Being held for ransom sounds terrifying and grim — especially in this day and age, when terrorist groups often kidnap people to achieve political goals. But once upon a time, most kidnappers simply wanted to get rich. Stupidly, bizarrely rich. Here are the 6 craziest and most overcomplicated kidnap schemes.
On March 1, 1932, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., was snatched from the family home in New Jersey. The ransom note left on the nursery window sill demanded $50,000 (this first note is pictured below). On March 6, a note dated March 4 arrived in the mail from Brooklyn, upping the ante to $70,000. A third note arrived two days later, then a fourth, and from there the affair spiraled into ever-more-complicated instructions to communicate with the sender via a series of newspaper columns.
By now, a go-between named Dr. John F. Condon had inserted himself into the proceedings, with the approval of both the kidnapper and the Lindbergh family. Notes five and six brought contact with an actual person, also named “John,” and proof of identity came with note seven, when a baby’s sleeping suit (identified by Lindbergh) was included with the letter. Note eight arrived on March 21. March 30, the ninth note arrived; the kidnapper now wanted $100,000.
Notes 10-12, which were passed to Condon via random taxi drivers and through a treasure hunt of sorts (#11 led him to #12, hidden under a stone by a greenhouse in the Bronx) dealt with the delivery of the money. On April 2, Condon gave the mysterious John $50,000.
But the baby was not stashed on a boat in Martha’s Vineyard, as note 13 had promised. Little Lindbergh’s body was found by chance on May 12 by a pair of truck drivers in New Jersey. An autopsy revealed he’d been dead for about two months.
Some of the ransom money turned up almost exactly one year later at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, but the person who’d made the deposit could not be located. Law enforcement experts studied the language used in the many ransom notes, and concluded that the author was “of German nationality, but had spent some time in America,” according to the FBI. (Condon thought he was perhaps Scandinavian.)
In September 1934, more bills were traced to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who happened to be German, fit Condon’s physical description of John, had the carpentry skills necessary to construct a ladder like the one used in the kidnapping, and who had $13,000 in ransom-traceable bills hidden in his garage. His handwriting was also judged to be a match to the penmanship in the ransom demands. Though there have been suspicions over the years that Hauptmann was an innocent man who’d been carefully framed — or at least, didn’t act alone — at the time, the evidence was enough to earn him the death penalty. He was executed in 1936.
Barbara Jane Mackle was a student at Atlanta’s Emory University when she was dramatically snatched from a Georgia hotel room she was sharing with her mother. It was just before Christmas 1968, and the 20-year-old, ill with the flu, was traveling with her mother back to their home in Florida. The road trip was interrupted by Gary Steven Krist and Ruth Eisemann-Schier, who used a ruse to get into the hotel room, then tied up Barbara’s mother and forced the girl to leave with them.
Barbara Jane spent the next three days buried alive in a fiberglass-reinforced box outfitted with air holes; she was also provided with food and water. Her wealthy father was instructed to deliver $500,000 for her safe return, but when a cop car drove by while the kidnappers were picking up the loot, they abandoned the money ... and their car, which contained incriminating materials that fully identified both of them, as well as a photograph of Barbara Jean holding a sign with “KIDNAPPED” scrawled on it. Smooth.
But the second attempt was successful, and after Krist and Eisemann-Schier got their half a mil, Krist gave directions to where the makeshift prison was located. The college student was rescued, and she went on to write a book about her ordeal. (The photo above shows her celebrating Christmas 1969; she was apparently sent cards from both of her kidnappers — both of whom were soon apprehended, though Eisemann-Schier hid out long enough to be the first woman on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List — from their prison cells.)
The post-script for this one is worth a mention. Eisemann-Schier was paroled after serving over half of her seven-year sentence, and was deported to her home country, Honduras. But Krist, who already had a rap sheet and had been been given a life sentence, was released after 10 years and, incredibly, went to medical school and became a doctor. (Alabama, where he moved post-prison, denied him a physician’s license, but he was able to get a probationary one in Indiana.) He earned a pardon from the state of Georgia.
But his ending was not as happy as Barbara Jane’s, as Online Athens reported in 2006:
“He had the makings of a good doctor,” said Robin Roos, a resident of Chrisney, Ind., who leased Krist office space. “A lot of people around here liked him. A lot of people didn’t like him because of what he’s done.”
