Meeting my husband's killer

She hijacked a plane and planted a bomb that took Brian's life. But our strange correspondence freed us both

Published December 29, 2014 10:59PM (EST)

We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.

The postmark on the envelope stops me cold. Federal Corrections Facility, Dublin, Calif. It takes a moment before I have the nerve to pick up the letter from the kitchen counter, and then I lift it by the corner, as if it might burn me.

Busic, J. is written in a spidery hand. The name makes me shiver. Inside the envelope are the words of my husband’s killer. The letter trembles in my hand as I shove it in the junk drawer and slam it shut.

Years ago I imagined Julie Busic’s release from prison. I pictured her living an idyllic life in some small-town community, a place where no one knew that she and her husband hijacked a plane and left a bomb in Grand Central Station, a bomb that exploded and killed my husband, a member of the NYPD bomb squad. But the prison postmark means she is still in jail, and I have a fleeting moment of sweet revenge.

My new husband, James, and the kids eat dinner while I stand with my back to them and stare at the drawer, worried about what the letter will reveal. The boys, teenagers now, have climbed up from a life rubbed raw by the loss of their father. James managed to come into our lives and make things normal again. Together we welcomed Kaitlin, our unexpected daughter, and the return to family chatter after a long silence.

Later, after bedtime kisses, I curl up on the sofa, and open the sticky flap of Julie’s letter and feel the pull of every word. “We are still in prison,” she writes, “because John Boyle has made it his mission in life to keep us locked up.” John, the head of the bomb squad, had lost one side of his face and several fingers to the blast. He also believes that Busic is the mastermind of the LaGuardia Airport bombing in 1975, but cannot place him at the scene.

“I’d like to tell you my story,” she went on, “enlighten you with the details of the hijacking.”  Yes, I say to myself in the dimly lit living room. I want to know. Tell me. And then I will tell you my story, so you may know the harm you’ve done.

* * *

Part I: Sept. 11, 1976

I was lying perfectly still in a lavender-scented bath, thinking about Brian slipping in bed with me in another hour, running his hand down my back until I turned around, showing me that sheepish grin and kissing me with those lips that tasted like Lucky Strikes and smelled like the night air.

“This is a special report from CBS News. TWA flight 355 to Chicago carrying 86 passengers and seven crew members has been hijacked.” I opened my eyes to hear the 11 o’clock news coming from our bedroom. “Shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport at 8 p.m., the aircraft was commandeered by Zvonko and Julie Busic, a Croatian and his American wife, along with three Croatian nationalists. They claim to have a bomb on board the plane and a second device located in New York City.” Standing up, I grabbed a towel and ran into the bedroom.

The camera left Walter Cronkite to pan Grand Central Station, and the most familiar face in the world came into focus: Brian in a Kevlar vest, Bomb Squad written on the back. Bath water dripped onto the rug, and I stared at the tiny black-and-white. Brian lifted a shopping bag from a row of 25-cent luggage lockers, the door torn off its hinges leaving a gaping hole behind.

The white Macy’s shopping bag he placed on the floor looked harmless. NYPD uniforms crowded around as Brian clipped the ends of a bomb blanket together. He and Bobby Fields threaded a long pole into the blanket’s loops and balanced it across their shoulders. The camera followed them to the disposal truck parked outside Grand Central Station, and then Brian disappeared from view.

Backing away from the TV, I sat on the bed, holding the towel in a tight ball. Croatia? What did they want? Stay calm, I told myself. Brian worked hundreds of bomb cases. All of them were dangerous. He assured me he never took risks. Wait for him to call. I’d dipped chicken in breadcrumbs that afternoon, made potato salad for our picnic at the beach tomorrow. Don’t panic. Only I did feel panic, deep in some unreachable place.

Down the hall, in the glow of the tiny nightlight, our 4-year old son, Keith, slept, his sheets tangled around his legs. His forehead was damp from heat the ceiling fan did little to ease. So hot the blacktop stuck to his sneakers, Brian told me that afternoon before he left for work. Chris snuggled at the top of his crib, his hands under his chin as though in prayer. I sat in the rocking chair watching them sleep, listening to them breathe.

