KC True Crime

The kidnapping of Bobby Greenlease

It was about 11:30 a.m. when the phone rang at the Robert and Virginia Greenlease home in Mission Hills on a warm autumn morning in 1953.

That Virginia Greenlease was home surprised the caller.

Another woman had picked up 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease from school a half hour earlier to take him to a hospital to see his mother, said the caller, an official at Bobby’s private school. Virginia supposedly had gotten quite ill that morning while shopping on the Country Club Plaza.

So, the caller wondered, how was it that Virginia already was home?

Virginia, who had not been ill, countered with an excruciating question.

Where is my son?

Virginia called her husband at the car dealership he had owned since 1918 at Gillham Road and McGee Street Trafficway. It sat a mile north of Bobby’s school, the French Institute of Notre Dame de Sion, an exclusive elementary school run by an order of French nuns.

Robert Greenlease quickly called police.

Over decades of selling high-end cars through his Cadillac dealership and other Midwestern dealerships in which he was a partner, Robert Greenlease had become one of Kansas City’s richest men.

He did not, however, have a biological child until after he divorced his first wife and married Virginia Pollock, 27 years his junior, in 1939. The couple had a daughter, Virginia Sue, in 1941, followed by Bobby in 1947, when Robert was 65 years old.

Now someone had snatched their Bobby.

At 3 p.m. Sept. 28, police announced the kidnapping.

That evening, postal authorities intercepted a special-delivery letter from the kidnappers. If the Greenleases wanted Bobby back alive, it would cost them $600,000, the letter said. In 21st-century dollars, that’s about $4.8 million.

The note was signed “M.”

To confirm receipt of the letter, Greenlease was to drive up and down Main Street between 29th and 39th streets with a white T-shirt tied to his car antenna. At midnight, he and a friend did so.

The next morning he went to Commerce Trust Co. and asked bank executive Arthur Eisenhower, a brother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to draw the ransom money. The task would take several days.

That day, Robert Greenlease tried to talk to the press but could utter only one sentence.

By then, the news had spread around the country and soon would be known around the world. The taking of Bobby Greenlease became the biggest kidnapping story since the abduction and killing of Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy more than two decades earlier.

That night the family received its first telephone call from “M.” The next morning a second ransom letter arrived. The envelope contained a Jerusalem cross that Bobby had been wearing when kidnapped.

“M” made nearly daily calls to the Greenleases for the next several days. At times he sounded confused or simply drunk. Bobby, he said at one point, would be returned 24 hours after the ransom was received.

After two attempted deliveries of the money failed, largely because “M” gave confusing directions, the Greenleases received instructions for a third attempt, which would occur late Oct. 4. Two Greenlease friends dropped a duffel bag packed with the ransom money in eastern Jackson County, where Lee’s Summit Road crossed the Little Blue River by a wooden bridge.

“M” soon called to report that he had picked it up. He said that directions for picking up Bobby would be sent to the Western Union telegraph office in Pittsburg, Kan., about 100 miles south of Kansas City. Two Greenlease associates drove there, arriving the morning of Oct. 5. No message came. After two fruitless days, they returned to Kansas City.

On Oct. 7, word arrived from St. Louis that a man and woman in police custody had confessed to kidnapping Bobby. Also, the reports said, Bobby was dead. Authorities had dug up his body in a shallow grave at a St. Joseph house.

In retrospect, it was no surprise that the kidnappers got captured. The surprise was that they had remained on the loose so long. Through the entire episode, Carl Austin Hall — the real name of “M” — and Bonnie Brown Heady stayed drunk or drugged almost constantly.

They’d met at a hotel bar in late May 1953. He was a 33-year-old small-time crook who’d spent an inherited fortune on bad business ventures, booze, gambling and a home just off Ward Parkway. She was 40, divorced from a successful livestock merchant, and plying her trade as a prostitute out of her St. Joseph home.

Hall wanted a payoff that would set them up for life. Their victim would have to be killed, Hall told Heady, to keep him from identifying them.

The morning of the kidnapping they headed south from St. Joseph, stopping at an early-opening bar along the way, then watched Robert Greenlease drop off his son at school. They drove to the Katz drugstore at Westport Road and Main Street. After Hall handed Heady breath mints to cover the scent of alcohol, she walked two blocks to get a cab. The taxi took her to the private school, where she spun her story about Bobby’s mother being sick. The taxi returned her and Bobby to the drugstore.

Hall and Heady drove away. Bobby, they later recalled, happily told them about his family, his pets and the family’s two Cadillacs. They crossed into Kansas and headed south to a farm field. Unable to watch what would happen next, Heady walked in the field with her dog.

Inside the car, Hall tried to strangle Bobby with a clothesline. It proved too short. Bobby put up a fierce struggle. Hall pulled out a .38-caliber revolver, held Bobby down and fired. He missed. He fired again, hitting Bobby’s brain. He wrapped the dead child in blue plastic before they drove back to St. Joseph, where he had already dug Bobby’s grave in a flower bed.

After retrieving the ransom money, they headed east along U.S. 40 through Missouri to St. Louis. Hall and Heady hit bar after bar. Using some of the money, they rented an apartment near Tower Grove Park, where Heady stayed, too drunk to continue. Hall found a cabdriver who provided him a prostitute. The driver, realizing how much money Hall was throwing around, notified a friend. Soon a St. Louis police officer, thought to be corrupt, and a detective arrested Hall at a motel along U.S. 66.

Hall confessed to the kidnapping and led police to Heady. Eventually, both admitted the murder, too. Barely two months after their capture, the two were executed.

Authorities found less than $300,000 of the original $600,000 ransom. Where the rest went remains a mystery, although some think a St. Louis mobster had it laundered through associates in Chicago.

Robert Greenlease, who with his wife donated money and land to Rockhurst University and Rockhurst High School, died in 1969. Virginia Greenlease died in 2001, leaving $1 million to the university and high school in the names of her husband and son.

When: 1953 | What: Kidnapping and murder of boy | Where: Kansas City and Johnson County | Outcome: Convicted killers were executed in December 1953