Julian Reiss’s plane crash on the evening of Halloween 1958 remains one of the more unusual in the Adirondacks. While most Adirondack plane crashes involve Forest Rangers, State Police, and many civilian volunteers, this one was different. This search was over almost before it got started when the ‘victims’ walked out of the woods the next day. Shortly thereafter, the Lake Placid village police, the NY State Police and its investigation division, the BCI, became involved.
Earlier that day Reiss had picked up his plane in Norwood, MA, where it had gotten a new engine and a thorough checkout. He then flew to Immaculata College in Malvern, PA, where he landed on the front lawn to pick up his daughter Patti before heading home to Lake Placid. He stopped for fuel in Warren County and continued homeward. Around 6 pm he flew into a violent cold front with squally winds, rain, sleet and snow flurries.
He was flying level at 11,000 feet, well above the highest peaks, when ice began forming on the wings, fuselage and propeller of his Helio Courier. The plane was getting heavier and heavier. Suddenly, the ice flew off one of the three propeller blades on this single-engine plane. The engine began shaking violently due to the imbalance.
Mr. Reiss, a pilot since 1944, throttled the engine down to reduce the shaking and went into a slow descending glide. He realized how lucky it was that his propeller had three blades, not two, or it would have been far worse. About this time his air speed indicator stopped working — it was probably also covered with ice. He tried to radio the authorities, but his radio seemed not to be working either. At 6 or 7,000 feet, his radio direction finder (RDF) suddenly picked up the signal from WNBZ AM 1240 in Saranac Lake. That was good, he believed, he could follow it in to safety.
A little later, the RDF needle swung back around 180 degrees, indicating he had passed over the broadcast station. This seemed odd. there were no lights below. He directed Patti to “look for lights” – they had to be down there somewhere. Ice was making the plane heavier and heavier.
Julian Reiss, as usual remained calm, he never seemed to get rattled when flying. He lowered his air flaps to slow his air speed even more and told Patti to tighten her seat belt and shoulder harness as he spiraled slowly down between mountains looking for signs of life. Finding none, he spiraled back up to try again in a different spot.
Unfortunately, he was fifteen or sixteen miles south of the airport. His RDF was malfunctioning, perhaps from nearby lightning strikes in the sharp cold front he was flying through. Increasing ice accumulations were making the plane too heavy for his air speed. He dared not rev the engine — the propeller was already shaking the plane dangerously. They were going down no matter what he did.
As Patti recalls it, the plane narrowly missed two tall trees, snapped a branch off one and sheared the tops off two more about sixty feet up. Some 200 feet after first hitting the trees, the right wing caught a tree spinning the plane 90 degrees and flipping it onto its back breaking the tail section off.
If one had to crash in the woods, the Helio Courier was the plane in which to do it. It was an uncommonly robust bush plane. In normal conditions, it could stay airborne at a mere 28 mph. It was considered spin-proof and stall-proof; it could take off and land in extremely small spaces. It also had a rugged welded steel tube roll-cage covered with an aluminum skin. It was extremely crashworthy.
So far, they had been lucky. Reiss and his daughter, Patti, found themselves hanging upside down suspended by their shoulder harnesses and seat belts. By some miracle, despite the wild ride, they were not hurt. It was dark, and initially, they did not realize how high up in the trees they were. They freed themselves from their restraints and began moving about looking for warm clothes and materials to close off the cold air coming in. Their movements dislodged the plane and suddenly they dropped an alarming distance, a violent, unexpected event that Patti recalls as “scary.”
Despite the darkness, they quickly realized they were now situated on the ground, or there nearby, and stopped worrying about falling even further. They plugged as many holes in the cabin as they could and put on all the warm clothes they could find and prepared to spend the night.
They knew that no one would be looking for them till morning, it was already pitch-dark. They also realized that no one knew where they were. They did not know where they were, except lost somewhere in the Adirondack woods. Julian later credited his daughter with being “cool as a cucumber” throughout the ordeal.
Patti recalls him joking with her. “My dad said, ‘Oh, Patti, look what we did now. We’ll be late for dinner. Mom will be mad.’” Patti recalls chattering incessantly to keep away her fears that night until sleep finally overtook them.
Julian Reiss was a prominent figure in the Tri-Lakes area. He was well-known as the owner of Northland Motors, a car dealership with showrooms in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. He was the founder and owner of Santa’s Workshop, considered among the first theme parks in the United States. He had recently founded ‘Old MacDonald’s Farm’ in Lake Placid, a summer camp for children, a not-for-profit, the proceeds of which went to needy children.
