Widow recalls horror of infamous hijacking
Editor's note: This is the third article in a three-part series.
Janie Downs voices no malice against the man who murdered her husband during an aircraft hijacking back on Oct. 4, 1971."I don't have a lot of anger, for I realize Mr. (George) Giffe was not running on all his (mental) batteries," Janie Downs said in an exclusive interview with The Murfreesboro Post. "So, I won't judge him in any way. I'm sorry for his family ... and sorry for the family of his estranged wife, who also died in the hijacking."After forcing her 29-year-old husband to fly to Florida, former Peabody College biology professor George Giffe pumped three bullets into his kidnapped wife, Susan Germaine Giffe, and one slug into pilot Brent Downs' back after the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened fire on the hijacked aircraft that had landed in Jacksonville.George Giffe then turned his 9 mm pistol on himself.All three victims were pronounced dead on the Hawk Commander turbo-prop plane that was part of a fleet of charter airplanes owned by the now defunct Big Brothers Aircraft, which operated out of Nashville International Airport in 1971.However, obviously raw emotions surfaced when the Janie Downs spoke of George Giffe's armed hijacking associate Bobby Wayne Wallace, who died at age 73, last month while walking to a Vanderbilt University football game.Wallace was acquitted in 1972 of air piracy after retaining famous Nashville trial lawyer the late James Neal."I feel sorry for Bobby Wayne Wallace's family, but he was extremely blessed by going through life without punishment for his part in the hijacking," Janie Downs said. "He did no jail time and lived to enjoy his children and grandchildren."Wallace, who operated a Nashville tavern in 1971, had been enlisted by George Giffe to drive he and his estranged to the Nashville airport at 2 a.m. Wallace was seen brandishing a weapon at the Nashville Airport and on the aircraft.After acquittal, Wallace worked multiple years for the state of Tennessee's Unemployment Division until his death Oct. 20, 2012.Forty-three years later, Janie Downs recalls her family's most tragic day, as if it happened last week."I was home when Mack Brothers (Big Brothers Aircraft owner) called early that morning, saying only that my husband had been shot," she recalled. "I asked if Brent was dead, but Mr. Brothers replied, 'We don't know anything other than he's been shot at this time.'""I was seven months pregnant, so they were concerned for my health and didn't want me to lose the baby," she added. "They came and drove me to the airport, and we flew on Mr. Brothers' jet to Jacksonville."That's where she learned her husband had been fatally wounded."When we walked down into the Jacksonville airport's lobby, I came in behind Mr. Brothers when I heard him ask 'Where is the body?'" she said. "That's how I found out that Brent had died, but no one actually came up and told me of his death."I come from a family known to be strong, but this scalded me emotionally. No one can be prepared for this. I'd not experienced anything like this. ... You have nothing to draw from in such a tragedy, of your husband being fatally shot in an actual hijacking."After being consoled, airport personnel escorted the distraught and pregnant wife to a private room."It was the pilot's layover room, and co-pilot R.G. Crump and his wife were in there too," she said. "As they consoled me was when I voiced, 'Nobody told me.'"Crump had escaped the gunfire by leaving the parked plane after Brent Downs convinced George Giffe that maybe he could talk the FBI into refueling the plane the hijacker had ordered, at gunpoint, to be flown to the Bahamas. George Giffe also claimed to have plastic explosives in a box he had laying on his lap while flying from Nashville to Florida.At this point, Brothers secured a room for Janie Downs at a nearby motel, where she began to gather her emotions and strength."It started off rough, but then, I insisted on taking Brent's body with me back to Tennessee," she said. "I wasn't leaving without my husband."
But Florida law required an autopsy and embalming be done, she added.
"Somehow Mr. Brothers quickly arranged for that to happen, and that's when he returned to my room, saying 'We're leaving. We have Brent here, and we're ready to go,'" she explained. "I never knew how Mr. Brothers got the autopsy and paperwork done so quickly."Janie Downs recalled what happened upon returning to the plane to fly back to Nashville."They brought Brent out to Mr. Brothers' jet, and placed him on a long couch right inside the plane's door, for our departure and flight back to Tennessee," she said. "It was the longest day and flight of my life."After the funeral and burial, Janie Downs successfully gave birth to her second son, Brent Downs II. She stored her late husband's death clothes in an attic until her sons reached maturity.Her oldest son, Andy Downs, of Murfreesboro, was 18 months old when his father was slain. After securing multiple volumes of official hijacking records, 42-year-old Andy Downs is still seeking clarity under the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI about the origin of a second bullet that hit his father in the back upper torso area."There's two bullet holes in Dad's T-shirt," Andy Downs confirmed. "We know one bullet came from (George) Giffe's 9 mm pistol. We need to know if that second bullet came from an FBI agent's weapon after they opened fire on the aircraft there on the ground."Janie Downs said she blames the FBI with contributing to her husband's death."By not refueling the aircraft, by ordering FBI agents to open fire on the plane instead of negotiating ... the FBI may not have pulled the trigger, but they killed my husband," she said firmly. "At least, as men, it looks like they'd finally own up to the truth."As of press time, the FBI had not responded to The Post's request for comment.Andy Downs has spent the last six years reconstructing events that led to his father's death aboard flight "58 November," the airplane's tail identification numbers."I hope to acquire the means to complete a documentary that a national TV cable network has expressed an interest in," he said. "I've run out of funds presently, while about halfway through with interviews for the documentary."Andy Downs, who can be reached at 615-474-0590, has spoken in multiple states to law enforcement groups, airline pilot groups and colleges about how to deal with hijackings and hostage situations.