Disappeared: Malcolm “Mac” Graham, missing 39 years, and the “Palmyra Curse.”

palmyra curse header

Thirty-nine years ago today, on August 30, 1974, at least one and probably two grisly murders occurred in one of the most faraway locales on planet Earth–a small Pacific atoll called Palmyra, a thousand miles south of Hawaii, which has no permanent human population. The one victim that we know of was Eleanor Graham, called Muff, but her husband, Malcolm “Mac” Graham III, age 43, vanished. The married couple were yachting around the Pacific on their impressive sailboat called the Sea Wind, and they had unfortunately chosen the wrong island to camp on.

The killer was Buck Duane Walker, also known as Wesley G. Walker, a tough ex-convict and noted con artist, who had also sailed to Palmyra that summer with his girlfriend, Stephanie Stearns. The Grahams were upper-crust people, pretty conservative and reserved. Walker and Stearns were thought of by the Grahams as “hippies,” free-spirited, but Walker certainly had a dark side. Their boats were anchored in a lagoon near each other, and the couples inevitably came into conflict. Stearns was pretty easy to get along with so most of the conflict came from Walker.

On August 30, according to Stephanie Stearns, Buck Walker told her that the Grahams had invited the two of them over for dinner aboard the Sea Wind. They showed up at 6:30 PM but the Grahams weren’t there. Walker told his girlfriend that they had told them they were to “make themselves at home” if they (the Grahams) weren’t back yet from fishing. Dark came, no sign of them. In the morning they began searching and found an overturned boat on the shore of the lagoon. Walker and Stearns concluded that the Grahams had a fishing accident.

What happened next was a subject of dispute. Stearns and Walker took over the Graham’s ritzy yacht, the Sea Wind, and sailed it back to Hawaii. Originally they told authorities that their own boat, the Iola, got stuck on a reef at Palmyra, but Stearns later admitted they scuttled the Iola in favor of stealing the Sea Wind. Although authorities strongly suspected the couple had murdered the Grahams, no bodies were found. Walker and Graham were both convicted for the theft of the boat. They were no longer romantically involved.

PalmyraSign

The sign is friendly, but Palmyra itself–not so much.

In 1981, a subsequent visitor to Palmyra Island found a human skull in the sand not far from where the Grahams’ boat was said to have capsized. The bones had fallen out of an aluminum box found open on the beach. The skeleton was identified as Muff Graham, and she died in very grisly fashion–hit over the head, dismembered, and her face burned with a welding torch. Her body was stuffed inside the metal container and weighted down to sink in the lagoon, but in 1981 it floated up. There was no sign of Mac’s body.

The thing was, when they were back on the island in 1974, Stearns and Walker saw two aluminum crates, left over from when Palmyra was a surplus depot during World War II. Investigators assumed Mac was in the other box, which for some reason never floated up.

Buck Walker and Stephanie Stearns were tried separately for the murder of Muff Graham. Walker was found guilty in 1985. Stearns, whose defense attorney was Vincent Bugliosi, was acquitted. She successfully convinced a jury that Walker committed the murders alone, having to hide the bodies in the aluminum boxes to conceal them from her as well as the authorities.

Buck Walker was paroled in 2007. After this he wrote an “allegorical” novel about the events on Palmyra, in which he asserted that he was having an affair with Muff Graham, and that Mac went crazy after discovering them in the act. Supposedly Walker killed him in self defense after Mac killed his wife. Everybody familiar with the case regards this theory as utter hogwash. Walker died in 2010.

Where is Mac Graham? Is he still in the other metal box? Logically, if there were two boxes, it doesn’t make much sense that Walker would have done something different with his body than he did with Muff’s, but we’ll never know. Perhaps he murdered them at different times and different places around the island. When told that authorities were searching the island yet again for Mac’s remains, Walker is said to have remarked, “Go ahead and search. You’ll never find him.” To this day no one ever has.

