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8 Notorious Kidnappings
1. When Caesar Met the Cilician PiratesAccording to the ancient historian Plutarch, a young Julius Caesar was at the center of one of Rome’s most unusual kidnapping cases. The incident unfolded in 75 B.C., when a band of Cilician pirates waylaid the 25-year-old as he was ...read more
One of Kansas City's most sensational and ultimately tragic crimes began on May 27, 1933 with the kidnapping of Mary McElroy, the daughter of controversial city manager Henry F. McElroy, who had close ties to the political machine operated by “Boss” Tom Pendergast. She was released after 34 hours of captivity, following payment of a $30,000 ransom, but she never recovered from the emotional turmoil that ensued. In the appeals that resulted from the incident, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death penalty as a legally acceptable form of punishment for kidnappers.
Mary McElroy. Photo courtesy of Tom's Town Distilling Co.
Mary McElroy was born in 1907 to Marie and Henry McElroy. As a child, she grew up in a very sheltered environment, but nonetheless was raised by her father to be self-reliant and headstrong. After her mother's death in 1920, she took it upon herself to care for her father. A close personal relationship blossomed between them, and Mary continued to live with her father even after she reached adulthood.
Henry McElroy had moved to Kansas City from Chicago in 1895, at the age of 30. Previously a store clerk, he eventually developed connections with the Pendergast machine and in 1922 secured an appointment as judge of the western district of the Jackson County Court, an administrative, not a legal position. In 1926, "Boss" Tom Pendergast used his influence with five city council members to ensure that McElroy was hired as Kansas City's city manager, a new position recently approved by voters.
With the support of the Pendergast machine, McElroy became one of the most powerful people in the city and even the state of Missouri. As manager, McElroy brought Kansas City the Municipal Airport in 1927, eliminated tolls on two bridges over the Missouri River, and enacted a "ten-year plan" of public improvements that resulted in the construction of a new City Hall, Jackson County Courthouse, Municipal Auditorium and the paving of the Brush Creek streambed, projects that required massive quantities of concrete supplied by one of Pendergast’s companies. Meanwhile, Mary maintained an outspoken pride in her father's deeds.
While many of McElroy's accomplishments were widely considered to be great improvements to the vitality of the city, his methods came into question as the 1930s progressed. His connections to machine politics and a criminal underworld headed by mobster John Lazia became obvious. Worse still, he came under fire for perceived mismanagement of public funds, a practice McElroy regularly referred to as “country bookkeeping” and also was suspected of engaging in bribery.
It was in this environment on May 27, 1933 that Mary McElroy was kidnapped by four inexperienced and unknown criminals who were inspired by national headlines of successful kidnappings. While Mary was bathing that morning, two of the accomplices, Walter McGee and Clarence Stevens, approached the front door of the McElroy home. Dressed as deliverymen, they tricked the cook, Heda Christensen into opening the door for them. Armed with revolvers, they marched upstairs and took Mary hostage (after they allowed her a few minutes of privacy to get dressed in a pink cotton frock, tan hose, and white shoes). They took her to a house near Shawnee, Kansas, where they handcuffed her to a wall in the basement.
The kidnappers did not harm Mary, as she maintained composure and appeared to be in good spirits. In a turn of events that would later capture the public's imagination, she befriended her kidnappers. At 9 o’clock the next morning, they received the $30,000 ransom and released Mary near the Milburn Golf Club. They even gave her a fare to pay for transportation back to her home.
Three of the four accomplices were soon arrested. Walter McGee was sentenced to death, the first time in the United States that such a harsh penalty had ever been exacted for a kidnapping. George McGee, the younger brother of Walter, received a life sentence. Clarence Click, owner of the Shawnee property where Mary McElroy was held captive, was sentenced to eight years. After Walter McGee's appeals reached Supreme Court, the sentence of death was upheld.
Henry McElroy, still outraged at the kidnapping, was pleased with the harsh sentences. Mary McElroy, however, sunk into a deep depression. In principal she agreed that the death penalty was appropriate for kidnappers, but in her particular case she took sympathy on her kidnappers and could not bear the idea of Walter McGee being executed. Rumors and news headlines circulated both locally and nationally that she and Walter had been in a romantic relationship, although this was probably not true. Mary convinced her father to help her obtain a stay of execution from the Missouri governor. They were successful in commuting McGee's sentence to life in prison.
Mary McElroy. Photo courtesy The Kansas City Star
Unfortunately, many of the remaining years of Mary McElroy's life were unhappy. She continued to feel sorry for her kidnappers, and frequently visited them in prison. She was devastated when her father was forced to resign as city manager on April 13, 1939, following the downfall of Tom Pendergast. Henry McElroy died shortly thereafter, on September 15, 1939, at the age of 74. Mary never managed to adjust to life without her father and continued to feel pressure from the members of the media who were eager to capitalize on stories of her "romance" and the plummeting political legacy of her father. The pressures ultimately became too much for her, and on January 20, 1940, she committed suicide. For Mary McElroy, the kidnapping saga was over, but everyone else continued to wonder about the strange details of May 27, 1933.
Read a full biographical sketches of people involved in the Mary McElroy kidnapping, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:
View images relating to Mary McElroy that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
Check out the following books and articles about the Mary McElroy kidnapping, held by the Kansas City Public Library:
- Tom's Town: Kansas City and the Pendergast Legend, by William M. Reddig, 1947, pp. 247, 255-256, 263, 340-353.
- "The Tale of Mary McElroy--The Strangest Kidnapping of Them All," by Walter Burks, in the Kansas City Town Squire, September 1971, pp. 20-26.
- "The Crime-Ridden Summer of 1933," by Robert Pearman, in the Kansas City Star, September 8, 1963.
- "Kidnapped!," by Patricia Levine, in City Magazine, January 1979.
Continue researching the Mary McElroy kidnapping using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- "Justice Week in Kansas City," in Future, April 5, 1935 discusses the death penalty sentence for Walter McGee, one of McElroy's kidnappers.
- "May We Present Ralph T. Harding," in Future, May 3, 1935 biographical sketch of Ralph Harding, attorney who defended the attorney of Mary McElroy.
William M. Reddig, Tom’s Town: Kansas City and the Pendergast Legend (Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1947), 247, 255-256, 263, 340-353.
Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 221.
Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, The Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 536-537.
Barbara Magerl, "Biography of Mary McElroy (1908-1940), Kidnap Victim," the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library, 2003.
May 23, 2017: This article originally reported the date of death of Mary McElroy's mother as 1915. Her mother died in 1920. (Sources here and here)
Child kidnappings that captured our attention
They don't happen often, but when they do, child abductions by strangers can capture Americans' attention like few other crimes. A look at notorious kidnappings over the past century and a half shows how attitudes have changed.
The stereotypical kidnapping of a child by a stranger is vanishingly rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of all missing child cases. When the crimes do happen, they make an impact, tapping into some of the public's greatest fears and insecurities.
They also reveal society's prejudices. The cases that rise to prominence tend to involve white children, often from wealthy families, although the FBI estimates that more than a third of missing kids are black. The imbalance in attention is so pronounced that in 2008 a former police officer and her sister-in-law launched a foundation called Black & Missing.
High-profile abductions also, to some degree, trace social mores. In the 1950s, for example, the motivations largely shifted from the collection of ransom money to the satisfaction of sexual desires. Cases of pedophilia existed previously, of course, but society may have been too prim to acknowledge or publicize them before the liberating 1960s.
These are the cases in the past century and a half that made headlines and sometimes led to significant changes in law.
July 1874 | Philadelphia | 4 years old
Charley Ross Library of Congress
Playing in the front yard of his family home, Charley was kidnapped by two men in a horse-drawn carriage who promised to buy firecrackers for him and his brother. The apparent kidnappers demanded a ransom of $20,000, but the boy's father was advised by the police not to pay. Bill Mosher and Joe Douglas were both shot during a subsequent burglary. Mosher died immediately and Douglas confessed before dying, stating: "The boy will get home all right." But Charley was never found. This was one of the first kidnappings for ransom in the United States and was the most prominent until the Lindbergh case.
December 1927 | Los Angeles | 12 years old
Marion Parker Los Angeles Public Library
The daughter of a prominent banker, Marion was abducted from her school by a man posing as a bank employee who told the school secretary that the girl's father had been injured. The man, William Hickman, demanded a $1,500 ransom. When the father delivered the money, he saw Marion in the car next to Hickman. But she was already dead. He had cut off her arms and legs and disemboweled her, stuffing her with rags and sewing her eyes open. A huge manhunt ensued, and eventually Hickman was caught. He was one of the first to invoke a new California law allowing pleas of not guilty due to insanity. A jury nonetheless sentenced him to hang, and he went to the gallows in October 1928.
