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The Hijacker's Letter


OK, so there is this thing. It's powerful. And while for some people it means nothing, others will do anything to get it. It can cost your life, but it can only be given freely. It's what brings relationships closer, and it's what tears them apart.


WASHINGTON: Today on SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR, we proudly present "Unforgiven," amazing stories of forgiveness, what happens when you get it and what happens when you don't. My name is Glynn Washington. Please remember to light a candle 'cause you're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT. We're going to start off today's episode in New York City during the mid-'70s on a very frightening day for many families. Kathleen Murray Moran tells her story.

KATHLEEN MURRAY MORAN: Tomorrow, we planned to go to the beach. I had already made a picnic lunch for us. Everyone was very excited. We had our pails and shovels, and we were ready to take off in the morning.

DAVEY KIM, BYLINE: It was a warm evening in September 1976, almost midnight, and Kathleen's two young boys, Chris and Keith, were already fast asleep. But Kathleen was soaking in the bathtub, waiting for her husband Brian to come home after a late night of work.

MORAN: I was lying in the bath when I heard the TV from our bedroom.

This is a special report from CBS news. TWA Flight 355 to Chicago, carrying 86 passengers and seven crew members, has been hijacked.

Two Croatians, Zvonko and Julie Busic, claimed to have a bomb on board the plane and a second device located in New York City. I grabbed a towel and I ran into the bedroom.

KIM: On the tiny black-and-white TV screen, she saw the camera pan to the most familiar face in the world.

MORAN: It was Brian in a Kevlar vest - bomb squad written on the back.

KIM: Brian was a six-year veteran of the NYPD's bomb squad.

MORAN: On the screen, I watch as he lifts a Macy's shopping bag, then he laid a blanket on the ground. And he and his partner placed the shopping bag on the blanket and then clipped the blanket to a pole. And the two of them lifted the pole to their shoulders and walked out of sight. I tell myself not to panic. You know he has worked hundreds of cases just like this one. There had not been anyone injured on the bomb squad since 1939, but there was something about it and I couldn't shake it. I walked into the boys' room and I watched them sleep and I listened to them breathe and waited until I could calm myself down. He would come back and see his sons.

KIM: Kathleen waits for what feels like hours. She drifts asleep. Then something wakes her up.

MORAN: I look around the room, and I can see red lights. The clock says 4 a.m. and I can hear car doors slamming. And I look out the window, and the street is covered with police cars. This cannot be happening. This is not for me. They're not here for me, but then I hear the doorbell ringing, so I walk down the stairs. When I open it, I see a man from the bomb squad. He looks up at me, and he said three words - we lost him. No, no - physically, I felt so weak I thought I would fall. My stomach is in knots. The man at the door held my hand and I led him towards the stairs so I could go up to hold my sons. I lifted Chris from his crib, and a few moments later, Keith woke up and sat down next to me.

What's the matter, Mommy, he said.

Daddy went to heaven.

How did he get there?

And I said God came to get him. A police officer helped me down the stairs with the boys to a room filled with NYPD. The kitchen seemed like foreign territory to me as I tried to find cereal for the boys. I couldn't think where the milk was. Everything just seemed so - so alien. I heard a car door slam outside, and I looked out the living room window to see my mother walk up. She grabbed me and held me, and that's when I broke down.

No one could tell me why the bomb exploded. The official report was it was undetermined. The funeral was on a bright, sunny day, and I wanted it to rain. I was so angry. As the years went by, I thought I had gotten over Brian, but there was always that pain that I don't think we ever truly get over.

KIM: It's been over a decade since the terrorist hijacking and bombing. Since then, Kathleen has remarried. Her boys are now in their teens, and she also has a daughter with her new husband.

MORAN: One day, I'd take the mail in. I flipped through it and then stopped when I saw a letter that said federal correction center. In the corner, Busic J. was written in a spidery hand. The name made me shiver because I realized that inside that envelope would be the words of my husband's killer. I shoved the letter in the drawer and slammed it shut. I sit down with my family to have dinner. And after bedtime kisses and everyone went to bed, I go down and sit on the couch, take the letter from the drawer. The very feel of the paper disgusted me. What could she want? Why would she write to me? I wanted her to rot in hell. And yet, I was so compelled when this letter came. She wrote (reading) you are the one who has suffered most. How can saying how sorry I am ever be enough? Even the fact that I have languished in prison for so many years does not seem enough punishment for me.

I was surprised. It sort of struck me that this woman was sincere. So I write back to her, my hands are shaking, and I wonder if I'm making a mistake. (Reading) I can't imagine what it's been like to wake up in prison every day, but I'll bet you thought about what your actions did to me, and I am glad. But I like the irony of our correspondence and the chance to write what I can't say to anyone else.

Before I put the letter in the mailbox, I wondered if I should tell my current husband. He did not like to talk about Brian, so I decided that I would just write that one letter and that he would never have to know, and it would make no difference. I checked the mailbox every day. And in the meantime, I composed letters in my mind. And in those letters I say I hope you never get out of prison. I hope you never have children. And yet, when her letter comes, I can't wait to read it.

KIM: Julie Busic sent letter after letter, apologizing for her crimes, and Kathleen couldn't help but write back. Julie said that while she did believe in her husband's cause, she never thought the bomb would go off. And for that, she was internally remorseful.

MORAN: She did not think that it was the right thing to do. She tried to dissuade him, but she failed in her efforts, so she decided to go along with him. It caused me to empathize with her because she had followed her husband blindly. Over time, her letters revealed that she decided to become a nun. If I lost my husband, she would do without hers as well. She divorced her husband and had cut all ties with him. That gave me - you know, I felt stronger about our correspondence. It was a turning point because he never had any of my sympathy. So when she said that she divorced him, I felt that I could be more open with her and that she could be more open with me.