He had for many years run Operation Toy Lift to benefit orphaned children at Christmas. In 1947, Governor Dewey had appointed him to the State Commission on Discrimination where he was active on civil rights and racial matters. Pope Pius XII had appointed him a Knight of Saint Gregory only six months earlier, recognizing his good works for disadvantaged children. Needless to say, nearly everyone in the region knew him and respected him. Now, he was missing and they worried.
On Saturday morning, while a wide ranging air-search was underway across the Adirondacks, Julian left the wrecked plane and climbed some nearby hills to get his bearings. He eventually found a spot where he could see Whiteface Mountain and then knew which direction to walk. He could hear search planes, his son, Peter, an Air Force pilot stationed at Plattsburgh AFB was among them, but they were all looking in the wrong place.
After returning to his wrecked plane and gathering enough clothes to spend another night in the woods, he and Patti, the latter without shoes, set off through heavy blowdown toward Whiteface Mountain. They had no idea how far from civilization they were. Initially, they bushwhacked through the woods on a bearing toward Whiteface. They did not realize they were paralleling the Northville-Placid Trail, a short distance to their right. It was very slow going with Patti in her stocking feet, her lost shoes had been high-heeled dress pumps, required footwear for girls when leaving the Immaculata campus, but not suitable for this terrain anyway.
At some point, they crossed the Northville-Placid Trail without noticing it, but picked it up later and easily followed it out to the Justin Wescott Farm on Averyville Road where they went to the closest house. It was early afternoon.
Eleanor Wescott answered the door and Julian queried her as to whether he could use her telephone. She replied in the negative, “Oh, no, sir, you cannot. We are the search headquarters for Mr. Reiss and his daughter and we cannot tie up the phone.”
Reiss apologized and diplomatically introduced himself whereupon he was allowed use of the telephone. Eleanor Wescott notified authorities, who called off the search, and then began feeding them. It had been a long, cold night in the woods with no supper and a long walk out with no breakfast.
While everyone involved was now found safe and sound, the mystery of this crash was only just beginning. The next day (Sunday, November 2nd) after flying over the crash site in his own plane, a Mooney Mark 20, Julian Reiss’s son Peter and his friend Fred Fortune Jr. hiked to the crash site. They found it 2½ to 3 miles in on the northerly flanks of Moose Mountain in a shallow ravine about 150 yards west of the Northville-Placid Trail, some distance before one gets to the turnoff for Wanika Falls.
Once they found the crash site, they recovered Julian and Patti’s personal belongings. Patti had given Peter specific orders to bring back her suitcase full of her favorite new clothes. It was quite clear to Peter that the plane itself could not be salvaged, but it seemed the engine and the instrumentation could be saved.
When he and Fred returned to the crash site only three days later on Wednesday, they were stunned to discover that not only had the propeller been removed, but the engine, the radio gear and all of the instruments were missing. The thieves had even put the cowling back on so that the missing engine would not be noticed from the air. They couldn’t believe it. How could this be? They hiked out and reported it to the police.
When NY State Police and BCI investigators inspected the wreckage, it was obvious to them that thieves acquainted with airplanes had been involved. Police suspected they could have dismantled the engine and carried it out, but they also realized that the stolen articles might still be cached nearby in the woods until the heat was off. They systematically searched the area for the missing parts. They found nothing.
Initially, the police thought the case would be easy to solve. The brand-new engine, a 6-cylinder, 260-hp, Lycoming Model GO-435-C2B61, had only 5 or 6 hours of run-time on it; it would be easy to sell and the thieves would get a good price for it. They sent out bulletins with the model and serial numbers to all patrols in the Troop B area. Julian Reiss offered a $500 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the thieves. They would catch them at the point-of-sale.
The police wondered how the thieves could carry a 450-lb airplane engine, all the instrumentation, plus, the tools needed, through the woods to Averyville without being discovered? People carrying that heavy of a load, would surely attract notice, but after two weeks, the police had no leads. They didn’t even know if the engine was still in the woods or not. There was some speculation about whether a pontoon plane could have landed on Moose Pond and flown the parts away.
Even so, police publicly expressed confidence they would catch the thieves. They saturated the newspapers with ‘developing’ stories about the theft. After three weeks, public confidence in the police investigation seemed to be wavering. The AuSable Forks newspaper editorialized on the lack of progress in recovering the engine:
“The ones who stole it must have had the strength of Sampson and the brains of a boob. How can they possibly dispose of it? If they tried to sell it whole they would surely be suspected of having stolen it and their arrest would follow … [on the other hand] … maybe the thieves are smarter than one would suppose.”
It seemed the thieves were indeed smarter than anyone supposed. As time went on, the case grew cold: No one carrying a heavy load, or even several smaller heavy loads, was reported. No one reported a 260-horsepower Lycoming engine for sale. No one reported used airplane instruments for sale.
