Vivian Johnson

Date: Wed, 29 Mar 2000 21:16:54 -0500

Media In America

Instructor:  Moti Nissani

vivian.jpg (96514 bytes)

Newspapers Snub the Specter of Assassination:

Was Walter Reuther murdered?

In this paper I am going to discuss the death of Walter Reuther and the
suspicious way that the newspapers covered it. My interest in Walter
Reuther arose in part from my experiences as a member of the United Auto
Workers. While at the Walter and May Reuther Educational and Recreational
Center at Black Lake, I saw a film that depicted much about the life of
Walter Reuther and I was fascinated. I wanted to know more about him and
this paper gave me the opportunity to do just that. After completing my
research, I feel that the newspapers engaged in a conspiracy of silence
while reporting on the death of Walter Reuther: they presented information
about the plane crash along with biographical data, but only one paper
addressed the possibility that he may have been murdered.

Walter Reuther died at the age of 62 in a plane crash. He was the dynamic
and charismatic leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW). This second son of
a German immigrant couple was born on September 1, 1907, in Wheeling, West
Virginia. Walter Reuther was born into the labor movement and during his 35
years as a labor leader, he was instrumental in bringing it to its greatest
expansion in American History. His father, Valentine, a socialist, trained
Walter early in trade unionism and encouraged his natural bent for debate.
Walter Reuther was first and foremost a labor organizer, with an
overpowering sense of social justice that shaped his controversial,
temperamental, combustible, and at times unrelenting character. Reuther
developed his passion for social justice from his father. By nature shrewd
and brilliant, he developed a fiery oratorical style that captured the
imagination of millions of supporters. It was not uncommon for Reuther to
hold an audience mesmerized for three or more hours1. As a member of the
UAW, I now enjoy many of the same benefits that Reuther obtained for its

There are some who believe that Reuther was murdered, most especially his
family. It was a dark and rainy night on May 9, 1970 near Pellston,
Michigan. Walter Reuther, his wife May, the architect Oscar Stonorov, a
bodyguard, the pilot and co-pilot were killed in a chartered Lear jet while
en route to the union’s recreational and educational facility at Black Lake.
This new facility had been designed by Oscar Stonorov and was due to be
opened to the membership within a few weeks of the crash. There were three
witnesses who heard the plane before it crashed and then were subsequently
at the scene. Manuel Suarez, a farmer, said “He (the pilot) came over the
house and sounded awful low. It was right above the house, then the sound
stopped and I looked out the window.” Suarez was the first to reach the
crash site and was soon joined by Donald and Sharon Bonter. Sharon Bonter
said “I saw a huge light from our house. I heard a couple of small booms
before the light.”2

In October of 1968, a year and a half before the fatal crash, Reuther and
his brother Victor were almost killed in a small private plane as it
approached Dulles Airport. Luckily for the Reuther brothers, the sky was
clear and the pilots realized the plane was too low and the altimeter was
malfunctioning. The pilots managed a crash landing that allowed all on
board to walk away without injury. Both incidents are amazingly similar;
the altimeter in the fatal crash was believed to have malfunctioned. When
Victor Reuther was interview many years after the fatal crash he said “I
and other family members are convinced that both the fatal crash and the
near fatal one in 1968 were not accidental.”3

There was only one article in the Detroit Free Press that detailed some of
the previous murder attempts on the lives of Walter and Victor Reuther. I
found it strange that only one of the five newspapers discussed the murder
attempts. This article was printed on May 11, 1970. It concentrates on
the murder attempts that occurred in 1948 and 1949, the investigation, and
the reward for information raised by the union. I believe that the murder
attempt in 1938 had been retribution for his union activities at Ford Motor
Company. The article suggests that the two incidents in 1948 and 1949, were
similar because they had been committed by hidden assailants who stood
behind house-side bushes, and fired shotgun blasts through a window. Some
details of the attempts are:

