The last known photo of Congressmen Nick Begich (left) and Hale Boggs, taken shortly before they disappeared.
CORRECTION An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the margin of victory in the 2008 Senate race between Mark Begich and Ted Stevens. Begich won by 3,953 votes. The earlier version also mischaracterized the results of the 1973 special election to replace missing congressman Nick Begich. Emil Notti was simply beaten in that contest, not “thumped.” The story has been altered to reflect these realities.
On a fall day three years ago, freelance writer Jonathan Walczak sat before a computer tapping out his first report on an apparent plane crash in Alaska. “Forty years ago yesterday,” he began—in a story that would appear Oct. 17, 2012 in Seattle Weekly, where Walczak, 24, had earlier worked on a fellowship—“Hale Boggs, a powerful Democratic congressman with a colorful past, disappeared in a small plane over Alaska. The massive search that ensued turned up no leads, and the plane, along with the bodies of Boggs and three others who died, remains hidden somewhere in the wilderness.”
Walczak didn’t realize it then, but his story on the plane’s disappearance was the start of a reporting excursion that would take up most of his writing time and much of his money over the next three years. He’d learn hidden secrets about what had been a headline-rattling case from the 1970s, digging up startling and hard-to-believe takeaways. Through documents and interviews, he’d get to know the 58-year-old Boggs, who went down in the twin-engine Cessna with Alaska Democratic congressman Nick Begich, 40; his aide Russell Brown, 37; and pilot Don Jonz, 38, a military veteran with 17,000 hours of air time.
He learned that they departed Anchorage early on Oct. 16, 1972 for a Begich re-election rally in the capital of Juneau. The forecast included possible turbulent headwinds and icy rain. The six-seat plane, carrying some light luggage, lifted off over distant mountains, with a flight plan likely to take them across snowfields, islands, bays, ocean coastline, and Prince William Sound. The plane had six flight-hours of fuel for the three-and-a-half-hour trip. It was never seen again.
Boggs, the U.S. House majority leader, had come along as a favor to the Begich campaign, Walczak found. A 15-term congressman from Louisiana and father of political commentator Cokie Roberts, Boggs appeared destined to be elected the next Speaker of the House. He was instrumental in helping pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and served on the Warren Commission, which declared that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He was popular enough to win re-election in November 1972, three weeks after he went missing and was presumed dead. His widow, Lindy Boggs, won a special election to replace him and went on to serve eight more terms. She died two years ago at age 97.
Not that Begich needed a lot of help, or that the trip to Juneau was crucial, Walczak also learned. The freshman congressman—and father of Mark Begich, later Anchorage’s mayor and a U.S. Senator—also won re-election while presumed dead. The loser, Republican Don Young, won the subsequent special election and has held the seat since.
When Walczak’s story ran in the Weekly, younger readers could be forgiven if they didn’t immediately grasp the importance of what had been the nation’s biggest search-and-rescue effort, involving 40 military aircraft and 50 civilian planes searching over 325,000 square miles for 39 days. (The baffling hunt also led to Congress passing a mandatory law requiring that small planes be equipped with emergency locator devices.) After officials agreed the plane likely hit rough weather, crashed, and sank out of sight or was consumed by ice, the nation shrugged and turned its eyes back to Watergate and Vietnam.
Walczak was among the generations born after the 1972 disappearance had faded into history. It wasn’t until a slow news day during his fellowship in 2011 that he came upon the story. Cruising the Internet on his office computer, he clicked a Wikipedia index of famous disappearances. As he read down the chronological list, there, just after D.B. Cooper (1971) and before Jimmy Hoffa (1975), was the name Hale Boggs. Cooper and Hoffa, OK. But, Hale who?
“I’m a history and politics nerd,” says Walczak, now a freelance writer in New Orleans—Boggs’ hometown—“and it surprised me that I had never heard of the vanishing of a House majority leader in Alaska. It seemed like a fascinating story.” He wanted to know more, but couldn’t find what he needed from web searches. So he began filing Freedom of Information Act requests with various federal agencies.
