Out of the Blue
09/26/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT WAS A MELODRAMATIC END TO WHAT HAD been a life of small and little-noted defeats. Frank Eugene Corder spent the hours of Sunday, Sept. 11, at the seedy Keyser's Motel in Aberdeen, Md., sitting outside Room 6 drinking beer, smoking crack and talking with fellow lodgers about how lonely he had been since his wife threw him out of their house three weeks earlier. At one point, Corder, 38, said he "wanted to buy a Harley motorcycle and just take off." Then he invited his friend Cindy Jianniney to go for an airplane ride.
"We were sitting on the steps here, and he says, 'You ever been up in a plane?' " recalls Jianniney, 38, a part-time manager at the motel. "And I says, 'No, the Lord built my ass low to the ground—and that's where I'm gonna keep it.' " The last thing anyone remembers Corder saying, according to Jackie Keyser, who owns and operates the motel, was, "See you later—I'm gonna go fly my plane."
In fact, Corder didn't have a plane, but that was no problem. In the early hours of Monday, Sept. 12, Corder stole a single-engine Cessna 150 two-seater at the Harford County Airpark in Aberdeen, then flew 65 miles south to Washington, into the two-square-mile no-fly zone around the nation's capital and straight into the side of the White House. Undetected by the Secret Service until the final seconds, Corder died in a jumble of twisted fuselage and shattered glass, just 30 feet from the President's second-floor bedroom window. Initial autopsy results found traces of alcohol and cocaine in his blood.
Although the Clintons were asleep across the street at Blair House, where they were staying temporarily during routine renovations to their living quarters, the crash was a frightening—and embarrassing—breach of government security. Though the investigation into precisely what occurred that night is ongoing, the plane did appear on the radar screens at nearby National Airport's control tower as it penetrated White House airspace—but at 2 a.m. no one was monitoring the radar, and the White House was not notified. None of the Stinger antiaircraft missiles thought to be positioned on top of the White House were fired at the plane. (Secret Service agents might be loath to use such weapons under any circumstances because if these heat-seeking missiles miss their first target, they will go for the next source of heat—which could include other airplanes flying in and out of National Airport.) But about any possible security mix-ups, Sen. Dennis DeConcini, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that funds the Secret Service, said, "They're going to correct that real quick, I think."
The Cessna, which also tore through a magnolia tree planted by Andrew Jackson in 1832, was the first airplane to get close to the White House. But Corder was not the first intruder to try to break into the White House grounds. Over the years several people have tried to scale White House fences or drive trucks or cars through the building's wrought-iron gates. And in 1974, Army Pvt. Robert Preston landed a helicopter on the South Lawn before Secret Service agents wounded him with shotgun blasts. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if somebody wants to crash an airplane into the White House, he can do it," says author Tom Clancy, whose newest best-seller, Debt of Honor, includes a scene in which a jet violates Washington's no-fly zone. "[But Clinton's] life is in far more danger when he goes jogging in the morning."
Corder's goal, however, does not appear to have been an attempt on the President's life. Instead, say relatives, he was driven by a suicidal despair over the direction his own life was taking. The younger son of Dorothy Corder, a 63-year-old housewife in bad health, and her late husband, William, an airplane mechanic and amateur pilot who passed on his love of flying, Frank Corder had always felt like the "black sheep" of his family, according to his cousin Dee George. A Maryland native, he dropped out of Aberdeen High School in 10th grade (though he later earned his GED) and in 1975 was honorably discharged from the Army after nine months because of his lackluster performance. He worked as a truck driver and a house builder, and a few years ago he and his older brother John, 41, started a trucking business, only to see it collapse last year.
Corder had also battled drug and alcohol problems for some time. After his father died of cancer last year, Corder served 30 days in jail for drunk driving. And his lengthy rap sheet includes another arrest for drunk driving and two for theft within the last 36 months. At the time of his death, he was on probation for possession of marijuana and driving with open bottles of liquor in his car. And according to residents of Keyser's Motel, he stole a $400 television set from his room the weekend before he died and sold it to buy drugs. Last year he also underwent treatment for alcoholism at the Perry Point V.A. hospital, but, says George, a nurse's aide at the hospital, "every time he had something that was upsetting in his life, he slid off the wagon again."
The final blow appears to have been the collapse of his on-again, off-again 10-year marriage to his third wife, Lydia, 60, a nurse at the Perry Point hospital. (Both his previous marriages had ended in divorce; he has a 17-year-old daughter from the first of these.) "He was so depressed the three weeks before he died," says his aunt Edith Dishman. "He didn't have a clear mind to say, 'I need help.' "
But he had often considered suicide. "He told me numerous times that when he was under the influence, he just didn't want to live," says George. And he knew just how he wanted to go. According to John, Frank had been fascinated by the 1987 episode in which West German teenager Mathias Rust had flown a Cessna through Soviet airspace and landed in Moscow's Red Square. During a party a year ago, John recalls Frank saying, "If you're going to kill yourself, the way to do it is to take an airplane and crash it into the White House." Of course, John says, "everybody thought he was joking."
Now family members are saddened, if not entirely shocked, by Corder's dramatic end. "His mother is all broke up," says Corder's nephew Scott, 16. "She helped Frank out more than anybody, and she knew it was going to happen sooner or later." And though they are all horrified that Corder chose to involve the White House, Scott says, "I don't think he wanted to hurt the President. I just think he wanted to die. I think he wanted to die hard."
TOM NUGENT and MARGIE SELLINGER in Aberdeen, PETER MEYER in Washington