Their first break came around New Year’s 1959 when a Lake Placid resident brought a fuzzy photograph to the village police. It was of a red, white and blue pontoon plane that had landed on Lake Placid around the time of the crash. Neither he, nor any of his neighbors had recognized it or its pilot, so he had photographed it as a curiosity and forgot about it. He was reminded of it after Christmas when reading an article in the Plattsburgh newspaper about how police were still ‘working the case’. He wondered if his photo might be important?
The plane in the photo was clearly a Stinson and it had a 49-star American flag on the tail. The numbers on the plane were barely discernible, but they were enough for the BCI to start an investigation. It was their only lead. The 49-star flag directed them to start in Alaska where they found the initial registration for a 1947 Stinson. Subsequent investigation brought them back to Connecticut. They were getting closer.
What they didn’t know was that very soon after the Reiss crash, a man living in Massachusetts had noticed a small article about the crash in the Springfield, MA, newspaper. He wondered whether the Stinson (a newspaper error) wreckage would have any salvageable items worth his while. It happened he was a pilot and owned his own plane, a 1947 Stinson with pontoons.
He flew up to the Adirondacks to check it out. On the way, he located the crash site from the air and photographed it. Then he landed on Lake Placid and took a taxi to Averyville where he hiked in on the Northville-Placid Trail.
Using his photographs and a map and compass, he soon found the wreckage, and while discovering that the wreck was a Helio Courier, and not a Stinson as reported in the newspaper articles, he nonetheless removed the propeller and the engine. The latter, he hid in the woods. He then removed the radio gear and other instruments, packed them out and flew home.
Later, during three or four weekends off from work, he drove to Averyville in his personal car and returned to the crash site where he had hidden the Lycoming engine. Each time he disassembled the engine into pieces that would fit in his backpack, hiked back to his car with them and drove home unseen and unnoticed until all the gear was in his basement. The heaviest load, the crankshaft, had been “only” 80 pounds by his estimation. His original plan of using the Helio Courier engine in his Stinson was out of the question, the geared-Lycoming would never work in his Stinson.
Unfortunately for him, before he could figure out what to do with parts he had accumulated in his basement, the authorities traced the airplane registration number from Alaska to Connecticut and to a William John Thomson in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. When they showed up at his job at Pratt & Whitney, Bradley Field, CT, on January 8, 1959 – and after they convinced him that they knew a lot about his activities in the Lake Placid area and that they had a description of his pontoon plane – he admitted that he had the parts, but insisted he was not guilty of any crime. Nonetheless, he showed them the boxes in his basement.
He did not realize that they had been bluffing about much of what they told him. All they had was a fuzzy photo of his pontoon plane. Mr. Thomson was not a professional thief. He was not a thief of any kind. He had never been arrested, nor had he any trouble with the law. He came from a respectable Massachusetts family; his father was a bank president in Springfield. Nevertheless, he was extradited to Essex County and placed in jail to await the grand jury action on his charge of felony theft.
At his arraignment, he told North Elba Justice Harlan (Harley) Branch that it was never his intent to steal anything. It was his understanding that an airplane wreck was abandoned property, free-for-the-taking, and that he did not know that what he had done was a crime. He said he thought that airplane wrecks in the Adirondack wilderness were the same as ship wrecks on the open sea, that salvage was open to anyone willing to spend the money and the effort.
Justice Branch later admitted that he had never heard a story like that before, but he suggested Thomson obtain a lawyer to argue his case, and he set bail at $2,000 which Thomson did not have. He was sent back to jail to await grand jury action.
There seems no newspaper record whether Thomson obtained a lawyer, whether he pleaded nolo contendere or otherwise, but at his sentencing in early July 1959 before Essex County Court Judge Sheldon F. Wickes, it would seem he was given the benefit-of- the-doubt regarding his misinterpretation of International Maritime (Admiralty) Law versus the laws of the State of New York. He was sentenced to a $150 fine, restitution to Mr. Reiss, and three years’ probation, thus ending the case of one of the oddest of Adirondack plane crashes.
The police took credit for old-fashioned police work leading to the apprehension and conviction of Mr. Thomson. Perhaps that is true, but one must also realize that if not for the civic-mindedness of a single resident on Lake Placid with a fuzzy photograph, this matter would probably remain open even today.
The irony of this story is even though Mr. Thomson fulfilled all the requirements of his sentence, Julian Reiss still came up short. Thomson meticulously reassembled the engine as only an aircraft mechanic could, and he delivered it and all the other parts to Julian Reiss as required by the court. Upon its receipt, Mr. Reiss, now having no plane to put it in, and being in poor health, and having no plans to fly again, put the engine and all the parts up for sale. He sold them quickly and shipped them out.
To his ultimate dismay, the check bounced.
Photos: the wreckage shortly after the crash (courtesy Peter Reiss).