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Former crime lab commander recalls 1958 Wichita airport bombing

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, at 11:13 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, at 2:31 p.m.

Photos

On Oct. 17, 1958, an out-of-work aircraft engineer from Tulsa landed at Wichita Municipal Airport after a flight from Kansas City. Briefcase in hand, he stopped at a rental car desk and requested a quarter to telephone his wife.

When the engineer returned from the phone booth, he laid a foot-long, brown-paper-wrapped package on the counter. It was 6 inches wide and 2 inches thick, according to The Wichita Eagle’s archives.

The engineer asked for directions to the terminal’s lost-and-found area.

The airport didn’t have a designated lost-and-found desk, answered the rental car clerk, Joan Embree. She touched the package. “Such things usually are taken to the manager’s office,” she said.

Embree offered to complete the chore. The engineer declined and walked away with the package.

Moments later, a bomb wrapped in brown paper exploded in a glassed-in passageway linking the terminal to the airport tower, killing the out-of-work aircraft engineer.

Newspaper reports would later say 36-year-old Forrest Don McCuiston planned to detonate the bomb on that October day – possibly distraught from a bid for an aircraft job that went nowhere, possibly over the federal tax-evasion case he was embroiled in, possibly over failing eyesight and heart trouble.

It was called a suicide bombing – much like an alleged attempt made on the same airport, now known as Wichita Mid-Continent, 55 years later by a Wichita avionics technician named Terry Lee Loewen. (Loewen, charged in the Dec. 13 bombing plot, is scheduled for a status hearing in federal court on March 24. His Feb. 18 trial has been canceled, with no new trial date set.)

But unlike in the case of Loewen – whom federal authorities watched for months, sold inert bomb-making materials to and foiled as he tried to access the gated tarmac with a van full of inert explosives on Dec. 13 – no one had advance warning of the 1958 destruction.

Build-up to bombing

McCuiston arrived in Wichita by bus two days before the 1958 bombing, according to accounts published in The Eagle. He applied for work at Boeing Aircraft Co. that day. Bespectacled and balding, he was a tool designer, married with a young daughter living in his Tulsa home.

Later, he phoned his wife from the 4-year-old, $10 million airport to say he wouldn’t get the job.

McCuiston then left Wichita on a plane bound for Las Vegas via Denver and Salt Lake City. The round-trip ticket cost $164.

He bought a $25,000 life insurance policy, payable to his wife, in the Wichita airport terminal building before departing. A clause voided coverage in cases of suicide.

McCuiston would return Friday after gambling in Sin City’s swank hotel center. His flights traveled through Phoenix and Kansas City.

Shortly before 9 a.m., he was said to have detonated the bomb, a crude device investigators determined was manually ignited using a dry-cell battery wired to a blasting cap. He was alone in the airport corridor.

A front-page article from the evening edition of The Eagle dated Oct. 17, 1958, describes the aftermath: “All of the large panes of plate glass in the passageway (of the airport) were shattered and double glass doors at both ends of the hallway also were blown out.

“Light fixtures were torn loose and hung grotesquely from the ceiling where bits of flesh and pieces of the victim’s clothing were stuck.

“When the bomb went off, McCuiston apparently was immediately before the double glass door at the tower end of the passageway.

“His right arm was blown off between the wrist and the elbow. Most of his clothing was blown off and shreds of flesh were found outside the passageway in the patio where aircraft displays are set up.”

In the devastation, authorities found McCuiston’s leather briefcase, intact. It was sitting on a corridor shelf when Clyde Bevis says he grabbed it.

‘Dumb thing to do’

Bevis answered his telephone at his Wichita home one evening last month. His voice – polite yet stern – wavered with age.

While telling tales of his younger years, he spoke of the 1958 bombing.

Bevis is 88 now – “old as dirt,” he says, laughing – and is mildly apologetic he doesn’t recall more.

Asked about 1958, he says, “Things that far away are a little foggy for this old bird.

“I just figure I’m lucky to be here. I’ve never had a broken bone – I can’t believe all of the things I’ve done.”

Bevis spent 17 years commanding the Wichita Police Department’s crime lab until his retirement in 1974, investigating some of the city’s biggest crimes, including BTK serial killer Dennis Rader’s first slayings. He joined the force in 1950 and said he was instrumental in starting the agency’s bomb squad.

On that fateful Friday, he was called to Wichita Municipal Airport to collect evidence after the bomb went off.

He remembers McCuiston’s briefcase best. Authorities, Bevis explained, feared it held a second bomb.

“It was in a passageway that went from the airport to the tower. And the dummy” – he was referring to McCuiston – “had taken it off the airplane and set it on the walkway, the railway there.”

He continued: “I just picked it up and took it out in the field so that if it went off, it wouldn’t damage the airport.

“Or anyone else.”

A photograph published in that evening’s Eagle shows Bevis – fedora atop his head – calmly crossing the paths of unconcerned pedestrians and cars parked in front of Wichita Municipal Airport. He cradles the briefcase in both of his palms.

Another image shows Bevis on his hands and knees in a grassy patch, inspecting McCuiston’s briefcase at eye level.

Bevis’ face is inches away.

According to newspaper accounts, only business papers and folders were tucked inside.

Asked whether he felt nervous holding the briefcase, Bevis chuckles. Back then he was young and mostly fearless. And “probably not smart enough to worry about things like that,” he jokes.

Later he explains that, in his line of work, “you do what you have to do” to keep the public safe. “It’s part of the program.”

“It was there and we wanted to move it, so that was my job,” he said.

He added: “That was a dumb thing to do. They (police) don’t do that now.”

After that day, Bevis didn’t either. At least, not that he recalls.

Bomb on board

In the days after the 1958 blast, investigators learned the bomb had been McCuiston’s companion on as many as five planes, according to The Eagle’s news archives.

Theories spread that he initially intended to set off the explosive in flight but abandoned the idea.

“Authorities believe McCuiston discarded any plans of exploding the bomb in the plane in favor of a deserted corridor in the terminal building,” according to an Oct. 18, 1958, report in The Eagle.

“They believe he first made sure that no one else was in the long corridor connecting the main terminal building with the control tower.”

No one but McCuiston was hurt in the blast. But damage to the airport cost an estimated $5,000 to $7,000 to fix. (Factoring for inflation, that’s between $40,000 and $56,000 in today’s dollars.)

Most went toward replacing the large panes of broken window glass.

“There are a few doors to be replaced,” then-Wichita Park Department director Emory Cox told an Eagle reporter in 1958, “but the majority of damage was to glass.”

The day of the bombing, Wichita police canceled a bank robbery training scenario because most officers had been called to the airport.

A few hours later, five policemen went to East High School to investigate a bomb report that turned out to be a hoax.

Newspaper accounts say travelers were shaky but calm after the airport explosion. Several bought maximum coverage insurance policies before boarding their flights.

Memories fade

For Bevis, news of the December airport bombing plot allegedly orchestrated by Loewen sparked no memories of the 1958 explosion, he said.

Details of the older case became more clear once he was prompted.

He’s led a long life, filled with other memories: serving in the Marine Corps (his cat is named Semper Fi); fighting in World War II and Korea; a wife; 10 children; and careers with the Wichita Police Department, Sheriff's Office and the Department of Justice.

He called the 1958 bombing “very sad” but refuses to dwell on it.

“People think I’m a little cold. But I just don’t let things bother me,” Bevis said.

“Any loss of life, you always think that (it’s sad) – when you lose anybody. But of course he (McCuiston) did that to himself. And to be honest with you, I really don’t remember much about it. You do those things, and then you move on. You don’t worry about it because you don’t have any control over it.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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