Walczak was still awaiting responses when he took a job as a web producer at MSN.com near the end of 2011. But he continued to pursue the story as a freelancer. In the 2012 piece for the Weekly, he disclosed what he’d found:
“Amid hundreds of pages in Boggs’ FBI file is a single sheet of information that has apparently never been reported. Around 11:30 p.m. on July 23, 1970, two years before he disappeared, Boggs was driving in Washington, D.C., when a late-model Lincoln Continental forced him off the road. He gave chase and was able to take down a license-plate number. No additional information is available in the file, and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, which investigated the incident, told the Weekly that it could not locate any relevant records.”
He also learned that “Immediately after Boggs disappeared, the U.S. Coast Guard station in Long Beach, Calif., received a call from an individual who claimed to know where the plane crashed. The tipster said he had access to experimental electronic equipment, and he provided detailed directions to the wreck. The FBI apparently found him credible, with one agent, whose name is redacted, stating his opinion that the ‘source of aforementioned information is reliable.’ ”
It wasn’t all that Walczak was hoping for. But it was a start. And now there’s a finish.
Walczak spent $30,000 over the past three years, interviewing several dozen people, searching through thousands of law-enforcement documents, and traveling twice to Alaska where he waded through hip-deep snow and flew the Boggs plane route—all the while wondering if he could come up with a story worth repeating. “I burned through my savings, and when that ran out, I put everything on credit cards,” he says. “But every time I almost moved on [to another story], I learned some crazy new piece of information that reinvigorated me.”
He now has a surprising tale to tell. On a pay-per-view ($2) website he just created, his 40-page narrative, called Four Gone, details how Begich’s widow went on to marry an admitted murderer and bomber with Mafia ties who later told local and FBI officials he had helped bomb the congressmen’s plane.
Walczak calls it the “never-before-told story of the disappearance of Hale Boggs” and the others. He has provided the Weekly with a copy of the piece, along with photos and records to support his reporting. What follows is the essence of his findings.
Walczak on the trail of a decades-old mystery.
In his research, Jon Walczak learned that after Hale Boggs disappeared, rumors flew that the Democrat had been assassinated. Skeptics claimed the Cessna was somehow sabotaged or bombed because Boggs disagreed with the lone-gunman theory of the Warren Report, and was about to declare it a sham.
Walczak didn’t buy it. Between living with his family in North Carolina and doing research at Tulane University in New Orleans—where the papers of Boggs, a Tulane law grad, are stored—Walczak learned that Boggs had in fact supported the commission’s findings. “In 1967, according to a memo I obtained,” he writes, “Boggs told an FBI agent he reread the [Warren] report ‘just to make absolutely certain there were no loopholes.’ He stated he found none, and went on to call fellow New Orleanian Jim Garrison—the quixotic district attorney who launched an independent inquiry into Kennedy’s death—a ‘mental case.’ ”
However, were conspiracy theorists right for the wrong reason? As Walczak probed onward, Begich, rather than Boggs, began to emerge as the most likely link to a bomb scenario.
Walczak isn’t claiming a bomb was hidden aboard the plane. It could have gone down in bad weather, he allows. But why have such allegations remained buried in police and federal files for more than four decades? “I find it extremely suspicious,” Walczak says, “that the widow of a missing congressman married a murderer and bomber with Mafia ties less than 17 months after her husband vanished; that this man later told the FBI the missing plane was bombed; and that these allegations warranted such a brief, lackluster investigation by the feds.”
Some events work against the bombing theory, beginning with the fact that dozens of planes have crashed into the Alaska Bush and have yet to be found. A search of NTSB databases back to 1962, according to a July report in the Alaska Dispatch News, reveals more than 40 open cases of missing aircraft. Federal authorities say they still get calls about possible leads in the Boggs/Begich mystery and consider the disappearance an open case. “An official end to the search for answers,” said NTSB official Don Johnson, “does not occur until we find out what happened.”
On the apparent crash day, two emergency signals were detected: a weak one 150 miles northeast of Anchorage, the other west of Juneau lasting for 40 minutes. Neither signal could be pinpointed, and just as suddenly as they started, they stopped.Was either beacon from the downed plane, and if so, does that rule out a midair explosion? Then again, if the plane for some reason crashed and sank, as many think, would there have been any signal?
Just as curious was a ham-radio broadcast heard by a number of northern California operators on the evening of the disappearance. “This is Alaska mobile needing assistance,” a breathless man broadcasted; then, “Oh, my God, we’re going to hit the rocks. I’m out of gas. I’m heading down. This is it.” A sheriff who looked into the report said he didn’t think it was a hoax. The Air Force disagreed, later finding it to be a false broadcast by a “sadistic person.”
