JACKSON TOWNSHIP | Chesterton resident Hillary Lukes didn't live in Chesterton as an 8-year-old boy, but living in Chicago he still heard plenty about the Oct. 10, 1933 plane crash in Jackson Township that killed all seven aboard.
“We didn’t have TVs back then but it was in the newspaper and on the radio quite a bit," Lukes said. "It was big news and I was a fanatic about airplanes so I remember it well."
It's been 80 years since four passengers and three crewmembers died when the United Airlines Boeing 247D crashed after an inflight explosion. The plane, registered as NC13304, was taken down by a bomb and crashed near what today is County Road 400 East south of the Toll Road in a wooded area on a farm.
It was the first time a commercial plane was blown out of the sky by what authorities suspect was a nitroglycerin bomb.
“It’s intriguing because no one was caught or arrested or charged," Chicago author Bryan Alaspa said. Alaspa published "Sabotage: A Chronicle of the Chesterton Crash" in 2011.
"The FBI’s Melvin Purvis, who is famous for his work with (John) Dillinger, was in charge of the investigation and he still couldn’t solve it,” Alaspa said.
Newspapers such as The Vidette-Messenger, Chesterton Tribune, New York Times, Albuquerque Journal, and even the Jamaica Daily Gleaner tell of witnesses hearing an explosion and seeing the wreckage which was strewn over a mile of land.
“Like a flaming comet, liner plunges down,” read The Vidette-Messenger on October 11, 1933.
The plane was traveling from Newark, N.J., to Oakland, Calif., and had stopped in Cleveland to change pilots. It was to stop again in Chicago, according to newspaper records compiled by Eva Hopkins, researcher at the Westchester Township History Museum.
“There was a large FBI file on it and yet it is still a mystery,” Hopkins said.
Shortly after the FBI began its investigation, the Porter County coroner, Dr. Carl Davis, determined a bomb was likely the culprit after evidence of an explosive was found in the wreckage.
“There were no black boxes or security or the things that would make this case easier today, and the FBI did the best they could -- but there are a lot of questions and theories," Alaspa said.
"The theory most often around is that there was an assistant district attorney that often took that flight and he was tough on the bootleggers, the gangsters at the time, so a gangster planted it," he said. "But I didn’t buy that, and the FBI didn’t buy that either, because the attorney had no plans to be on that flight so it didn’t add up,”
Alaspa combed through 300 pages of FBI reports and photos of evidence he obtained and comes up with two strong suspects.
“One suspect is Emil Smith, a passenger on the flight who was acting very strangely," Alaspa said. "He wanted to carry his suitcase on with him and they wouldn’t let him, so before he checked it he removed a package from it and was very protective of it. But the FBI found no reason to level any criminal conspiracy against him."
“Another theory, one that I put together is that the airlines were having problems with unions at the time," Alaspa suggests. "The airlines were a burgeoning industry at the time and so my feeling was that it may be centered on that. The bomber tried to make the airline look bad, make people have doubts about the airlines, or send a message about what could happen if they didn’t allow the pilots and mechanics to unionize.”
The story still intrigues locals and historians who are lured to the mystery of the crash — people like Alaspa who writes about true crime and hopes that one day the secret of the bomber will be known.
“I’d love an actual detective or the NTSB to look at this stuff with an investigator eye. After 80 years it doesn’t look like we’ll ever know who did it ... but you never know,” he said.