1) In April 1938, two masked gunmen forced their way into Walter Reuther’s
home and tried to abduct him. One of the dinner guests managed to escape
and call for help. The assailants were caught and acquitted in a trial that
was a sham. One of the defendants provided security for Ford Motor Company.
The jury was packed with Ford supporters and the lawyer for the defense
claimed that Ruether had staged the event.4
2) In April 1948, they tried to kill Walter Reuther with shotgun blasts in
his home. Reuther said: “I went to the icebox to get a bowl of fruit salad,
my wife was just a foot from me. I had just made that step and the dish in
my hand just flew into a thousand pieces. In fact, the impact of the thing
knocked me down on the floor, and I tried to get up and I got my arm tangled
up as thought it had been torn off. I couldn’t get up, and I lay there flat
on my back for a second or two. They shot through the both the regular
window and the storm window in the kitchen, and I just lay there on the
floor until they came and took me to the hospital.” He suffered chest and
arm wounds that never allowed him to recover the full use of his right arm
and hand.
3) Victor Reuther was almost killed in 1949 by what appeared to be law
enforcement officials. The Detroit Police claimed that neighbors had been
complaining about his barking dog. The next evening after Victor had given
the dog to family friends, he was shot in the head while in his home. He
suffered the loss of part of his right eye and parts of his jaw.
4) There was an attempt in 1949 to bomb the UAW’s headquarters in Detroit.
The Detroit Police nor J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation
attempted to discover who the perpetrators were.5
Why doesn’t anyone seem to find it strange that this article was not enough
to spur local or national attention nor any debate in the other newspapers?

If Walter Reuther was indeed murdered or assassinated, there are others with
political enemies and bents toward social justice who have preceded him.
Consider the assassinations of the following individuals:
1) John Fitzgerald Kennedy our 35th president was murdered on November 22,
1963 while visiting Dallas, Texas. Although he and his brother were from a
very wealthy and affluent family, he sought to promote social change and
justice for the victims of discrimination in this country.6
2) Malcolm X was murdered on February 21, 1965. He was labeled a radical
black civil rights activist with ties to the Nation of Islam. He felt that
violence towards those that would do him and his supporters harm was
3) Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968. He was a black civil
rights activist who advocated change through non-violent means.8
4) Senator Robert Francis Kennedy former Attorney General under JFK’s
administration died on June 6, 1968, one day after he was shot at point
blank range to the head. He had recently announced his candidacy for
president on March 16, 1968 and had just finished giving a speech to his
All of these men were heavily involved in civil rights and the move toward
social justice for all Americans. Why is it that no one seems to find it
curious that some of the major voices for social change were silenced within
such a short span of time?

When I consider what happened to these men, I cannot help thinking about the
death of two of my relatives. Again, their story seems to support the view
that political murders are quite common in the USA. My grandfathers lived
in rural Alabama during the most racist era in American history.
African-Americans could not seek justice in a society dominated by whites.
Segregation left African-Americans in the position of feeling both inferior
and expendable.

My paternal grandfather was murdered after he was falsely accused of raping
a white female. Men came to his home and took him away. He was found a
short time later, beaten to death. My grandmother was left to raise her six
children alone and never remarried. My maternal grandfather was thrown in
front a moving train. His remains were spread about the area of impact. My
grandmother was left to raise her five children alone and she never
remarried. My parents explained that there was nowhere for their families
to go for justice, because they feared reprisals from whites. Both men were
in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Their murders were just as
politically motivated as the others. It is a shame that the political and
social atmosphere of the time would allow such a thing to happen. I believe
that it is basically the same environment that allowed the deaths of JFK,
Malcolm X, RFK and MLK. Is it such a stretch to assume that our government
and other parties may have been involved in Walter Reuther’s death?

I decided to focus my research on May 9, 1970 (the day of Reuther’s death),
through the end of that month. My study was confined to the following
newspapers: Christian Science Monitor (CSM), Detroit Free Press (DFP),
Detroit News (DN), Michigan Chronicle (MC), and New York Times (NYT). The
picture that emerged was quite unsettling. I found 31 articles on the
subject of Walter Reuther’s death. There were five editorials, one
obituary, one article on the National Transportation Safety Board’s initial
report. There was one conspiracy article from my class on Media in America
and one article that discussed previous murder attempts. The rest involved
biographies, details of the crash, and how the UAW was effected before and
after Reuther’s death. As a reader who knew about the appearance of a
conspiracy in this case, I was left with more questions than I had before I
started. A reader who was exposed to the facts printed by the newspapers at
that time, were not given enough information. How could the public
understand the ramifications of Walter Reuther’s death without all of the
facts? Why were the newspapers so unwilling to give it to them?

Many of the newspapers went through the process of trying to explain
something about the life and times of Walter Reuther. I found it strange
that the CSM had one very brief paragraph mentioning Reuther’s death, three
days after the deadly crash. It was on page two and it appeared in a
regular section called The News-Briefly. It was only three sentences long.
It mentioned that Walter Reuther had died along with his wife May, his
affiliation with the UAW, and the size of its membership.10 There was no
other mention of him made during the time frame for my research. Why is
that? Why would a regional paper totally ignore the president of the
largest labor union in the country? A man who had been courted and
consulted by the politically powerful and the corporate world’s elite? Why
did they consider his death to be of so little consequence?