The strange goings-on at Palmyra Atoll were remarkable enough to spawn a legend about the island being unlucky, and today you’ll still hear Pacific travelers talk about the “Palmyra curse.” There are evidently makeshift memorials to the Grahams on the island, which is private property and illegal to trespass upon, but naturally being so remote it’s difficult to police. Palmyra is today owned by the Nature Conservancy and is the site of some climate change research.

Vincent Bugliosi, Stephanie Stearns’s attorney, wrote a book about the murders called And The Sea Will Tell. It was made into quite a good TV miniseries in 1991, but as it aired during the ground phase of the first Gulf War, almost nobody saw it. I keep waiting–in vain–for it to pop up on Netflix, though there are parts of it available on YouTube.

Although Mac Graham is almost certainly dead, he still counts as a missing person since his body has not been found. He does not yet have a Charley Project file, but I am contributing one that I hope the Charley webmaster Meaghan Good will post.

The image of Mac Graham is from the book And The Sea Will Tell by Vincent T. Bugliosi and Bruce Henderson. This is the only known photo of a person of public interest, so I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use. The other images are public domain.

27 Comments on Disappeared: Malcolm “Mac” Graham, missing 39 years, and the “Palmyra Curse.”

  1. Rebecca Cervantes // October 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm // Reply

    I have been following this case over the years about the Grahams. I fervently hope that this will be resolved and the families of Mac and Muff Graham find peace.

    • Hi Rebecca, Have finished writing an eBook about the murders of the Grahams and subsequent trial of Stephanie Stearns for the murder of Muff. It should come out in a couple of weeks. It debunks Stearns’ defense and explains in detail how the Grahams were murdered. Tom Bucy

      • Tom Bucy // March 31, 2014 at 2:14 pm //

        The book is entitled Final Argument.

      • I’m intrigued, what’s your source base for this book? I was not aware there were any new sources available on this case. I assume your book is based on new information or interviews with the principals?

      • Tom Bucy // April 10, 2014 at 1:06 pm //

        Sea:
        Sources are the original Stearns’ murder trial transcript. The book “And the Sea Will Tell” Norton, 1991, First Edition. Conversation with relatives of Muff Graham.
        On reading page 121 of ATSWT did you ever wonder why Stearns, allegedly a math student, could not properly add coconuts? And, what about this finding $400.00 on board the Sea Wind after murdering the Grahams. How is it that she arrives at Palmyra with $10.00 in her pocket, finds the four hundred dollars, pays $400.00 for repairs and still has the original $400.00? An alchemist?
        Did you ever suspect that she found nearly the nearly $5,000.00 the Grahams had stashed on board, and made a hasty trip to the toilet allowing her to flush the money down the drain?

  2. My sis taped this movie off tv. I made a copy onto dvd if anyone wants a copy, let me know ;) Great movie, but sad story

  3. Mac Graham was murder by Buck Walker on Thursday, the 29th of August, 1974, on board the Iola when he came to pick up his generator. His body was left aboard the Iola when she was scuttled a few miles off shore.

  4. I’ve looked for Stearns online with no luck. Where is she now? And do you think she helped Walker? Or at least knew about it?

    What a gorgeous island, and the Gramhams sounded like decent people. I’ve reread this book I don’t know how many times.

    • Stephanie Stearns is pretty old by now, the events she was famous for are now 40 years in the past and it’s obvious she’s sought to keep a low profile. So I don’t think we will hear of her online for a long time.

      I do not believe she helped Wesley Walker, and if she did not help him, logically she couldn’t have known about it either. As Bugliosi stated at the trial, the single most important piece of evidence in the whole case is the fact that Muff Graham’s remains were found in a metal box that someone had taken considerable effort and risk to conceal. If the two of them were in on it together there is no reason in the world why this would have been done–absolutely no reason whatsoever–because this disposition of Muff Graham’s body was not done to conceal her murder from authorities, but to conceal it from Stephanie Stearns. This piece of evidence, even standing alone, virtually proves Stearns’s innocence, but there were many other pieces of evidence that also indicated her innocence, entirely consistent with this one. By contrast, every piece of evidence known in the case points to Walker having done it, and having committed the crime alone. There’s little doubt in my mind that she is innocent.

