Kathleen Murray Moran became a widow and single mother to two young sons, ages 2 and 4, when her husband, Brian, was killed in 1976 while trying to deactivate a bomb in New York City set by plane hijackers, Julie & Zvonko Busic. More than a decade later, Julie wrote to Kathleen from prison and the women began a long correspondence, which led to Kathleen eventually writing a letter to the parole board on Julie’s behalf after Julie had convinced her that she had been manipulated by her husband, Zvonko. After Julie was released from prison, the two women met and it was then that Julie revealed that she intended to wait for her husband to be released and even asked Kathleen to write a letter on his behalf.
Kathleen’s story was recently featured on an episode of NPR’s “Snap Judgment.” I thought it was fascinating, so I reached out to Kathleen to learn more about her and why she decided to forgive her husband’s killer. Here is her story.
Tell me a little about yourself. Where you grew up, when you met Brian and what your lives were like.
I grew up in the Bronx, New York, one of eight children, with a single mom. Brian grew up in a Brooklyn townhouse with strong family ties. It was Brian who took me out of the Bronx and offered me a new life and taught me to believe in myself. When he died, I was lost and my growth was slow, but eventually I became educated and worked as a professor of English at a community college.
Can you detail the events that changed your life in September 1976?
I was waiting for my husband to return home from his shift as an NYPD bomb technician, when I heard a TV report that a plane had been hijacked and a bomb had been left in Grand Central Station. To calm myself down, I sat in my sons’ room listening to them breathe, believing he would come home. When I saw red lights rotate around the bedroom walls I knew the worst had happened, and seconds later police were at my door to tell me that my husband had been killed when the bomb blew up.
What were you doing the day you received the first letter from Julie Busic? What did the letter say? How did you feel after you read it?
As I sorted the mail, I saw a return address that stopped me cold. Federal Corrections Center, it said, the name Julie Busic in the corner. The name made me pause, as I knew that inside that letter were the words of my husband’s killer. I shoved the letter in a drawer and sat down to dinner with my family, and when everyone was asleep I opened the pages that both repelled and fascinated me.
She wrote that she was sorry, that she and her husband never intended for the bomb to explode, that they wanted only to alert the American people of the atrocities being carried out on the Croatian people.
She wrote that she was American, and had married a Croatian and had chosen to pursue his cause. She said she knew she deserved to die, and swore she would deny herself every earthly pleasure and live a secluded life. She asked for my forgiveness and asked that I write whatever I felt, and so I unleashed my hatred and resentment toward her.
When and why did you decide to write back? What fears did you have before you wrote back? What did you write?
I wrote back the very night I received the first letter. I knew it was wrong and that my family wouldn’t understand, but I felt this pull toward her. I had thought about her for a dozen years and wanted the chance to find out why she committed the crime that ended my husband’s life.
I wrote that I found it appealing to know she was still in prison and would never have a life with her husband. I wrote that I could never forgive her, but felt liberated when I wrote what I had thought hundreds of times. I wanted her to take back the terror that had unstitched our lives, and to make her suffer, and I could do it without recrimination, and while I wrote, something began to ease in me and it felt right.
On “Snap Judgment,” you said you liked the irony of Julie’s correspondence. Why?
Julie had asked if we could be friends and I thought, not in a hundred years could I be her friend, but some part of the wild child from the Bronx, said “Or could we?” There was something very persuasive about her letters. Something that beckoned me toward her and I don’t think I could say exactly what it was except that she was my link to Brian. Her advice seemed so pragmatic and reasonable and yet somehow, I knew that she was disturbed, but I didn’t pay enough attention to those red flags. I liked the irony of being able to say what I could not talk about with anyone else, because who would better understand what I went through than the person who put me there in the first place.
Why did you keep writing and how many letters were written and over what time frame? At what point did you see the humanity in Julie and decide to open up to her?
I don’t think I can pin down just what compelled me toward her and why I continued to write, except that somehow the letters felt illicit, forbidden, and I began to wait for the arrival of the postman as I imagined a letter from Julie in his bag and anticipated the truths she would reveal. She told me of the events leading up to the hijacking, and why she went along with her husband.