Considering the fact that the DFP and the DN operate within the sphere of
the UAW’s World Headquarters, you would expect for them to have the most
in-depth reports involving Walter Reuther’s death. I found this to be true.
Both papers had many details about his life and the plane crash that killed
him, testimonials, and details about Reuther’s funeral rites. On May 11,
1970 (two days after the fatal crash), the DN set itself apart from all four
of the other papers, when an article was printed asking: What caused the
crash of Reuther’s jet? The DN’s Aerospace Writer, Edwin Pip, wanted to
know how a time-proven airplane, flown by an experienced pilot in reasonable
weather, could suddenly plunge to the ground. Eight investigators from the
NTSB were said to be at the crash site probing the wreckage from the plane,
and that this was the question that faced them.

Pip mentions that there was “absolutely no sign of trouble reported at the
time” (of the crash). Everything appeared normal as the pilot George Evans,
48, started his final approach for landing. One of the pilots radioed that
they had the airport in sight. He notes that witnesses saw the plane’s
bright landing lights wink on as it approached the field. The plane should
have been flying at about 130 miles per hour, only seconds away from
touchdown, but two and three quarter miles short of the airport something
happened. Suddenly the plane--flying on visual rules, not ground
controlled—was lower than it should have been. It sliced off the top of a
50-foot elm tree, and slammed into the ground in a ball of flame. Again,
there was no indication from the crew over the radio that any problem

Officials at Executive Jet Aviation in Columbus, Ohio, where the jet was
based, said Evans was probably one of the most experienced Lear Jet pilots
in the world. He had been with the company three years. Joe Karaffa, 41,
was the co-pilot and had only recently joined the charter firm after his Air
Force career; both men were retired military jet pilots. The Lear Jet is
one of the first jets designed and built specifically for business flying.
It carries a crew of two and six passengers at nearly 600 miles per hour.
They were first put on the market in 1965, but during the first few years
there were a number of fatal accidents. Some were due to aircraft failures,
but most by pilot inexperience. That certainly was not the case with the
pilots flying Reuther’s plane.11

The NTSB’s preliminary ruling of what caused the crash of Walter Reuther’s
plane on May 9, 1970, was printed on May 14, 1970 in the DN. The same
author of the previous article, Edwin Pip, covered the ruling. The accident
investigators said that the twin jet engines of the plane that carried
Walter Reuther and five others to their deaths had flamed out after striking
trees before the crash. The investigators also noted that the Lear Jet hit
trees on a knoll that was 200 feet higher than the airport near Pellston, MI
and a little more than two miles from the runway. The left engine ingested
wood from the trees and flamed out. The right engine ingested wood and
metal from the airplane and also flamed out. Investigators said after that,
the pilots were only passengers aboard the plane. They had no power to
recover. The investigators recovered an altimeter believed to be the pilot’
s and took it back to Washington, DC for analysis.12

The DFR, DN, MC, and NYT all printed the initial findings of the National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), but the final report that was released
on December 22, 1970 was totally ignored. The report seemed to focus on the
altimeter found in the wreckage. There were several unusual defects noted
with the device:
1) A brass screw was found loose in the instrument case. If the screw was
loose, it would have left the high by 200-300 feet.
2) An incorrect pivot was installed in one end of a rocking shaft.
3) An end stone was missing from the opposite end of the rocking shaft.
4) A ring jewel within the mechanism was installed off center.
5) A second rocking shaft rear support pivot was incorrect.
6) The wrong kind of link pin, which holds a spring clip in place at the
pneumatic capsule, was installed.
7) An end stone, which supports a shaft within the mechanism, was installed
off center.13

I must admit that I was extremely biased before I began my research. I
believe that Walter Reuther was murdered. I had to make a conscious effort
to remain objective. I must also admit that after reading all of the
articles involved in my research, my feelings have not changed. If nothing
else, my beliefs have been strengthened by the total disreguard for
responsible reporting that I found. Many of us believe that our media is
the last bastion of truth and freedom. That is not what my research has
proven. What I found were newspapers that were very selective about what
version of truth they wished to reveal to the public. Whether this was due
to some form of political subversion or other powerful entities, we may
never know.

