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Catch me if you can.
THROWBACK

The fascinating story of an American smuggler’s daring escapades in 1960s India

By Abeer Kapoor

The manifest of the Riley 65 that took off from Karachi at 4 am on June 8, 1964, stated that it was going to undertake a short journey to Jask in Iran. On clearing Pakistani airspace, the pilot, captain McLister, under the advice of his co-pilot, captain Peter John Philby, took a sharp U-turn and headed towards India. To avoid radar surveillance, they flew low. The twin-engine plane was carrying precious cargo—675 Swiss watches—which the flyers wanted to sell for money and buy gold to smuggle out of India.

As they approached the Indian coast, McLister began flying southwards along Bombay. Philby kept his eyes peeled for two of his men, Jeno Csory Novak and Charlie Gillbanks, who were meant to flag down the plane with red and green saris about 80 km from the city. But he soon found that neither of them had shown up.

But what made it worse for the establishment was Scotland Yard’s revelation that Philby was none other than Daniel Hailey Walcott Jr—one of India’s most wanted criminals

The events that followed resembled something straight out of a spy novel: forced to land on Murud beach after they ran out of fuel, Philby and McLister gave the authorities the slip and escaped to Pakistan, with their million-dollar haul intact. The “Murud Plane Incident,”as it came to be known, left the Indian government red-faced. But what made it worse for the establishment was Scotland Yard’s revelation that Philby was none other than Daniel Hailey Walcott Jr.—one of India’s most wanted criminals who ran an international smuggling ring and who had successfully managed to dupe the Indian authorities, not once, but twice.

Enigmatic figure

Daniel Hailey Walcott Jr was born on Nov. 26, 1927, in Dalhart, Texas. His father was a geologist and a businessman, which kept the entire family on the move. The early peripatetic years came useful later in life. As required, Walcott would paint a colourful childhood—his lies ranged from saying he was the son of a judge to claiming he was a descendant of Oliver Walcott, a man who signed the US Declaration of Independence.

During the Second World War, Walcott served in the American Navy, and after his service, took admission in the University of Virginia. His sharp intellect could have taken him anywhere, but he wanted something else in life and dropped out.

“Dan Walcott landed in the old guard affluence of San Francisco as a young man in the 1950s,” wrote Joe Mozingo in his article Will the Real Daniel Walcott Please Stand Up? in the Los Angeles Times on March 11, 2001. He described Walcott as a “somewhat mystery man, a Gatsby-esque figure, not really belonging to the world he had come to inhabit. Tall and slender, with piercing blue eyes, he was charming and debonair with a stately charm.”

According to Mozingo, Walcott married into a family in the highest echelons of San Francisco’s society. Patsy Browne, his first wife, didn’t even know what he did for a living. Five years after their wedding, Walcott set up a freighting company called the Trans Atlantic Airlines. He flew refugees in and out of countries, imported exotic animals into the US, and slowly made his way to other parts of the world.

Brush with the law

By 1962, Walcott’s Trans Atlantic Airways had won a contract with Air India and his planes were flying cargo from railway hubs in India to Afghanistan and back. The Walcotts made India their temporary home and travelled around in his Piper Apache.

During this time, it is alleged, Walcott sold cartridges to India’s rich princely states.

Things began unravelling for him on the night of Sept. 20, 1962, as the police barged into the couple’s room in New Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel. A search revealed 766 ordinary gun cartridges and two emergency cartridges. Forty boxes of 250 cartridges each were discovered in Walcott’s plane parked at Safdarjung Airport.

Walcott was arrested on charges of smuggling and violating the Arms Act. He was presented in the court of NL Kakkar, a sub-divisional magistrate in Delhi, and immediately charged with smuggling, with intent to sell. He was remanded under judicial custody and sent to Tihar. His planes were impounded as well.

On Oct. 23, shortly after being released on bail, Walcott tried to escape through the Wagah border but was caught and brought back to Delhi, where he was put on trial again. This time, Walcott adopted another strategy. India was hurtling towards war with China, and he offered his planes for the war effort. The magistrate considered the offer but sent Walcott back to jail anyway. His legal travails continued for a while, until he was finally let go in one case: his jail term was reduced to time served and he was asked to pay bail.

There were still two problems: Walcott’s planes were still impounded, and he owed the Tatas over Rs60,000 ($861). He was in a tight spot.

Gifts from the skies

Walcott had been allowed to maintain his Piper Apache and would go every morning to fire up his plane. On the morning of Sept. 23, 1963, much as he had done in the previous week, Walcott filled some fuel and powered up the engine under the eye of the constable at the Safdarjung Airport.

