In 1953, six-year-old Robert Cosgrove Greenlease Jr. was kidnapped from Kansas City, Missouri, murdered, and ransomed for $600,000. One of the more tragic and fascinating crimes of the mid-20th century, this get-rich-quick scheme led to a massive investigation that captured the pair of culprits and the disappearance of half the $600,000 ransom his family paid for his release.
Born in 1947, Robert “Bobby” Greenlease was the son of Robert C. and Virginia Greenlease. Living in Mission Hills, Kansas, the most elite suburb in the Kansas City area, his 71-year-old father was a multi-millionaire who owned one of the largest Cadillac dealers in the nation. He also introduced General Motors vehicles to the Great Plains, owning dealerships from Texas to South Dakota.
As the Greenlease Cadillac Motor Company prospered and served more and more clients, so did the fact and the knowledge of the vast Greenlease wealth. Bobby Greanlease attended the prestigious Notre Dame de Sion School in nearby Kansas City, Missouri.
At approximately 10:55 a.m. on September 28, 1953, Sister Morand of Notre Dame De Sion answered the door and was confronted by a 41-year-old woman who said she was the aunt of Bobby Greenlease. The woman informed Sister Morand that Bobby’s mother had suffered a heart attack and had been taken to St. Mary’s Hospital. She appeared visibly upset and apologized to Sister Morand for her condition. Upon getting Bobby, Sister Morand told him that an aunt had called the school for him, but she did not tell Bobby that his mother had suffered a heart attack. Sister Morand recalled that Bobby walked directly to the woman without hesitation, and nothing in his action or behavior indicated doubt that this woman was his aunt. As the woman left the school, she held an arm around Bobby’s shoulder and held his hand. Sister Morand last saw them as they entered a taxicab.
At approximately 11:30 a.m., Sister Marthanna of the school called the Greenlease home to inquire about Mrs. Greenlease’s condition. She was undoubtedly surprised when she spoke to Mrs. Greenlease and learned that the story told by the woman who came for Bobby was false. Virginia Greenlease immediately called her husband, who rushed home and, after hearing the story of what happened, notified the chief of police in Kansas City, who in turn reported the matter to the FBI.
Willard Pearson Creech, a cab driver for the Toedman Cab Company in Kansas City, told authorities that shortly before 11:00 a.m. on September 28, 1953, a woman, whose description fits that of the woman who had come to the school, entered the cab and requested him to drive her to the Notre Dame De Sion school.
Upon arriving, she told Creech to wait for her because she wanted to be driven to the Katz Drug Store at Westport and Main Streets in Kansas City. In approximately six minutes, the woman reentered the cab accompanied by a small boy fitting the description of Bobby Greenlease. When Creech last saw them, they had stopped behind a blue 1952 or 1953 Ford Sedan bearing Kansas license plates.
In the meantime, Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady, while chatting with Bobby about his pets and buying him ice cream, traveled to a secluded farm near Overland Park, Kansas. Hall, who considered the boy evidence that needed to be destroyed, first tried to strangle the boy, but his rope was too short. He then slugged the child, knocking out his front tooth. He finally pushed the child down and shot Bobby at point-blank range with a snubnosed .38 caliber revolver, killing him instantly. The couple then transported the body approximately 45 miles back to St. Joseph, Missouri, where Hall buried it in Bonnie Heady’s yard at 1201 South 38th Street. The killing, transport, and burial occurred before the first ransom demand occurred.
Several hours after the kidnapping, the Greenleases received the first ransom letter concerning the return of their son. Mailed special delivery and postmarked 6:00 p.m. on September 28, 1953, it demanded $600,000 in $20 and $10 bills be placed in a duffle bag. It was the most significant ransom payment in American history at the time. The kidnappers promised Bobby’s safe return in 24 hours as long as there were no tricks in delivering the money. A second ransom letter was postmarked at 9:30 p.m. on the same day. Inside the envelope was the Jerusalem medal Bobby Greenlease had worn. This letter again contained the demand for $600,000 and stated that Bobby was okay but homesick.
After nearly a week of 15 phone calls and more than a half-dozen ransom notes that sent the Greenlease family on a wild goose chase, the two received the ransom. The final communication between the Greenleases and the kidnappers was a telephone call received at 1:00 a.m. on October 5, 1953, at the Greenlease residence. The kidnappers stated they had received the $600,000, assured the Greenleases that their son was alive, and promised to send instructions on where to pick up Bobby. However, the instructions were never delivered. Overall, the Greenleases received over a half dozen ransom notes and 15 telephone calls.
Once a wealthy man, Carl Austin Hall was accustomed to living a lavish lifestyle before squandering away his inheritance from his father at several failed business ventures.
He was arrested in 1951 for robbing taxicab drivers of $33. He was sentenced to five years in prison, where he began plotting his next get-rich-quick scheme — a ransom kidnapping. In the 1930s, Hall had attended Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri, with Paul Robert Greenlease, Bobby’s adopted older brother. Hall had planned for years to victimize his former classmate’s wealthy family. He would later say that kidnapping was the only crime where he could strike once and retire for life.
After serving just over two years, he was released and met Bonnie Heady, a divorcée and sometime prostitute, in a bar in May 1953. Two days later, he moved in with her and let her in on his plan, in which she became his more-than-willing accomplice. Hall and Heady traveled to Kansas City throughout the summer to watch and follow the Greenleases.
