60th Anniversary of Bearden Hijacking Case

By 6 a.m. that morning, refueling was dragging on, and the hijackers were becoming increasingly nervous. They demanded the plane leave. As the fuel trucks moved away, the plane’s engines fired up. Agents, however, were ready to execute a plan agreed to by FBI Headquarters and Continental executives. As the pilots slowly taxied toward the runway, Crosby ordered his agents to shoot out the tires.

The plane was soon surrounded by law enforcement and would go no farther on its flat tires. The temperature on the tarmac climbed from the 70s towards the 90s, and the airplane air grew stifling. The air conditioning was not working.

At this point, Bearden allowed Crosby to come on board and discuss matters. Crosby made it clear that the plane was not going to take off and that no replacement would arrive. The Beardens would be prosecuted criminally. In other words, the only mitigation was cooperation. Crosby told Bearden he should surrender. Bearden, in turn, said he and Cody didn’t want to harm anyone, but thought this was the only way they could get to Cuba.

As Crosby and Bearden talked, additional back-up infiltrated the cockpit of the plane. Shortly before noon, they made their presence known, and Crosby and the Border Patrol official immediately secured Leon Beardon and his son. The two were arrested and led off the plane.

They were immediately arraigned on several charges. Cody Bearden pleaded guilty under the Juvenile Delinquency Act and served prison time until he turned 21.

Leon Bearden was quickly convicted at trial and on October 31, 1961, was sentenced to life imprisonment for kidnapping and other crimes. The kidnapping charge was eventually vacated by the Fifth Circuit court on account of the possibility that pre-trial publicity tainted the jury, but Bearden’s conviction on obstruction of interstate commerce by extortion was upheld. He was sent to federal prison.

The Bearden case followed successful hijackings that year on May 1 and July 24 and an unsuccessful attempt on July 31.

After the Bearden case became the fourth hijacking in as many months, Congress amended the 1958 Federal Aviation Act to add a number of federal charges to address crimes committed aboard an aircraft. Bearden, of course, could not be charged under the new law, but it did increase the tools the government had at its disposal to go after these criminals.