Her letters brought some relief to the pain of Brian’s death, as though the letters were something tangible that I could put in her lap and make her deal with it.
I remember that while I drove my sons to school or sports I composed letters to her in my mind and said things like, I hope you are never released from the hell you’re in.
We wrote dozens of letters for over three years and I realized how they had changed. I was no longer writing about how much I wanted her to suffer. I was writing about my life, the college classes I was teaching, the progress of my sons. She became someone I could complain to about my children and she wrote back practical ways to handle everyday challenges.
We fell into a rhythm that felt more like I was telling my story to a friend who showed great compassion and understanding. Julie helped me in many ways to move on with my life.
She had been in prison before in Croatia and she told me about that, about sharing a cell with gypsies and having a hole in the ground for a toilet and she told me about her time in prison with her friend Patty Hearst, which was so fascinating to me. That she had been friends with her and related stories of Patty’s life, that she’d been beaten by Squeaky Fromme who had tried to kill President Ford. It was so bizarre. That she had shared a cell with gangsters and Russian spies in California. It just seemed so foreign to my life as an English teacher, so that made it more compelling.
Another reason that I wanted to keep writing was because truthfully, Brian’s memory had begun to fade. It had been 12 years and in ways that I couldn’t hear his laughter any more, feel his presence and Julie was a link to him again and I felt like I needed those letters to make sure he was not forgotten, that he didn’t fade out of my memory. Writing to her about him kept him alive for me.
Before Julie wrote to you, had you ever thought about what you would say to her or her husband if given the chance? If so, did you have an opportunity to say everything you wanted to say through the letters?
I had written to Julie in my mind for years, told her how much I hated her. And when I wrote actual letters, I did say the same things. I told her every detail of Brian’s death and its effect on me and our sons. I wanted to make her suffer, and she accepted that suffering and offered friendship in return.
What was your initial reaction when she asked you to write to the parole board on her behalf and why did you decide to do it?
When she asked if I would write to the parole board, at first I chose not to answer her question, but then my sister died, and I felt that because I had not been able to save her, out of the goodness of my heart I would save Julie.
What does your family think about the letters and the relationship you forged with Julie?
During the three years we wrote to each other, I told no one except my sister. I didn’t think my family would understand, and would have asked me to stop, so I kept it a secret. I knew it was wrong, but her letters were so compelling that I didn’t want to stop writing.
Describe your in-person meeting with Julie.
We met at a restaurant in New York City. When I saw her, beautiful, and sophisticated, and magnetic, I knew why I had been drawn to her.
She had a shopping bag, a Hallmark bag I believe, and seeing her carrying a shopping bag like the one the bomb was in did send me back and I had to stop for a second and collect myself. I did peek in the bag and I could see that there was a present with wrapping and ribbon on it. Her carrying a shopping bag certainly gave me pause.
Seeing her made me lose the words I had practiced and I didn’t think I could go through with the lunch, but she asked that I give her a few minutes as she had come all the way from California to see me. We began to talk and the tension eased a bit.
Then I asked what she would do now that she had been released from prison, and she said she was going to Croatia to work with women who had been displaced by the war. In her letters, she said she planned to live in Oregon with her family, that she had divorced her husband and wanted to start a new life, so I was confused.
“But I thought you were divorced?”
“Yes,” she told me. “But we have remarried. I made some hasty decisions, but I love my husband and it is in our best interest to be together.”
“What hasty decision was that Julie,” I said, “build a bomb, hijack a plane?”
“I had no choice,” she said. “My husband was wanted by the Yugoslav police and we thought he would be killed.”
“You had a choice,” I told her. “Meeting you in person has convinced me so.” I went to stand up to leave and she put her hand on mine. “Please, there has to be an end to our suffering, you said so yourself, which brings me to ask if you would write a letter on Zvonko’s behalf.”
“I won’t write a letter for your husband. I will do everything I can to keep him in prison.” I stood up then and walked across the restaurant, free from Julie Busic.
Do you think her intention was to betray you all along or that she changed her mind after she got out of prison?
It wasn’t until we met in person that I realized that all along she had been writing to me to save herself and ultimately, her husband. So, to answer your question, I believe all those letters were a stage for Julie to play at seducing me to set her and her husband free. She knew she was would not be eligible for parole until 1990, so she bided her time and used letters to convince me of her sincerity.