Charles Lindbergh Jr.
March 1932 | East Amwell, N.J. | 20 months old
Charles Lindbergh Jr. New York Daily News
Charles was kidnapped from his crib in the family home. His parents, including the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, paid a ransom of $50,000, but the boy was found dead a few months later. Bruno Hauptmann, an unemployed carpenter, was convicted and executed, although he claimed innocence. Called the "crime of the century," the kidnapping brought about the Federal Kidnapping Act in 1932, also known as the "Lindbergh Law," which made it a federal crime to transport kidnapping victims across state lines. Lloyd's of London also introduced "kidnap insurance."
Robert Greenlease Jr.
September 1953 | Kansas City, Mo. | 6 years old
A woman retrieved Robert from school by claiming to be a relative taking him to his sick mother. The boy, the son of a wealthy auto dealer, was trusting and compliant. The kidnapping led to what is thought to be the largest ransom payment in American history up to that time, $600,000. But Robert was already dead by the time the demand was made, killed by Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady. Both were convicted and executed in Missouri's gas chamber in Jefferson City.
December 1972 | Merced, Calif. | 7 years old
Steven Stayner Creative Commons
Steven was approached on his way home from school by Ervin Murphy, who claimed to be a minister but who was actually working on behalf of a convicted child molester, Kenneth Parnell. Steven was abducted and held for seven years, during which time he was sexually assaulted and renamed Dennis Parnell. When Kenneth Parnell kidnapped a younger boy named Timothy White, Steven decided to save the boy, and the two escaped. Parnell and Murphy were convicted and served time in prison. Steven died in a motorcycle accident in 1989, the same year as the release of a movie based on his life, "I Know My First Name is Steven."
May 1979 | New York City | 6 years old
Etan was abducted on his way to a school bus stop in Manhattan. The kidnapping resulted in a massive search and hundreds of tips, but he was never found. Years later, the family won a wrongful death lawsuit against a friend of one of Etan's babysitters, but the man was never criminally charged. Finally, in 2012, a store clerk named Pedro Hernandez was charged after confessing to strangling Etan, but the jury failed to reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial. Etan was among the first children to be featured on a milk carton. His disappearance helped spark the modern missing children's movement, highlighting pedophilia as a motive. May 25, the day he disappeared, is National Missing Children's Day.
July 1981 | Hollywood, Fla. | 6 years old
Adam disappeared from a shopping mall after being separated from his mother. A few weeks later, his severed head was found in Vero Beach, 120 miles away. A serial killer named Ottis Toole confessed, but he later recanted and was never tried. Toole died in prison in 1996 and the police closed the case in the belief that Toole was responsible. Adam's parents lobbied for the Missing Children's Act of 1982, which created a national database of information on missing children, and helped found the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, established by Congress in 1984. Adam's murder also led to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006, which placed more comprehensive registration requirements on sex offenders. Adam's father, John, launched and became the host of "America's Most Wanted."
September 1982 | West Des Moines, Iowa | 12 years old
Johnny disappeared while delivering newspapers. Witnesses saw a man in a car talking to him and perhaps speeding away around the time of his disappearance. His parents discovered he was missing when they received calls from unhappy newspaper delivery customers. They reported the incident, but the police said Johnny had to be gone for 72 hours before he could be considered missing, a requirement his mother, Noreen, later worked to change. Johnny, one of the first children to appear on a milk carton, was never found, and Noreen believes he was kidnapped as part of a child trafficking ring, an issue on which she has become outspoken.
October 1989 | St. Joseph, Minn. | 11 years old
Jacob Wetterling Wetterling family
Jacob was abducted while on his way home from the local Tom Thumb store with his brother and best friend. The abductor, recently identified as Danny Heinrich, carried a gun and wore a mask, disappearing with Jacob. He led investigators to Jacob's remains at the end of August 2016. Jacob's disappearance led to one of the widest manhunts in U.S. history and brought about the first federal law requiring states to register sex offenders, in 1994, called the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. His mother, Patty, became an advocate for missing children and ran for the U.S. House twice.
June 1991 | South Lake Tahoe, Calif. | 11 years old
Jaycee was abducted while walking to a school bus stop. She was missing for 18 years before her rescue in 2009. A convicted sex offender, Phillip Garrido, and his wife, Nancy, had kept her captive, during which time she had given birth to two daughters. Finally, thanks to alert security officers at the University of California, Berkeley, the two were arrested and convicted of rape and false imprisonment. The case gave hope to families of other abductees, who wanted desperately to believe their children were still alive.
October 1993 | Petaluma, Calif. | 12 years old
Polly Klaas Creative Commons
Polly was hosting a slumber party with friends when a man wielding a knife entered her bedroom, tied up the girls and placed pillow cases over their heads. He abducted Polly, who was later found dead. Richard Davis, who had a violent criminal past, was convicted. The case fueled support for California's "three strikes" law, which passed in 1994, and was one of the first to use digital technology in the search, enabling Polly's digitized photo to be widely distributed on the internet.
July 1994 | Hamilton Township, N.J. | 7 years old
Megan was raped and murdered by her neighbor, a convicted sex offender named Jesse Timmendequas, who lured her into his house with the promise of seeing a new puppy. He dumped her body in a nearby park. Timmendequas confessed and was sentenced to death, but in 2007, New Jersey abolished the death penalty, so his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Her murder led to a federal Megan's Law in 1996, which provided for the public dissemination of information from sex offender registries, such as when an offender moves into a community.
10. Fusako Sano
Fusako Sano is a Japanese woman who was kidnapped at the age of nine. Her captor was a man named Nobuyuki Sato. She was last seen watching a baseball game at her school and was forced into a car afterwards. She was held captive for nine years and two months and was kept on the top floor of the apartment which Sato shared with his mother who lived downstairs. Her captor brought her meals, cut her hair and gave her men’s clothes to wear. Fusako was too scared to venture out of the first floor of the house and she remained there for the entire term of her kidnapping. She was rescued when Sato’s mother called the hospital to ask them to take a look at her son who had been acting abnormally.
Updated May 2021
What follows may not be endorsed by the countries, sources or organisations concerned.
The map above and list below identify the dates, locations and outcomes (where known) of reported kidnappings of over 150 Westerners for lucrative ransoms, dating from the first such event in Algeria in March 2003 (#1).
Back then, European desert tourists were the main target which led to the gradual collapse of Sahara tourism, both independent and organised. As a result, the frequency of such incidents peaked a few years later, then slowed right down in the Sahara and moved south into the Sahel.
This regional disruption followed the collapse of Libya in 2011 and, with no desert tourists left to kidnap in Mali, Niger or Libya (or restrictions combined with greater security measures in Algeria and Mauritania), further south in the Sahel, ex-pat oil workers, NGO workers, and missionaries became new targets. This new thread follows such events in the Sahel and West Africa where the complexity of the many conflicts along with the seeming collapse of state control in the countryside of Burkina Faso has made things worse.
By 2021, kidnappings of foreigners are rare compared to the numbers of local villagers facing regular attacks along the Burkina/Mali/Niger borders.
In all cases bar 2, 3, 5 and 36, the victims of desert abductions were grabbed by (or passed on to) Islamist militias, including Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or ISIS-affiliated groups to eventually be released for ransom following lengthy captivity in northern Mali.
By 2018 there were so many splinter groups (left) it got hard to keep track. Now in the Sahel, ethnic Peul (Fulani) have got in on the act, reviving ancient ‘farmer vs herder’ grievances over access to land and water as old as Cain and Abel. So the regional instability initially kicked off by jihadist groups in northern Mali following the fall of Gaddafi has spread southwards, seeing a steep rise to inter-ethnic violence by Sahelian militias.
Any payment of ransoms are routinely denied by the overseas (usually European) governments concerned, although arrangements are usually made via third parties to actually deliver the cash. During the Gaddafi era, the Libyan state was one such conduit, and local intermediaries got rich negotiating ransoms. Wikileaks identified Baba Ould Cheick, the Mayor of Tarkint as one such beneficiary. The former Burkinabe president Blaise Compaoré was another. Interesting FCO document from 2013.
One of the best books in English about the hostage experience is A Season in Hell by Canadian diplomat, Robert Fowler. Though he was only held hostage for a few months in 2009, he paints a vivid picture of life on the move and coping with captivity. Full review here.
