A smile beamed across Dick Spink’s face Wednesday afternoon at his home.
“You’ve seen the picture, right?” Spink said enthusiastically. “It’s been all over the news.”
Earlier that morning, “Today” aired a segment teasing a History channel documentary featuring Spink and his research partner’s investigation into Amelia Earhart, whose aircraft disappeared in 1937 over the Pacific Ocean as she attempted to become the first woman to fly around the world.
The segment featured a photo that Spink’s partner, retired federal investigator Les Kinney, found at the National Archives. It appears to show Earhart and navigator Mike Noonan on a dock in the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands, suggesting the two were captured by the Japanese and died as prisoners.
The photo also shows a Japanese ship towing a barge with a plane the same size as Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra.
The photo appears to counter the prevailing theory that Earhart’s plane ran out of gas, crashed and sank in the Pacific Ocean.
“When I first saw the photo, I was in shock,” Spink said. “I said, ‘Oh my God. We have the smoking gun here.’”
The documentary “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence” premiers at 9 p.m. Sunday on the History channel. It will be hosted by a retired FBI agent and feature much of the work of Spink and Kinney.
Spink, a business owner and part-time science teacher at Mount Vernon High School, has been investigating Earhart’s disappearance for about five years following a business trip to the Marshall Islands.
“What happened was I made the comment during a dinner, ‘Didn’t Amelia Earhart disappear in this part of the world?’” Spink said. “There was this old guy at the table who said she landed on our island and that his uncle had watched her for two days.”
Earhart’s rumored crash landing in the Marshall Islands, which are between Hawaii and Indonesia, is somewhat of a legend in the island nation, Spink said.
I had thousands of photos from the archives. It wasn’t until 2015 until I gave it attention. Then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, whoa.’ It tied right into everything.
Les Kinney, Earhart investigator
The country even has postage stamps with artwork depicting Earhart.
After interviewing locals, Spink became increasingly convinced that their stories were true.
“It began to become real,” he said. “I bought a video recorder and I went there and started recording videos. It blossomed.”
Spink started conducting expeditions on Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands using metal detectors to find old aluminum airplane pieces. The metal matched what was used on Earhart’s plane, he said.
After that news broke about three years ago, Spink was bombarded by Earhart enthusiasts from throughout the world. That’s when he connected with Kinney of Olympia, who has been researching the mystery for about 10 years.
“My interest was piqued because I knew from my own research and investigations that that spot was the exact area she was lost,” Kinney said. “I shared my info with (Spink) and all my research, and we became good friends.”
Kinney said he found the photo that appears to show Earhart and Noonan about five years ago while pulling files at the National Archives. He didn’t know what he found at the time.
“I had thousands of photos from the archives,” he said. “It wasn’t until 2015 until I gave it attention. Then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, whoa.’ It tied right into everything.”
The woman in the photo, allegedly Earhart, is sitting on the edge of the dock with her back to the camera staring at the ship towing what appears to be Earhart’s plane.
Spink and Kinney waited to speak publicly about the information until it was revealed this week to promote the History channel documentary.
The documentary got going shortly after Spink and Kinney partnered. Spink said he was contacted by a television producer, who pitched the story to the History channel.
“They ran with it,” Spink said. “That’s how we ended up where we are today.”
In a promotion for the documentary, a facial recognition specialist can be seen matching up known photos of Noonan’s face with the photo found by Kinney. The specialist concludes that the man in the photo is likely Noonan based on the distinctive hairline and long nose.
The woman in the photo, allegedly Earhart, is sitting on the edge of the dock with her back to the camera staring at the ship towing what appears to be Earhart’s plane. The woman’s posture, hair length and body size match that of Earhart, the specialist said in the promotion.
Spink said the two look casual in the photo because they likely didn’t realize the gravity of their situation.
“In the photograph, they still think they are going to go back to the U.S. and that Japan is helping them,” he said. “At this point Japan is thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ Everybody knew who she was. But she had seen this Japanese war machine at that point.”
A government cover-up is a popular theory shared by Earhart enthusiasts who believe the Marshall Islands stories.
He added, “Nobody knew what was going on at those islands. This is a top secret area.”
If Earhart and Noonan crash landed in the Marshall Islands, the U.S. government likely knew of their capture, Spink and Kinney said. Kinney said he’s run into many barriers when requesting public documents that could reveal Earhart’s fate.
A government cover-up is a popular theory shared by Earhart enthusiasts who believe the Marshall Islands stories, Kinney said.
At that time, there were growing tensions over another world war. An operation to retrieve Earhart and Noonan could have escalated tensions, Spink said.
“So (President Franklin D. Roosevelt) is trying to take care of that population base that wants to stay out of World War II then there is also this election in 1940,” Spink said. “Just think if this would have gotten out that Amelia Earhart was being held by the Japanese and he didn’t do anything about it.”
Spink and Kinney believe Earhart and Noonan were transported from the Marshall Islands east to Saipan, the largest island in the Northern Mariana Islands, where they were held prisoner.
She had guts. She had crashed 11 airplanes. She knew how to crash and walk away from it.
Dick Spink, Earhart investigator
Their interviews and research suggest that Earhart died of dysentery and that following her death the Japanese beheaded Noonan.
Spink said he’s gotten to know Earhart well through his research. He owns several books on her, with his own notes scrawled among the pages. He admires her courage.
“She had guts,” he said. “She had crashed 11 airplanes. She knew how to crash and walk away from it.”
Spink said there are more surprises in the documentary. He’ll be at a viewing party at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Corner Pub in Bow, where the show will air three hours early due to a time difference with the pub’s cable provider, he said.
Spink and Kinney will soon head back to Saipan to conduct more research.
Reflecting on the past five years, Spink said his research and findings have come easily despite having little experience in that line of work.
“I’m just a school teacher from Bow … It’s been crazy how it’s come together,” he said. “This story found me. It has been easy for me to put together, almost eerily so, like something spiritual.”