Palmyra: THE TRUE STORY OF AN ISLAND TRAGEDY
This book is an inside account of a high-profile case that began in 1974, and was sporadically but extensively reported in various public media through the trials of the two defendants in 1985 and 1986, and was depicted in a best-selling book, AND THE SEA WILL TELL, by Vincent Bugliosi and Bruce Henderson, which was made into a two-part movie by CBS timed to coincide with publication in March, 1991.
In separate jury trials based upon the same circumstantial evidence, one defendant was acquitted and the other convicted of murder in the mysterious disappearance of Malcolm and Eleanor Graham on the remote Pacific atoll of Palmyra, but in the end investigators and commentators were left to speculate as to what had occurred there.
Two couples had the island to themselves, each arriving in their own sailboats and planning extended sojourns - two Adams and two Eves in Paradise. One couple disappeared and the other couple arrived in Honolulu piloting their vessel. Although the suspicion that one couple had murdered the other was present from the beginning, there was no hard evidence to support it and the survivors were charged and convicted of boat theft and sentenced to prison terms.
Stephanie Stearns was released in November 1977, after serving seven months of a 2-year term. Wesley Walker, after serving five years of a 13-year term, escaped from the U.S. Penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington, in July 1979.
In January 1981, Sharon Jordan, while visiting Palmyra with her husband, discovered a skull and some skeletal bones on a beach, which she reported to authorities. The skull was identified as belonging to Eleanor Graham and an indictment for felony-murder was brought against Stearns and Walker.
Stearns immediatley surrendered herself and was realeased on bail. Seven months later, after over two years at large, Walker was arrested in Yuma, Arizona.
After a change of venue from Honolulu to San Francisco on the ground that pre-trial publicity had created a general attitude of bias against the defendants, Walker was brought to trial in June 1985. Because of legal maneuvers by Bugliosi, who represented Sterns, an additional indictment for premeditated murder was brought against both defendants. At that point they were charged with having murdered the same person twice.
While Stearns went on to successfully reinvent her life after her acquittal in 1986, Walker spent the years growing old watching paint peel on the walls of his cell. He also taught himself to write.
Over the years Walker had mostly kept his lips zipped concerning the details of those events, which had brought him to face the seeming infinity of the life sentence stretching before him. He had given his court-appointed lawyer an abbreviated version of the true facts lying at the heart of the matter - which departed radically from the prosecution's theory of the case - but was advised to forget this defense and to never tell the story to anyone ever again. In accordance thereto, he declined to testify in his own behalf.
As a result, many questions lay unresolved. Was Walker's silence meant to conceal the truth? Or were there other as yet unexplored reasons? Why, since Walker was fleeing federal authorities on a drug charge, did he settle upon Palmyra, a U.S. Territory? Possessing a passport in another name, which no one other than his girlfriend knew about, why didn't he go on to Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, even New Zealand, where he could have lost himself among other small boat sailors? What happened to his own vessel, Iola, a question looming large in all the trials? Why did he return to Hawaii in the Graham ketch, Sea Wind?
The Bugliosi-Henderson version of this case is remarkable for its lack of a resolution to the question of what happened during the crucial days preceding the "disappearance" of the Grahams. Their answers are no more than speculations having little foundation in fact, none of which approximate the truth.
Various witnesses added their speculative views during the tabloid TV shows on Hard Copy and Inside Edition, timed to coincide with the publication of AND THE SEA WILL TELL, as well as the movie premier, in March, 1991, where Walker was variously portrayed as a gleeful murderer by poison, gun, knife, sledgehammer, acetylene torch, and chainsaw, according to the pet fantasy, perhaps even a zombie slave to the evil will of the witch, Stephanie. There were other stories, too: That the Grahams were set adrift in a small boat on the high seas; that Stearns and Walker dressed up like pirates and made the Grahams walk the plank after first having drawn sharks by pouring blood into the water.
Walker's reaction to the Bugliosi-Henderson book was one of anger over what he considered to be a deeply insulting hoax, a scurrilous maligning of his character. He spent the ensuing three years in an effort to forge a reply, shaping his attitude on the irony of a passage from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: "It's a mutual, joint-stock world. We cannibals must help these Christians." But, thoroughly sick of the subject after three years and 2500 pages, he came to the conclusion in despair that it was all an exercise in futility and he abandoned the manuscript in rough draft.
But time has a way of changing perspectives and a day came when Walker dusted off his work, edited with a stern eye, rewrote most of it, and prepared again to bare his soul in an extension of the story - ala Roshomon* - to complete his share of the burden.
His revelations, while generally agreeing with the various sketches of facts in the case, veer sharply away from not only the characterizations of the various witnesses called to testify, including judge, lawyers, himself and Stearns, but also in the distortions of many events for the purpose of conforming them to the preconceived notions and theories of the authors of "AND THE SEA WILL TELL", especially in its conclusions, and supplies all the missing pieces of the puzzle which they had access to but chose to ignore.
Insofar as its author has been able to determine, Palmyra: The True Story of An Island Tragedy represents the first time a true crime case has ever been recounted by the chief villain. He knows that what he has written will be highly controversial and already he can hear the chorus of denials, vociferous voices raised in outrage, the piling of scorn upon accusation, but this is America, a land of free speech, and we shall see what we shall see.
* ROSHOMON - a famous Japanese play where ghosts of the dead present their versions of a tragic incident and from which, similar to a jury hearing evidence provided by witnesses, the audience has to determine the truth.
Palmyra, an atoll of numerous small islands overgrown in coconut palms around a central lagoon some several miles long, the westernmost part of the upper Line Islands situated about 1,000 miles southerly of the Hawaiian Islands at latitude 5° 31' North, longitude 163° 14' West;
Aerial View of Palmyra Atoll
An aerial view at extreme low tide; the light straight line at upper center depicts the airstrip from
World War II on the largest northern landmass of Cooper Island. The curved line from the right tip
of Cooper to landmass to the south represents a north-south causeway, also constructed during
World War II, which cut the lagoon in two - the western lagoon and the eastern. The narrow
passage through the reefs into the lagoon at extreme mid-left is the entrance to the lagoon from the
White sandy shore along the eastern lagoon of Palmyra