‘AQIM’ or even ‘AQ’ has now become a shorthand for the various jihadist groups (including MUJAO) who until early 2013 roamed free in northern Mali with little obstruction from the Malian government – and in cases, quite the opposite. Some have since regrouped in southern Libya, but such convenient abbreviations rather play into their hands. Many of these Mafia-like groups compete with each other for influence and a share of the gains from people- and drug smuggling, as well as regional extortion and kidnapping. Some have now separated from AQIM and re-affiliated themselves with the even more brutal IS (see below).
Excluding In Amenas in Algeria ( #20 more below), al-Ghazi in Libya ( #23 ) and Sabratha ( #26 ), in the Sahara 13 hostages have died or were killed in captivity over the years. In other incidents, a French family was killed in Mauritania (Aleg, 2007, left ), an American shot in Nouakchott (June 2009), another in Egypt, in 2014. and another in Burkina in January 2019. Over a dozen Western tourists died in the 2011 Marrakech bombing, (two more were murdered in the Atlas, see below) and in 2015 many more were killed in separate events in Tunisia as well as hotel attacks in Mali and Ouagadougou (2016 and June 2017).
In January 2013 some 40 workers of several nationalities were killed during a siege and the ensuing army raid on a gas plant in In Amenas eastern Algeria. Nearly all the attackers (and many others) were killed by the Algerian army. The attack was attributed to Moktar Belmoktar (‘MBM’, on the left, left), one of the key players in Saharan kidnappings from the start.
And years after the event, it was also confirmed that all nine foreign workers (or at least 7) adducted from al-Ghazi oil field in Libya by IS ( #23 ) were killed soon after.
In early March 2013 AQIM confirmed that his counterpart and rival Abu Zeid ( left ) was killed during the French Operation Serval in northern Mali. Full story here. Interestingly, the NYT video linked below shows the 4′ 9″ jihadist was involved in the 2003 abductions too (left). In 2015, and again in 2016, it was also reported that MBM had been killed by airstrikes in Libya. He no longer features on US wanted lists, but this article in 2017 suggests he’s still influential, while not spelling out if he’s actually alive.
Another IS-inspired atrocity was the brutal killing of two Scandinavian backpackers in December 2018, while camping in the Moroccan High Atlas, below Mt Toubkal ( right ). In July 2019 their perpetrators were sentenced to death, lifting a 25-year Moroccan moratorium on executions.
The in June 2020, Abdelmalek Droukdel ( right ), the last big chief of AQIM who are now having it out with IS in the Sahel – was ambushed and killed by French troops in northern Mali, just after crossing the border from Algeria where he’d been in hiding for years. His death doesn’t mean peace will be breaking out in the Sahara any time soon.
Westerners are or were also being kidnapped or taken to northern Nigeria and especially Burkina Faso, some by groups affiliated or supporting AQIM and the hostages ending up in northern Mali ( #36, #37, #38 ). And since the Egyptian revolution, the Sinai has become a less safe place for tourism , though until the growth of IS influence this was more conventional banditry and ransoming by Bedouin.
At the time of this update known captives include:
- Romanian mining engineer Julian Ghergut #23A
- Australian missionary/doctor Ken Elliott #28
- American missionary/NGO worker, Jeffrey Woodke #30
- Colombian nun Gloria Argoti #32
- German aid worker, Jörg Lange #33
- French journalist, Olivier Dubois, #38
Bold title means no longer captive
1. Feb-April 2003 – Southeast Algeria
Thirty two European tourists (right) taken in several snatches. Mostly Austrians, Germans and Swiss. Half were freed following an army raid in May, the rest were allowed to move on to northern Mali (see map, left) where they were also released in August 2003 for a €4.6m ransom. One German woman died while in captivity from heatstroke. Read this also. And this account by one of the abductees.
NY Times article from 2014 by Rukmini Callimachi, with rare video from the 2003 abductions.
2. August 2006 – Bilma Erg, northeastern Niger
A group of some 22 tourists of various nationalities were robbed and briefly held by Tubu bandits somewhere near Bilma. Most were released after a day, apart from two, including the Italian group leader, who was taken hostage and held captive near Korizo, in far northwestern Chad. Released after 55 days following intervention and possible ransom payment by Libya.
3. October 2007 – Tibesti, northwest Chad
American missionary near Zoumri by MDJT (Tubu rebels). Accused of being a spy despite being based there for many years.
Released in July 2008 near Bardai. ” … no ransom was paid and
no concessions of any type were made to secure his release,”
4. March 2008 – south Tunisia
Two Austrians Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber (right) kidnapped while driving in the Grand Erg dunes in southern Tunisia.
They were held in northeast Mali where they were released in November 2008 for ransom.
5. September 2008 – southwest Egypt/north Sudan (Uweinat)
Tour group of some eleven Europeans and nine Egyptian crew.
Version 1: all rescued a few days later in northwest Sudan following an Egyptian army operation.
Version 2: Ransom quickly paid all hostages released.
6. December 2008 – Highway north of Niamey, Niger near Mali border
Canadian UN envoy and his party (right) from a moving car.
Released in April 2009 in northeast Mali for €700k ransom.
Review of UN diplomat Robert Fowler’s book about his experience .
7. January 2009 – east Mali near Niger border
Two Swiss, 1 German and 1 Briton on an organised tour visiting music festivals. All held in northeast Mali. Two women released in April at the same time as the Canadians (#6).
The Briton, Edwin Dyer (right), was executed in June and the German released for ransom in July.
8. November 2009 – east Mali
A Frenchman from outside his hotel in Menaka – possibly ‘sold on’ to AQIM. Freed (right) in northeast Mali late February 2010 following the controversial release of AQIM prisoners by a Malian court, much to Algeria and Mauritania’s displeasure. Thought to be a French DGSE agent (similar to CIA). €5m ransom payment denied.
9. November 2009 – Mauritania, Highway 1, south of Nouadhibou
Three Spanish aid volunteers from the end of a large convoy.
The woman was released in mid-March for ‘health reasons and after converting to Islam’. After nearly nine months the two men were released in northeast Mali in August 2010. It immediately followed the release from a Mauritanian prison of the individual who was said to have been hired to kidnap the group. The payment of an €8m ransom was confirmed a day or two later.
10. December 2009 – south Mauritania at the Mali border
Two Italian nationals (right) hijacked from their van.
Released north of Gao in mid-April 2010 after AQIM prisoners, including one accused of the crime, were also released. Reports of an €8m ransom payment was denied.
11. April 2010 – northern Niger
A 78-year-old French national and his Algerian driver seized near In Abangaret well, 150km south of Assamaka. The Algerian driver was abandoned a week later in northeast Mali where the Frenchman was held captive. A couple of weeks later it was reported the driver was either arrested or extradited from Algeria back to Niger, accused of involvement with the kidnap and later released.
Both sides claimed that Michele Germaneau was executed in July, following what was reported as a failed French-Mauritanian operation to release him. It’s more probable he died in captivity some weeks earlier as a result of an untreated health condition. Three years later his passport was found beside the body of Abu Zeid.
12. September 2010 – Arlit, northwest Niger
Four French nationals: Thierry Dol, Daniel Larribe, Pierre Legrand and Marc Feret, among six or seven workers kidnapped from the Areva uranium mine near Arlit. They were said to be in the Timetrine region of Mali in the hands of AQIM hardliner About Zeid (also behind #7 and probably a couple of others ), who had been demanding up to €90m. Three were released in February 2011. More news here.
AQIM leader Abou Zeid was killed in March 2013 then in June the four hostages were said to have been exfiltrated to southern Algeria, now in the hands of new leader, Yahia Abu Hammam
The four were finally released in northern Niger in October 2013, after over three years captivity. €20m ransom denied.
13. January 2011 – Niamey, Niger
Two young French nationals kidnapped from a restaurant in Niamey by AQIM. Found dead within 24 hours south of Menaka in Mali, following an attack on the abductors’ convoy by French helicopters based nearby. The action was thought to represent a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude by the French authorities towards abductors escaping with hostages. More news here.
14. February 2011 – Djanet, southeast Algeria
An Italian woman kidnapped from near Alidemma arch, 200km south of Djanet (and just 100km from the unmanned Niger border) by AQIM, or sold on to AQIM. Thought to have been held in Mali. More here.
Released (right) in mid-April 2012 in Tessalit and flew home via Ouagadougou. Reports of €3m ransom payment denied by the Italian government.
