted with scenic lakes, the town was blessed with a harbor deep enough to accommodate the world’s largest timber ships, which hauled off Oregon’s precious firs and cedars by the millions. A never-ending stream of logging trucks jammed the coastal roads, rumbling past the enormous waterfront sawmill that draped the town in the scent of fresh-cut wood.
Newlyweds Bruce and Patricia Kerkow seemed to be on track for a pleasant future when Cathy became their firstborn child. The couple wasted little time rounding out their family: by the time she was six, Cathy had been joined by three younger brothers. Though he loved his children dearly, Bruce was also frustrated by fatherhood’s demands. At the Kiwanis Club meetings and church potlucks that were the linchpins of Coos Bay’s social life, rumors swirled that the Kerkows’ marriage might be on the rocks.
In the summer of 1959, however, the town’s gossipmongers began to chatter about news far more salacious than the Kerkows’ marital woes. A year earlier the Navy had opened a sonar station on Coos Head, a bluff overlooking the bay, in order to track Soviet submarine activity in the Pacific Ocean. Now the installation had taken on a new chief cook, a fifteen-year Navy veteran who had recently returned from duty in the Taiwan Strait. To the horror of Coos Bay’s more provincial inhabitants, this cook was also black. His name was Seavenes Holder.
In August 1959 the Holders piled into the family’s Ford Crown Victoria and headed north up Highway 101, thrilled to be starting life anew in southwestern Oregon. Seavenes was in a jolly mood during the ride, talking up all the hunting and fishing trips he had planned for the kids. Ten-year-old Roger was most excited about the fact that his father had rented a four-bedroom house, a major upgrade over their cramped Alameda, Calif., bungalow. He would finally have a room all to himself.
But when Seavenes showed up at the real estate office to collect the house keys, he was told that the property was no longer available and that his mailed deposit would be refunded. Seavenes knew exactly what that meant: the agent with whom he had arranged the lease over the phone hadn’t realized that the Holders were black.
The family camped out in a hotel room while Seavenes scrambled to find more permanent accommodations. He was rejected by several landlords who made little effort to conceal their bias: Coos Bay had just a single black family at the time, headed by the proprietor of a downtown shoeshine stand, and many residents were dead set against darkening the town’s collective pigmentation any further.
The Holders eventually settled into a house in the blue-collar Empire neighborhood, on the peninsula’s western side. The landlord, an eccentric older woman who drove a tractor and smoked cigars, provided Seavenes with a shotgun, advising him that he might need it to fend off intruders. Her warning quickly proved correct: two nights after the Holders moved in, a pickup truck full of rowdy men pulled into the family’s driveway at two a.m. “Niggers go home!” the trespassers yelled as they waved flashlights through the Holders’ windows and pelted the door with rocks. From that point on, such menacing late night visits became routine.
The family’s tormenters operated in the daytime, too. When Marie Holder went shopping for groceries on Newmark Avenue, housewives would spit in her face as she walked the aisles, or hiss that she’d better not touch the vegetables with her unclean hands. The children were taunted whenever they dared play in the local park; the oldest child, eleven-year-old Seavenes Jr., started carrying a small hatchet in order to protect himself.
The elder Seavenes pleaded with his family to turn the other cheek, assuring them that the bigots would soon tire of their bullying. And so on September 9, Roger and his younger brother, Danny, were packed off to Madison Elementary School to begin the fall semester. The very next day several older boys cornered seven-year-old Danny on the school’s playground. The leader of the pack knocked him to the ground, then kicked his prone body at least a dozen times. The beating was severe enough to land Danny in the hospital, where doctors briefly feared that the boy might lose a testicle.
The petrified Danny initially refused to identify his attacker. The police eventually coaxed him into fingering the culprit, but the boy was never arrested. When news of the assault started to make the rounds, Coos Bay’s progressive residents declared themselves aghast at their racist neighbors’ campaign of terror. An emergency meeting of the Madison Parent Teacher Association was called to discuss the matter, and a local weekly paper chimed in with a soul-searching editorial on its front page.
But the spirit of reconciliation did not last. Embittered by Danny’s beating, Seavenes filed suit against the State of Oregon for failing to protect his family’s civil rights. When his superiors caught wind of the case, they ordered him to drop the matter and report back to Alameda at once. The Navy did not want to risk antagonizing Coos Bay any further.
As their distraught parents packed up the house, Seavenes Jr. and Roger spent an unseasonably warm October day exploring the woods around Empire Lakes, a popular recreation area. They came to a secluded stretch of shoreline, where they spotted a boy and girl dipping jars into the water. Fuming over his family’s humiliation, Seavenes Jr. whispered to Roger that they should avenge poor Danny by beating up the two kids. But Roger nixed that plan—he just wanted to see what the kids were doing with their jars.
The Holder boys approached the water’s edge. Roger saw that the girl was around eight years old; the boy appeared to be her little brother. She was pale and slight, with prominent ears and oversize glasses. Roger asked what she and her brother were doing.
“Catching salamanders,” the girl replied.
Roger peered at the muddy water inside the girl’s jar and laughed. “Those ain’t salamanders,” he said. “Those are tadpoles, see? Tadpoles—baby frogs.”
The girl reached into her jar and pulled out one of the minuscule creatures by its tail. She dangled it right in front of Roger’s face, so he could inspect its frilly gills and nascent limbs. “I know a baby salamander when I see one,” she snapped. When Roger could say nothing in reply, the girl broke into a wide grin; she was obviously pleased to have won the argument.
The girl’s brother tugged at her sleeve—he wanted to head back to the picnic area, where Mom and Dad were waiting. “Well, next time I see you, I hope you’ve learned more about salamanders,” the grinning girl said to Roger while screwing a brass lid onto her jar. “Bye-bye.”