After meeting her, I reread the letters and I read a letter that she had sent to me from the other member of the bomb squad who was injured, but not killed in the incident and this was a letter to the parole board to convince them to keep her in prison. In that letter, he said, “if you think Julie Busic should be released from prison and that she was an innocent bystander, then you would have to believe that she did not know…” and he had this whole list of things, one was that they had dynamite in their apartment, two was that she borrowed the typewriter to type out the ransom letter, and he went on and on. She was not innocent in any sense of the word. She helped prepare this, she helped choose the locker, she probably got that damn Macy’s shopping bag that the bomb was found in.
I think that she had been preparing for me to be her husband’s savior the whole time. Of course, I didn’t know it. She wrote a book as well and once I read that book, it all seemed to make sense.
When we met, one of the first things she asked was had I brought photos of my children, and I did. I was about to take them out, but something stopped me, because I felt for some reason, she had not earned the right to see my sons as they had grown, as they had dug themselves out of the black hole that she had put them in.
Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time, would you still have written to her and to the parole board?
I would have, but I certainly would have been more discerning. I would have looked at the red flags more closely. I would have kept a clearer eye on how her letters confused the way I felt about her. I would not have been as open. I don’t regret writing to her and if I had to do it all over again, I would still have corresponded with her, because those letters allowed me to let go of the toxic hatred I felt toward her. Those letters were therapy for me and helped me to grow. I don’t regret writing to the parole board because I believe that eventually she would have been released without my help anyway. Writing that letter gave me a sense of doing something for the greater good, even though that’s perhaps why I was able to found an organization to do the same for police widows in similar circumstances. So I do believe her letters helped me, almost as much as they helped her. She helped me see things more clearly.
What is your understanding of what Zvonko and Julie Busic were trying to do by hijacking that plane and planting that bomb in NYC?
They were trying to spread the word to the American people. They wanted us to intervene. They had tried several tactics that didn’t work. No one would listen to them. So they thought, that if they swamped the newspapers and the media with their plight, what was going on in Croatia at the time, that the American people would say to our government, help them, just like we do now when we hear of these things. So that was their goal. It didn’t work.
The bomb squad never told you what went wrong with disabling the bomb?
No, they didn’t and I took the city of New York to court and I sued them, but there was a very tight blue line and I never found out. It was never disclosed. Now I had my theories, but that’s all they were. And I did think that when Julie first wrote to me, that she knew, and that was another reason I wanted to write to her.
But she didn’t?
No. What she said was that it was a conspiracy theory and that the Yugoslavs had remotely detonated the bomb. But I dismissed that immediately because I knew the bomb was in the hands of the bomb squad from the moment it was found in the locker until it was detonated, so I don’t see how that could have been. And anyway, the department would have definitely have said, this is how it happened. They wouldn’t have kept it a secret. I hounded the bomb squad for months and months and months, calling all the time.
There were two others working with Brian on the bomb when it detonated, correct?
Yes, one was Terry McTigue and he was a sergeant there and he had severe injuries to parts of his face and his fingers.
Do you know if Julie also tried to reach out to him as well?
Oh, I really doubt it. He showed up at every single one of their parole hearings to make sure they stayed in prison. Julie was to be released in eight years and Zvonko was to be released in 12 years. Those were their sentences. And it was Terry who showed up and traveled and gave speeches to the parole board so they wouldn’t be released. So no, she would never have reached out to him. Terry thought, and he might have been right, that they were responsible for the bomb that blew up the year before in LaGuardia airport at the TWA terminal. It was coincidental, too many coincidences. That bomb killed 11 people and there was this whole big case. So Terry McTigue and the bomb squad tried to find evidence to pin it on Zvonko and Julie, but they never could. It’s still an open case, and there’s plenty written on that one. That was right after Christmas in 1975.
Did Julie ever try to contact you again after you met her face to face?
Yes. I found out that she was working for the Croatian embassy at a prestigious job and I contacted the agency to ask why a convicted felon worked for them. She was ultimately let go and wrote to me that she was disappointed to know I still felt animosity toward her. I never answered the letter.