15. October 2011 – Tindouf, western Algeria
Two Spanish and an Italian aid worker grabbed from Rabouni transit camp, 25km south of Tindouf. More here. The off-limits Tindouf region in the far west of Algeria borders Morocco, Mauritania, Western Sahara and Mali and is full of refugees camps for Saharawi displaced following the Polisario war over Western Sahara which is now part-occupied by Morocco. Responsibility has since been claimed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an AQIM splinter group who later carried out a suicide bombing in Tamanrasset in March 2012 and have since merged with Moktar Belmoktar in 2013 after MBM was expelled from AQIM in 2012.
All three were released in July 2012 in exchange for two prisoners held in Mauritania, including the suspect who was accused of kidnapping the three in the first place. MUJAO claimed a €15 ransom and others did not deny it.
16. November 2011 – Hombori, eastern Mali
Two French ‘geologists’ (right) thought to be private military contractors (PMCs) involved with securing the release of #12. Grabbed from their hotel in the middle of the night by AQIM and taken to north Mali. More here. With the exception of Menaka ( #9 – also with French secret service connections), this was the first abduction deep inside Mali and south of the Niger river. One of the two, Philippe Verdon, was executed by AQIM in March 2013 in retaliation for the French military operations in north Mali (his body was recovered in July). Serge Lazarevic was released in December 2014 in exchange for two AQIM prisoners held in Mali.
17. November 2011 – Timbuktu Mali
A day after the above event, four overland tourists: Dutch, German, Swedish and a South African/Brit were kidnapped from a hotel in Timbuktu in broad daylight. The wife of the Dutchman managed to hide, but the German, Martin Arker, was shot dead while resisting. More here. AQIM claimed responsibility for this and #16 a few weeks later. In September 2013 a video of the three as well as what were the remaining four from #12 was posted via a Mauritanian news agency. In April 2015 the Dutch hostage, Sjaak Rijke (right) was freed by chance during a French military raid on a camp near Tessalit, northern Mali.
In June 2017 the Swede Johan Gustafsson (left) was released after over 2000 days (detailed interview), and South African-Brit, Stephen McGown, was released a month later. More on his experience here and here and below. The South African government denies a $4.2m ransom was paid for McGown’s eventual release.
18. April 2012 – Timbuktu Mali
A Swiss missionary Beatrice Stöckli, was taken by armed gunmen from her house in Timbuktu a week after most foreigners fled the town following Tuareg separatists moving in and taking control (along with the rest of north Mali). Following a raid by Ansar al Dine, the main rebel group who took over Timbuktu, just a week later she was freed from her captors and released by Ansar it’s said for €1m ransom.
In January 2015 after returning to Timbuktu, she was kidnapped again: see #27 .
19. November 2012 – Diema, northwest Mali
A 61-year-old Portuguese-born French citizen was kidnapped in late November in Diema, on the regular road between Mauritania to Bamako. Thought to be in the hands of MUJAO (not AQIM). More details here. News report here. In April 2014 his captors reported that he had died.
20. January 2013 – In Amenas, east Algeria
A raid with all guns blazing by the Algerian army on a besieged gas production plant close to the Libyan border concluded in the death of 40 workers of at least 9 nationalities, as well as 29 of the 32 militants.
The seemingly suicidal attack failed to escape with any hostages and was attributed to Moktar Belmoktar. More details here.
MBM since merged his group with MUJAO and conducted raids from Libya on Agadez and Arlit in north Niger.
21. November 2013 – Kidal, north Mali
Two French journalists working for RFI were kidnapped after leaving an interview with a local MNLA leader. Following what may have been a pursuit, their bodies were discovered a few miles east of Kidal. The French military stationed nearby insist they had no confrontation or that the event bears similarities to #13.
Other explanations and outcomes offered here. The executions have since been claimed by AQIM.
22. September 2014 – Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers
A French tourist just arrived in Algeria was kidnapped by a newly IS-afflliated group called Jund al-Khalifa in the south of the Tizi Ouzou region, 100km east of the capital. His car was stopped by an armed group and his two Algerian companions were released. Herve Gourdel was beheaded three days later. More details on this thread and here.
23. March 2015 – al-Ghani oilfield, north Libya
Nine foreign oil workers including 4 Filipinos, an Austrian, 2 Bangladeshis, a Czech and a Ghanaian were kidnapped after al-Ghani oilfield, 250km southeast of Sirte, was attacked by IS militants. Eight guards were executed. More here.
Three weeks later it was reported the two Bangladeshis, Helal Uddin and Mohammed Anwar Hossain, had been freed, whether for ransom or because ‘they were … pious Muslims’ was unclear (some 30,000 Bangladeshis work in Libya). Nothing was heard of the others, but a few weeks earlier 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who’d been kidnapped from Sirte were executed en masse by IS affiliates.
Two years later this website reported that after five bodies were found near Derna a few months after the adductions, subsequent identifications and other evidence proved that all nine (including the supposedly released Bangladeshis) had been killed. It was not until 2021 that the missing bodies of the four Filipinos who’d been found near Derna were also identified
23A. April 2015 – Tamboa mine, northeast Burkina
A Romanian engineer, Iulian Ghergut, was kidnapped from a manganese mine in Tambao, north-east Burkina Faso. Al-Mourabitoun, founded by the notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility. In August 2015 a video was released of the captive, probably being held in northern Mali.
24. July 2015 – Italian oil workers kidnapped
Four Italian oil workers were kidnapped near the Mellitah oil complex 100km west of Tripoli as they returned to work from Tunisia. Italy had advised its nationals to leave the country many months ago.
Eight months later two escaped or were freed but the other two who’d been earlier separated were reported killed.
25. July 2015 – Croatian oil industry surveyor kidnapped near Cairo
Croatian oil worker kidnapped by an IS-affiliated group now called Sinai Province a few kilometres west of Cairo on the Oasis Road. A week after a video demand to free prisoners was not met, his body was found in the desert
26. November 2015 – Serbian diplomats kidnapped in Sabratha, Libya
Two Serbian embassy employees kidnapped in Sabratha when their convoy was ambushed on the way from Tripoli to Tunisia. More here. In February 2016 they were among 40 killed after a US airstrike struck the Sabratha compound where they were being held.
27. January 2016 – Swiss missionary kidnapped again in Timbuktu
The Swiss missionary Beatrice Stöckli who’d been kidnapped in 2012 ( #18 ) was kidnapped again from Timbuktu, where she’s lived for many years. More here. Two weeks later a video was released by AQIM. In 2020, newly released hostage Sophie Pétronin ( #31 ) confirmed that Beatrice Stöckli had been killed a month earlier (see this or here) by JNIM, her captors.
28. January 2016 – Australian missionaries kidnapped in northern Burkina
Two elderly Australian doctor-missionaries, Ken and Jocelyn Elliot kidnapped by Ansar Dine near Baraboulé in northern Burkina where they’ve lived for many decades. This follows an attack by AQIM-affiliated jihadists a day earlier on a hotel in Ouagadougou (similar hotel attacks occurred recently in neighbouring Mali). More on the kidnapping here. In 2016 Jocelyn Elliot was released.
29. September 2016 – Two Italians and Canadian kidnapped north of Ghat
Two Italian airport workers and a Canadian kidnapped in Ghat, southwest Libya. Released in early November with no mention of ransom.
30. October 2016 – US NGO kidnapped near Abalak, Niger
An American missionary/NGO worker, Jeffrey Woodke, was kidnapped from the village of Abalak, south of Agadez where he’d lived for many years.
His two guards were killed and it’s said he was last seen heading towards Mali.
More news here and here.
31. December 2016 – French aid worker kidnapped in Gao, Mali
A French woman, Sophie Pétronin, who ran an NGO AAG supporting local children was kidnapped in Gao, the French foreign ministry has confirmed.
More news here.
Released in prisoner exchange October 2020.
32. February 2017 – nun kidnapped in Mali
A Colombian missionary nun, Gloria Narváez Argoti, who’d been in Mali ten years was kidnapped near Koutiala, between Sikasso and Segou, close to the Burkina border. More here. In June 2018 a proof of life video was released showing the two women together, now seemingly in the hands of JNIM, the new umbrella movement.
33. April 2018 – German aid worker kidnapped in Niger
A German aid worker, Jörg Lange, kidnapped by a jihadists on motorcycles while travelling in an area southeast of Labbezanga in western Niger, close to the restive Mali border. More here.
34. Turkish and South Africans kidnapped near Ubari [November 2017]
It’s emerged that three Turkish oil engineers were released in July 2018, having been kidnapped in the vicinity of Ubari in November 2017.
A South African paramedic, Christo Bothma taken with them is since thought to have been killed.
