In 1960, it seemed like the perfect crime, and the best solution to a pressing financial dilemma: snatch a wealthy,middle-aged beer-company heir; demand $500,000 ransom (equivalent to nearly four million dollars today); collect the money; and fade back into obscurity.
As often goes with so-called perfect crimes, however, the kidnapping of Adolph Coors III did not go as planned. Coors, the grandson of the famed brewery’s founder and its reigning chairman, barely had time to realize he was about to be a kidnap victim before something went terribly awry. Though the man who targeted him, Joseph Corbett Jr., had stalked him for four years leading up to the crime, it still wasn’t enough to ensure a smooth takedown.
The kidnap attempt happened one cold morning in February 1960, on a Colorado bridge as Coors was driving to work. When Corbett—who’d been living under the name “Walter Osborne” since escaping the minimum-security prison where he was doing time for a murder he’d confessed to, claiming self-defense—approached Coors’ car, a struggle ensued, and Coors was shot twice at close range. Left behind at the crime scene were Coors’ car, hat, and glasses, as well as a blood-splattered bridge railing.
Just over a week later, a car matching the description of a vehicle that’d been seen lurking around the Coors family property was found ablaze in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Despite the distance from Colorado, and the fact that the car had begun to burn, it yielded valuable evidence tying it to the crime ... including its serial number, which was traced to Corbett. Around the same time Coors’ body was found abandoned in a rural dump, investigators realized that Corbett had recently purchased a typewriter of the exact kind that had been used to write the note demanding $500,000 from Coors’ widow. It was pretty clear they had their man. But where was he?
A massive manhunt ensued; on March 30, 1960, Corbett was the 127th person to have his name added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list. Though he was able to make a go of it for a few more months, his notoriety was his undoing, as the FBI notes:
Corbett was apprehended in Vancouver, British Columbia, by Canadian police after two Canadian citizens recognized Corbett from a November 1960 Reader’s Digest article.
As the Denver Post recounts, the fugitive—who was a Fulbright Scholar at the time of his first murder, and had a “genius-level IQ” he apparently put to use fabricating identities for himself—went down without a fight:
Two detectives and an FBI agent closed in on the Maxine Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the landlady described a man believed to be Corbett staying in a room under the name Thomas C. Wainwright.
They had picked up Corbett’s trail days earlier in Toronto, where they discovered an apartment he had rented and possessions he had left behind, including chains and padlocks and a paperback copy of Robert Traver’s book “Anatomy of a Murder.”
Now, they knocked on the door, and when Corbett cracked it, they forced their way in.
“OK,” he said, “I give up.”
He was tried and convicted without testifying on his own behalf, though his life sentence came with the possibility of parole, which he eventually got in 1980—based in no small part on the fact that he was apparently a model prisoner.
He lived a quiet life thereafter, though he never admitted to killing Coors. In 2009, he was found dead by self-inflicted gunshot wound in the small apartment he’d occupied for 25 years, just 10 miles from the bridge where Coors was ambushed. He was 80 years old.
Top image: Joseph Corbett, Jr. listens intently in Golden, Colorado as he was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Adolph Coors III, March 30, 1961. (AP Photo/John F. Urwiller)