A former Western Australian monk has carried out one of the most bizarre hijackings in history, drawing Ireland, France and Iran into the plot as he tries to expose a well-known secret. kept from the Catholic Church.
On May 2, 1981, Laurence Downey hijacked an Aer Lingus Boeing 737 demanding that Pope John Paul II reveal the “third secret of Fatima”, which had been guarded since 1917.
Western Australian Laurence Downey is pictured after hijacking an Irish plane flying from Dublin to London
The secret was eventually revealed by the Vatican in 2000 as a vision of the 1981 assassination attempt on the pontiff.
Downey boarded flight EI 164 with 112 other passengers and crew on the Irish national carrier’s Dublin-Heathrow route.
If the “holy hijacker”, as he was called, first stood out, it was only for his good manners.
“He was very polite to (my daughter and me),” passenger Terry McCormack said.
But Downey had a dark past – he had been a mercenary, merchant seaman and professional boxer – and was about to hijack a plane armed with a bottle of what he claimed was cyanide and his faith.
And he was no ordinary terrorist. Downey had been a Trappist monk in Rome in the 1950s but was expelled for punching the order’s leader in the face.
He then worked as a tourist guide in Fatima, Portugal, where on May 13, 1917, three children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a vision and learned three great secrets.
Downey returned to Perth but then fled to Ireland, leaving behind a wife and five children and an alleged $70,000 land fraud.
He first settled in the coastal town of Shannon but later lived in Dublin until he hijacked a plane.
Captain Edward Foyle at Le Touquet Airport, Le Touquet, France, May 3, 1981. The day before, Aer Lingus flight EI 164 had been hijacked by Laurence Downey. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection – photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images)
With a strong tailwind, the flight proceeded quickly and was five minutes from landing in London when one of the cabin crew saw a passenger going to the toilet despite the ‘fasten your seat’ sign. seat belt” on.
Mrs. McCormack remembered him.
“He looked like a very successful, very well-dressed, gray-haired, very tanned businessman,” she said.
But Downey had a desperate plan in mind.
“When I got up and turned around, this passenger was there and he was covered in gasoline,” flight attendant Deirdre Dunphy said.
“And he had two little vials and said it was cyanide gas. It was the beginning.
A NEW CONSTITUTION
Downey moved quickly to the cockpit and demanded that the plane not land in London, but continue to the Iranian capital, Tehran.
He said he had a new constitution for the Iranian people.
Captain Edward Foyle explained that if he wanted to fly the extra 5,000km to Tehran they would need to refuel, so they changed course and landed at Le Touquet airport in the northern region of France in Normandy.
French authorities were awaiting the plane’s arrival and a nearly eight-hour standoff ensued.
A report of the hijacking from the Sydney Morning Herald on May 5, 1981
As most of the passengers were from Ireland, the Irish government in Dublin was kept informed of what was happening 637 km away in Normandy.
Albert Reynolds, then Irish Minister for Transport and later Prime Minister, visited Dublin Airport.
Journalist Sam Smyth, who reported the story for the Sunday World newspaper, said Mr Reynolds was also worried about the plane because Aer Lingus, at the time, was state-owned.
“(He) was obviously worried about the crew and the passengers on the plane, (but) also had real concern for the plane because (he) would turn to me from time to time and say ‘This is our fucking plane. We have to get that plane back,” Smyth recalled years later.
But why had Downey really hijacked the plane?
The hijackers at the time often demanded the release of prisoners from the terrorist organization to which they belonged, but he made no such request.
Eventually, Downey made it clear what he really wanted – and his real motive was even stranger than claiming he wanted to fly to Tehran.
While stuck on the tarmac at Le Touquet, he demanded that Pope John Paul II reveal the third secret of Fatima.
Two of the secrets were revealed in 1941 and relate to the two world wars, but the third was sealed until 1960 when it was quickly resealed.
The then Pope John XXIII reportedly looked horrified when he read the secret, adding to the enormous mystery and fear of what it was.
HIGHEST ALERT LEVEL
As bizarre as Downey’s request was, the situation still needed to be handled with the utmost seriousness and the highest level of alert.
He had 112 people under him, he was armed with cyanide, and sometimes hijackers murdered their hostages.
Downey wanted Ireland’s best-selling newspaper, the Irish Independent, to publish an account of his efforts to expose the secret.
He was put in touch with the newspaper’s editor, Vincent Doyle.
A 3,500-word manifesto was transcribed and telexed to the Independent.
But just as Doyle came on the radio to tell Downey he agreed to release the document, French paratroopers stormed the plane and subdued it without firing a shot.
Passengers and crew are pictured on Aer Lingus flight EI 164 after an ex-Australian monk hijacked it.
In addition to the radio hijacker hijacking, there was also a sick woman leaving the plane as she was taken to hospital.
The fact that he allowed the back door to be opened to get a passenger out showed that Downey was not an experienced terrorist.
Using double distraction, the paratroopers rushed out the rear exit and within seconds it was all over.
“Maybe he had an explosive system,” one of the soldiers said.
‘(There is) always a risk… But every action we take, we try to do it quickly.
“That was the key to success (in) this case. In two seconds, we caught the man.
Minister Reynolds, who had arrived from Dublin with dozens of other Irish officials 50 minutes earlier, boarded the plane soon after.
Then-Irish Transport Minister Albert Reynolds (front left) is pictured with Captain Edward Foyle at Le Touquet airport, France, May 3, 1981. Aer Lingus flight EI 164 had been hijacked the day before by Laurence Downey.
He then told reporters that “they came in from behind…and surprised him.”
He offered no resistance, there was no problem. And that was it. No one was hurt.
Mr Reynolds said that although the Irish government did not know of the French plan before he left Dublin, he knew about it before he arrived in France because there was “constant contact on the arriving plane”.
“It was not a hijacking as we would normally associate with a hijacking. This guy had a small bottle of liquid, which he claimed was cyanide,” he said.
The ‘cyanide’ turned out to be just water, and there was a lot more weirdness to come.
Eleven days after Downey’s hijacking, a Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca shot and nearly killed Pope John Paul II in the Vatican – and that too had ties to Fatima’s Third Secret.
May 13, the date of the assassination attempt, is the anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to the three children of Fatima.
Agca had an obsession with Fatima and during his trial he did what Downey had done and called on the Vatican to reveal the third secret.
One of the bullets that hit the pope was then encased in the crown of the image of Our Lady of Fatima.
On June 26, 2000, Pope John Paul II finally released the details of Fatima’s Third Secret, claiming he predicted Agca’s assassination attempt.
A Spokane Daily Chronicle report of Australian Laurence Downey hijacking an Irish plane in May 1981
Downey was sentenced in February 1983 in France to five years’ imprisonment for air piracy, but was released after 16 months and deported to Australia.
Years later, he spoke to Irish broadcaster RTE for its Holy Hijacker documentary about the case.
“The hijacking was just a bluff to get the media to notice me,” he said.
“The idea was a publicity stunt to draw attention to the suppression of this information (about Fatima’s third secret).”
Downey said knowing the contents of the secret did not bring him happiness.
“All my life I felt like I was alone, like the only person in the world,” he said.
As well as a documentary, one of the weirdest plane hijackings the world has ever seen has also been made into a comedy play, radio drama and podcast in Ireland.
Downey hasn’t been heard from for decades, but if he’s still alive, living a quiet life somewhere in Western Australia, he’d be nearly 100 years old.