35. July 2018 – Four oil workers kidnapped near Ubari, Libya
Four oil workers, three Libyans and a Romanian, were kidnapped near their plant in Ubari. Two were quickly released the Romanian was not among them. More here.
In March 2020 Romanian Valentin-Laurentiu Puscasu and Libyan Ashraf Msallam were released.
36. September 2018 – Italian missionary kidnapped in southwest Niger
Italian missionary, Pierluigi Maccalli, kidnapped in Bomoanga, southwest of Niamey close to the Burkina-Niger border. Not a Saharan kidnapping, the attackers were said to be Peuls (aka: Fulani), rather than a jihadist group, but it seems he’s ended up in the hands of the JNIM anyway. Update here.
Released in prisoner exchange October 2020.
37. September 2018 – Italian cyclist kidnapped in Mali
News was suppressed at the time, but with the March 2020 proof-of-life video, it transpires that Italian cyclist, Nicola Chiacchio, who went missing on the road to Timbuktu around the same time as Pierluigi Maccalli , was also in the hands of the JNIM, probably in the Kidal/Adrar des Iforghas region or far northern Mali. More here.
He was released in prisoner exchange in October 2020.
38. December 2018 – Edith Blais and Luca Tacchetto (southern Burkina Faso)
JNIM were the same group who were holding a Canadian and Italian couple, Edith Blais and Luca Tacchetto ( below ). There were kidnapped in southern Burkina heading for Togo in December 2018 (miles from the Sahara, not shown on the map) but ended up in Kidal, far northern Mali.
Some say they were released in March 2020 on humanitarian grounds with no ransom paid. This has occasionally happened with very old or sick hostages.
Others say they escaped and managed to flag down a lorry which dropped them at a UN checkpoint or base. In remote Kidal, this sounded far fetched but was confirmed by a recently released hostage and Edith Blais herself .
The UN MINUSMA said neutrally they were: ‘found in the region of Kidal’ by a UN patrol. Ransom payments are routinely denied . An interview with Edith Blais about a year after her release.
39. April 2021 – French journalist kidnapped near Gao
News was suppressed until French journalist Olivier Dubois appeared in a short video in early May, explaining he’d been abducted in Gao on April 8 by JNIM. This is the first desert kidnapping for well over two years.
The business of kidnapping: inside the secret world of hostage negotiation
I n 1982, a British insurance broker named Doug Milne set out in search of new markets. His speciality was kidnapping and ransom insurance, known in the industry as K&R. Milne enrolled in a Spanish-language course in London, and a month later, with rudimentary skills and only one or two solid contacts on the ground, he boarded a flight to Bogotá. On his first day in the Colombian capital, Milne was walking to a meeting with a potential client when, he recalled, “a guy pulled up alongside and this chap who was walking in front of me, his head just exploded”. It was a drive-by assassination.
Milne cancelled the meeting and spent the afternoon in a bar near Bogotá’s entertainment district. “I missed my meeting and I think I left there about 11pm after having drunk a couple of flagons of Tres Esquinas rum,” Milne told me. He was, of course, horrified. But he also realised that he’d come to the right place. While he knew nothing about the victim or the motive, the murder drove home to him the extent to which Colombian society was at the mercy of criminals and guerillas. His clients needed what he had to offer.
Kidnapping and ransom insurance was created in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 60s that it began to really catch on, following a spate of kidnappings in Europe by groups such as Eta in Spain, the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. The appeal was simple: in the event of a kidnapping, the insurance would provide reimbursement for ransom payment.
There were caveats to prevent fraud and to ensure that the existence of the policy did not actually increase the risk of kidnapping. The first was that the policy had to be kept secret. In fact, it could be voided if its existence became public. The concern was that if the kidnappers knew of the policy, they would demand more money.
The second principle is that the policy will only reimburse the ransom once it is paid. The insurance company never fronts any money. In order to raise the cash, the victim’s family will probably have to liquidate assets – mortgage the house, sell stocks, pool money from other relatives. This process makes the negotiations credible by dragging them out. This is not just about minimising the payout by the insurance company. Quickly making good on a large ransom raises the expectations of future kidnappers. It can make hostage-taking more lucrative and more common.
When K&R insurance first came on the market, the policyholders were left on their own to negotiate with the kidnappers. But in the mid-1970s, an insurance broker named Julian Radcliffe came up with an idea that would revolutionise the industry. Along with a few colleagues, Radcliffe convinced their company to set up a subsidiary focused on hostage response. The subsidiary, which they named Control Risks, would hire security experts – mostly former military and police – to handle negotiations. The cost of hiring the consultant was included in the policy and borne by the insurance company. In 1982, Control Risks became an independent company.
By the early 80s, hostage-taking was on the rise in Latin America, particularly in Colombia. When Milne arrived in Bogotá, he discovered a vast, untapped market. As an insurance broker, he sold a variety of policies offered by different companies available through the Lloyd’s exchange in London. The job of the broker is to serve the client and to advocate for their interests in the event of a claim. The underwriters represent the insurance companies. Specialised, high-risk policies were placed on the Lloyd’s insurance exchange, and Milne would field offers from different underwriters. He would select the policy that best suited his client.
To his South American clients, Milne was as quintessentially British as James Bond. He attended boarding school in Scotland, and dresses in tailored suits with a perfectly positioned pocket square. He enjoys a stiff drink, sometimes two. “When I went to Colombia, everyone wanted to see me,” Milne told me. “I started with a few contacts, but it grew like Topsy. All their friends at the golf club wanted to meet. It suddenly became a viable business.”
Some grumble that in an industry that values discretion, Milne is a bit of self-promoter. But no one denies his success. By the time he wrapped up his stint in Latin America in the 1990s, he had sold hundreds of new policies, recruited a specialised team in London focusing on the Latin America market, and developed a new service to provide risk mitigation – a “preventative training” programme that educated clients on how to reduce the risk of kidnap and how to respond if it does happen. He then convinced insurance companies that they should foot the bill. (After all, both insurance companies and their clients have an interest in reducing the likelihood of a kidnapping.)
Over the past few decades, the K&R insurance business has grown. More than 75% of Fortune 500 companies have K&R insurance policies. Today two insurers – Hiscox in the UK and AIG in the US – dominate the market, and there are also many security firms that specialise in kidnap response. Hostage negotiation has become something of an industry, with conferences, conventions and shared strategies. More than 97% of kidnappings handled by professional negotiators are successfully resolved through the payment of ransom, according to several different security consultants with access to internal industry data. A small percentage of hostages escape, and a very few are rescued through high-risk operations. Less than 1% are killed.
L ondon is the global centre for K&R insurance, but it has not always been a comfortable fit. Different countries take different approaches to dealing with the kidnapping of their nationals – and the UK, along with the US, has long been a leader of the so-called “no concessions” camp, officially refusing to negotiate with terrorists, pay ransom or make concessions.
In April 1986, Jennifer Guinness, the wife of banker and member of the Guinness brewing family John Guinness, was kidnapped by a gang that demanded a ransom of £2m. She was rescued in a police raid only eight days after being abducted. But the fact that a K&R policy had been triggered and Control Risks were brought in to negotiate a possible ransom sparked outrage. “Private security firms such as the ones called in on the Guinness kidnapping are operating at the very frontiers of official tolerance,” a top police official announced.
Jennifer Guinness with her husband John Guinness at a press conference following her release, April 1986. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images
The Thatcher government charged that the insurance industry was fuelling a global kidnapping epidemic, facilitating the payment of ransom and undermining the British no-concessions policy. The logic of that policy is that paying ransom puts a target on the back of British citizens, increasing the risk of future kidnappings. It also puts money into the hands of terrorist organisations, which is used to finance their ongoing operations.
In 1986, the issue of K&R insurance was debated in parliament, which passed a motion expressing concern. There was even talk of working through European institutions to impose a ban on K&R insurance throughout the European Union. Recognising that its existence was under threat, the security industry rallied, arguing that since the policies were kept secret, it was clear that people were not being kidnapped because they had insurance. Rather, they were being taken hostage because they had resources – and banning insurance would not change this. Since the policies only provided reimbursement and were always written for amounts less than the net worth of the policyholder, the industry also argued that insurance did not drive up the amount of payment. What’s more, the industry pointed out that the availability of K&R insurance helped international businesses to manage risk, which in turn allowed companies – including British and European companies – to operate in dangerous environments while exercising appropriate “duty of care” toward their employees.
