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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.

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

  1. Rebecca Cervantes
    October 24, 2013

    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.

    • Tom Bucy
      March 31, 2014

      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

        The book is entitled Final Argument.

      • seanmunger
        April 1, 2014

        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

        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. jeannie
    November 11, 2013

    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

    • Janice
      December 8, 2013

      I would LOVE a copy. My email is jlosgar@hotmail.com.

    • Matt
      December 28, 2013

      I have been trying to find a copy of this movie for years and would please love to get a copy of yours! Thanks! I’m mattcollins68@yahoo.com

    • Letty
      January 16, 2014

      Is iT possible for me to get a copy of the movie? I already read the book. I am from Holland and the movie was once shown on television back in 1991 iT impressed me. IT was never shown again.

    • Annette Cahalan
      February 12, 2014

      Hi.

      My name is Annette. I Loved this movie!!!!!! I literally have looked for this on DVD, for ever!!!!!!. I would be happy to send you money for a copy. If good quality.

      Thank you,

      Annette Cahalan

  3. Tom Bucy
    January 19, 2014

    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. sharonmelendes
    April 8, 2014

    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.

    • seanmunger
      April 8, 2014

      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.

      • sharonmelendes
        April 12, 2014

        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 .

      • Tom Bucy
        April 13, 2014

        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.

    • Tom Bucy
      April 10, 2014

      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.)

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