As many of you know, I love reading through the old newspaper archives, which is the source of many of the topics that I present to you monthly. Today’s story is no exception. It’s one that I stumbled across probably ten or twelve years ago.
I don’t recall what I was doing at the time, but I wrote the following on a scrap piece of paper: Sky Battle with Hammer, May 15, 1928, Frechette, hammer, plane, and Anderson. Just some keywords to possibly research someday. Every couple of years I would come across that slip of paper again, but I would quickly reject the researching of the topic further, thinking that it was probably just one of those stories that would be in the news one day and forgotten the next.
When news broke of that Germanwings co-pilot who deliberately crashed Flight 9525 killing all aboard, I decided that it was finally time to do some further research on the Sky Battle with hammer story. And what I found was far more interesting than I could have ever imagined.
The true date of the beginning of this story was on May 14th, not the 15th as I had written down, of 1928. An 18-year-old man named Clarence Rene Frechette hired 28-year-old pilot Harry Anderson to fly him from Roseville to Pontiac, Michigan. Since this was still the early days of manned flight, the anticipated flight time was about one hour. Today, you could easily drive that distance in less time.
Initially, all went well with the flight. Then, out of the blue, at an elevation of approximately 2,000 feet (six-tenths of a kilometer), Frechette pulled out a hammer and started bashing Anderson in the skull with it. He was knocked unconscious and the plane was sent into a downward death spiral.
Observers on the ground initially thought that what they were witnessing was part of an aerial acrobatics show, until they realized that the plane was headed straight for the ground.
Suddenly, at about 200 feet (60 meters), Harry Anderson regained consciousness and quickly did all he could do to save the airplane. He was able to right the flying machine, but not before the landing gear had made contact with the ground. The landing gear snapped off the fuselage and the plane tumbled several times before it came to rest on the grounds of – get this – the State Hospital for the Insane.
Staff at the hospital immediately ran to the wreckage to pull out the two men. Frechette was still clinging to the handle of the hammer, although its head had been broken off in the crash. Miraculously, both survived and were taken to the hospital for care. The press reported that neither was seriously injured. I am not sure what they consider serious injuries, but pilot Anderson had a fractured skull and was missing so many teeth that the doctors would not let him be questioned at length by police.
Investigators tried to figure out why Clarence Frechette did this, but he refused to answer their questions. They did find in his clothing a letter addressed to Georgia Pardee of Pontiac that in part read, “Death is my message, sweetheart.” A letter to his mother indicated that Frechette was employed by the Pacific Coast Aero Circus as an exhibition pilot. It was also reported that Frechette had no need to hire Anderson to fly him to Pontiac. He already had a plane that he had piloted and stored in a nearby hanger.
In court, the prosecution made the case that Frechette had intended to kill Anderson and then steal the plane. The defense argued that Anderson had suddenly frozen at the controls, so Frechette grabbed his hammer and started swinging away to break him free and regain control of the airplane.
As you can probably guess, Frechette was found guilty of the crime. He was sentenced to serve a six to a ten-year sentence in state prison.
As a side note, while researching this story, I noticed that Wikipedia claims that the first skyjacking occurred on February 21, 1931, in Peru. Frechette, if you consider what he did to be a hijacking, appears to really have been the first one. Per the Washington Post on October 16, 1928, “Local authorities believe Frechette is the first person ever sent to prison as an “air robber.”
Normally, this would be the end of the story. And, at first, I thought that it was. What else could top a guy going berserk while flying over the state mental hospital? Well, I think Frechette may be one of the few that somehow managed to make an already bizarre story even more absurd.
Fast forward to February 7th of 1935. Frechette, who had just been paroled eleven months earlier, was just about to complete a 2,000 mile (3,200 km) drive from Pontiac to California. Upon reaching the town of Truckee, which is located on the Nevada-California border, he was pulled over by the police. But this wasn’t your normal stop for speeding or some other minor infraction. Instead, the police believed that Frechette may have killed his employer back in Michigan. The fact that he was driving a car owned by his boss’s mom may have incriminated him, but when they popped the trunk open, they found all the proof that they ever needed. There, right in front of them, was the body of a man who had been shot to death. For some unknown reason, Frechette opted to drive cross-country without ever ditching the victim. Frechette and his three passengers were immediately arrested, although the others were soon released.
So here’s what happened.