The Alaska search ended in November 1972, and the four men were officially declared dead by or shortly after Christmas. On Jan. 31, 1973, the National Transportation Safety Board adopted its final report, finding the disappearance inconclusive. Without wreckage, there was no way to definitively determine what happened. “Mechanical failure seems unlikely, though a thorough inspection of the plane was completed the day before it vanished,” Walczak writes, “and it seemed to be in good shape. Theories continue to center on ice and pilot error. Jonz’s reputation is eviscerated. Years later, however, one unexpected person comes to his defense: Lindy Boggs, ever the lady. She calls Jonz a ‘magnificent pilot’ and says she has ‘no blame for the pilot. I know he valued his life, too.’ ”
Walczak was unable to interview Lindy Boggs before her 2013 death. Last year, though, he got a voice mail from Tommy Boggs, her son, who agreed to an interview. They played phone tag, and on Sept. 11, Walczak left Boggs a phone message to set up a meet. Four days later, Boggs died of a heart attack. His sister, Cokie Roberts, turned down an interview request, but she has said her father’s plane crashed into water and sank, period.
Chatting on MSNBC last year after the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, she said she understood what relatives of the missing were going through, faced with the likelihood the plane crashed into the sea. They’re “saying to the Malaysian government, ‘Why are you just telling us that without any proof?’ ” Roberts said. “Well, they do have the equivalent of proof, but that’s very hard for people to accept.” In her father’s case, the U.S. “brought in our spy planes . . . And there were all these sightings along the way, and people calling and saying they had heard something, some radio communication, and then the psychics came in and all of that, because people can’t wrap their minds around the idea of a plane just disappearing into the bottom of the sea.”
No one from the Begich clan would comment, either. Among those Walczak did talk with was pilot Jonz’s ex-girlfriend, Cheryl Mitchell, who, then 21, was at the airport. She was the last person to see the four men alive. Newspapers at the time referred to her as a “mystery witness,” and it took Walczak more than a year to find her. Now named Cheryl James, 63 and living in Nevada, she said she rode with Jonz to the airport and met the congressmen and the aide at the plane, then left. “James says she didn’t see anything suspicious on the plane or in the disappearance,” Walczak writes. “She believed the official explanation that Jonz crashed in bad weather. However, she did hear wild rumors that he landed at a remote strip in Canada, or that he fled to some exotic locale.”
The consensus Walczak was now hearing indicated Jonz most likely crashed around Prince William Sound—somewhere between Portage Pass and Johnstone Point, about an hour into the flight. Sen. Mike Gravel thought the plane made it through Portage Pass and crashed into the sound, “and with all the icing, went right to the bottom.”
Walczak felt the story drifting away. But he kept digging—and struck Alaska gold: Pegge Begich’s second husband.
1. Jerry Max Pasley, a murderer and bomber with Mafia ties. 2. Peggie Begich, widow of missing Congressman Nick Begich. 3. Sal Spinelli, a mobster. 4. Anita Spinelli, Sal's wife. 5. Toby LaVetter, the justice of the peace who married Pegge and Pasley.
The 1973 special elections to replace the two dead congressmen resulted in a 1-1 outcome for their widows. Though Lindy Boggs won and went on to a successful congressional career, including an ambassadorship under the Bill Clinton administration, an eager Pegge Begich was shut out. Alaska’s Democratic Party picked Emil Notti as their candidate instead, and he was beaten by Republican Don Young in a close race. The widow Begich tried again in 1984 and then 1986, losing both times to Young. She later moved on to Nevada and seemingly lived a quiet life.
But, Walczak learned, on March 4, 1974, 16 months and 16 days after her husband vanished, Pegge Begich had married a Mafia-connected killer and bomber named Jerry Max Pasley in Arizona. He was a charming, handsome thug, Walczak says, and the marriage lasted just two years.
Following a tip, Walczak obtained their marriage license and photos of their wedding from an undercover Arizona investigator who had secretly observed the wedding. After requesting records and talking to other police sources, Walczak learned that in 1994, while in prison for murder, Pasley had spoken with investigators from the Anchorage Police Department, Alaska State Troopers, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety, helping clear up several unsolved killings and making a series of startling claims—most prominent among them, that he had transported a bomb to Alaska in 1972.
