San Diego's Own Bonnie & Clyde

Arts/Culture

San Diego's Own Bonnie & Clyde

A new book chronicles how a pair of young skyjackers with many San Diego ties took the world by surprise.

“WE ARE BEING HIJACKED,” read the message from Western Airlines Flight 701. “WE ARE GOING TO LAND SEA [SEATTLE] FOR REFUELING THATS FIRST PROBLEM WILL NEED GAS AND ALSO MIGHT NEED SOME MONEY.”

The 1972 hijacking was led by two young San Diegans who wanted to free a former UCSD student, protest the Vietnam War and change the world.

Photo courtesy of Brendan Koerner
Photo courtesy of Brendan Koerner

His name was Roger (when he wasn’t using an alias), a handsome 20-something with mental issues who’d gone AWOL from the Army. She was Cathy, a college-age woman who worked at a massage parlor and carried a switchblade.

Their backgrounds were very different but they shared something in common. They’d spent time in Coos Bay, Ore., and had actually met there as children. Now, by pure coincidence, they’d run into each other in San Diego.

It was meant to be, they thought: the troubled Vietnam vet and the party girl from Oregon.

Armed with a fake bomb, Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow would soon commit one of the boldest airplane hijackings of all time and get away with half a million dollars in ransom.

“Over the ensuing years, their madcap adventures on the lam would involve exiled Black Panthers, African despots, and French movie stars,” writes Brendan Koerner, author of “The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.”

Koerner got in touch with me a couple years ago while he was trying to track down Holder here in San Diego, where he’d failed to stay out of trouble after returning to the U.S. I assisted Koerner as a paid researcher and uncovered information about Holder, who turned out to be living in a North Park apartment and was willing to talk about his remarkable life.

The Skies Belong to Us,” published last week, is getting rave reviews. I called Koerner and asked him about the Bonnie & Clyde of 1970s hijacking, their connections to San Diego, and the dark art of reinvention.

How did you stumble upon this story?

In 2009, I read a story about Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a Puerto Rican nationalist who hijacked a plane to Cuba in 1968 and holed up there for the next 41 years. Then all of a sudden he decided he wanted to come back to the U.S. The story was about him, how they arrested him the second he got off the plane.

I was familiar with people who’d hijacked planes to Cuba, but I didn’t know much about it. I did some research and was amazed about how many hijackings there were.

As your book says, there were more than 130 airplane hijackings from 1968-1972. What makes this case stand out?

The hijackers were almost all men. But I stumbled upon this case, which involved a woman from a small town in Oregon.

It was a huge deal. Directly because of this hijacking, there was a global pilots strike for a day, not just in the U.S. but all over the world. Pilots were so incensed that they’d hijacked a plane and gotten away with it.

And they’d hijacked a plane to Algeria. That was the first time that had ever been done, and there was a lot of concern that it was a very anti-American place that would become a new destination for hijackers. Pilots were extremely disturbed and wanted government to take action to shut down these hijacker havens.

It’s amazing that a story this phenomenal can be buried in time. I was amazed that no one had ever written about this before. It became my grand obsession for about four years.

What made these two hijackers unique?

To a great extent, they got away with it. At the end of the year they didn’t end up in prison or dead.

I was attracted to the love story behind it: two young people who were madly in love with each other and decided to do this bonkers thing and put their lives in danger. They’d made this decision in the bloom of youth, turning their backs on everything they’d ever known, including their families.

What was the key to their mutual attraction?

They were rebellious and looking for some meaning in life. And they were also incredibly young attractive people. They were hanging out a lot in Ocean Beach in an era of hippies and free love. I think they thought they were pretty sexy.

They also had this Coos Bay connection, their lives crossing as children. Holder was a student of astrology, and he thought there had to be a reason for this.

They decided to hijack a plane and demand the freedom of the radical activist (and onetime UCSD student) Angela Davis, who was behind bars.

You write about how they spent a lot of time in Ocean Beach, then as now a neighborhood of beach bums, head shops and resistance to the establishment.

How did the San Diego of that era affect their lives?

The atmosphere and the youth culture affected them.

Photo courtesy of Joy Holder
Photo courtesy of Joy Holder

Holder was from a naval family, and he’d returned to San Diego after going AWOL from the Army in Vietnam. He wasn’t radicalized but there was certain anger against the system in the air.

Cathy Kerkow, from a conservative small town, came to a completely liberating environment in terms of sexuality. She had a lot of boyfriends.

Without telling too much of the story, what happened to Holder after his adventures ended years after the hijacking?

He returned to San Diego and lived extremely happily there for many years. He put down roots and fell in love with someone who was extremely kind to him.

He did find a great measure of peace, but he couldn’t totally come to terms with his own place in history.

The hijacking was the most dramatic event of his life and defined him. He’d been this celebrated figure because of his exploits, hanging out with famous people in Algeria and France, but he had to start over again and turn his back on his life when he returned to the states.

As for Cathy Kerkow, she disappeared.

Without giving away too much of the book, yes. She disappeared.

Why does this story matter today?

It’s not just about them. It’s about this whole age of hijacking, how it provides a lot of perspective on how we deal with security and paranoia.

What does telling this tale mean to you personally?

I write a lot about fugitives and exiles, about this notion of reinvention, of how people reinvent themselves and the price they have to pay.

They reinvent themselves into their foes, or they lose their identity, or their grand plan goes haywire.

Were Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow ultimately successful?

They ended up succeeding in a lot of ways. They did what others weren’t able to do, which is get away and reinvent themselves.

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