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Associated Press by Kristin Hall
||Son of hijacked pilot analyzes fatal FBI missteps
||Decades after deadly plane hijacking, pilot’s son pieces together lost details of FBI missteps
||By KRISTIN M. HALL
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Andy Downs has spent years gathering information on the FBI’s failed negotiations with the hijacker of his father’s plane, which ended with the deaths of three people at a Florida airport in 1971.
He still hasn’t gotten the apology he’s sought, but the FBI recently reached out to him in an important gesture of reconciliation.
His father, Brent Downs, was the pilot of a charter plane taken at gunpoint by a man who had kidnapped his estranged wife and intended to escape to Cuba. The hijacking ended early on the morning of Oct. 4, 1971, after FBI agents surrounded the plane at a Jacksonville airport and started shooting.
The kidnapper shot the pilot, his estranged wife and then himself. The highly publicized shootout led to the first successful wrongful death lawsuit against the FBI and contributed to the creation of the FBI’s hostage negotiation training.
Andy Downs, just 18 months old when his father died, has pried reams of material about the case from the FBI through years of litigation, and he’s used the information in what he treats as a full-time job as a lecturer for law enforcement training classes. Last month, the FBI invited him to talk at an agency event in Nashville — the first time it’s asked him to do a lecture.
“It has been a long road for me and my family dealing with everything we have been through,” said Downs. “The FBI of that era did not treat my family well at all.”
Downs has spent about six years working to get the FBI to turn over records from the hijacking and has amassed more than 10,000 documents, including court testimony of witnesses, audio recordings of his father talking with the FBI, pictures from the scene and previously sealed FBI documents.
One evening in late February, Downs addressed the FBI’s Citizen Academy, a class for community leaders to teach them about how the FBI works. His talk went over in great detail how his father died.
George Giffe Jr., a former Peabody College professor with a troubled marriage, ordered Downs and his co-pilot, Randal G. Crump, to take off from Nashville airport at gunpoint. He took along his distraught and crying young wife, Susan, who had left him just the week before, and a friend, Nashville nightclub owner Bobby Wayne Wallace.
Downs convinced Giffe that he needed to stop in Jacksonville for more fuel to get them to the Bahamas, which the pilot convinced him was a better destination than Cuba.
FBI agents were waiting when the plane landed. An agent told Downs by radio to shut off the engine and said there would be no fuel.
In an audio clip, Downs’ voice sounded urgent as he pleaded for fuel because Giffe claimed he had plastic explosives.
“You’re endangering lives by doing this, and we have no other choice but to go along. And for the sake of those lives, I request some fuel, please,” Downs said to the FBI.
Giffe then allowed the co-pilot to leave the plane, and Wallace also got out and was immediately taken into custody.
Downs obtained copies of the FBI’s policy for plane hijackings at that time that stated that the FBI could not forcibly disable the plane or attempt to board without the permission of the pilot.
But without warning, agents started shooting at the tires and the engine to keep the plane from leaving. It was dark and foggy that morning and when the shooting started, Giffe fired back through the plane’s windshield.
Less than 20 minutes after the plane landed in Jacksonville, Giffe opened fire inside the plane and fatally shot the pilot from behind, along with his estranged wife Susan, and then he shot himself.
Wallace was charged with air piracy but acquitted, and no one served any time for the deaths.
Andy Downs finished his account to the FBI class by explaining how the failed negotiations led to important changes for the law enforcement agency. His mother, Janie Downs, sued the FBI and Director J. Edgar Hoover and received a $366,000 judgment that was split with the daughter of Susan Giffe and the charter aircraft company.
Downs sold his air charter company about six years ago and devoted himself full-time into discovering the unknown details about the hijacking.
He speaks to law enforcement groups around the country about twice a month. He said they are eager to learn more details about the case.
“Even though the Downs v. USA case is what legally started the hostage negotiation teams, it was still just a footnote in their textbooks and they really didn’t know the facts or they weren’t able to fill out that part of the story,” said Downs, who is trying to raise money to produce a documentary about the hijacking.
Former FBI agent and author Tom Strentz helped build the FBI’s first hostage negotiations training program at Quantico in the early 1970s. He said the 1971 hijacking of Downs’ plane and the deaths of Israeli hostages during the Munich Olympics in 1972 influenced the training.
“This case happened 40 years ago and there are still those in the bureau who say that it was a miscarriage of justice and the bureau was right,” Strentz said. “Well, we weren’t right. We were wrong and we paid the price and made the changes.”
Strentz, who met Andy Downs during one of his presentations, said he was glad to hear the local FBI office reached out to Downs.
“I guess it’s a new bureau that will tolerate criticism, but under Hoover, oh my god, he was a whole different ball game,” he said.
Downs said that while his mother and younger brother support his efforts, he has gotten criticism from some family members and law enforcement officials about his dedication.
“It’s important for people to know the whole truth,” he said. “It’s due its place in history.”
FBI’s Assistant Special Agent in Charge Keith Moses in the Nashville bureau was the one who invited Downs to speak. Moses, who has a pilot’s license, said the 1971 hijacking was a lesson worth hearing.
“Let’s go back, look at it and learn from it,” Moses said.
After speaking at the FBI building in Nashville, Downs said he welcomed the invitation even though it fell short of a full apology.
“Tonight was an important step. At least there is a willingness to learn,” he said.
— Hijacking documentary website: http://58november.com/
Follow Kristin M. Hall on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kmhall
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