A Navy vet, Pasley grew up in Detroit where, after leaving the service, he met Peter Licavoli, Sr. who ran a Motor City mob called the Purple Gang and orchestrated bombings in Arizona. Pasley, Walczak discovered, began helping Licavoli with arms trafficking and extortion. Through Licavoli, he met members of another mob family—the Bonannos. Legendary New York Mafia don Joseph (“Joe Bananas”) Bonanno, Sr.—who helped inspire the character Vito Corleone in The Godfather—had semi-retired to Tucson, and was on mostly friendly terms with Licavoli. Bonanno’s enterprises extorted money from Tucson businessmen, and those who refused got a visit from Pasley.
“He used routine methods of intimidation—property damage, fights, whatever it took—but if you really pissed him off, he bombed your business,” Walczak writes. This was in part confirmed by Pasley, who later admitted to multiple bombings. “His work caught the attention of Salvatore ‘Bill’ Bonanno, Joe’s son, and the two became friends. In 1971, famed author Gay Talese briefly mentioned Pasley in his best-selling book on the Bonannos, Honor Thy Father. In the book, Talese wrote that Pasley was Bill’s friend and the co-owner of a cocktail lounge . . . It was Bill Bonanno, Pasley later said, who ordered him to bomb the house of Judge Evo DeConcini, the former attorney general of Arizona and an ex-member of the state Supreme Court.” DeConcini, who was not harmed, had been friends with Joe Bonanno, but their relationship soured amid negative press.
Pasley also worked as a paid FBI informant, reporting to Special Agent David Hale. Later, Pasley would claim that Hale had tried to instigate a mob war between Joe Bonanno and Pete Licavoli by having their homes bombed. Hale denied the claim, but resigned his FBI post.
In his 1994 prison interview with law officers, Pasley, then 53, was doing life for gunning down a man in a Tucson motel. (At his trial, the Tucson Citizen reported, Pasley, already convicted of one murder, acted as his own attorney, then admitted he was a killer—“I’m not bragging. I’m not boasting. I’m ashamed I’ve killed people.” When finished, he thanked the jury for “stopping by.”)
He had nothing to lose by naming names and spilling his guts to investigators, inmate Pasley told his lawmen visitors. He wanted to come clean about several other, unsolved, killings, including the death of Nick Begich, his ex-wife’s first husband.
In 1972, Pasley claimed, he was given a locked briefcase in Tucson by a Bonanno lieutenant and told to take it to Anchorage. There he handed it off to two men, and the next day returned to Arizona. The exact timing is unclear, but Pasley said he was told that “something big” was about to happen. But there were no reports of a bombing. When the plane disappeared somewhat later, it was thought to have crashed in bad weather.
The following year, he moved to Anchorage and met a woman he had met and dated in Arizona, before the plane disappeared, he told the lawmen. They knew and associated with some of the same people in Tucson, he claimed. She was Pegge Begich. They fell in together and wed within a year. She bought him lavish gifts, including two cars and co-ownership of a bar. His partners, Pasley claimed, were Pegge Begich and one of the men he had given the locked briefcase to in 1972.
According to a transcript of Pasley’s confession, he was fishing one day with the partner when the man got drunk and began talking about the briefcase Joe Bonanno allegedly sent to Alaska. It was “a fucking bomb,” the man said, according to Pasley—a high-tech bomb. The man also admitted to putting the bomb aboard the congressmen’s plane, Pasley claimed.
The investigators sitting there were stunned. “That would be so fuckin’ heavy,” one says. “I mean, that’s like killin’ the president, for Christ’s sake.”
After the initial interview, Walczak tells the Weekly, the investigators notified the FBI, who undertook their own prison interview with Pasley in 1995. Pasley named the the primary perpetrators of the alleged bombing, and said he met the brother of one of the men in Anchorage. The brother was murdered in Anchorage 27 days after Pasley spoke with the agents. He was shot to death by a cab driver under suspicious circumstances, but the driver was not charged.
One of Pasley’s original interviewers, Mike Grimes, now a retired Anchorage police sergeant, told Walczak that Pasley had admitted to playing a role in three or four unsolved homicides before he got to the alleged Boggs bombing. “What he was telling me, other than the local murders,” Grimes said, “went way beyond my pay grade, definitely all federal offenses. So I took it to the FBI.”
