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The 5 Most Intriguing Theories About Skyjacker Chester W.

Who is Chester W.? This question has persisted since June 12, 1981, when a mysterious man hijacked Regional Aire flight 217 from Portland to Oregon.


Immediately after takeoff, the man now known as Chester W. showed flight attendant Mary Allen what appeared to be plastic C4 explosive packed into his carry-on briefcase and gave her a note, demanding $1.5 million in exchange for the passengers and crew.


After touching down in Portland, the plane was surrounded by FBI and police. After hours of intense negotiations, the FBI placed a green army duffel bag with $1.5 million in marked bills on the mobile stairway leading up to the jet. The money was collected by a terrified, blonde passenger, identified on the manifest as Rose Anna. Upon receiving the cash, Chester W. released the passengers and crew. Afterward, the plane taxied down the runway and took off, heading south.


Four hours after takeoff, the plane suddenly lost altitude and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Two days later, the first pieces of wreckage were recovered seventy miles off the coast of South Padre Island, Texas. The mysterious Chester W. and his $1.5 million were never recovered.


As of today, Chester W’s identity and fate remain unknown — and many theories about both abound. The only image of Chester W. is this sketch artist rendering, which was created from multiple eye witness accounts of the man.

Pictured below is a briefcase found floating near the wreckage. Many think that this is the case belonging to Chester W., in which he smuggled aboard the C4 explosive. The color and size match the description provided by multiple eye witnesses, including flight attendant Mary Allen. Due to damage and its prolonged exposure to sea water, DNA testing of the case is not possible.

The Chester W. case has continued to haunt many current and former law enforcement officials, especially retired FBI agent Hank Lannigan, who was the lead negotiator on the ground during the hijacking and lead the investigation afterward. Since that fateful day, he has become a successful true crime writer, but admits that his biggest achievement would be to close the Chester W. case once and for all.


Chester W. continues to be a pop-culture touchstone over thirty-five years after the incident occurred. There’s even a band named after him.


But who WAS he? And what happened between the times that he took off from Portland and before the plane crashed in the ocean?


Here are five possible theories that have been considered over the past four decades.




The first and most obvious conclusion is that Chester W., whoever he was, did not survive the crash. The FBI considers this a possibility:


[From a Sacramento Times article dated 7/16/99]:


“Initially, we thought Chester W. might have been an experienced parachutist, perhaps even a war veteran, who jumped out of the plane before intentionally crashing it into the Gulf of Mexico,” says Hank Lannigan, who is still the assigned investigator on the case. “But, later, we dismissed this theory. No one could have survived a jump from that altitude over such a large body of water. The math simply didn't add up."


Lannigan admitted, though, that the FBI has not completely closed the file on Chester W. "Until proven otherwise, there's still a chance that he's out there somewhere."

A photo of the plane a day before the hijacking



James Burton's L.A. Register article from 1-6-2007, “Unmasking Chester W.” and subsequent 2009 book, Airjack: The Hunt for Chester W., offered in-depth looks at the case. He was the first reporter given access to the FBI’s case files, so his perspective is exceptionally detailed.


The starting point for James's story was a New York private detective who was contacted by an elderly man, Elmer Lily, who'd become convinced that his late brother Carl was Chester W. Elmer was also obsessed that he tried to get filmmaker Joe Dante to make a movie about how he had “solved” the case.


Carl Lilly had flown troop transports in the Navy. After he left the military, he worked for six years as a mechanic and a flight purser for Regional Aire, the carrier that Chester W. chose for his hijack.


There were other eerie similarities, too, like the fact that Carl loved bourbon (the drink Chester W. is said to have ordered before showing flight attendant Mary Allen the bomb), and that he’d bought a more-than-modest house not long after the crime. Burton later showed Carl's photo to one of the passengers, Brett Hunter, and he acknowledged the resemblance (with reservations). Most intriguingly, there was this, as Burton writes:


On his deathbed, Carl Lilly pulled his Elmer close to him, and whispered something that didn’t make sense at the time.


Carl said, "I'm sorry for what I did. I wish I could take it back."