KIM: Soon, the letters became more casual, more friendly. Kathleen and Julie bonded over the fact that they were both the same age, enjoyed growing rosebushes and that they were both previously English teachers in Manhattan.

MORAN: We traded books back and forth. There was a book called "Depraved Indifference" by Robert Tanenbaum that was a story about the incident. And so we both read the book and compared notes. You know, I could tell her anything. I could tell her when, you know, when - I don't know - when Chris went on the boat and drank beer. He was 14 years old (laughter). And I would write to her about those things, and she would write back and tell me, you know, that at 14 of course that's what he wants to do, and that doesn't show who he's going to be when he grows up. You know, in other words, I was taking things very seriously, but she had some perspective in it.

I did tell her secrets. I shared with Julie that my sister was a heroin addict and wound up in prison and how she ruined her life. And that was something that I never talked about with anyone. After a while, I was writing to someone who understood me. It was like seeing a therapist, and she was so kind and gentle with me, even when I wrote things that were terrible. I would say to her, I hope you rot in jail for the rest of your life. That was in the beginning. And yet, she would write back and say, I'm sorry that you feel that way, but I understand.


MORAN: We wrote letters to each other for over three years. We wrote probably a hundred letters, and I never told my husband. I believe, after all those years of correspondence, that she was a victim and that she was manipulated by her husband, and she went along with him because he had power over her. So I decided to write to the parole board to set her free. She had been in prison five years past the time that she should've been released. I wrote in the letter that I believed she had served her time, that she was remorseful, repentant.

KIM: Kathleen didn't hear back from the parole board, so she just put it to the back of her mind. But one year later...

MORAN: ...I opened a letter from Julie. She said she was offered a year in a halfway house and then that she would be released.

KIM: Kathleen and Julie wrote back and forth from the halfway house. Julie wrote that she was excited to move to Oregon, back to her parents' home, but that she wanted to visit Kathleen in New York first. So they planned a lunch date.

MORAN: We agreed to meet in a very nice restaurant near Central Park. Before she was released, she wrote to me (reading) I am so thankful for your letters to me and to the parole board. I will never forget your kindness. I will arrive in New York on October 24, and I am so excited to meet you.

I was very, very excited to see her. I did believe that seeing her would finally give me closure.


MORAN: That morning, I woke up with the jitters. My husband kept asking me what was the matter. And, of course, I could not tell him. Most of my closet was on my bed piled high because I couldn't decide what to wear. And I thought about what she might look like - if she was prison-worn or wrinkled-looking from having been behind bars all those years. I thought that even though I was 40 years old that I still had a good figure and my hair was still red and that I probably would look better than she did (laughter) - a little competition (laughter).

I got to the restaurant early because I was so nervous. The restaurant was bustling with conversation and laughter and waiters. And I thought, boy, I could use a glass of wine. I was standing by the hostess when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around, and I knew it was her. She was beautiful - much more lovely than I could've thought. She had on a beautiful dress, and she had a pearly-white smile. And the first thing I thought was she didn't look like a hijacker. She didn't look like she had been in prison for 13 years. She took me into an embrace, and she said, oh, my God, you're so beautiful. I thought to myself, no I'm not, you are, you know?

We sat down and she was carrying a shopping bag. And at first I pulled back because of the Macy's shopping bag with the bright red star, and it frightened me. But I peeked inside and I saw that it looked like a gift. So she handed it to me, and she said, this is a Croatian woven purse, and it was given to me by the Croatian community for you. In addition, she had an envelope with money in it, and she handed that to me as well.

Then I asked her what her plans were now that she was free. And she sat up straight and she said, I'm going to move to Croatia and wait for Zvonko to be released. And I sat back and looked at her and I said, I thought you were divorced. She said, I made some hasty decisions. We were divorced, but we remarried. And I said, what hasty decision was that? To build a bomb? To hijack a plane? She said, well, I had no choice. You did have a choice. You could have gone to the police. You could have gone to the embassy. There were other ways to do this. I thought, I can't believe this. She is going to have her husband back, and I will never have my husband back.

With that, something in me shifted. I look across the room towards the exit, and I stood up and said I'm leaving. Wait, she said. I paused at the table. She said there has to be an end to our suffering. You said so yourself, which brings me to ask you if you'll write a letter to the parole board for Zvonko. That hatred that I felt for her in the very beginning came back. She was not the one manipulated. It was me. She had manipulated me to become her husband's savior. I took a deep breath. I yelled, I'm not going to help your husband. As a matter of fact, I'm going to do everything I can to keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.

She stood up and tried to take my hand, and I grabbed it back and shoved the shopping bag and the envelope towards her. I scraped back the chair, and I walked across the room, free from Julie Busic, my husband's killer. When I walked out of that room, that is what gave me closure, freeing myself of her. I made a mistake in helping her, but that mistake did help me to move on.


WASHINGTON: Thank you, Kathleen Murray Moran, for sharing that story. Kathleen worked with New York City's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, to keep Zvonko Busic locked in prison. But after 32 years, Zvonko was paroled for good behavior in 2008 and reunited with his wife, Julie Busic. For more information about Kathleen's story, we'll have links on our website, That story was produced with an original score by Davey Kim.

When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, the real-life Grizzly Adams. Now, what happens when it has to be either you or her? SNAP JUDGMENT - the Unforgiven episode. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.