When he returned to Alaska after the interview, Grimes recalled, he arranged a meeting with an agent he knew in the FBI’s Anchorage office. He told her what Pasley said, “and she’s going, ‘Oh, my God.’ I gave her the information, gave her a copy of the transcript, and I didn’t hear anything back for several weeks. And I’m thinking, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ And so I called her, got a hold of her, and even her, she got sort of paranoid and said we had to meet off-campus, a twosome, and she goes, ‘This is strange. Immediately when the SAC [Special Agent in Charge] read through this, he apparently called Washington, and they said, ‘You will do nothing there. You will send everything you’ve got to us.’ ”
Grimes followed up with his FBI contact, who told him, “The only thing we got back from Washington was that the whole thing was unfounded.” Said Grimes: “I was shut down completely after my interview, after I released it all to them.”
Walczak tells us he spoke with all three investigators on the record, and “they were very surprised at how lackluster the FBI’s investigation of Pasley’s claims were. They said everything was hush-hush and swept under the rug, and the investigation was shut down after a cursory examination of the facts. Pasley agreed to testify under oath and to take a polygraph test, but it’s unclear if the F.B.I. ever administered one.”
A pilot experienced with the type of plane the men flew in told Walczak a bomb could be easily hidden in a rear compartment. But by whom, and why? Walczak names names and talks theories, and suggests that if such a hit was ordered by one of the Bonannos, it was done as a favor to someone else.
Walczak agrees that, in part, what he found borders on the absurd. Still, he says, “There is no question that Pegge Begich married this man, Jerry Pasley. I have their marriage license and photos of their wedding. There is no question Pasley claimed that Pegge’s missing husband was murdered. The question is whether or not Pasley was telling the truth.”
Even if he was, according to an FBI document, it might not have mattered, a U.S. attorney told a federal agent after reviewing the case in 1995. It would be nearly impossible to prosecute since no wreckage or bodies were found, he surmised.
Either way, Pasley was risking the possibility that ratting out Joe Bananas and the others could lead to an early death in prison. “He did want to go to a safe place in prison so he wouldn’t be assassinated or killed,” ex-state trooper Dave Tullis, one of the inquisitors, said, “but other than that, I don’t think he asked for much.”
As it turned out, Pasley did die somewhat early in prison—15 years later, at age 69—from liver cancer, taking the truth with him. That was 2010, two years after Mark Begich won his Senate seat by defeating Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. Having been found guilty nine days earlier of seven felonies for failing to disclose $250,000 in political gifts, Stevens hoped to become the first convicted felon to win Senate re-election. He very nerly did. Out of almost 300,000 votes cast, Stevens, who’d normally steamrolled to victory, lost by 3,953. Begich, the first Democrat to win the Senate seat since 1981, served only one term, however, beaten last year by Republican state Attorney General Dan Sullivan.
Walczak learned from FBI files that in 2001 Senator Stevens had inquired about the Boggs/Begich plane crash. A constituent who had seen a show about the vanishing on the History Channel, raising questions of foul play, requested the Senator to dig deeper into the investigation. An FBI agent examined the bureau’s file, which included Pasley’s claims, and two weeks later responded to Stevens that nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Stevens was not made aware of Pasley’s allegations, Walczak says.
The year after losing his Senate seat, Stevens was un-convicted, his felony case dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct. The following year, 2010, Stevens, whose wife had been killed in a 1978 Alaska plane crash that he’d survived, died in an Alaska plane crash.
What if Pasley’s claim had leaked out in the past decade? How would voters have reacted to the story that Mark Begich’s mother had married a mobster who claimed he was in on the bombing that killed her husband—Mark’s father? What suspicions would have been raised about political assassinations in the Last Frontier, and how might the claims have changed the course of events?
“If Pasley wanted to hurt the Begiches, I’m sure he could have,” says Walczak. But he never went to the press. “I do know he didn’t ask for anything in return for making these claims—he didn’t ask for a reduced sentence or money. And if he wanted to screw the Begiches, or if he wanted to become famous, he could have made more of an effort to reach out to the media.”
In the end, the truth is as elusive as a lie is persuasive. Perhaps a line Pasley used at his trial, while acting as his own attorney and confessing to murder, is the closest we’ll get to an answer.
“I’m a liar,” he said, “but I’m an honest liar. I’ve got no reason to really lie here.” The jury, finding him guilty, believed him.