COURTESY OF STEVE SPENCE
Former Star-Bulletin writer Steve Spence is now managing editor of Car and Driver magazine.
Freed Palmyra killer could visit ex-Star-Bulletin writer
I had left a message for Steve Spence, former Star-Bulletin feature writer and now managing editor of Car and Driver magazine, assuming that a former Hawaii resident could figure out the time difference between Honolulu and Dearborn, Mich. So when my home phone rang at 5 a.m. last week -- Sept. 11 -- I flashed back six years to when my brother called to tell me America was under attack. "Not again," I thought, picking up the phone this time.
Update: Out on parole
The disappearance of well-to-do pleasure sailors Muff and Mac Graham on Palmyra Atoll in 1974 led to one of the most sensational murder cases in Hawaii history. A book and movie were made about the case. But it was Star-Bulletin feature writer Steve Spence who launched the story to national prominence with a riveting, novel-like account of the case. "Honolulu Lite" columnist Charles Memminger tracked down Spence and broke the news to him: Buck Duane Walker, the modern-day pirate who murdered Muff Graham, has been released from prison. Is there yet another chapter of the Palmyra tale to be written?
But it was Spence calling back. After 18 years away from the islands, the time difference thing had escaped him. I waited for my heart to get back to a reasonable 130 beats a minute and then broke the news: "Buck Duane Walker's out of prison."
It was Spence's turn to be jolted.
"He escape again?" he asked.
No, I said, he was paroled.
Walker had figured in one of the most sensational murder cases in Hawaii history. It was a couple of riveting feature stories Spence wrote for the Star-Bulletin that rocketed the murders of Mac and Muff Graham to national prominence. And led to an acclaimed book and a made-for-TV movie staring Richard Crenna and hot Australian model Rachel Ward.
Spence didn't get a piece of the book or movie, although if not for his stories, they wouldn't have happened.
First, some quick background: Mac and Muff Graham were well-to-do pleasure sailors who, in 1974, had the misfortune to take their well-stocked yacht Sea Wind to Palmyra Atoll, 1,100 miles south of Hawaii. The only other boat there was a broken-down scow manned by Big Island marijuana grower Buck Duane Walker, 34, and his girlfriend, Stephanie Stearns.
Sometime later, a badly disguised Sea Wind returned to Honolulu, skippered by Walker and Stearns, who told some phony story about the Grahams giving the boat to them. They were convicted of stealing the Sea Wind, but since there was no trace of the Grahams, they weren't tried for murder. Stearns got two years in prison. Walker got 10.
That would have been the end of a strange sea tale except that in 1981 a box floated up in Palmyra Lagoon with the burned, broken bones of Muff Graham. When authorities got around to arresting Walker for her murder, they learned he had escaped from the Washington state prison where he had been sent for boat theft.
And that's where Steve Spence enters the tale. A seasoned writer who had worked at the Los Angeles Times and the Playboy-like magazine True, Spence was writing features for the Star-Bulletin when the paper's crime reporter, Jim McCoy, told him about the Palmyra story. Spence cranked out an engrossing novel-like two-part series on the case, complete with a cliffhanger: Where's Buck Duane Walker?
"It was the most complicated story I think I've ever done," Spence told me. "The weird thing was that if you're a killer in the middle of nowhere, you would naturally take the bodies and dump them outside the reef."
But Walker was lazy, Spence said. On Palmyra he dumped Muff Graham's body in the shallow lagoon.
"Within days after the story ran, the women in the (newspaper's) library came up and said they were getting all these calls from Hollywood," Spence said. The Palmyra story had steamed out of Honolulu, and Spence wasn't on board.
Walker was captured and after a sensational trial -- which was moved to California but presided over by Hawaii federal Judge Sam King -- was convicted of Muff Graham's murder and sentenced to life in prison. Stearns was acquitted, thanks to her celebrity attorney, Vincent Bugliosi, who, while a prosecutor, had put Charles Manson in prison. He wrote a book about Manson called "Helter Skelter," and after getting Stearns off, he wrote a book about the Palmyra case called "And the Sea Will Tell," which became the movie.
Spence harbors no hard feelings. But he was surprised to hear that Walker was paroled. (Walker, 69, was let out of prison for health reasons after serving 22 years.)
"Based on his criminal record, I thought they'd never let him go," Spence said. "I thought he was right there with Charley Manson."
After leaving the Star-Bulletin in 1983, Spence opened a restaurant in Stenson Beach, Calif., with former Star-Bulletin columnist Tom Horton. He then joined Car and Driver as managing editor.
"The best writing years of my life were at the Star-Bulletin," he said. "We had a great deal of freedom there."
Now he wonders about Buck Duane Walker.
"Will he try to make contact with Stephanie Stearns? She's the real story. She knows what really happened on Palmyra," he says. "Or maybe he'll come and see me."
Walker said a curious thing to the press when he was released: "I have no intention of returning to Hawaii ... if I have any say-so."
Was that because he knows there is no statute of limitation on murder? Since Mac Graham's body was never found, maybe Walker worries that the sea will tell once again. And maybe Steve Spence will yet write another chapter of the Palmyra saga.
Buy Charles Memminger's hilarious new book, "Hey, Waiter, There's An Umbrella In My Drink!" at island book stores or online
at any book retailer. E-mail him at email@example.com