      • I *did* find her after this comment. I didn’t want to pay the .95cents to get her address tbh.

        We’re in the minority about her not being involved. Fun fact: I knew an attorney who worked under Bugliosi. I was briefly introduced to her at a Buddhist meeting.

        sorry, in a hurry .

      • Sharon,
        What do you make of the fact that the location where Stearns claims she found Mac’s Zodiac was under eighteen inches of water at the time Bugliosi speculates Walker overturned it on Cooper Island.
        If you recall in reading And The Sea Will Tell, Bugliosi believes the Zodiac was overturned at 4:40 p.m. on Cooper Island of the 30th. He also established that at 4:26 p.m. there was a high-high tide. Bryden testified that at high tide the location was under 18 inches of water.
        Bugliosi admits ignorance of sailing and the sea, however, he did study tidal data. He did not understand how tides flow. He did not understand the concept of “slackwater” nor the rule of 12fths. If he did he would have known that there was no difference in the tide level on Cooper Island at the above two times.
        Had Walker overturned the Zodiac, as Bugliosi speculates, the motor would not have started, it would have salt residue in the motor and the dinghy would have floated away. Oddly enough he ruminates that if Stearns was lying about the discovery of the Zodiac on the 31st (as she undoubtably was) she was probably guilty of murder.

    • I have studied this case and written a book about it soon to come out as an ebook entitled Final Argument which clearly demonstrates Stearns involvement in the murders. She planned the crimes and participated in the torture and murder of Muff. It was her idea to “sell” the generator to Mac and then “borrow” it back, ostensibly for the purpose of charging the batteries of the Iola. (Batteries which may have been non-existent.)

  5. I agree. Too many inconsistances. Walker did know how to davigate so Walker could not sail back to hawaii without Steans’ help.

    • That’s hardly a basis on which to conclude that she’s guilty of murder. In fact it points to the guilt of Walker alone. If he intended to kill the Grahams and knew he couldn’t get off the island without Stearns’s help, then he had two choices open to him: (1) enlist Stearns in his plot to kill them, convince her to help him do it and then to help him get off the island when he was done; or (2) kill the Grahams himself and conceal the murder from Stearns, making her think they died in an accident, and then she would be motivated not only to help Walker get off Palymra, but to go out to the outside world and bring back help to find out what happened to the Grahams.

      Option (1) is not sensible. How would Walker know she’d go for it? If he said, “Hey, honey, let’s kill the Grahams” and she refused, suddenly he’s screwed. If she chooses not to go along with the murder plot, it’s not like she’s going to sit around and do nothing while Walker carries it out, and then kindly help him try to get away with it by sailing him back to Hawaii. Thus even by asking the question he’s taking an unacceptable risk.

      Option (2), however, is much safer. If he can get away with it (meaning, kill the Grahams without her knowing about it), he not only has a ride off Palmyra, but he has an eyewitness who will insist that he didn’t kill them and they died in an accident. In fact Stephanie Stearns was never willing to say that Walker did it, so it seems his gamble paid off.

      Without having read his book, and based solely on the comments he’s left here, it appears that Mr. Bucy’s theory rests mostly on highlighting minor discrepancies, which exist in every criminal case. Discrepancies alone cannot challenge the basic logical and factual narrative that is overwhelmingly more likely, in my view: that Walker acted alone.

