Operation Closure: Seeking answers to a 47-year-old mystery

Randy Roby says a prayer at the Hudgins’ family burial plot at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens after placing flowers on Michael Hudgins’ memorial marker. Hudgins — along with Roby’s brother, Tom — died in a plane wreck in the Jefferson City area in August 1967. He is accompanied by Sara Lou Brydon, a member of First Presbyterian Church, which was where the Hudgins’ family worshipped.

Randy Roby says a prayer at the Hudgins’ family burial plot at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens after placing flowers on Michael Hudgins’ memorial marker. Hudgins — along with Roby’s brother, Tom — died in a plane wreck in the Jefferson City area in August 1967. He is accompanied by Sara Lou Brydon, a member of First Presbyterian Church, which was where the Hudgins’ family worshipped. Photo by Gerry Tritz.

Randy Roby arrived in Jefferson City on Wednesday, 47 years after his first trip here in the wake of a fatal airplane crash that took the life of his brother, Tom.

Thomas Roby’s body was found from the Aug. 25, 1967, crash, but the Cessna 150F and its other passenger, local teenager Michael Huggins, were not. It’s that lingering mystery that has brought the now-retired police investigator back to tackle one last cold case.

He is accompanied by his good friend, Dan Daniels. Roby plans to use his know how from 35 years of work experience as a law enforcement officer to crack the case and gain closure, he said.

His brother, Tom, had rented a plane for an afternoon joy ride with Michael Hudgins, his girlfriend’s brother. Tom was training with the Air Force to be a fighter pilot and had earned his private pilot’s license earlier that summer.

The man in charge of the Jefferson City Memorial Airport let them take out a Cessna 150F after he was assured Tom was a competent pilot. Later Tom’s body was found in the Missouri River, according to his death certificate.

Solving the mystery of what happened that day is at the top of Roby’s bucket list. Now that he is retired, he has the time and money needed for the investigation.

“I came here for aerial and ground recognizance,” Roby said about his latest trip. “And to get a general layout of the city to try to put myself in a frame of mind of what it would have been like on that night in August 1967.”

On Saturday, Roby took a nearly one-hour flight above Jefferson City to get the lay of the land. On Sunday, he attended a service at First Presbyterian Church, where a cross stands as a memorial to Hudgins. It was donated by his family after the crash.

For Sunday’s church service, Roby donated flowers in memory of Hudgins and Roby’s brother. Later on Sunday, he went to Hawthorn Memorial Gardens with Sara Lou Brydon, a member of the church. There, Roby said a prayer and placed some of the flowers on Hudgins’ memorial marker.

Brydon wore a necklace with a replica cross of the one donated to First Presbyterian by the Hudgins’ family after Michael Hudgins’ death. The replica was made and offered to church members by the owners of Vandelicht Jewelry, who also are members of the church.

“Out of every bad thing, comes some good things, sometimes soon, sometimes delayed,” Roby said at the cemetery, citing the replica cross and how he’s been welcomed by members of First Presbyterian and the community.

“I haven’t found one person who wasn’t welcoming, wasn’t encouraging,” he said.

Earlier, Brydon helped arrange for Roby to have brunch with some members of the church who knew Hudgins and his family and told him stories about the young Michael Hudgins.

Roby is gathering as much evidence as he can to help narrow the eight-to-10-mile search area for the plane and possibly Hudgins. When he returns to his home in Maryland he will give his findings to a developmental research group that has agreed to assist him with his search.

“There is no intent at all on the part of either the Hudgins family or the Roby family to place blame or liability in this case, this is just for emotional closure,” Roby said. “Only because of my choice of occupations am I attempting to do this. Only because I know how to do an investigation and time is on my side.”

Since the first story about Roby’s mission was published in the News Tribune in early June, he has had a flood of emails from people trying to help. He has spoken with everyone from people who claim they were in the original ground search to the manufactures of the airplane.

Right now he is working on theories that the plane may have collided with something and his brother may have been thrown from the plane with the pilot’s seat. Roby said he can use water-flow physics and some basic equations to narrow his search field if he can only find out where the collision could have happened or where, or possibly if, the plane hit the water.

“If anything, and this is just my guess, it is under six or seven feet of mud,” Daniels said. “Given the fact it is very muddy at the bottom of the river, it will be stuck in whatever silt is there now when the floods came by it may have been enough to move it.”

While Roby was arranging his flight to view the search area from overhead, Daniels researched old newspaper articles to see if he could glean any information about the search around the time of the crash.

Daniels found that there were additional efforts, other than the nine planes that flew overhead searches and the several search teams on foot. The Naval Reserve equipped a plan with a Sonar detector scanned the area, and both the Coast Guard and the State Highway Patrol used barges to drag the river, according to Daniels research.

Roby smiled as he heard this news and said it made him happy to learn that there was more effort than he had previously thought. Knowing that the unsuccessful attempt to find the plane and Hudgins was grander than he imagined did not discourage him in the slightest.

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