“Good luck with them salamanders!” Roger Holder shouted after Cathy Kerkow as she and her brother disappeared into the woods. He was certain that she heard him, though she never did look back.
Four days later the Holders’ Crown Victoria headed south down Highway 101. The family had been run out of Oregon after less than three months.
Thirteen years later, Holder and Kerkow launched their hijacking plan out of San Diego, buying their tickets with a bad check. On June 2, 1972, they took off on Western Airlines Flight 701 to Seattle, carrying no weapons but a Samsonite briefcase—which Holder claimed contained a bomb.
Holder was aching for a taste of marijuana, just
a few quick tokes to soothe his nerves. He had a cigarette pack full of
joints in his breast pocket, but there was no way he could sneak a puff
in the plane’s lavatory without attracting unwanted attention. He
settled instead for a second round of bourbon, brought to him by a
shapely blond stewardess who said her name was Gina. A bump of
turbulence caused her to splash some liquor on Holder’s jacket, an
accident for which she profusely apologized.
Still, Gina Cutcher promised to bring him a dry cleaning voucher. Holder turned his head to watch her walk back to the aft galley, her comely figure sheathed in Western Airlines’ flattering peach uniform. He briefly thought of asking this gorgeous lady to join him and Cathy on their illicit journey. But he knew that it would be foolish to deviate from the plan.
When Holder ran out of cigarettes, he bummed a smoke off the man sitting in 18E, an auto-sales executive from suburban Seattle. The man used this exchange as an excuse to make small talk. He started the conversation by asking Holder how long he had been in the Army. “Oh, since before I was born,” Holder responded with a laugh, before explaining that his father had spent his entire career in the military.
That was the last true thing that Holder told his seatmate. He proceeded to weave a fantastic tale of derring-do. Four rows behind Holder, Kerkow was telling less outrageous lies to her seatmate, a middle-aged homemaker from Los Angeles.
As the plane passed over Oregon’s Mount Hood, Holder felt an acute pang of self-doubt. He worried that he had already waited too long to execute the takeover, a concern that sparked misgivings about the thoroughness of his preparations. He began to compose a new note for the captain, scribbling furiously on a sheet of yellow legal paper. But he stopped writing after five garbled paragraphs, unable to string together a coherent message. His thoughts were slipping away from him.
Holder asked his seatmate for another cigarette and tried to read a Life feature about Alabama governor and Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace, who had survived an assassin’s bullet on May 15. Though he maintained a veneer of cool, he was desperately trying to muster the courage to go through with his plan.
At around 2:25 p.m., the captain’s voice blared over the public address system. He directed the passengers’ attention to snow-capped Mount Rainier, which was coming up on the left side of the aircraft. All was running smoothly, he added, and they would be on the ground in Seattle in twenty-five minutes.
Holder closed his magazine and stubbed out his cigarette. Now or never, he thought. Now or never.
He removed his Samsonite briefcase from beneath the seat in front of him and replaced it with his small black valise. He opened the briefcase a crack and removed a travel-size alarm clock. He wound it up and then placed it back inside the briefcase.
“Could you watch my seat?” Holder asked the auto-sales executive in 18E. With that, he rose and walked down the aisle toward the rear of the plane.
Kerkow watched him pass by. This was it.
Holder pulled back the aft galley’s red curtain to find three stewardesses shoveling beef and broccoli into their mouths. The lovely Gina Cutcher stood closest to him.
Oh no, thought Cutcher. The voucher. I forgot about his voucher.
“I need to show you something,” Holder said to her, placing two sheets of three-by-five notepaper on the galley’s countertop. “Read these.”
Cutcher did as she was told. The first note began: Success through Death…
Holder ducked through the open cockpit door and stood over the three-person flight crew. He took a moment to savor the feeling of accomplishment; for the first time in ages, he felt wholly in tune with the universe’s intentions for his life. But after that surge of satisfaction ebbed, he struggled to remember what, exactly, he was supposed to do next. At the very moment of his greatest triumph, all of Roger Holder’s convoluted plans began to mash together in his head.
Holder held up his Samsonite briefcase and wiggled his left index finger, the one with the metal ring around it. The crew could see that the ring was connected to a piece of copper wire that led into the briefcase. “This controls the detonator,” explained Holder. “There is a concussion grenade in here, and eight slabs of C-4. Now, Captain, what is your name?”
Holder gave the captain a firm handshake, then did likewise with the other two members of the crew. Tom Crawford, the flight engineer, noticed that the hijacker’s hand was clammy and that sweat was trickling down his brow.
“I’m here to tell you that I was visited at my home by the Weathermen,” said Holder. He was referring to a notorious radical group, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, that had orchestrated a series of bombings aimed at ending America’s involvement in Vietnam. Two weeks earlier the Weathermen had managed to bomb a women’s bathroom at the Pentagon.
“They told me they’d taken my children from my wife—kidnapped them,” Holder continued. “That’s how they’re forcing me to do this—they have my girls. My family. Four of them are on this plane right now, back there with a bomb. One’s a girl—she’s the leader. And one’s on LSD. I saw them in Los Angeles, at the airport, waiting. But I don’t know where they’re sitting at now.”
Holder removed his spiral-bound notebook from a jacket pocket and flipped to page one. “San Francisco,” he said. “They want us to go to San Francisco.”
“Not enough fuel for that,” said the co-pilot, Ed Richardson. “We need to land in Seattle first.” Holder objected, saying there was no time for any stops along the way. But Richardson countered that they didn’t have a choice—they could barely make it back to the Washington-Oregon border on the fuel they had left.
Then a spur-of-the-moment idea occurred to Holder—a way to turn the hijacking into an even more elaborate and personal demonstration.
“I want us to land in Coos Bay,” he said.