At first Krist kept quiet about his past, but local reporters began hounding him, Roos said.
“It tore him up,” Roos said, adding, “He paid his dues. He just wanted to go on with his life and be a doctor.”
In 2003, Indiana revoked Krist’s medical license, partly because he lied on his application by saying he said he had never been reprimanded, censured or admonished.
“I’m not going to be able to fulfill my dream,” Krist told an Evansville, Ind., television reporter in 2003. “I tried to be a beneficial part of society. They wouldn’t let me.”
And he was right, though it was more his fault than the fault of “they” in the end. In March 2006, he was arrested for smuggling both cocaine and illegal aliens into the country and went back to jail for four years. In 2012, he was arrested again for violating his probation after he sailed his boat to Cuba and South America.
In late 1963, the 19-year-old son of one of America’s most popular entertainers was snatched from the dressing room of a Lake Tahoe casino, where he was attempting to launch his own singing career. Frank Jr. was chosen by his kidnappers, who also considered targeting the sons of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, because “they thought he would be tough enough to handle the stress of a kidnapping.”
Though kidnappers Barry Keenan and Joe Amsler (they later brought in a third accomplice, John Irwin) had been plotting their crime for awhile, they postponed their scheme when President Kennedy was assassinated. But by December 8, they figured the time was right. Sinatra Sr. turned down Mafia assistance in favor of the FBI, who guided him in making the demanded $240,000 ransom drop (most of it, recovered after the crime, appears in the top image of this article, alongside a pair of federal agents).
Somewhere along the way, Irwin lost his nerve. Charged with watching their captive while Keenan and Amsler collected the money, he let the teen go. As the FBI’s recounting of the case reveals, the sensational crime soon came to an unremarkable end:
Sinatra, Jr. was found in Bel Air after walking a few miles and alerting a security guard. To avoid the press, he was put in the trunk of the guard’s patrol car and taken to his mother Nancy’s home.
Young Sinatra described what he knew to FBI agents, but he had barely seen two of the kidnappers and only heard the voice of the third conspirator. Still, the Bureau tracked the clues back to the house where Sinatra had been held in Canoga Park and gathered even more evidence there.
Meanwhile, with the FBI’s progress being recounted in the press, the criminals felt the noose tightening. Irwin broke first, spilling the beans to his brother, who called the FBI office in San Diego. Hours later, Keenan and Amsler were captured, and nearly all of the ransom was recovered.
All three men were convicted, despite a defense strategy that attempted to prove that the victim had staged the whole thing as a publicity stunt. Though Sinatra, Jr. still works as an entertainer, performing tributes to his late father, he never really made it on his own merits. In March of this year, he admitted that “I have never made a success in terms of my own right. I have been very good at re-creation. But that is something that pleases me because my father’s music is so magnificent.”
Getty oil fortune heir Andrew Getty made the news earlier this year, when he passed away at the age of 47. But decades ago, another grandson of J. Paul Getty, onetime richest man in the world, attracted even bigger headlines: J. Paul Getty III. In 1973, he was a 16-year-old living the rich-kid life in Rome. Or as the New York Times described it:
Expelled from a private school, the young Mr. Getty was living a bohemian life, frequenting nightclubs, taking part in left-wing demonstrations and reportedly earning a living making jewelry, selling paintings and acting as an extra in movies. He disappeared on July 10, 1973, and two days later his mother, Gail Harris, received a ransom request. No longer married, she said she had little money.
“Get it from London,” she was reportedly told over the phone, a reference either to her former father-in-law, J. Paul Getty, the billionaire founder of the Getty Oil Company, or her former husband, who lived in England.
The amount demanded was about $17 million, but the police were initially skeptical of the kidnapping claim, even after Ms. Harris received a plaintive letter from her son, and a phone call in which a man saying he was a kidnapper offered to send her a severed finger as proof he was still alive. Investigators suspected a possible hoax or an attempt by the young Mr. Getty to squeeze some money from his notoriously penurious relatives.
“Dear Mummy,” his note began, “Since Monday I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don’t let me be killed.”
The eldest Mr. Getty refused to pay the kidnappers anything, declaring that he had 14 grandchildren and “If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” His son said he could not afford to pay.
