Sunday, February 28, 2021

That Time When a Convict Fell Out of the Sky...

Every once in a while I stumble across a story that really surprises me. Take, for instance, the story from May 1964 when, in the early morning hours of a stormy night, a Cessna 182 crashed on a farm northeast of Grinnell. Of course, airplanes sometimes crash in the daytime as well as at night, in good weather as well as foul. What made this crash special was that the person piloting the plane was a convict who had escaped from the prison farm at Fort Madison. Having walked away from the farm, Steven Barner found his way into the Fort Madison Airport sometime after midnight. There he discovered an airplane that was fully fueled and ready to fly, complete with keys in the ignition. However, one important ingredient, crucial to success of the convict's escape plan, was missing: a genuine pilot. The fugitive, who had been in the US Air Force briefly, apparently had never flown an airplane; nevertheless, it was he who rolled the Cessna down the runway in the darkness, which explains at least in part how the journey ended up in a Grinnell hay field. Today's story follows the adventures of the convict who fell out of the sky.

Headline from the Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 26, 1964
Steven Barner was the second son born to George S. Barner (1890-1952) and Gladys Leinbaugh Barner (1896-1985). Steven's father had been born into a farming family in Martelle, Iowa, and had operated the family farm for several years when tragedy struck. Steven's grandparents were taking a springtime walk on the Linn Grove farm; Mrs. Barner (1866-1925) (who had the unusual given name of Wealthy) wanted to collect some flowers, and her husband took along his shotgun, intending to shoot pigeons. Returning to the farmhouse from their stroll,
Mr. Barner [1862-1926], as was his custom, started to unload his gun, stopping in the act while Mrs. Barner walked on. When the gun accidentally exploded the discharge hit Mrs. Barner, causing instant death (Mount Vernon and Lisbon Hawkeye Herald, May 7, 1925).
News accounts reported that the dead woman's husband was prostrate with grief, which might help account for his death the following year.  Presumably the couple's son, George S. Barner, was also deeply affected. All the same, the farm awaited George's attention, and the deaths of his parents so close together may have spurred him to find a wife, which he did in 1927, marrying Gladys Leinbaugh. Neither partner was young—George was 37 and Gladys was 31—but no children were born to this union until 1932, when Creighton Lee joined the family. Another eight years passed before the second son, Steven, was born in October 1940 (or, as in some sources, 1941 or 1942). The public record reveals little about the family as the boys grew; presumably their lives followed the usual traces without attracting much attention. 

Then the boys' father died suddenly in 1952. Creighton Barner (1932-2016), the older son, was already 20, and he soon charted his own life course (which was not without difficulty). Several months after his father's death, Creighton enlisted in the US Air Force, intending to take aviation training. For reasons unknown, Barner was soon out of the Air Force and back in Iowa. Perhaps his mother needed him home to work the farm, and for a time Creighton did take over operation of the family farm. In 1954 he married Lola Horstmann (1932-2017), and together they kept the farm going.  His marriage, however, went south, and he and Lola divorced in the early 1980s. After Creighton remarried (at the Anamosa Sale Barn, no less) in 1983, Lola filed suit against him, demanding $76,000 dollars, apparently a consequence of their divorce (Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 27, 1986).
Photographs of the 1983 Wedding of Creighton Barner and Mary Ulrich
(Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 2, 1983)

Steven, the central actor in our story, was only twelve years old when his dad died, and eight years younger than Creighton, so his father's early death may have been more affecting to the boy. The public record reveals nothing about Steven's earliest years, but soon his name began to appear in newspapers. In March 1959 the Cedar Rapids Gazette published word that Steven was following his brother's plan of enlisting in the US Air Force, and had already been sent to Texas for training (March 21, 1959). However, as with his older brother, something quickly went wrong, and Steven was soon back in Iowa. Later accounts claim that Steven had been given a medical discharge, but I could find no confirmation of this explanation. At any rate, exactly one year after enlisting in the Air Force, Barner appeared before a Cedar Rapids judge, and pleaded guilty to driving a car without the owner's consent. The news report said that Barner had escaped with a bench parole, but records of the Anamosa Reformatory indicate that Steven received a one-year sentence, and served nine months, being released December 31, 1960 (Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 16, 1960). 

