Throughout much of the 20th century, child abduction for ransom was aimed at the children of wealthy families. One of these cases was the abduction of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease.
Bobby was the son of Robert C. Greenlease, who owned a string of Cadillac dealerships across the Midwest from Texas to South Dakota. The senior Greenlease was one of the 10 wealthiest men in Kansas City at the time. The family lived in exclusive Mission Hills, Kansas, with a governess and several servants.
The abduction led to the largest ransom payment in American history at the time.
It was approximately 11:30AM on the 28th of September, 1953, when Bobby’s mother, Virginia Greenlease, received a phone call at home. It was an official at Bobby’s exclusive private school, Notre Dame de Sion. The official seemed surprised that Mrs. Greenlease was at home. She told Mrs. Greenlease that another woman had collected Bobby from school, telling officials that Mrs. Greenlease was at hospital due to a heart attack. Bobby needed to come and visit the hospital immediately, the woman said. The official said that the woman had claimed to be Bobby’s aunt.
“Bobby walked directly to the unknown woman without hesitation, and there was nothing in his actions or behaviour to indicate any doubt on his part that this woman was his aunt,” according to an FBI summary on the case.1
After hanging up, Mrs. Greenlease called her husband to inform him that an unidentified woman had collected their son from school. Mr. Greenlease immediately called police to report Bobby missing.
That evening, postal authorities intercepted a letter from the kidnapper. It said that if the Greenleases wanted Bobby returned safely then they would need to pay $600,000 ($5.5 million today). It would take several days for the large ransom money to be lifted from the bank. The note was signed “M.” The letter also asked Robert to drive up and down Main Street with a white t-shirt attached to his car antenna to confirm that they received the letter. That same evening, he and a friend complied.
Within days, news of the abduction spread countrywide and soon worldwide. The terrifying story gripped the nation and struck fear into the hearts of parents everywhere.
The Greenlease family soon received another letter from “M” which contained the Jerusalem cross that Bobby had been wearing when he was abducted. When the money was accumulated from several banks, “M” told the family that Bobby would be returned within 24 hours after the ransom was received. On the 4th of October, two family friends dropped the duffel bag of money on U.S. Highway 40, about 10 miles east of Kansas City, like arranged. “M” then called to say the money had been collected and that they would shortly send directions to where they could find Bobby.
No directions were ever sent.
Two days later, 33-year-old Carl Austin Hall and his girlfriend, 40-year-old Bonnie Brown Heady, were apprehended for the kidnapping. They had fled to St. Louis but quickly fell under suspicion after throwing around an abundance of cash in a drunken stupor. They were said to drink a fifth of whiskey almost every day in addition to abusing drugs. When police apprehended Hall, he was so drunk that he didn’t resist the police.
Carl Austin Hall came from a well-to-do upbringing. His father had been a successful lawyer and when he passed away, Hall inherited a million dollars. However, he managed to blow his inheritance on gambling, alcohol and drugs. He met Heady, who was a sex worker and drug addict, while drinking in a tavern one night. The following day, the duo moved in together.2
After their apprehension, they confessed what everybody had dreaded since day one: Bobby was already dead.
Heady admitted to abducting Bobby from his school and bundling him into a taxi. “He put his little hand in mine – he was so trusting,” she recalled.3 The taxi dropped them off at a Katz drugstore in Kansas City, where Hall was waiting with a car. From here, they drove to a remote farm, crossing the Missouri-Kansas line in the process. When he trio arrived at the field, Heady got out of the car and went for a walk with her dog.
She knew what was going to happen next and she didn’t want to witness it.
Bobby was sitting in the front seat of the car when Hall approached him from the window. He attempted to strangle the young boy with a clothesline. Bobby fought back until Hall hit him in the mouth, knocking out several of the young boy’s teeth. Hall then pushed Bobby to the floor and shot at him. The first shot missed and Bobby was now screaming. Hall then placed the gun on the young boy’s head, just behind his ear, and shot. This time, he didn’t miss. After hearing the gunshot, Heady returned to the car. They wrapped the body in a tarp and drove back to Heady’s house where they buried him in a flower bed.
Bobby was dead before they even made the ransom demand.
“I believed that kidnapping was the one crime I could commit once and obtain a large sum of money,” Hall testified at court. Hall had concocted the plan to abduct Bobby when he became acquainted with an adopted older brother of Bobby’s, Paul Greenlease. Hall and Greenlease had been classmates at Kemper Military Accademy where he discovered that the Greenlease family were extremely wealthy. Hall and Heady had watched the Greenlease family all that summer while they hatched their plan. They decided from the onset that they would kill Bobby so that he wouldn’t be able to identify them.
A jury in Kansas City recommended the death penalty and 87 days after the murder, Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady were executed together in the gas chamber. It was one of the swiftest death penalties in modern history.
In memory of their son, Bobby’s family contributed millions of dollars to Rockhurst High School and Rockhurst University. Mr. Greenlease died in 1969 and Mrs. Greenlease in 2001.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3 October, 1993 – “40 Years Ago Greenlease Kidnapping Left Mark on KC”
- The Examiner, 15 January, 2014 – “Portraits of the Past”
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 28 January, 1990 – “The Crime and Punishment”