While the British and European debate eventually wound down without new legislation being introduced, individual countries throughout the world continued to wrestle with how best to respond to kidnapping. Italy, for example, passed a law in 1991 that banned the payment of ransom and the sale of K&R insurance. (One consequence was that the families of kidnapped Italian citizens simply stopped reporting the crimes to the authorities.) Meanwhile, Colombia banned ransom payments, then unbanned, then banned them again. Spain operates a very different policy, where its intelligence services are told to bring hostages home at all costs. Because of its willingness to pay, the country has a tremendous record of success.
Through the debates and policy changes, the K&R industry not only survived but thrived. Then came September 11 2001, which changed the terms of the whole discussion. Rather than challenging the K&R industry as a whole, governments increasingly sought to draw a clearer distinction between criminal groups, to whom ransom could legally be paid, and terror groups, to whom it could not. The US and UK governments both maintained lists of Foreign Terrorist Organizations who could not receive ransom payments. In industry parlance, these groups were designated as “proscribed”.
This attempt to draw distinctions between criminal and terrorist organisations raised many tricky questions. It was clear that K&R policies could not reimburse policyholders who paid a ransom to a terrorist group. But could security consultants handle negotiations? Could they help families to raise and assemble the funds? And what about the families themselves? Would they be held legally liable for paying ransom to terrorists? “It’s all a grey area,” Milne acknowledged.
Further complicating the process is the fact that kidnappers often try to hide their identity. Hostage negotiators told me that some terror groups pretend to be criminal organisations so they can collect ransoms. The opposite also occurs. Criminal groups who are ignorant of the legal prohibitions sometimes pretend to be terror organisations in the hopes that the fearsome reputation of these groups will push negotiations along. Under the law, the onus is on the insurance company to demonstrate that kidnappers are “proscribed” in order to invalidate the policy. Negotiators working for the victim’s family would sometimes refrain from asking obvious questions about the group holding the hostage. They simply preferred not to know.
Meanwhile, decisions about which groups were designated as terrorists were often politically determined and sometimes arbitrary. For example, a 2011 case, Masefield AG v Amlin Corporate Member, determined that the payment of ransom to Somali pirates was legal under British law. As a result, Somali pirates were presumed to be criminals rather than terrorists, even when ties to al-Shabaab militants were alleged. Meanwhile, it was illegal to pay ransom to a criminally oriented kidnapping cell in Nigeria if they were seen to have ties to proscribed groups such as Boko Haram.
In effect, the collision of disparate national policies and the insurance market creates complexities that determine who lives and who dies in international kidnapping cases. In 2008, a Canadian journalist, Amanda Lindhout, was kidnapped in Somalia, along with an Australian colleague, Nigel Brennan. As young freelancers, they did not have insurance. Officially, neither Canada nor Australia pay ransom. Driven by desperation, their families found a way forward.
The one factor in their favour was that the group that kidnapped the pair was a criminal and not a terror organisation. Because they were not “terrorists,” the Canadian government entered into negotiations, offering to build a school or provide development aid in exchange for Lindhout’s release. But the kidnappers wanted cash. They tortured Lindhout to put more pressure on her family, which had few resources. Realising that the negotiations were going nowhere, Lindhout’s mother, Lorinda Stewart, decided that the only hope was to pay a ransom. Canadian officials warned Stewart that paying ransom was against the law and that she could be prosecuted for doing so, but she forged ahead.
Once Stewart made the decision, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which had been handling the case, withdrew all support. The hostage-negotiation team that had been camped in her living room moved out. Stewart, working with the Brennan family in Australia, eventually raised enough money to hire a security consultant from London-based firm AKE to take over the negotiations. The consultant advised the families that negotiations would take several months and they would have to pay a ransom of around $600,000 each. His prediction was spot on. Lindhout and Brennan were freed in November 2009. Their families ended up in massive debt.
Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan in Mogadishu, Somalia, after their release, November 2009. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
In some cases, US and British hostages have also been freed through dramatic rescues. On 25 January 2012, US Navy Seals dropped into Somalia and rescued kidnapped US aid worker Jessica Buchanan and her Danish colleague Poul Thisted, shooting dead nine of their kidnappers. Officials had decided to launch a rescue because Buchanan had developed a kidney infection, and they believed her life was in danger. Negotiations, which were being carried out by a security consultant and monitored by the FBI, were not progressing fast enough. Most importantly, the US had good intelligence on the hostages’ location and ideal weather conditions for a successful rescue.
Despite such successes, rescuing hostages through military force is not a scalable solution to international hostage-taking. Only a handful of countries have the military capacity to pull off such a raid, and they are also extremely risky. According to industry data, either a hostage or a rescuer is killed in half of all rescue operations. One tragic example was the 2009 raid carried out by British special forces in Afghanistan that freed kidnapped New York Times reporter Steve Farrell, but led to the death of a British soldier along with two Afghan civilians. Farrell’s Afghan colleague, journalist Sultan Munadi, was also killed, possibly shot accidentally by British forces. These deaths were all the more tragic because private negotiators who were communicating with the kidnappers already had a deal for both hostages’ release. It was not clear that the British government was ever aware.
I n September 2011, a dramatic case tested the resolve of the British authorities’ no-concession policy, when a British couple, Judith (“Jude”) and David Tebbutt, were attacked by Somali pirates while vacationing in Kenya. Their son Ollie, a 25-year-old furniture designer, was at a job site in Glasgow when a colleague came to tell him that the police wanted to see him. “Because my parents were on holiday, I assumed something bad had happened, like maybe a car crash,” Tebbutt recalled.
After a week-long safari, his parents had booked a stay in a secluded resort called the Kiwayu Safari Village on the Kenyan coast. One night, Somali kidnappers raided the property and abducted his mother. His father David was killed trying to resist.
For weeks after being given the news, Ollie was in close contact with the Foreign Office. He was also visited by representatives from SO15, the counterterrorism command of the British Metropolitan police, who were investigating the possible involvement of members of al-Shabaab in the abduction. Eventually, Ollie was able to arrange a proof-of-life telephone call with his mother. The kidnappers wanted a huge sum – around $10m. But Ollie discovered that tucked into a travel insurance policy obtained through his father’s work was a clause that provided kidnapping and ransom insurance. “It was incredibly lucky, really,” Ollie said.
Through the policy, two security consultants from Control Risks were assigned to the case. “That’s when the government said: ‘You have to make a choice – it’s either us or them.’” Ollie recalled. He found the security consultants to be sober professionals. They explained how the negotiations would work, and that the sole focus would on getting his mother back alive. “They were very much like, we do this every day, and this is expected in this part of the world, and this is our pattern for what a Somali kidnap looks like,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government representatives explained that Britain did not pay ransom, and would not countenance any arrangement that put money in the hands of terrorists. While the identity of the kidnappers was murky, the line between al-Shabaab militants, pirates and criminals in Somalia was a fluid one. The best that British officials could offer the family was to essentially walk away – to put what they called “clear water” between the government and any negotiations. Their rather charitable interpretation was that since the kidnappers were demanding money they had to be criminals.
As an only child, Ollie was the family’s point person in the negotiations. He moved into his parents’ home, and over the next six months negotiations were carried out around the kitchen table. They were surprisingly orderly. After each phone call, the kidnappers would arrange a follow-up conversation. Generally, they kept their appointments. A Control Risks consultant would brief him on what to say, and sit by his side. A representative from the Metropolitan police monitored the discussions, but did not participate or interfere.
The Tebbutts were a comfortable middle-class family, but did not have millions. Ollie found the kidnappers had a pretty good sense of the value of their hostage, and over the next few months, under the guidance of the Control Risks negotiator, their demands steadily dropped. They finally agreed to accept a ransom of around £600,000. The only way Ollie was able to come up with that sum was to use the death benefits he received following his father’s murder.
Judith Tebbutt at Adado airport after she was released in central Somalia, March 2012. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
In March 2012, Ollie and the negotiator travelled to Nairobi to make the final arrangements. Control Risks contracted a pilot to drop the money, but there were some tense moments when the authorities that controlled the local airstrip demanded a larger cut. Once that was worked out, and the kidnappers indicated they were prepared to release their hostage, things changed. “At that point, the security consultant drove me to a crossroads in Nairobi,” he recalled. “On one side there was a jeep with the Foreign Office guys in it, and I just crossed the road and got in their car. That was the last time I saw anyone from Control Risks.”
From that point on, the British government took over. British officials travelled to the Nairobi airport to collect Jude, and then took her to the British high commission, where she was reunited with her son. Eventually, the full ransom that Ollie had paid was reimbursed under the terms of the K&R policy.