Anamosa Reformatory (later Penitentiary)

This collision with the law might not have been Barner's first offense, as Anamosa Reformatory records indicate that Steven left school after tenth grade. In any case, in early 1962 Steven again stood before a judge.  This time the charge was more serious: "uttering a forged instrument," which is to say that he tried to cash a forged check at a Cedar Rapids store. Apparently a juvenile friend had actually forged the check; but Steven, who claimed to be twenty years old when he pleaded guilty, received a ten-year sentence at Fort Madison (Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 26, 1962). According to the prison records, he gained parole in late September 1963, but was not as careful as his parole officer might have wished.

1959 Cedar Rapids Yellow Pages, p. 131

In early February Barner and a young collaborator stole "between 15 and 19 cases of empty beer bottles from Kalell's Grocery and Market" in  Cedar Rapids. Albert Abdo Kalell (1896-1962), who had founded the market that he and his family operated, had immigrated to the US from Syria early in the twentieth century, and was part of the growing Muslim population of Cedar Rapids. It is not clear how Barner and his accomplice settled on Kalell's store, but, because the theft constituted a parole violation, the authorities promptly sent Barner back to Fort Madison (Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 4, 1964). In the days after his return, Steven seems to have conducted himself well enough to be trusted to work on the less carefully guarded Fort Madison prison farm. Apparently it was there that Barner nourished dreams of his ill-fated, flying escape only months after being returned to prison.
Many aspects of the 1964 escape seem irrational. What, for example, drove Barner to think that his best route to freedom was to try to fly away from incarceration? What made him think that, even if he successfully made it to the Fort Madison Airport, he would find a plane fully fueled, unsecured, and ready to take off? And what made him think that he could do the flying? No obvious answers to these questions emerge from news stories.

The Fort Madison warden at the time, John Bennett, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that Barner "might have read up on flying at the prison library" and might even have flown a plane "a time or two" (May 26, 1964). Moreover, as the warden confirmed, the prison farm was only about one-half mile from the airport, so perhaps Barner simply chose the closest, most immediate option, despite the other, potentially fatal, complications implicit in this plan. 
A Cessna 182, similar to the plane that Barner flew
(Photo by Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) - Own work, Public Domain,

Somehow—whether from his prison library reading or from some unknown previous experience—Barner knew enough to start the plane and somewhere around 1AM get it airborne, despite what the newspapers called "rainy, turbulent weather" (yet another reason to give one pause about this plan of escape). Once aloft, Barner later told investigators, he first headed toward Burlington, flying very low, "just skimming the treetops." But then the novice pilot got his craft headed toward Cedar Rapids where, he later said, he had intended to land. Witnesses there said that they saw and heard the Cessna circling for two hours or so. A Cedar Rapids policeman thought the sounds indicated just "another leisurely cruise," although who would be taking a "leisurely" cruise through the Cedar Rapids skies through a rainstorm in the middle of the night seems difficult to imagine (Daily Iowan, May 27, 1964). 

Why Barner did not attempt to land at Cedar Rapids remains unknown; perhaps the storm gave him pause. If he really did not know how to land—officials later found in the airplane a manual opened to landing instructions—Barner might have worried that landing in a storm was a bridge too far (Daily Iowan, May 27, 1964). Indeed, he told the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald that the manual "didn't do any good when he moved in for a landing" (May 29, 1964). 

But then why did he leave the Cedar Rapids area and head west? Barner might have thought that he could fly out of the storm, and find someplace where his chances of landing safely were better. So far as I could learn, Barner never explained this decision. All that we know for sure is that, soon after leaving the Cedar Rapids skies, his Cessna was flying west, just north of Grinnell. As investigators later learned, there was still fuel in the airplane's tanks as the plane had traveled altogether only about 125 miles (Burlington HawkEye, May 26, 1964). But for reasons unknown, in the early morning hours Barner decided to land in the open fields of a farm in Chester Township, northeast of Grinnell. 
Map of Area Northeast of Grinnell where Barner Landed

The Grinnell Herald Register reported that Barner had "brought the plane in for a near-perfect 3-wheel landing, bounced once and then again on the crest of a small hill, and crashed nose first into the ground about 500 feet from the spot where he first touched down" (May 29, 1964). Perhaps Barner himself relayed these details; it is difficult to know who else could have witnessed the landing, as the newspaper itself reported that "no one witnessed the crash." If the landing began as "near perfect," it did not end that way. "The impact of the crash shattered the plane's windshield and knocked off both doors and the front wheel" (ibid.).