Walter Reuther presented a very real threat to our political establishment.
He and his brother Victor had not made things easy for themselves when they
went to Russia in 1932. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI doctored a letter that Victor
Reuther sent back to the United States to make it seem as if they were
communists. This letter was distributed to political leaders, corporate
heads, and rival unionists to prove that they were communist sympathizers.
J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI would plague Walter Reuther for almost forty
years. He was constantly a thorn in Reuther’s side and Reuther could do
nothing without Hoover documenting the details.14

As if Walter Reuther’s stance on business, political, and social policies
were not enough, consider these facts:

1) Reuther ran ads in the national media and appeared before congressional
committees to denounce the war and call for drastic cuts in the military
2) In January of 1970, three months before the crash, President Richard
Nixon requested the FBI’s files on Walter Reuther.
3) One day before the fatal crash, Walter Reuther sent a telegram to the
White House condemning the war, the invasion, and “the bankruptcy of our
policy of force and violence in Vietnam.”15

One can imagine that this was not well received by the Nixon White House.
One can also assume that this was not well received by any of the
corporations providing material for the American war machine. With all of
this information being public knowledge and not to mention a sensational
story, why did only one of the newspapers (DFP), provide any in-depth
reporting into the possibility of assassination? Why did the other
newspapers remain silent about the possibility that Walter Reuther was

Walter Reuther had made many enemies in both the political arena and in the
world of business through his negotiations for the UAW, and his social
agenda. Some may have felt that he had become too powerful and had to be
stopped! Walter Reuther’s position as the president of the largest labor
union in America provided him with many resources to promote his agenda.
Reuther’s stance on civil rights for African-Americans and the social
programs that he advocated for the poor did not endear him to his enemies.
The previous murder attempts on the life of Walter Reuther, should have been
examined more thoroughly.

The newspapers and our government have remained strangely silent in this
matter. I find it hard to believe that the FBI still refuses to turn over
nearly 200 pages of documents involving Reuther’s death, and correspondence
between field offices and J. Edgar Hoover. Many of the released documents
are well over forty years old, and the pages were totally inked out!16 Is
there some matter of national security involved where our FBI and CIA would
still want to keep so many secrets about the life and death of Walter
Reuther? Who knows what evidence may have been found to either support or
refute those who believe that Walter Reuther was murdered?

The UAW and those in the world who sought social change, lost an incredible
voice for their causes when Walter Reuther was silenced on May 9, 1970. I
had always viewed the information given by our media with a great deal of
skepticism, but now I know more than ever that we must find as many sources
as possible to seek the truth for ourselves. Our newspapers seem to have
lost all objectivity.

Works listed in order cited:

1) Dewey, James. “A Born Battler for Labor’s Causes.” Detroit Free Press.
11 May 1970. 3B.

2) Delisle, Tom and James Dewey. “Walter Reuther is Dead and the Nation
Mourns.” Detroit Free Press. 11 May 1970. 1A+.

3) Parenti, Michael and Peggy Norton. “The Wonderful Life and Strange Death
of Walter Reuther.” 1996. 193.

4) Parenti, Michael and Peggy Norton. “The Wonderful Life and Strange Death
of Walter Reuther.” 1996. 194-196.

5) Mollison, Andrew. “ ’48 Shooting, Still Unsolved, Sent Family into
Seclusion.” 11 May 1970. 2B.

6) Kennedy, John F. American Presidents. 14 March 2000.

7) Malcolm X. 14 March 2000.

8) Martin Luther King-A Historical Examination. 14 March 2000.

9) Robert F. Kennedy Biography. 14 March 2000.

10) “The News in Brief.” Christian Science Monitor. 12 May 1970. 2.

11) Pip, Edwin G. “What caused the crash of Reuther’s jet?” Detroit News.
11 May 1970. 11A.

12) Pip, Edwin G. “Reuther plane had a flame out.” Detroit News. 14 May
1970. 1A.

13) National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Accident Report,
Executive Jet Aviation, Inc. Lear Jet L23A N434EJ Near the Emmet County
Airport, Pellston, Michigan, May 9, 1970, Report No. NTSB-AAR-71-3.

14) Parenti, Michael and Peggy Norton. “The Wonderful Life and Strange
Death of Walter Reuther.” 1996. 194.

15) Parenti, Michael and Peggy Norton. “The Wonderful Life and Strange
Death of Walter Reuther.” 1996. 200-201.

16) Parenti, Michael and Peggy Norton. “The Wonderful Life and Strange
Death of Walter Reuther.” 1996. 206.

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