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Despite Guilty Verdict, Mystery of Palmyra Lingers On : Sister Sat Through Trial, Hoping for Clues to Brother's Death in South Pacific

June 12, 1985|SCOTT HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Mary Graham McIntosh wants to know what happened in the summer of 1974 on Palmyra Island, a remote atoll rich with coconut palms some 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, in tropical waters teeming with sharks. That was the time and place that her brother, Malcolm (Mac) Graham, and his wife, Eleanor (Muff) Graham, disappeared.

So, 11 years after the fact, the middle-aged Seattle woman sat hour after hour, day after day, for 2 1/2 weeks in the front row of the hard pew-like benches in a San Francisco federal courtroom. Her husband at her side, Mary McIntosh watched the trial of Buck Duane Walker, the man accused of murdering her sister-in-law, Muff, and widely suspected of slaying her brother, Mac.

"I like being able to see what's going on," she said, smiling pleasantly, during a break in the trial last week. "He's my only brother, and I love him dearly."

Her smile disappeared, her eyes watered. "And I want them to know he's real," she said, her voice tense and trembling. "I'm going to sit there and make them see that."

Mary McIntosh was waiting for the denouement to a mystery story--a tale, as prosecutors portray it, of piracy and cold-blooded murder on a tropical island. The story is replete with plot turns, suspense and clues: Muff Graham's skeletal remains washing up on the Palmyra shore; testimony that Mac Graham was forced "to walk the plank"; the extensive forensic analysis that suggests a macabre scenario for Muff's demise.

Late Tuesday, the story reached what may be its final chapter. After deliberating 2 1/2 hours, the jury found Walker guilty of first-degree murder in Muff Graham's death.

But even with a guilty verdict, nobody knows with absolute certainty what happened to the Grahams, a seafaring San Diego couple--except, perhaps, for Buck Walker and his then-girlfriend, Stephanie Stearns. Stearns is to be tried separately, starting in September, in the murder of Muff Graham.

But if Walker and Stearns know, they aren't saying.

Mac and Muff Graham loved the sea and they loved the Sea Wind, their classic 37-foot ketch. Mac Graham, a native of Stamford, Conn., attended college in Michigan and worked for General Motors in the 1950s. Then an uncle died, leaving Mac a trust. Mac Graham was not fabulously wealthy, friends say, but the inheritance enabled him to live the life of his choice--the life of a yachtsman.

Mac Graham already owned the Sea Wind when he moved to San Diego in the late 1950s. It was there that he met Muff, a native San Diegan whose family "had no money at all," a friend said. They were married in 1961 in La Paz, Mexico, and promptly set sail on their honeymoon--a six-year circumnavigation of the world.

The Grahams, who had no children, lived aboard the Sea Wind for several years in the marinas of San Diego Bay; they weren't home so much as home-ported. With his friend Carl Kneisel, Mac Graham operated a boat building and remodeling business in the early 1970s.

As a couple, the Grahams made friends easily. Muff was a gracious hostess, friends say, who kept fine china, crystal and sterling silverware on the Sea Wind. Mac took charge of navigating and keeping the boat in repair; Muff handled the cleaning and cooking.

"You'd meet them and you'd say, 'Aren't they nice people?' You'd say, 'Isn't he nice? Isn't she cute?' " recalled a friend, Marie Jamieson.

Mac Graham was a scuba diver and an avid and fine chess player. But it was as a sailor that he truly excelled. "In my experience," Kneisel testified last week, "he was the best."

In 1974, the Grahams set sail again. This time they envisioned a two-year cruise, island-hopping in the Pacific. They planned first to go to Hawaii, then to Palmyra for an extended stay, perhaps six months or a year. After that, there was no definite plan. They might proceed to the Fiji Islands or Tahiti, or they might return to Hawaii and San Diego.

The nice couple from San Diego --43-year-old Mac, 42-year-old Muff--made it to Hawaii without problems. Then on June 24 they set sail for Palmyra Island, arriving on July 2.

Mac Graham was said to have a romantic vision about Palmyra, well-known to yachtsmen as a resting point between Hawaii and the South Pacific. Its lagoon provides a secure anchorage, and with an average rainfall of more than 100 inches a year, there was plenty of fresh water in the catchment basins the U.S. Navy built there during World War II. Besides, as one sailor said, "Yachtsmen always dream of stopping on a deserted island."

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