On the one hand, Ollie is grateful that the British government allowed him to pay a ransom despite the fact that his mother’s kidnappers may have been linked to al-Shabaab. (A British researcher told me that he visited the FCO office to discuss the case while Jude was being held, and was told the government was not interested in hearing any information about the terrorist ties of the kidnappers.) On the other hand, his experience caused him to focus on what he sees as the hypocrisy and heartlessness of the government’s position. In order to apply pressure, Jude’s kidnappers were depriving her of food, slowly starving her to death. If negotiations had dragged on for a few more months, “she would have died for sure,” Ollie believes.
Ollie is soft-spoken and understated, but he told me he thinks the British government’s policy is “so crazy”. He continued: “It makes absolutely no sense. I don’t believe for a second that the kidnappers are checking passports or trying to figure out who is from where. They just grab whoever they can. I don’t think the British policy protects people in a way that they claim it does, but they are so entrenched in this idea. The idea that they get to choose who a terrorist group is based on pretty flimsy reasons sometimes. At the same time, governments sell weapons or trade with regimes that are incredibly bad.”
The logic of the no-concessions policy, he believes, is that a certain number of hostages must die in order for the government to show its resolve. If the British government had designated Jude Tebbutt’s kidnappers as terrorists, he says, “my mum would not have come home.”
S ecurity consultants and private negotiators fill a critical role in hostage recovery, and have an undeniable record of success in criminal cases. They can even do some things that governments can’t, such as credibly claim limited resources as a strategy to get the price down. Governments, of course, can’t plead poverty.
Yet the whole system, as imperfect as it already is, breaks down in terrorism-related cases. If the victim is from a “no-concessions” country, security consultants can offer only limited support. If the victim is from a country that negotiates, such as France or Spain, the private security consultant is generally asked to step aside while national intelligence agencies takes over. While the security consultants are pleased to see their clients come home, they are not happy about the massive payouts.
“The market is now too inflated,” one experienced security consultant told me. “Governments have deep pockets and are basically unable to do what a traditional K&R consultant would do, which is to put up resistance, to claim an inability to pay, to bargain, to try and disincentivise the crime.”
Such arguments may seem self-serving, but there is evidence to support them. In one case, a New York Times journalist who was captured in Afghanistan in 2008 tried to argue with his captors, who were demanding $25m and the release of 15 prisoners. He told them they were out of touch. They countered that the French had recently paid $38m for the release of an aid worker, and that an Italian journalist had been ransomed for $15m and the release of several prisoners. Quickly capitulating to high ransom demands – as some European and Asian governments have done – makes kidnapping more attractive and lucrative around the world. While governments might make a distinction between proscribed and criminal groups, kidnappers don’t. And so the markets are inextricably linked.
So what should governments do? If the goal is to bring the hostages home safely while reducing the threat of future kidnapping and minimise the money flowing to terrorist groups, then there are legitimate questions about whether the no-concessions policy is achieving the desired result.
Taken: The coldest case ever solved
M aria was the pretty one, slight and graceful at 7 with big brown eyes that shined with warmth and intelligence. Everyone said the second-grader was special and Kathy, who was a year older, felt honored to be her friend.
They lived a few doors away from each other on a side street called Archie Place. It was their whole world in 1957, a time when children played hide-and-seek outside instead of watching television. People didn't lock their doors in this Midwestern farm town because everyone knew everybody else.
Sycamore and its 7,000 souls felt safe on the morning of December 3, 1957, but the feeling wouldn't last.
That first Tuesday in December started like any other for Maria Ridulph and Kathy Sigman, with a short walk across the street to West Elementary School. It was cold, with a promise of snow in the air. After school, they went to Maria's house to cut out paper snowflakes.
A few blocks away, a man in an overcoat spotted two other girls walking along State Street by the public library and tried to strike up a conversation. It was 4:15 p.m. The girls felt uneasy, so they ducked into a restaurant. When they emerged, the man was gone &mdash but he'd left something disturbing behind. Scattered on the sidewalk were half a dozen photographs of nude women.
That wasn't Sycamore's only peculiar hint of the dirty and forbidden. Since Halloween, someone had been scrawling obscenities in chalk on a tree and stop sign at the intersection of Center Cross Street and Archie Place. Maria and Kathy made plans to play there after dinner. It was a favorite spot they hadn't been to since summer.
At 5 p.m. sharp, Kathy went home. Maria's family gathered around the table for her favorite supper: rabbit, carrots, potatoes and milk. She finished off two rabbit legs, but barely touched her vegetables. She pleaded to go back outside as the first flurries of the season started to swirl in the night sky.
Excited, she called Kathy on the phone: I can go outside tonight, can you?
Kathy lived in a white cottage at the end of a long driveway, and her family was the first on the block to own a clothes dryer. Her freshly laundered jeans still felt warm as she met Maria at mid-block and they raced in the dark to the massive elm tree on the corner. They were playing "duck the cars" &mdash scurrying back and forth between the tree and a street pole, trying to avoid the headlights from oncoming cars &mdash when a good-looking young man approached. He wore his blond hair swept back in a ducktail. Kathy remembers his narrow face, big teeth and high, thin voice. She'd never seen him before.
Hello, little girls, he said. Are you having fun?
He asked whether they wanted piggyback rides and gave his name as "Johnny." He told Kathy and Maria that he was 24 and wasn't married.
By the time these events were recalled in a Sycamore courtroom 55 years later, memories had faded and many details noted in police and FBI reports were lost to time.
But nobody could forget the piggyback ride. That was how Johnny won Maria over.
Down he trotted, 20 feet to the south along Center Cross Street and back again, Maria giggling with glee on his shoulders. When it was over, she ran to her house, three doors away at 616 Archie Place, to fetch a doll for the next piggyback ride.
Kathy waited on the sidewalk with Johnny. He asked whether she wanted to take a walk around the block or go on a trip in a truck, car or bus. No, she told him. He told her she was pretty, but she sensed it was Maria he liked more.
Maria burst into her house to find her father, Michael, in the living room watching a Western. Her mother, Frances, was reading a newspaper. Maria picked out a favorite doll from the toys piled by the door, but her mother suggested she take an older rubber doll out into the snow instead.
Kathy felt a chill as Maria joined them on the sidewalk. Now it was Kathy's turn to run home, to fetch her mittens. She asked Maria to come along, but she didn't want to go.
When Kathy returned a few minutes later, Maria and Johnny were gone.
The trouble with cold cases
T he kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph is the nation's oldest cold case to go to trial. It required family members to turn against one of their own and haunted a small town for 55 years. Even now, the case may not be over.
Maria was taken in a more innocent time &mdash decades before Amber Alerts and photos of missing children on milk cartons became part of our cultural landscape. In 1957, the kidnapping of a little girl shattered everyone's sense of safety. It was huge news.
Reporters flocked to Sycamore from the big city papers in Chicago and New York and from the fledgling television networks. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover demanded daily updates from his men and sent teletypes with detailed instructions. President Dwight D. Eisenhower followed the case. But the weeks of urgent activity were followed by half a century of silence.
Secrets often lie at the heart of crimes that remain unsolved so long they are said to go "cold." Most are cracked by advances in science, or by someone's need to come clean.
In the Ridulph case, there was no DNA, no confession by the killer. This mystery was solved by circumstantial evidence amassed over four years by bulldog cops and other outsiders who came to Sycamore to stand up for a little girl whose life was stolen.
But it is difficult to reconstruct the past in a courtroom. People die, memories fade and facts can become distorted by the passage of time or shaded by personal grudges and agendas.
As tough as it is to build a cold case, it may be even harder to defend one. Imagine trying to explain what you were doing a year ago. Now imagine trying to explain what you were doing a lifetime ago.
The man convicted last September of kidnapping and murdering Maria Ridulph maintains his innocence. His wife of nearly 20 years and his stepdaughter say he was sacrificed to bring peace of mind to Sycamore. An appeal has been filed and likely will take two years or more to be heard.
Winning a conviction in a crime that occurred in 1957 is a remarkable accomplishment – proof that no one should get away with murder, even if justice takes 55 years. But a close examination of the case by CNN raises questions about the strength of the evidence, the motives of some of the witnesses and the ability of the court system to fairly and accurately reconstruct history.
The case was reopened after a dying woman implicated her own son 36 years after the fact. Her words, as recalled by two of her daughters, were somewhat cryptic, and there's no way to seek clarification. Even the daughters don't agree on what she said. And, separate from this crime, two siblings had powerful reasons to fear and despise their half brother.
Much of the physical evidence in the case was lost or destroyed over the years, including Maria's doll, which was handled by her killer. Instead, prosecutors relied heavily on evidence that in the past has often proven unreliable: eyewitness identification and the testimony of informants.