Way harsh, grandpa. Turns out the teenager had actually been kidnapped by a gang that was not amused by the delay in payment. Three months after they abducted him, they cut of a lock of hair and — yow! — the younger Getty’s right ear, and mailed both to a Roman newspaper. Eventually, they lowered their ransom demand to $3 million dollars, and the purse strings loosened:
The eldest Mr. Getty paid $2.2 million, the maximum that his accountants said would be tax-deductible. The boy’s father paid the rest, though he had to borrow it from his father — at 4 percent interest.
Getty was released after five months in captivity; two out of the nine men arrested for the crime were sent to jail. But he never really recovered from his ordeal, and developed a drug problem so severe it contributed to a paralyzing stroke in 1981. He died in 2011 at the age of 54. His New York Times obit ends with this knife-twist of a fact:
Some time after Mr. Getty’s release, his mother suggested that he call his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, which he did. The eldest Mr. Getty declined to come to the phone.
Back to the United States for this case. The 1972 Minneapolis abduction of 49-year-old Virginia Piper was notable for three reasons: the size of the ransom (a record-setting $1 million); the fact that the victim emerged unharmed; and the fact that the case is still unsolved.
In 2014, Minneapolis TV station KSTP took a look back at the “million dollar mystery,” interviewing an expert on the case:
“This case was planned and orchestrated by some very, very intelligent people,” said William Swanson, author of a new book called “Stolen from the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper,” who pored over thousands of pages of FBI documents and interviewed dozens of people connected to the case. “This was not committed by ordinary stumblebums.”
However, Swanson doubts they were career criminals.
“They came up with a brilliant plan despite some bonehead, amateurish mistakes they were lucky enough to get away with,” he said.
The “brilliant plan” coaxed a million bucks (in unmarked $20 bills) out of Virginia’s husband; she was recovered when the kidnappers, satisfied with their haul, called a randomly-selected number from the phone book and told the voice on the other end where the woman was being held: tied to a tree in a park near Duluth. Though she’d been there for two days, she was fine.
Only $4,000 of the money was ever found, and the two main suspects in the case were tried and found guilty, only to be acquitted following a second trial after an appeal. The Piper kidnapping endures as being “among the most successful in U.S. history.”
In 1935, nine-year-old George Weyerhaeuser, son of a lumber baron, was walking to meet his sister outside of her Tacoma, Washington school when a man stopped to ask him for directions. When George didn’t show up to meet the family chauffeur, who was waiting to pick up the kids for lunch, the family knew something was very wrong.
They were proven right when a letter arrived at their home later that day. According to the FBI:
It listed a series of demands, including the payment of $200,000 ransom in unmarked twenty-, ten-, and five-dollar bills in exchange for the boy. George’s signature appeared on the back of the envelope in which the letter arrived.
The FBI Portland, Oregon Field Office was advised of the facts in this case, and special agents were sent to Tacoma, Washington to investigate. Adhering to the kidnappers’ instructions, an advertisement, signed “Percy Minnie,” was placed in the personal column of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to indicate that the Weyerhaeusers would comply with the kidnappers demands. Similar messages were placed in the same newspaper on May 27 and May 29, 1935.
Further missives instructed George’s father to register at a Seattle hotel under an assumed name, where he received even more correspondence, including a letter from George assuring his father that he was alive. The scheme got even more complicated:
Complying with directions given in the note, Weyerhaeuser drove to a designated point, where he found two sticks driven into the ground with a piece of white cloth attached. There he found a message directing him to another signal cloth further down the road. However, when he reached the second signal cloth, he found no message. He waited there for two hours before returning to the hotel.
After even more cloak-and-dagger maneuvers (mysterious phone calls! notes left in tin cans!), Weyerhaeuser was finally able to deliver the $200,000, and George was released unharmed. When the ransom bills, the serial numbers of which had been carefully recorded by the FBI, began appearing in circulation, a husband-and-wife team, plus another accomplice, were tried and convicted of the crime.
As for young George, who handled his ordeal with a remarkably calm head, and was able to share copious details about his abductors with the FBI? He grew up to be the Chairman of the Board for the Weyerhaeuser Company.
Top image: AP Photo; Lindbergh image: AP Photo; Mackle image: AP Photo/Harold Valentine; Frank Sinatra, Jr. image: AP Photo; J. Paul Getty III image: AP photo/Giuseppe Anastasi; Virginia Piper image: AP Photo; Weyerhaeuser image: AP Photo/The News Tribune, File