Flight crew captain Cabeza and co-pilot Bacus had flown the route between Kankakee, Illinois, and Dallas, Texas several times. They and the other two members of the flight crew were very familiar with the twin-propeller DC-3 aircraft and, when filing the flight plan, the weather between the two cities looked favorable for flying. That day 23 passengers boarded the plane but, when it touched down, there was a mystery to be solved. Only 22 got off.
Concerning events were taking place in this country in1968. Young people were protesting the Vietnam War, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King's lives were cut short when both were assassinated. However, life in Pontiac, Illinois, was pretty much the same as it had always been., especially for the Potter family.
Jerrold Potter, his wife Carrie, and their two daughters found the pace of life in the midwestern town to their liking. Oh, they knew about the things that were transpiring in the rest of the country but, to them, those events were merely incidents reported on the nightly news.
Potter and his brother jointly owned an insurance company and, as far as everyone knew, business was good. Jerrold Potter was active in local organizations and was a member of the Lions Club, the Elks and Moose Clubs, and the chamber of commerce. The businessman had for sixteen years been a city councilman and was the city's mayor pro tempore. Life for the Potter family was pretty darn good.
The Potters lived on Vermillion Street in a very nice five-bedroom home. The house was considered by most to be one of the nicest homes in Pontiac, a showcase if you will. The local newspaper, The Pantagraph, described the house as "cheery and comfortable." By all appearances, life couldn't get much better for the Potter family.
It was in the summer of 1968 that Jerrold and his wife, Carrie, planned to attend a national Lions Club convention in Dallas. A twin-propeller DC-3 plane chartered through Purdue Aviation would take the couple and 21 other passengers on the flight from Kankakee to Dallas.
About an hour into the flight, Jerrold, known to his friends as Jerry, leaned over and told his wife that he was going to the plane's lavatory. To get to that room on the DC-3 one walked to the rear of the plane and passed through a partition and into an alcove area near the cargo storage area of the plane. The door to the bathroom would have been on Potter's left and to his right was the main passenger boarding door to the aircraft.
As Jerry walked down the aisle heading toward the rear of the plane, he stopped for a moment and talked with an old friend, Jim Schaive. Schaive was enjoying the flight and asked Potter if he wanted a drink. Potter said he thought he better wait until he had something to eat. "Maybe later," he told Schaive.
Just a few seconds passed and, after Potter disappeared on the other side of the partition, something happened that captured the attention of many of the passengers. Some later said it was the sound of wind while others claimed that it appeared that the plane lurched. Whatever it was, the disturbance wasn't significant enough to cause concern with the flight attendant. The pilot did detect the sensation of a lurch, and there was a drag on the aircraft itself. The pilot also saw that the open-door light was activated.
A few minutes passed when Carrie Potter got the attention of the flight attendant. She told the young woman that her husband had gone to the lavatory and not returned. She asked if the attendant would check to see if he was alright.
The flight attendant found that the bathroom was not occupied and notified the captain that a passenger was missing. Captain Cabeza asked co-pilot Bacus to investigate the matter. Bacus found that the chain securing the main boarding door was broken and the door was open. He also discovered that the retractable stairs used by passengers when boarding the plane were extended. That explained the drag on the plane and the warning light.
Carrie was informed of the open door and told that her husband had not been located.
Carrie later said, "I insisted that they let me go back to the door, but they wouldn't let me go back. There was nothing I could have gained by it. From the look on the stewardess's face, I knew he was gone."
Considering the horrific developments, the pilot diverted the plane to Springfield, Missouri, where an emergency landing took place. Apparently, news of the incident traveled faster than the plane and, upon departing the aircraft, local news reporters swarmed around the plane asking questions of the crew and passengers.
One of the passengers told a reporter from the Rolla Daily News, "There was a loud bang when the door opened. That's all I know. I don't think the other passengers could tell you anymore."
The DC-3 was searched from top to bottom, but no trace of Jerry Potter could be found. It was determined that the incident took place at about 1:45 p.m. The plane would have been flying at a speed of 118 miles per hour and would have been at an altitude of eight thousand feet. Some calculations were performed, and it was determined that that would place the aircraft somewhere over Phelps County, Missouri.
A search was initiated for the body of Jerrold Potter and for four days the hills and woods of Phelps County were searched. However, the body of Jerry was not discovered. Fearing that one or more of the 150 people in the search party might be injured, Carrie accepted the fact that her husband was gone and asked that the search be discontinued.
Two young boys did report that they witnessed an object falling from the sky. The youngsters said the object landed near their home but, after searching that area, nothing was found.
An extensive investigation was initiated with the assumption that Jerry had fallen from the plane. The investigation raised all sorts of possibilities, but no concrete evidence was uncovered. However, the New York Daily News published a story two months after the incident. The story reported that on February 11, 1950, the same door on another DC-3 suddenly opened and a flight attendant plunged to her death.
The article said that on that same day another flight attendant was pulled through the boarding door when the door suddenly and inexplicably flew open. Luckily, she grabbed the door's handle and held on until help came.
Jerrold Potter's body was never recovered. There was some talk about suicide or maybe insurance money, but that was little more than idle gossip. Carrie eventually sued the Purdue Aviation Company for $800,000 but, when all was said and done, agreed to a settlement of one-tenth of that amount, $80,000.00, the value of a loving husband and father.
Some relatives and good friends of Connie Potter gathered at the First Presbyterian Church in Pontiac, Illinois, on July the 8th in the year 1968. They came to pay their respects and be part of the memorial service for Carrie's husband, Jerrold. However, the thing most on the minds of those good folks in attendance that day was one glaring and unanswered question. What really happened to Jerrold Potter?
Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. The opinions expressed are those of the author.