Brent Downs (Photo submitted)
Editor's note: This is the second article in a three-part series.
Commercial aviation pilot Brent Downs, at age 29, did not make a lot of money when making chartered flights for now defunct Nashville-based Big Brothers Aircraft.
Finances were the primary motivation for him accepting a flight assignment at 2 o'clock in the morning of Oct. 4, 1971.
“My father and mother were struggling to make financial ends meet, with me, as an 18-month-old son, and Mom was already pregnant with my younger brother about to be born,” said Andy Downs, a resident of Murfreesboro, who has devoted the last six years of his life tracing bizarre and brutal circumstances that led to his father’s murder.
“Dad did not want to leave his pregnant wife that late night,” he said. “But, he needed the cash, so he agreed to take the mission.”
Brent Downs had no way of knowing a series of terrorizing circumstances were unfurling that would end his life.
As he was motoring from his Donelson-area residence toward Nashville International Airport, former Peabody College biology professor George Giffe Jr. was kidnapping his estranged wife as she left her job at King of the Road Inn, thus setting in motion Nashville’s first aircraft hijacking that turned deadly.
Andy Downs, who is 42 years old, has reconstructed the last hours of his father’s life as part of a documentary he hopes to televise internationally.
“Upon arriving at Nashville International and preparing his plane for departure," the story begins, "it’s 1:30 a.m. when the pilot is startled with an approaching Cadillac when passenger Susan Germaine Giffe, the estranged spouse of hijacker and former Peabody College professor George Giffe Jr., sprawls out of the car, screaming repeatedly: 'Help, I’ve been kidnapped.'"
Susan Giffe, 25, was much younger and could be considered a trophy wife for her 38-year-old husband, who wooed her when he was still a biology professor at Peabody College in Nashville, Andy Downs said, as he traced the thread of his dad’s lost breathing moments.
“From testimony, we’ve learned it was armed associate, Bobby Wayne Wallace, who used one of Susan (Giffe's) scarves to bound her arms next to her body," he said. "That scarf was later found on the tarmac when she rolled out of the Cadillac, sprawling out on the pavement, screaming for her life."
George Giffe had divorced his first wife and children.
"As a college professor, he wasn’t in Nashville’s inner-elite circles, but he moved among them,” Andy Downs said. “But, when he left Peabody and divorced, (George) Giffe then married his former student, and that’s when his social and economic status began plummeting with a series of failed get-rich schemes that never brought financial stability to the second marriage.”
Susan Giffe repeatedly moved back with her parents, retired Army Maj. Joseph Lakich and Jewel Lakich, of Nashville, only to permit the glib-speaking George Giffe talk her back into his life, while spewing schemes.
George Giffe’s parents were also concerned about the constant strife and turmoil in their sons’ life.
“George Giffe’s father met with his son two weeks before the hijacking of my father’s aircraft,” Andy Downs said. “He was concerned that his son is going to snap emotionally. The military veteran father advised he’d been in the military, warned against unceasing financial and marital problems, and told his son something tragic is going to happen out of it if not resolved.”
His father's warning proved prophetically accurate.
And it didn’t take long, as evidenced in a subsequent letter to his father that contained unusual statements, including a hint "at a shadowy underworld connection,” Andy Downs explained in reference to George Giffe.
“The letter to his dad indicated he was connecte, and been ordered to execute his wife, stating it was not easy because she is my life, my breath, my sunshine,” Andy Downs said, as he read from George Giffe’s last known correspondence with his father.
A pre-hijacking letter to Susan Giffe “professed unending devotion” if only she would return to him,” he said. “(George) Giffe had often bragged he was connected with the CIA, and other secretive government agencies, and he professed in that last letter to Susan (Giffe), even if his heart was pierced, ‘I would kiss you with my dying breath.’”
During the couple's last separation, Susan Giffe, who had earned a teacher’s degree in college, had started working at Nashville’s King Of The Road Inn to make her own money for survival, no longer able to depend on any of George Giffe's schemes, which ranged from oil developments to gravel deals that never panned out, financially speaking.
“(George) Giffe was obsessed with his younger trophy wife, who was strikingly beautiful with long hair, and had promised to bring her money earlier that night at King Of The Road,” Andy Downs said, recounting the blurred life that led George Giffe to ultimately kidnap his estranged wife.
“The Cadillac was another tool used by (George) Giffe to make his wife think he’d achieved some measure of solvency,” he said.
With Susan Giffe pleaing for help as she was being taken against her will by Wallace and George Giffe, Brent Downs didn’t buy his claim that he was a physician.
“I’m being kidnapped!” Susan Giffe pleaded. “Don’t believe what they say.”
Co-pilot Randall G. Crump later testified he also questioned whether the woman should fly in her distraught condition.
When Brent Downs asked George Giffe for medical credentials, the former professor pulled a 9 mm pistol from his waistband and pointed it at the pilot’s mid-section, saying the weapon was his credentials.
At that point, George Giffe instructed Wallace, who owned a Nashville tavern at the time, to also brandish a 9 mm weapon that he reportedly given to him earlier. Wallace then leveled his weapon at the pilot and co-pilot, forcing them to enter the rented twin-engine, eight-passenger aircraft.
George Giffe, while frequenting Wallace’s tavern leading up to Oct. 4, 1971, had advised the bar owner he would like to invest $26,000 in the business, as part of a another money-making scheme.
“He asked Wallace if he would drive the couple to the airport in his Cadillac,” Andy Downs said. “Wallace then accompanied (George) Giffe to a Nashville fast-food eatery, where they purchased two boxes of chicken to take on the plane.”
Those two boxes of chicken turned out later to be instrumental in Wallace’s air piracy trial, when he was ultimately acquitted in 1972.