You worked with Rudy Giuliani to keep Zvonko Busic in prison. What did you do specifically? Did you ever have any correspondence with Zvonko?
Rudy Giuliani was a special prosecutor during the hijacking trial, and we kept in touch. When I called to ask for his help, he assigned someone to keep track of Busic’s parole hearings so that I could write to the board that I did not believe he should be released.
Zvonko Busic did write to me once, at Julie’s request, and in his letter he said that he did not feel guilty about the bomb exploding, although he did regret that my husband had been killed. So, as you can imagine, I held on to the idea of keeping him in prison for as long as I could, and that was 32 years.
I read that Zvonko committed suicide a few years ago and that Julie was the one who found him? How do you feel about that?
When I heard Zvonko Busic had put a bullet to his head, I understood that he would never assimilate into society, that he had lived almost his entire life running from the law or locked behind bars, and by the time he was released, he was an old man who was neither fish nor fowl.
I wrote a sympathy note to Julie and said that I knew how she felt. She wrote back to say that she regretted not being able to find happiness after waiting in Croatia all those years, and complained that she was on the no-fly list so that she would never be able to return to the U.S. to see her family. That brought a little bit of satisfaction to me.
Tell me about your book, “The Widow & the Hijacker,” and why you decided to write it.
I am a writer. I’ve taught college-level writing for many years, and had files of life stories, as well as most of the correspondence between Julie and me, so it was a natural transition to bring those stories together into a book.
I was twenty-seven years old with two young children and was married to a member of the New York City Police bomb squad. My husband Brian had been trained in the Air Force and by the FBI in munitions and was an expert in his field. But when he was killed by a terrorist bomb, my life exploded into unrecognizable pieces.
“The Widow and the Hijacker” is the story of those pieces, how I brought to task the City of New York when I brought a lawsuit against them for failing to protect my husband, of founding a nationwide organization, Survivors of the Shield, to help other police widows. It is the story of a beautiful blond hijacker whose seduction through letters led me to sign her release from prison, only to find upon our face-to-face meeting that I had been manipulated. It is also an American story of hope and redemption, of moving from poverty to professorship, and about how in small ways our lives are hijacked and we are challenged again and again to free ourselves.
When will your book be released?
So the book has been everything but a book. I won this contest from Huffington Post and the prize was consultation by Simon & Schuster, but before it could be published, I was disqualified because I had published another story on Salon.com and I didn’t know the rules were that nothing could have been previously published. I thought the rules were only initial entry, so that’s why I didn’t have an agent or hadn’t done anything about publishing. I thought I had it sorted. So now I am back to square one trying to get an agent. The whole book is written, it just hasn’t been published yet.
Why did you decide to forgive? How have your feelings changed over time since 1976?
In the end, I understood that all the time I had been writing to Julie, I had been trying to save myself, from the pain of being a widow, the pain of the boys losing their father. Now I realized that Julie had been trying to save herself as well and I chose to forgive her, as we were both fighting that same pain.
In the article I wrote for Salon.com, many of the commenters were angry, angry that I chose to forgive. They said, “if that happened to me, there would be no way,” and I just said, “Well there’s no way for you to say that because it didn’t happen to you.” I never thought I could forgive either.
Have you truly forgiven? Do you think it’s possible to completely forgive a crime this heinous?
I do. I think that I needed to forgive her to move forward. There was no way I could hang on to all of the animosity I felt towards her. My sister died in the midst of these letters and losing her —and I didn’t realize it until I started writing about it—played a huge role in my decision. My sister was a heroine addict and I had helped her all of my life, even though she was older than I was and in the end I couldn’t help her anymore. And then when Julie wrote, I thought, there is someone I can help and I can do this out of the goodness of my heart for the greater good and that’s why I did it ultimately. I did it for my sister.
What is your life like now and how has this experience ultimately shaped you as a person?
The experience of losing my husband and corresponding with a hijacker has made me a stronger person. Writing about those experiences has helped me gain perspective and distance, and, with time, has helped me heal.
To learn more about Kathleen Murray Moran:
Visit her website: Kathleenmurraymoran.com
Listen to the “Unforgiven” episode on NPR’s Snap Judgment podcast.