Back in the bedroom, I dropped the towel and pulled a nightgown from the dresser drawer. The hijacking was still unfolding on the TV. It was past 11:30. The news should have been over. Brian should have been on his way home.

Finally, I crawled into bed, shivering despite the day’s heat and reminded myself the bomb squad had lost just two men in its entire history, and that was back in ‘39 at the World’s Fair.

Still, there was LaGuardia last December, when a bomb detonated in a locker. Twenty-five sticks of dynamite shattered the TWA terminal, killing 11 people, injuring hundreds. A makeshift morgue was set up in the center of the airport, and Brian waited as the medical examiner extracted pieces of the bomb from the dead.

I looked over at the dress shirts in Brian’s closet, lined up precisely like mock military soldiers, his wingtips polished, waiting for their rotation. Come home, I whispered into the dark. When I closed my eyes, I saw that Macy’s shopping bag with its cheerful red star. It came back again and again and again.

I woke to red lights flashing off our bedroom walls, rotating around the room. I could almost feel them crawling across my face. Outside I thought I heard the swishing of clothes, the soft drop of rubber-soled shoes.The clock said 4 a.m. Out the window, I saw police cars scattered along the street below, doors ajar, lights moving in slow circles. The doorbell echoed dully up the stairs, a hesitant sound, like the person standing at the door really didn’t mean to ring it. I felt like I might be sick.

This isn’t happening. I looked back at the unmade bed. I’ll just crawl back into bed, bring the boys with me. But the doorbell rang again, this time insistent, and I was propelled to the stairs. They loomed, menacingly, below me.

Downstairs, I’d left a light on for Brian, under it a picture of him the day he’d graduated from the police academy six years ago. His crooked smile matched the tilt of his police hat. I’d collected more pictures on my way home from work that afternoon: Brian on our camping trip the week before. At 27 he still looked like a happy kid in his cutoffs and sneakers.

“Kathy, it’s Ray. Open the door, please.” He sounded like he’d been asking for a long time.

The doorknob didn’t seem to work, and I wasn’t sure which way to turn the lock. Finally, I opened it to find Ray standing in front of two men in police uniform. His blue eyes reminded me of Brian’s. You two look like brothers, I’d told him when they’d been assigned to the squad together. Shadows shifted under the porch light, and Ray looked down to study the flagstone porch. When he looked up, his eyes were haunted, terrified. "We lost him."

Something seismic erupted in me. No. I shook my head. No. My legs were rubber. No. Ray tried to lead me to the living room, but I found myself climbing the stairs in a body that felt borrowed from someone else.

The boys’ room was still dark. The weight of Chris’ sleeping body was almost too heavy to lift, and I sank to the floor with him in my lap. He smelled like baby shampoo and boy sweat and slept, unaware. Across the room the nightlight illuminated Keith’s deep red hair. I watched his face until he woke up. Sliding off his bed, he sat on the floor beside us. With my free arm I pulled him to my side.

“What’s the matter, Mommy?” he had Brian’s eyes – those dark, feathery lashes.

“Daddy went to heaven.” I didn’t recognize my voice.

“How did he get there?”

“God came to get him.”

“Can we go see him?”

“Not for a long time, honey.” I didn’t trust myself to say more.

The sun was beginning to rise, a yellow-red glow slid over blue sailboat wallpaper. It was going to be another hot day. The milk bottles had to go out. Library books were due. My husband died, I would tell the librarian, and thought she might forgive the fine.

Chris woke and blinked sleepily at me. He had my deep green eyes set in a face that called for blue, the difference striking. His hair was almost white from the summer sun. He put his arms around my neck and buried his face in my shoulder, as though he knew something was trying to pull me away from him.

Keith leaned against me. “Can we have our breakfast now, Mommy?”

The smell of coffee drifted up the stairs as though Brian were in the kitchen, as though it were a normal morning.

A policewoman I hadn’t noticed before was standing in the doorway, and when I rose, she placed a robe over my short nightgown. Chris, big for a 2-year-old, slipped from my arms, and she took him from me. Together we made our way down those dizzying stairs to a house full of NYPD.

Cigarette smoke hung in the air. Ray was sitting in the kitchen, and he stood when he saw me, a cup of black coffee on the table in front of him. Brian’s cup.

I looked at Ray. “Croatians?”