On the night of January 29th of 1935, Frechette was riding with his boss, 24-year-old truck line operator Robert Brown. They stopped in Howell, Michigan to grab a bite to eat and then got back in the car to continue along their journey. Brown supposedly started to brag about his great success with women.
That’s when Frechette told him that there was one girl that he could never have. That was his girl, Grace Curran, a Kalamazoo laundry worker, who he had been dating for about two months.
Brown then replied that she had, in fact, been one of his conquests, to which Frechette erupted in anger. In his later statement to police, he said, “I knocked him down. He crawled to the car and reached into his pocket and grabbed that gun.” He continued, “I grabbed his hand as he pointed it at me. I don’t know whether it was his finger or mine, but the gun fired twice. A bullet hit him in the head.”
That’s when he calmly tossed Brown’s limp body in the trunk, later admitting that he had no clue as to whether the victim was still alive or not. Frechette just knew that if he was caught, he would almost certainly spend the rest of his life in jail and there was no way he was going to let that happen.
What he did next was odder than odd. Instead of trying to ditch the car or dispose of the body, he drove back to Pontiac and slept the night away. The next day he drove to Kalamazoo, picked up his girlfriend Grace, and they went to see a movie. She was clueless as to the contents of the car’s trunk.
The next day, Frechette decided that it was time to hit the road. His plan was to drive out to California, ditch the car and its contents, and hop a boat to China.
Upon reaching Chicago, he sent a package to Miss Curran. Inside was a letter that said, “You will never see me again. In time you will find out why.” He also included a ring and other jewelry that belonged to her.
On Tuesday, February 5th, Frechette mailed a second letter to Grace, which stated, “Did I fix Bob? Keep it secret, dear, as my life depends upon it. You will hear more about it later.” On the same day, he robbed two drugstores and a restaurant for a total of $41 (about $710 today).
Upon reaching Salt Lake City, he parked the car and its ghastly contents on the street while he went into a dance hall to groove the night away. It was in Salt Lake City that he picked up his three passengers at $6 each to help defray costs: a miner named John Rivas, one Mrs. Victor Messenger, and her 4-year-old son Raymond.
For the remainder of the trip, Frechette happily played the radio while politely engaging his passengers in conversation. He explained that his reason for driving across the country was an effort to gain more customers for the trucking company that he owned.
It was in Elko, Nevada that Clarence Frechette made a blunder in his getaway plan. He sent a telegram to Robert Brown’s father asking that $50 be wired to a Sacramento hotel. The message was signed Robert. His dad was suspicious and reported to the police that he believed that his son had been murdered.
On the eighth day of Frechette’s cross-continental journey, he drove right into the trap that the California State highway patrol near Truckee had set up to catch him. The police asked an unsuspecting Frechette and his passengers to exit the vehicle and come into the station to warm up. Meanwhile, one officer went outside and pried open the trunk to discover its gruesome contents.
The next day he was quoted as saying, “I’m sorry I killed Brown during that fight. I was in such a violent rage that I hardly remember what happened. When he boasted that he had relations with a girl that I was going with I saw red and flew at him.”
Two Michigan officers took the train out to California to escort Frechette back home for trial. Their means of transport back to Michigan was the same car Frechette had driven west containing the body. Initially, Frechette planned to claim self-defense at trial, but that idea was quickly squashed when it was determined that the murder weapon had been stolen from a Chelsea, Michigan gas station. It had been reported missing shortly after Frechette had left the station six days before the murder. Frechette was then forced to admit that he had stolen the gun.
It took a jury 6-1/2 hours to reach a verdict and on March 28th, Clarence Frechette was found guilty of murder in the first degree. His punishment was to spend the rest of his life in the Michigan state prison.
Normally, that would be the end of the story, but it wasn’t. There is one more little piece to this bizarre story.
Thirty-three years later, on May 6th of 1968, Frechette was once again in the national news. The Michigan Supreme Court ordered that he be granted a new trial because the judge in the 1935 trial failed to instruct the jury to disregard lie detector evidence that had been presented. But a new trial was out of the question because nearly all of the evidence and court records had been lost over time. Clarence Frechette was ordered released from prison.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Update: June 12, 2023. I received a message from the daughter of Raymond Messenger, the 4-year-old boy in the story. He passed away back in 2001, but she recalled him telling her that he spent the evening of Frechette’s capture at the coroner’s home and that he had to wear the nightclothes that they offered him.