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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 2, 2010

'Buck' Walker infamous for high-profile Palmyra deaths

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

'Buck' Walker

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Wesley G. "Buck" Walker, the former Big Island marijuana grower convicted in the 1974 murder of a wealthy San Diego couple on Palmyra, has died in California at age 72.

The mysterious deaths and conviction of Walker grabbed headlines nationwide and led to a best-selling account co-written by one of Walker's attorneys, Vincent Bugliosi, called "And the Sea Will Tell." It also sparked a TV miniseries by the same name starring James Brolin and Rachel Ward.

Walker had a stroke early this year and died April 26 after several months in a nursing home, according to several friends. He had been living in a trailer home in Willits, Calif., where he moved not long after his early parole in 2007 from a federal prison in Victorville, Calif.

After his release, Walker self-published an 895-page book in which he maintained his innocence and spelled out his own version of events on Palmyra, a remote Pacific island some 1,000 miles south of Honolulu that has a thriving ecosystem largely untouched by humans.

Honolulu attorney Earle Partington represented Walker in the murder trial, which was moved to San Francisco because Hawai'i Judge Samuel King didn't think Walker could get a fair trial in the Islands. "It was a very high-profile case at the time," said Partington, who called Walker a "very bright guy, very sociable." Partington added: "It's a terribly sad story. It was a difficult case. And I long ago accepted I'll never know what happened down on that island."

Walker, then known as Buck Duane Walker, and his girlfriend, Stephanie Stearns, were arrested in Honolulu in 1974 after returning from Palmyra aboard a yacht stolen from a well-to-do San Diego couple, Malcolm "Mac" Graham and his wife, Eleanor "Muff" Graham. Because no bodies were found, Walker and Stearns were initially prosecuted only for the yacht theft and convicted in August 1975.

Six years later, a corroded chest was found partially buried in a lagoon at Palmyra. Inside were Eleanor Graham's remains, identified with dental records. Her husband's body was never found. But the one body was enough: Walker and Stearns were arrested in Arizona for murder.

Walker was convicted in 1985. Stearns was acquitted.

While in prison, Walker is said to have read extensively, studied Buddhism and corresponded with a host of people enthralled by the Palmyra case. When he was released in 2007, he took up residence in a San Francisco motel for several years before moving to a 22-foot trailer in Willits, a small town about three hours from San Francisco.

Walker lived off his Social Security check and paid $400 a month in rent.

His landlord, P. Parker, said he largely kept to himself and enjoyed reading, listening to audiobooks and scouring the Internet for research. "He took a short walk every day. He was happy sitting there listening to books on tape," she said, adding Walker contacted her by e-mail through a Craigslist ad for a rental. In that first e-mail, Walker said Parker wrote, "I wonder if you would consider renting to an old man who has been wrongly convicted of murder."

Walker's case made Palmyra a household name. The atoll, home to a rich diversity of animals and plants, before that was a little-known getaway for the yachting community. Palmyra was privately owned by the Fullard-Leo family until 2001, when the Nature Conservancy bought it for $37 million for preservation and research purposes.

The Fullard-Leo family bought Palmyra as part of a hui in the early 1900s for a fishing venture that never materialized. Betty Fullard-Leo said the Graham case left the family shocked and disturbed. "You just never expect anything like that to happen in a place that's so beautiful," Fullard-Leo said. "It's just covered in palm trees. It teems with life."