“Yeah. The wife is American, but the cause is for Croatia.”

* * *

Part II: The Hijacker

Julie Busic moved into my head gradually like an unwanted voice, a notion that took root and wouldn’t leave. I read the police reports and newsprint about the hijacking over and over, made notes, drew up a parallel of our lives and projected into her life.

We were born the same year, married around the same time, both earned master’s degrees and had become educators. She was a teacher of English as a second language at a private school. I was a professor of English at a community college.

I could see her, the glaring face from the newspaper, and longed to re-create the picture, change the truth and curve the details so that it was she who lost the man she loved, she who mourned.

I wanted her to suffer, to hate her, yet something about her intrigued me. Why did she do it? Reports said she was a reluctant participant, went along with the hijacking of a passenger jet to support her husband, his sacrifice for Croatia, a country she had come to love. Their demand was to print a proclamation in major newspapers that detailed the atrocities perpetrated upon the Croatians by the Yugoslavs. A live bomb was placed in the subway locker so police would believe they had additional explosives aboard the hijacked plane. Upon surrender, police found the dynamite strapped to Busic’s chest was filled with silly-putty.

“We never meant for this to happen,” the newspapers quoted her. “We never thought the bomb would explode, and I will forever regret the harm we caused. I carry the ultimate guilt, and must come to terms with it in the dark days ahead.”

* * *

Part III: Our Letters

Her letters seduce me as she reveals the details of the hijacking and her life in prison. They become an illicit secret. I am embarrassed that I have allowed her to come into my life, and hide them from my family. How can I trust her, I wonder, when she is the reason for derailing my life? But her letters are oddly healing, and a strange bond develops between us, the widow and the hijacker.

I am the cause of your suffering. I deserve to die. Death would spare me the suffering I have inflicted. I have to live. I have to be reminded every day, every waking moment of what I have taken part in.

Her letters appease and help me heal in unexpected ways.

I thought I had dealt with Brian’s death, but the hurt is still there, as fresh as it was the night the police came to my door. Writing to you gives that ache life, turns it into something tangible that I can hand to you, lay in your lap.

The arrival of the postman takes on a new significance as I imagine a letter in his bag from Julie and anticipate the truths she will reveal. She has divorced her husband, she confides, and is no longer in his control.

She is a force I cannot fathom but need to make sense of. Police reports said she slept in the same room with eight sticks of dynamite, helped translate the directions from an English manual about how to assemble a bomb, and played the role of hostess to the hijacked passengers. I am riveted to her words and at the same time disgusted by the very feel of the paper in my hand.

I envied her childhood and would have made so much more of doting parents, gladly traded places and lived in the room I imagined she had all to herself, filled with books and school trivia, with parents who read my homework and prepared for my future. I wondered what it was that dulled the joy, when she decided that what she had wasn’t good enough.

I spent my childhood in a bug-infested basement of a Bronx tenement, one of eight siblings, where we ate leftovers from the automat where my mother worked, and where the door was left open to drug dealers. Brian and the boys were the best thing that ever happened to me. I put my childhood behind me and invested everything in them.

Why did you go along with a scheme that you knew would land you in prison? It was a question I’d thought about for a long time.

I thought I would be out in eight years, and I knew I could do that – spend eight years for what I thought was a noble and worthy cause.  We would both be out when we were still in our 30s, and that was doable. We would still have our lives ahead of us. I knew nothing could go wrong if I trusted in him [her husband] and his intentions.  So I always did, and I was rarely disappointed. I just gave my life over to him for safekeeping, and, in spite of all the dangers we lived through together, nothing happened to harm me. I always felt he knew best and would protect me from pain and hurt.

I become preoccupied with her time in prison, of her days spent behind barbed wire. She is both frightening and captivating, the woman with whom Patty Hearst confides, and who was attacked with a hammer by prison inmate Squeaky Fromme, the Manson disciple who tried to kill President Ford.

I am surrounded by gangsters, public officials, Russian spies. I have no rights. I cannot make my own decisions about anything, whether it is what to eat or when to go to sleep. I have to take orders from all kinds of morons, and that is the hardest part.