Photograph of the Crashed Cessna 182 on Richard Beck's Farm
(Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 26, 1964)

Richard Beck (1933-2010), who owned the field where Barner landed, told reporters later that he had never heard the airplane, but that, after having finished morning milking and having turned the cows out to pasture around 7 AM, he saw "the tail of a plane sticking up in a hay field." The nose of the plane was smashed and there was blood in the cockpit (Daily Iowan, May 27, 1964). Beck telephoned his neighbors, the Hendricksons; Nancy Hendrickson told him that the 7 AM news had reported that a Fort Madison convict had escaped via airplane. Beck then collected several neighbors (Wayne Hendrickson [1931-2006], Harvey Harris [1908-1992], and Henry Harris)—all armed—to help him search the area.  Nancy Hendrickson, who had driven over to the Becks' place after her husband left to help Beck, watched from inside the Beck farm house. She saw that Beck and the other men, after having inspected the crashed airplane and having discovered that it was empty, began to look elsewhere.
Spreading out they began looking in the grove, corn crib, and other buildings...Wayne [Hendrickson] and Dick [Beck] were going from one portable hog house to another, sticking their heads in the window in search of the prisoner. Suddenly we saw Wayne jump back, as though he had been struck, tripping over his own feet as he hurried back across the hog lot to the pasture fence, shouting at the top of his lungs, "He's in here—he's hurt—he's hiding in the corner—I found him" (Nancy Hendrickson, "The Crash").
Hog Shed on Beck Farm Where Barner Was Discovered
(Grinnell Herald-Register, May 29, 1964)

It was about 8 o'clock when searchers found Barner in one of Beck's hog houses to which the fugitive had crawled after the crash—about 1000 feet from the stricken airplane. Except for a pen knife, Barner was unarmed, and his injuries prevented him from offering much resistance. By this time two Iowa State troopers—Judd Kahler (1929-1983) and John Flannery—and one Grinnell policeman (Max Allen [1934-2000]) were on the scene, and took charge of the fugitive, delivering him first to Grinnell Community Hospital.
Steven Barner in Grinnell Community Hospital Bed
(Grinnell Herald-Register, May 29, 1964)

As Grinnell's Dr. John Parish (1904-1997) later learned, Barner had suffered several injuries during the rough landing. Newspapers gave somewhat different reports of the fugitive's condition; apparently Barner had a serious gash and lacerations on his head, losing enough blood to require a transfusion; he also had a broken leg, and other fractures that led to surgery in Grinnell Community Hospital (Grinnell Herald-Register, May 29, 1964; Daily Iowan, May 27, 1964). By the 28th Barner was back at Fort Madison, his airborne adventure behind him.

Extract from the Record for Steven Barner, Fort Madison Penitentiary
(Iowa US Consecutive Register of Convicts, Fort Madison Penitentiary)

Prison records indicate that Barner was released on parole again in July 1967, but he was back in prison soon after Christmas that year. What offense earned him a return visit to the penitentiary I did not discover. Apparently he spent the next two years at Fort Madison without causing any trouble. Finally, in August 1969 Steven Barner was released from prison, and, so far as I could learn, he did not work his way back into any Iowa penitentiary. 

After that, Steven Barner's name pops up occasionally in records from the western states. For instance, he seems to have lived in California for a time, and in the 1970s married twice there (one marriage lasted only three months); records indicate that in the late 1970s he married in Nevada. He lived in Kansas for a time, as well as in a half-dozen towns of eastern Iowa. However, so far as the public record reveals, he never again flew an airplane, perhaps fulfilling the pledge he gave reporters after his capture in 1964: "You couldn't get me near a plane again" (Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 29, 1964).

Special thanks to Nancy Hendrickson for sharing with me her file on the events of 1964 and her recollections of that upside-down day.


  1. Nothing mysterious about wanting to go to Grinnell. ;)

  2. I remember this well. They gathered all the men in the neighborhood to go searching. The Meredith's and Mike's were waiting at end if driveways fir the bus. Our mothers came and immediately took us back in the houses.