The plane crash where Howard Hunt’s wife died: a true story

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There are many true stories that people are discovering through the HBO series White House Plumbers: we already discussed the overall Watergate scandal, the Dita Beard memo, and the many dark events of American history involving Howard Hunt. But it’s significant how Episode 4 of the miniseries focused entirely on the destiny of Howard Hunt’s wife, Dorothy Hunt, who tragically died in a mysterious plane crash in the middle of the Watergate investigations. Let’s see the true story of what happened and why it’s considered a possible element supporting the conspiracy theories behind that scandal.

The plane crash where Howard Hunt’s wife died: the true story

It’s a true story: Howard Hunt’s wife, Dorothy Hunt, died in a mysterious plane crash on December 8, 1972, six months after the Watergate break-in. In that period, the investigations around the Watergate scandal were escalating. Howard Hunt was under massive pressure: the trial for the Watergate break-in was about to begin, and Hunt was already among the indicted (together with Gordon Liddy and the five burglars). Howard Hunt needed to work on his defense, knowing that telling the truth would involve Nixon’s administration directly. The alternative was pleading guilty and denying any connection with the White House: this way, he would simply go to jail, hoping that Nixon (recently re-elected) would pardon him as a sign of gratefulness for his silence.

Just a few weeks before the start of the trial, United Air Lines Flight 553 crashed during the landing operations. On that flight, there was Howard Hunt’s wife Dorothy, CBS news correspondent Michelle Clark, and Illinois congressman George W. Collins. According to the investigations, the cause of the accident was a pilot error: the flight crew failed to properly monitor and control the aircraft’s descent rate during the approach, and that was identified as the primary factor that led to the plane crash.

However, many weird elements were noticed around that plane crash. Above all, the presence of the FBI, which arrived on the scene 45 minutes after the crash, before the official investigators from the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). The FBI requested access to the control tower tapes even before NTSB. On Wikipedia, you can read an extract of the letter the NTSB chairman sent to the FBI Director in 1973, raising concerns about what really happened in that crash:

“For the first time in the memory of our staff, an FBI agent went to the control tower and listened to the tower tapes before our investigators had done so; and for the-first time to our knowledge, in connection with an aircraft accident, an FBI agent interviewed witnesses to the crash, including flight attendants on the aircraft prior to the NTSB interviews. As I am sure you can understand, these actions, particularly with respect to this flight on which Mrs. E. Howard Hunt was killed, have raised innumerable questions in the minds of those with legitimate interests in ascertaining the cause of this accident.”

The FBI answered that when they arrived at the crash scene, they were still unaware that Dorothy Hunt was in that flight, and the presence of the FBI on a plane crash had the purpose of “developing any information indicating a possible Federal violation within the investigative jurisdiction of the FBI.”

The conspiracy theory: did someone want Dorothy Hunt dead?

The mystery around that plane crash fed many conspiracy theories. After all, that became famous as “the crash that changed the course of US history.” After his wife died, Howard Hunt pleaded guilty at the trial, specifying that no higher-ups were involved in any conspiracy. Which was precisely what Nixon’s administration wanted: Nixon needed to downplay that scandal, cutting any connection with the Watergate break-in, and the best outcome for him would be that the ones indicted would be sentenced as the sole responsible for those crimes.

Subsequent investigations proved that the White House was secretly sending money to Howard Hunt and the burglars in exchange for their silence. Howard Hunt’s wife, Dorothy Hunt, was the person who dispatched that money to everyone involved, for months: after the plane crash, $10,000 in cash was found on Dorothy. But the theory is that the Hunts and the burglars were unhappy about the situation, the money was not enough, and Dorothy Hunt was close to revealing classified information to the press, offering Howard Hunt’s point of view and potentially involving the White House. That could be the reason why the CBS news correspondent was present on that flight.

The potential information leak directly from Dorothy Hunt would have been a disaster for Nixon’s administration. That led to the birth of the conspiracy theory, according to which the plane crash was provoked to kill Howard Hunt’s wife. And from this point of view, her death would become a strong message to the indicted on the Watergate trial: knowing what could happen to those who threaten to involve the White House, Howard Hunt, Gordon Liddy, and the burglars would decide autonomously what’s their best approach at the trial. On the other side, there is a recording of a phone call conversation between Nixon and his special counsel, Charles Colson, where Colson informs Nixon about Howard Hunt’s wife’s death in the plane crash. It was reported here by the Washington Post:

“I just got a terribly tragic bit of news. That plane crash — Howard Hunt’s wife was on it.” Nixon interjected with real surprise in his voice, “His wife is dead?” Colson responded, “Yes sir, she was killed in that plane crash in Chicago.”
Nixon was thunderstruck. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed

The surprise in Nixon’s reaction would prove that he had nothing to do with any sabotage ordered to kill Dorothy Hunt.

As we explained, Howard Hunt pleaded guilty, and the burglars followed his example. Hunt’s hope was to be pardoned by the President, but that didn’t happen, as Nixon had to resign precisely because of the Watergate scandal in 1974. In 1975, Hunt was sentenced to 30 months to 8 years in prison and then spent 33 months in jail. Becoming the last twist of his incredible life.

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