She is my link to Brian, and somehow fills a void, one that seemed so deep and unbridgeable. No one knows better than Julie how I feel. She feeds me bits and pieces of information about her version of why the bomb exploded, something the bomb squad could not determine.

We believe it was sabotage, and that the Yugoslavs heard about the bomb and set it off remotely as the police officers approached it. We were so certain it had been detonated purposely to discredit us, and Croatians. We would never have intentionally hurt anyone.

We were not without fault, I know that. We carry the ultimate guilt, but there has to be a limit to our suffering as well; we cannot go on forever to pay for something that was not entirely our fault.

With my family asleep upstairs, I reread our letters. John Boyle would disagree, but perhaps she’s right. She has paid for her crime and has been in prison five years past her eight-year sentence. I write a letter to the parole board on Julie’s behalf and put it in the mail before I have second thoughts. Julie is paroled.

* * *

Part IV: The Meeting

I could come to New York where I can better explain why I felt I had to go along with a plan that went so wrong. You are an amazing, compassionate person, and I am looking forward to meeting you in person.

We agree on O’Neal’s Restaurant across from Central Park, and as I walk along Eighth Avenue I have doubts. What if it was a big mistake to write to the parole board? What if she commits another crime?

While I wait for her, my stomach is in knots. A tap on my shoulder startles me and I turn to see a tall woman, and pause for a moment before I can take in that I am looking at Julie Busic.

She takes me off guard and takes away the words I had practiced. I stare at a stunning woman, taller than my 5-foot-6 inches, slender, in a lovely blue dress. We are now both 41, and lines are beginning to appear around my eyes. I had pictured what she looked like and wondered if prison life had turned her old and gray, but the woman in front of me is much prettier than her photos, a natural blonde with blue eyes and even white teeth. She certainly doesn’t look like a hijacker, or prison-worn. She seems sophisticated and worldly in a way I will never be.

Two women at the next table laugh over a secret and I wonder what they would think if they knew our story. “What are your plans now that you’re free?” Julie’s eyes light up. “I’m going to Croatia to wait for Zvonko’s release.”

In another person I might have admired such steadfast loyalty, but Julie Busic had taken up a place in my life that has drained me, and now I feel hollowed out.

“I thought you were divorced.” I look toward the door and contemplate the walk across the room.

“We’ve remarried. I’ve made some hasty decisions, but I love my husband and it’s in our best interest to be together.”

“Which hasty decision? Hijack a plane? Build a bomb?” People around us are laughing, drinking and enjoying their afternoon. “I had no choice. Zvonko was wanted by the Yugoslav secret police and we believed that he would soon be killed. We wanted to make one desperate attempt to bring the Croatian situation to the public.”

Her words ring in my ears. It’s not my fault. I had no choice. I cannot hold back.

“You had a choice. You could have gone to the embassy, or the police, or paid for your declaration to be printed. You chose to commit a crime. You could have prevented it, Julie. Meeting you in person has convinced me so.”

Something in me shifts. She will one day have her husband back, but I will never recover what she took from me. “I’m leaving,” I stand up.

“Wait, please.”

I pause at the table.

“There has to be an end to our suffering. You said yourself that we paid our debt to society. Which brings me to ask if you would consider writing a letter on Zvonko’s behalf. I really hate to ask, but you would do the same in my position, I know that in my heart.”

Behind the beckoning words in her letters, I can now see her real motivation – to become her husband’s savior. I have kept Julie’s letters a secret from James, have plunged back to a time before he was able to coax me back to love. I take a deep breath and determine I will tell him the truth.

“I’m not going to help him get out of jail. As a matter of fact, I’m going do everything in my power to keep him locked up for the rest of his life.” I scrape back the chair and walk across the room, free from Julie Busic.

But Zvonko Busic got out of jail anyway. “Croatian hijacker wins parole,” the New York Times headline read on July 20, 2008. After 32 years in a maximum-security prison, Zvonko was deported to his homeland. Julie’s long wait for her husband was over. He remained politically active until days before the Sept. 11 anniversary of his crime, when he committed suicide on September 2, 2013. He was given a hero’s funeral.

By Kathleen Murray

Kathleen Murray is the author of the unpublished memoir, "The Widow and the Hijacker." Read more on the book's Facebook page. Follow her on Twitter: @kathleenmoran4.

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