While the Greenleases waited for word of where to find Bobby, Hall and Heady took the ransom money and traveled approximately 380 miles to St. Louis, Missouri. On October 5, 1953, Hall purchased two metal suitcases and transferred the ransom money from a duffle bag to these suitcases, leaving the duffle bag in an ash pit in south St. Louis. At a loss as to what to do next, they ditched their car and started using taxicabs. After a round of bar hopping, they rented a small apartment on Arsenal Street in south St. Louis. When Heady passed out, Hall deserted her there, leaving only $2,000 of the $600,000 ransom money in her purse.
On October 6, 1953, Hall purchased two large garbage cans and a shovel, placed them in a rented car, and drove to Meramec River in St. Louis County, where he intended to bury the ransom money; however, he could not find a suitable place. He left the cans in a deserted clubhouse and drove back to the Coral Court Motel, where he was staying. Hall became suspicious of people near the motel during the afternoon of October 6, 1953, and moved to an apartment at the Townhouse Hotel in St. Louis.
By enlisting the services of a cab driver, a prostitute, and copious amounts of alcohol, Hall may have been a bit too free with his newly acquired money — leading a cab driver to report his suspicious fare to the St. Louis Police Department. At about 3:30 p.m. on October 6, 1953, John Oliver Hager, a driver for the Ace Cab Company, provided the police with information that led to the arrest of Carl Austin Hall, who identified himself as John James Byrne, by officers of the St. Louis Police Department at the Townhouse Hotel on the evening of October 6, 1953. Later that night, he led the officers to an apartment on Arsenal Street in St. Louis, where Hall’s girlfriend, Bonnie Emily Heady, was taken into custody.
Hall was interrogated by FBI agents and other law enforcement agencies several times after his arrest. He insisted that practically all the $600,000 ransom money was in his possession when the St. Louis Police Department arrested him.
The FBI had been involved in the case from the beginning, and its extensive investigation not only led to the recovery of Robert Cosgrove Greenlease, Jr.’s body in a grave on Heady’s property in St. Joseph, Missouri but also resulted in dozens of pages of confessions and indisputable evidence.
Hall admitted to FBI agents the planning of the kidnapping, the actual abduction of the victim, and burying the body in the yard of Bonnie Heady’s residence. He also admitted to picking up the ransom but denied killing the victim, implicating that he had turned the victim over to Tom Marsh. Hall later admitted Marsh was a fictitious individual and the only persons involved in the kidnapping were Bonnie Heady and himself. It was not until October 11, 1953, that Hall admitted he and Bonnie Heady transported the victim from Kansas City, Missouri, to Kansas, where Hall shot the victim to death before transporting the body back to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he buried it in Bonnie Heady’s yard.
Bonnie Heady admitted assisting Hall in preparing the ransom letters and notes of instructions to the Greenlease family concerning the ransom, going to the school, and obtaining custody of the victim.
FBI agents found the boy’s body at 8:40 a.m., October 7, 1953, buried near the porch of the Heady residence at 1201 South 38th Street in St. Joseph, Missouri. The body had been wrapped in a plastic bag, and a large quantity of lime had been poured over this bag. The Greenlease family dentist identified the body as Bobby Greenlease on October 7, 1953.
Blood stains were found on the basement floor, steps in the Heady residence, and on a blouse and fiber rug. Some .38 caliber shell casings were also found in the house. The FBI Laboratory examined them and found that they had been fired from a .38 caliber snub nose Smith & Wesson revolver in Hall’s possession at the time of his arrest. The FBI Laboratory also ascertained that a lead bullet recovered from a rubber floor mat in the Plymouth station wagon owned by Bonnie Heady was also fired from Hall’s .38 caliber revolver.
On October 30, 1953, Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady appeared in federal court in Kansas City, Missouri, when they entered guilty pleas to the indictment.
On November 19, 1953, after hearing the evidence, a jury recommended the death penalty after only an hour and eight minutes of deliberations. Fifteen minutes after the verdict was announced, the pair were sentenced to be executed on December 18, 1953.
“I think the verdict fits the evidence. It is the most cold-blooded, brutal murder I have ever tried.”
— Judge Albert L. Reeves
Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Emily Heady were executed together in Missouri’s lethal gas chamber at the State Penitentiary, in Jefferson City, Missouri, on December 18, 1953, just 81 days after the kidnapping.
Only $288,000 of the ransom money was recovered. The missing $312,000 remained a subject of wide speculation. Some of the theories accounting for this were:
A cab driver who took Hall to the Coral Court Motel had tipped off local mobster Joseph G. Costello.
Hall tried unsuccessfully to bury the cash near the Meramec River, though the FBI would later search that area in vain.
The FBI investigation established that the two suitcases, which reportedly contained the ransom money and were in Hall’s possession at the time of his arrest, were not brought to the 11th District Precinct Station as testified by the arresting officers, Lieutenant Louis Ira Shoulders and Patrolman Elmer Dolan.
Shoulders and Dolan told a grand jury that the $288,000 they turned over was the full amount seized from Hall when they arrested him. However, this statement was determined to be false, and it was alleged that Shoulders had taken the balance of the $600,000 ransom that Hall had on him at the time of the arrest.
Both officers were subsequently federally indicted for perjury. Lieutenant Shoulders was convicted on April 15, 1954, and sentenced to three years in prison, and patrolman Dolan was convicted on March 31, 1954, and sentenced to two years. After they were released from prison, both returned to the St. Louis area. Shoulders died on May 12, 1962. Dolan received a full pardon from President Johnson on July 21, 1965.