During the past year, whenever Walcott was out of jail, he had made short jaunts to neighbouring countries and returned. But now the authorities were obtaining a non-bailable warrant because he was showing no sign of paying back the Tatas.

“The only violation of Indian law that I could possibly have committed was to waive procedural red tape…”

Walcott was aware of this development and on Sept. 23, before the constable could find his bearings, started the plane towards the runway. The plane took off and before leaving Delhi’s airspace, it flew a little circle over Tihar, allegedly dropping chocolates, cigarettes, and other items for the inmates. Two Hunter Hawker jets of the Indian Air Force reportedly gave him chase, but by then he had crossed into Pakistani airspace. On landing, he immediately called a press conference to complain about the ills of the Indian bureaucracy: “The only violation of Indian law that I could possibly have committed was to waive procedural red tape…”

An investigation in India considered whether the officers on duty at the Safdarjung Airport had been bribed by the American, but the findings were inconclusive. One story says that a constable chased Walcott’s plane and when he got close, Walcott turned on the wipers to squirt water on his pursuer.

Smuggling haven

During his stint in Tihar Jail, Walcott had met Jean Claude Donze, a French gold smuggler. Together they came up with an ambitious plan to smuggle gold to India, but soon their smuggling network spanned 20 cities in two continents.

In post-Independence India, smuggling was commonplace. India’s western coastline had enough creeks, inlets and drop-off points that were used to smuggle gold, watches, cigarettes, and liquor into the country. An article by Anjali Chanda in The Times of India in 1971 detailed how these goods were brought in: dhows, or traditional Arab sail boats, would moor off the coast and wait for Indian merchant crafts. An exchange of goods would follow and the ships would drop off the bounty either in Bombay or elsewhere along the coast. An article in The Economist in 1971 surmised that over Rs400 crore of gold was illegally shipped into India every year.

Walcott and Donze put advertisements in newspapers on behalf of their several fronts, lied to their pilots, or hired them for their schemes. On that fateful June morning in 1964, their plane headed to India for a quick in and out, something they had done earlier. But this time, things panned out differently.

Circling around the Bombay area, while searching for their aircraft marshallers, they were soon running on fumes. McLister had no option but to make a forced landing. Once they hit the soft ground, the plane went up on its nose and the propellers bent under the weight of the plane.

Walcott jumped out fearing that the jerry cans would catch fire, and pulled a dazed McLister out. They had landed on Murud Beach, over 150 km from Bombay. A small crowd quickly gathered, and McLister and Walcott—pretending to be Philby—were forced to trek to the closest police station in Dapoli.

Two police officers returned with them and an elaborate web of lies followed. Walcott and McLister claimed to be flying enthusiasts who had taken off from Amritsar to land in Bombay, but had got lost along the way. They repeated this story to the district magistrate and were ordered to have their bags checked.

Walcott convinced the district magistrate and the police to stand guard over the plane so that they could get help. They managed to fill two suitcases with contraband, got on a local bus, and made their way to Bombay.

Narrow escape

Six hours later, on reaching the city, they contacted Novak, one of the two men who was supposed to flag the plane down. Escape, they realised, was their only option. But there was a problem—while Novak had a stamp on his passport on entering India, Walcott and McLister did not. The next morning, at Santa Cruz airport, Walcott and McLister managed to join a group of passengers who were making their way to the immigration counter. Though their names were not on the flight manifest, the two managed to convince the Indian officials that it was a bureaucratic error on the part of the airline.

With the necessary stamps procured, the trio was soon on board a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Karachi. From there, they travelled to Iran and eventually reached London.

But on the way to London, McLister either grew a conscience or became squeamish about the work he was doing. He abandoned his companions and made a beeline for the Swiss embassy. He contacted the Interpol and the first thing he revealed was that his co-pilot Philby was none other than Daniel Hailey Walcott Jr He was then sent to London to be further investigated.

With hardly any time to lick its wounds, the Indian government was once again left embarrassed by another escape by a wanted man. The news of the plane landing in Murud had created a stir and the government was getting attacked in the Parliament. Indian policemen were sent to London to investigate and it was confirmed by the London Police that Philby was indeed Walcott, who was carrying four different passports. It also appeared, through news reports, that the Indian police “may have had prior information” on Philby’s real identity. Police officers had shown a photo of Walcott at the hotel in Bombay where Donze and he were staying.

Time magazine, in an article on Walcott in 1966, described India as the “world’s richest market for smugglers.” And Walcott and Donze made the most of this till they were caught in August that year. They were tried in what became a thrilling case involving maps, documents, conspiracies, espionage, and a five-year prison sentence.

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