Flight to Nowhere

If there is a common theme in the stories of captains Walter Wanderwell and William Lancaster, it is that when a world-traveling explorer becomes involved with an attractive younger woman, murder is not far behind.
Previously The Malefactor’s Register explored the unsolved murder of globetrotting Captain Walter Wanderwell who was killed shortly before he and his lovely young wife, “Aloha,” left on a South Pacific cruise with a crew of bohemian amateur sailors. Wanderwell’s murder remains unsolved, although a man was tried for it and acquitted.
Lancaster’s story is just as strange, perhaps a bit more tragic and contains a coda that comes right out of The Twilight Zone.
His tale begins at the time when aviation really came into its own — the later years of the Great War. Bill Lancaster was a flyer in the Royal Air Force who remained in uniform until 1926 when he left the flying corps to become an adventurer. He enjoyed a quiet career as a pilot until October 1927 when he became involved in a stunt to fly from England to Australia. The flight had been accomplished in 1919; Lancaster was trying to break the speed record. His plane of choice was an Avro Avian, a two-seat bi-wing cruiser preferred by aviators like Amelia Earhart. It was while he was preparing for the flight in the Red Rose that he met a diminutive Australian journalist, Jessie Keith-Miller, who went by the strange nickname “Chubbie.” She was to be the second leg in a tragic love triangle.
Chubbie, who had never flown before, met Lancaster at a London dinner party and convinced him to let her ride in the second seat on his cross-planet trip down under. She recently left her husband and children and her life as a housewife for the excitement of journalism, which had the added benefit of allowing her to drink like the alcoholic she was. Lancaster was married with children. His wife subsequently sued for divorce on the grounds of abandonment.
Somewhere along the way across Africa, the Middle East, the subcontinent and Southeast Asia Lancaster taught Chubbie to fly and they fell in love. The flight was only a success in that it was the first time a woman had made the trip. Engine problems and weather prevented them from breaking any records.
Regardless, Chubbie and Lancaster became inseparable and for the next five years flew around the world picking up jobs here and there and generally living a bohemian lifestyle. Eventually they ran out of money and settled in Miami, Florida, where they made the acquaintance of a 21-year-old freelance journalist named Haden Clarke. They hired Clarke to write the story of their adventures and he became the third leg of the love triangle.
In March 1932 Lancaster took a job with Latin-American Airways, leaving Chubbie and Clark alone in Miami to begin writing the book.
“Bill knew when he left that it was dangerous to my discretion for me to drink too much liquor,” Chubbie wrote later about her problem with alcohol. “But he thought since Haden Clarke and I were busy writing a book which we thought would be our financial salvation, he could leave us together with me under Haden’s protection.”
Lancaster was wrong. In Chubbie’s words, “we did not do as well at writing as we did at drinking.”
Worse, while Lancaster was flying out west, Clarke and Chubbie fell “madly in love with each other and began planning our future life together,” Chubbie told the International News Service. “My love for Haden seemed too much for me and also seemed to exclude the possibility of our doing any work on the book we were supposed to write.”
Six weeks after Lancaster left on his trip, Chubbie and Clarke decided to tell him of their love affair and plans to get married. Inexplicably, Lancaster congratulated the lovers and asked them to postpone the nuptials until he could fly from Hollywood back to Miami to serve as best man. They agreed, although Clarke was reluctant to delay the wedding even for a few days.
Strapped for cash during his trip, Lancaster had pawned a borrowed pistol and on his way home stopped in St. Louis where he purchased a new gun. He had this gun with him the night he arrived back in Miami where he met Chubbie and Clarke.
“The three of us, Haden, and Bill and I talked for hours,” Chubbie said. “Bill wanted us to wait a month before we were married and I finally decided that we would wait although Haden objected to any postponement.”
Here is where things begin to get really odd.
After the boozy conversation, Clarke and Lancanster retired to one bedroom and Chubbie to another. At 3 a.m. a single gunshot rang out, coming from the room Clarke and Lancaster shared.
When police arrived at the bungalow they found Haden Clarke dead from a gunshot wound to the head fired from very close proximity. In the room were two typed suicide notes signed in pencil by Clarke. The gun used to kill the boy journalist was the one purchased by Lancaster in St. Louis.
Lancaster and Chubbie were taken to police headquarters and questioned. All the pilot/jilted lover had to say was that he bought the gun to replace the one he pawned intending to give it to the unidentified owner as a replacement. As for the death of Haden Clarke, Lancaster would only say that he knew nothing until he was awakened by the shot and discovered his rival dead.
Chubbie told police that Clarke was frequently depressed and was especially despondent the night Lancaster returned from his trip. He had frequently spoke of suicide and she and he had once gone so far as to make a suicide pact.
Police accepted the stories and the pair was released pending further investigation.
Less than two weeks later Lancaster was arrested for Clarke’s murder. Handwriting analysts had examined the signatures on the suicide notes and determined them to be forgeries. Under questioning Lancaster admitted that he wrote the notes and signed Clarke’s name to them. He still denied killing Clarke, however.
Lancaster said when he was awakened by the gunshot he realized that the circumstantial evidence would point to him as Clarke’s killer. He quickly typed the two notes, he said, and tried to get the dying man to sign them. When he couldn’t rouse Clarke, he signed the man’s name himself.
“I was awakened by an explosion. I switched on the light and saw Clarke in the blood-soaked bed, the pistol beside him He was moaning and his feet kicked up and down,” Lancaster said. “I ran to him, and feared that Chubbie would think I killed him. So I wrote two notes on the typewriter. It took about five minutes. Then I took them to Haden and asked him to sign them but he just moaned and kicked. So I signed his name to them and put them where they could be found.
“I was sure he would have signed the notes if he could,” Lancaster told police.
The case went to trial and Chubbie served as a defense witness. She said she had considered marrying Clarke but changed her mind because “he lied.” Newspaper accounts do not say what Clarke reportedly lied about. Another witness confirmed that Clarke was often suicidal due to a drug addiction.
The defense also proved that Clarke was struggling financially, which it claimed was another reason he wanted to die. Finally, a defense criminologist took the stand, and holding Clarke’s skull in his hand, proclaimed that his death was “definitely homicide.”
“Homicide?” a shocked defense attorney asked.
“I mean suicide,” Dr. Albert Hamilton quickly replied. “I was thinking of something else.”
The jury acquitted Lancaster of murder and he and Chubbie returned to Miami where they disappeared from public view until things quieted down.
In 1933 Lancaster resurfaced in England and announced that he was flying from England to Cape Town, South Africa, in an attempt to set a speed record. The flight would take him over the heart of the Sahara Desert. He never made it through the place the Bedouins call “The Land of Thirst.”
Searchers looked for Lancaster in vain and it was not until 1962 that a French army platoon stumbled across his mummified remains.
According to the diary he kept while waiting for rescue. Lancaster had crashed soon after leaving his North Africa base and spent 8 days languishing in the desert.
His only injury from the crash was a nasty wound to his temple.