      Also consider this. If Stearns did it, there would be evidence linking her to the crime. Once Walker had been arrested in 1981 and charged with her murder–and once it was clear they were going to be tried separately–why on earth wouldn’t he have claimed, as part of his case, that she did it alone, but not him? If in fact she did it, he would be 100% certain that the evidence would show it; so then his only job at the trial would be to argue that he wasn’t involved and that she was the mastermind of the whole thing. By 1985, when his trial occurred, their relationship was history; he owed her nothing. If he knew for sure that she did it, there’s absolutely no reason why he wouldn’t maximize his chances of acquittal by fingering her, and her alone, for the murders. Yet he did not do that. Indeed at the end of his life, in 2010, long after Stearns had already been acquitted and could not legally be tried again for the murder of Muff Graham, Walker wrote a book in which he also did not finger Stearns as a co-conspirator. He claims he killed Mac in self defense, not that she did it. That’s very strange for him to do if in fact she did it.

      Why didn’t he finger her? Because he knew that all the evidence in the case would point solely to him, and none of it to her. If he fingered her falsely it would just make him look more guilty. Thus, leaving her out of it and pleading innocence on his own, without fingering her as the murderer, was the least bad of all of Walker’s bad options; since he was, in fact, guilty, he knew this wasn’t likely to work anyway, and it didn’t.

      I’m pretty certain that Stephanie Stearns is innocent.

  6. Sean
    My name is Mike, my parents were best friends of Mac & “Muff”. My dads boat was next to Mac in San Diego. I had been on the “Sea Wind” many times as a young boy. My dad would talk to them on the raido everyday, until he no longer heard from them and we new that something was wrong. Mac talked of a guy and a girl on a derlict boat, and how they would have arguments about Sterns actions on the island. I know they killed them for the “Sea Wind” that boat was beautiful and had sailed all over the world, everyone new that boat. When the woman was arested she was wearing a dress that my mom gave “Muff”.

    • Wow! What sad memories for you and your parents. I am sorry for all your family has had to go through in regard to these terrible murders. Your Dad must be the man in the book and movie who tried in vain to reach Mac and Muff on the radio.

      When I read the part where “Jennifer” was wearing a dress, which was a present from your Mom, when she was arrested, I got the chills.

  7. Teri Anne Helmick // June 3, 2014 at 7:21 am // Reply

    I just finished Bugliosi’s book and it was a long read. What really surprised me about the events of Aug 30 was that “Jennifer” who had many aliases (just like Buck) didn’t remember having the dinghy to load the Iola for the trip to Fanning for supplies. She and Buck were back and forth all day so it is possible she knew what he was up to, but chose to bury her head in the sand while he pulled off the murders. I think a good sociopath could marginally pass a polygraph test since the numbers were teetering on inconclusive.

    • Hi Teri,

      If you wish to understand the murder of the Grahams it is necessary for you to read my response to Bugliosi’s book. It debunks Stephanie Stearns (the true name of “Jennifer”) supposed facts and exposes her as the party who planned the murders of the Grahams and directly participated in Muff’s torture and killing. T. Bucy

      • Tom, thank you for letting us know about your book. You’ve promoted it several times now in the comments to this article, so I think people who read this article are well aware of it. Just to keep the comments from becoming repetitive, I would ask that you no longer promote it here. Thank you.

      • What a bunch of hogwash btw. The “Wesley G. Walker” novel is basically an admission of sole guilt.

  8. dubious wahine // September 14, 2014 at 2:00 pm // Reply

    How could Stephanie/Jessica not know what was going on? Give me a break. Bugliosi has no respect for the truth, as evidenced by his JFK book. He talks about how commonplace it is to commit perjury. IMO
    They were out of food. People will do a lot when they are hungry. Buck was a pot head, lazy with the munchies. Why would he keep his murders from Stephanie? He considered her a “stand up” girl. I am looking forward to reading Mr. Bucy’s book.

    • I have great respect for Bulgiosi both as a lawyer and a writer. His book on the Kennedy assassination is simply the best book ever written on the subject, without a doubt, and closes the case for all time. I couldn’t disagree with you more about the likely chain of events on Palymra; as another comment I wrote on this page sets forth, there are actually a number of extremely compelling reasons why Walker kept the murders from her. But thanks for reading the article and commenting.

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