It was only after Elmer made the connection to the Chester W. case—three months after his brother's death from stomach cancer—that those words came to have new meaning.


But the FBI isn’t so sure. Its response to Burton’s initial article pointed to the fact that, while Lilly did have flight experience, he was significantly shorter and slighter than most eye-witnesses descriptions of Chester W. Lilly was 5'6", while Chester W. is said to have been over 6' tall. Also, the hijacker had hair, while Lily was almost completely bald at the time the hijacking occurred; although, as an acquaintance recalled, “Carl sometimes wore a toupee.”

A section of the plane found in the Gulf.



In 2011, a woman named Candice White publicly suggested her late uncle, Charles White was Chester W. Her mother, Esther Steincamp, was Charles's sister. She agreed with her daughter’s theory, and had some interesting evidence to back up the family’s claims.


According to an ABC News report on Charles White (3-22-97):


“I’ve always had a gut feeling it was Charles,' Esther told ABC News.  'My brother was always the talker. He had an opinion about almost anything. But whenever the topic of the hijacking came up, he immediately shut the conversation down.”


Esther says that Charles had experience flying a crop duster in his youth.


In July of 1981, after being away in Mexico "on business" (as he later claimed), he returned home to Seattle with a broken leg and a bruised spine. He said that he had been in a car accident.


Another interesting side note, Esther revealed that – during his childhood -- Charles was quite often refereed to as Chester by several relatives.

Analyst say that the plane actually flew over Louisiana, possibly on it's way to Florida,

before it eventually crashed.



The FBI will have you know that Martin Brown, who claimed to be Chester W. on his deathbed, was ruled out by DNA testing. But, still, his case brings up some interesting questions.


According to a Public Radio News report from 10/02/03:


Hospitalized in Florida with kidney disease, Martin Brown motioned to his wife: "I have a secret to tell you… I’m Chester W."


Since her husband’s death in 2005, Jan Brown has pieced together various clues she had stumbled across during their 17 years of marriage: the constant nightmare Martin had, during which he would blurt out something about “leaving finger prints on a plane"; an old knee injury he claimed he got from a parachuting accident in the early '80s; and an overdue library book on Chester W. filled with Martin Brown's handwriting in the margins.


“It's irrefutable," Jan says. "My husband was Chester W."


But DNA testing has proven otherwise. Special Agent Grace Law said the Chester W. DNA sample, which came from the note originally given to flight attendant Mary Allen, has been used to rule out many suspects, including Martin Brown.


Agents took forensic samples from one of Martin's razors. After comparing it with the Chester W. sample, agents dismissed Martin as a potential candidate.


Still, Jan remains unconvinced. And she has some supporters.


One man, a DNA lab technician in Oakland who requested that we not use his real name told us: "Ask anyone who knows about DNA sampling and they will tell you that the partial profile used by the FBI is not enough to compare to anyone."

Analyst say that the plane actually flew over Louisiana, possibly on it's way to Florida,

before it eventually crashed.



John McBaine set fire to his own St. Louis-based, clothing-manufacturing business in 1981, which resulted in the death of night watchman Harold Guss. After committing the arson, McBaine disappeared completely. Four months later, Chester W. hijacked flight 217.


McBaine was later captured in 1989 after living under a false identity. The arrest was due to a tip generated from the syndicated TV show, Unsolved Crimes.


Could McBaine have been Chester W.?


A recent Portland Bugle article from 5/6/12 made the following connection between McBaine and Chester W.:


McBaine and Chester W. have similar descriptions. Chester W. was described as being in his mid-20s. McBaine was 25 at the time of the arson. Both were about the same height and weight.


McBaine had also taken extensive flight and parachute lessons between 1977 and 1980.


Furthermore, when McBaine was captured, he was found with over $200,000 in cash. McBaine still has not said where he got the money. And while the serial numbers did not match those from the Chester W. case, a police spokesperson here in Portland said that it is possible the bills could have been laundered at some point.


As of yet, though, the FBI has not officially acknowledged any credible suspects in the Chester W. case.

If you or anyone you know has information regarding the Chester W. case, please let us know.