Eyewitness identification is not as simple as it might seem. Factors influencing misidentification include the witness's distance from the perpetrator, the lighting at the crime scene and the conditions under which a witness later views a lineup. Jailhouse informants bring their own baggage: They're criminals, or at least accused of crimes, and can be looking to trade testimony for leniency.
In the Ridulph case, three inmates locked up with the suspect told different stories about how he described killing Maria: by dropping her on her head, or by suffocating or strangling her while trying to silence her cries.
Yet a forensic pathologist testified Maria was stabbed.
The eyewitness whose testimony was crucial in winning a conviction was a child when she saw the kidnapper for just a few moments. More than half a century passed before she picked him out in a photo lineup. She is certain she chose the right man, but others question whether she picked up cues from the investigators and tried to please them with her choice. They wonder whether the photo itself &mdash slightly different from the others she was shown &mdash could have prejudiced her.
Illinois is second only to Texas in mistaken eyewitness identifications, according to the Innocence Project, which began its work in 1992. Faulty identifications played a role in 24 cases – more than half of the state's 43 wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. Nationwide, 75% of 309 wrongful convictions involved faulty eyewitness identifications 15% were based partly on the testimony of informants who later recanted or were proven to have lied.
It was the job of Judge James Hallock to sort everything out. The defense requested a bench trial, and so prosecutors had to prove guilt to just one person, not 12. That one person, Hallock, had little experience with murder trials.
Hallock's verdict in this case came after four days of testimony. It was based, the judge said, on the credibility of the eyewitness and the jailhouse informants.
He expressed confidence that his decision would be upheld on appeal.
The goal in every trial is a fair hearing of both sides. And in most trials, witnesses take the stand to recount what they saw with their own eyes, what they heard with their own ears. But in cold cases, those witnesses often are dead.
When that's true, prosecutors and defendants are sometimes forced to rely on second-hand evidence known as hearsay. And in some states, including Illinois, the law is evolving to allow hearsay evidence under exceptional circumstances.
In this cold case, a hearsay statement that favored the prosecution was allowed into evidence other hearsay evidence that favored the defense was kept out. And so, a mother was able to accuse her son from the grave, but his alibi, buried in thousands of pages of old FBI reports, was never presented in court.
A man was convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life. A victim's family embraced long-awaited justice, and Sycamore breathed a sigh of relief. But was the courtroom reconstruction of history unfairly one-sided?
Was justice really served?
'I can't find Maria!'
Kathy ran up and down Archie Place, calling her best friend's name as a gentle snow fell on the evening of December 3, 1957. There was no sign of Maria.
Kathy rushed up to a side door at the Ridulphs' house, where Maria's big brother, Chuck, was spinning records on the hi-fi with his friend Randy. Maria's lost, she told them. I can't find Maria!
Chuck and Randy set out down Archie Place, all the way to the corner of Fair Street, by the elementary school. The boys saw a police car go by and realized – too late – that they should have stopped it. They headed back home.
By then, Kathy had told her mother about the nice man who called himself Johnny. More details emerged as Maria's mother, Frances, and Kathy's mother, Flora, exchanged several frantic phone calls.
Maria's father was reluctant to summon police because he didn't want to be embarrassed if she had just wandered off. About a year earlier, Maria had strayed several blocks away to Elmwood Cemetery while playing. She turned up just as a search party organized.
But Frances Ridulph let worry overrule her husband. She drove to the Sycamore police station to report her daughter missing. It was 8:10 p.m.
Chuck continued looking for Maria, but the 11-year-old wasn't yet sure how concerned he should be about the little sister he walked to school every morning. He traipsed down a long driveway and through a garden that opened onto a field. Then he circled back to the alley that ran behind their home, where a sense of foreboding overcame him. There, next to Ida Johnson's garage, a searcher spotted Maria's doll.
That evening, men pounded on the door of 227 Center Cross Street, the home of Ralph and Eileen Tessier. Ralph ran the hardware store, and the men wanted him to open up so they could gather up flashlights and lanterns to use in the search.
The Tessiers were a large family crammed into small quarters about two blocks from the Ridulphs. Eileen was Ralph's Irish-born war bride who'd sailed to the United States on the Queen Mary with her son John from an earlier marriage. Together the couple would have six children: Katheran, Jeanne, Mary Pat, Bob, Janet and Nancy.
The girls resented the way their mother seemed to favor John. At 18, he was artistic, a bit of a dreamer. He seemed to get a pass with her even when he screwed up. He was expelled for pushing a teacher and calling her an unsavory name. But in their mother's eyes, he could do no wrong.
Ralph Tessier, who had just arrived home from picking up 12-year-old Katheran at a 4-H social, joined the men in the search that night. Eileen headed to the armory, where the women were making sandwiches and coffee for the searchers. Before they left, the couple locked the front door, even though the key had been lost for years. The back door didn't lock at all, so Ralph jammed it shut with a board.
The girls huddled with Bob inside they'd have to let their parents back in when they returned.
They said they saw no sign of John.
In the days to come, police would knock on the door and question Eileen Tessier about the events of December 3. The older girls stood back and listened as their mother told the officers something they knew wasn't true: John was home all night.
'I know she is still alive'
T he headline on the front page of Sycamore's afternoon paper screamed the bad news that everybody in town already knew: "Missing Girl, 7, Feared Kidnapped."
Foul play was suspected, but there were no clues. When she vanished, the newspaper said, Maria was wearing a brown, three-quarter-length coat, black corduroy slacks, brown socks and freshly polished saddle shoes. She was 43 inches tall, weighed about 55 pounds, and wore her hair in a wavy brown bob with bangs.
The man who called himself Johnny, police said, wore a striped sweater of blue, yellow and green. He had long, blond hair that curled in the front and flopped onto his forehead.
Already, there were conflicting reports about the exact time of Maria's disappearance. Was she snatched closer to 6 p.m.? Or did it happen later, at about 7? Police and FBI reports, as well as news accounts from the time, contain details that support both scenarios.
Sycamore's police chief, William Hindenburg, told FBI agents that Kathy and Maria went out to play at 6:02 p.m., but the DeKalb County sheriff said Maria didn't call Kathy and ask her to come out and play until 6:30. Maria's mother later altered her original estimate, saying the girls could have been outside as early as 10 minutes to 6.
When the case was reopened half a century later, every minute would matter.
As the days passed, Maria's mother pleaded with the kidnapper for her daughter's safe return. "God forgives mistakes. We would, too," Frances Ridulph, 44, said, using the media to send a message to whoever might have her daughter. Maria was "nervous," she said, a nail biter who could quickly become hysterical if things didn't go her way.
Maria would make a noise if something seemed wrong, her mother said. And no kidnapper "would put up with that for long."
"Whoever took her away hit her weak spot. He played with her," the frantic mother added. On television, she delivered a message to her baby: "Don't cry, Maria. Above all, don't cry. Don't make a fuss. We'll be with you soon."
Maria's father, Michael, who earned $80 a week at a wire and cable factory in Sycamore, scolded reporters camped out at the police station: "For God's sake, quit saying she is dead. I know she is still alive. Nobody would have any reason to kill her."
Later, he pulled one reporter aside and explained, "I want fathers to help look for my little girl."
Chuck Ridulph accompanied his dad to the fire station on the morning of December 4 and was assigned to a search team. Hundreds of people fanned out over the fields surrounding Sycamore. Others opened car trunks and cellar doors.
"People were even carrying guns," he recalled.
In a neighborhood called Johnson's Greenhouse, where new streets were going in, Chuck was asked to climb down a manhole because he was the only one in the search party small enough to fit. Later, searchers joined hands as they walked in a line through the frozen cornfields where Sycamore High School now stands. They found a gunnysack of abandoned kittens, and that unnerved Chuck. Other searchers discovered a torn, bloody petticoat in a farm field, but it was not Maria's.
Two FBI agents took up residence in the Ridulphs' parlor. A half dozen crop-dusters and military planes circled the sky, searching. The J-11 Roping Club sent riders out on horseback.
Local police with bullhorns urged residents to keep their porch lights on and report anything suspicious. The Illinois State Police set up half a dozen roadblocks railroad cars, motel rooms and the bus station were searched &mdash as was every house in Sycamore.
Maria's doll and blue hairbrush were shipped off to the FBI lab near Washington for analysis. So were her schoolbooks, a toy oven, a tin saxophone and records of songs such as "Three Little Kittens" and "The Farmer in the Dell." They bore witness to a childhood interrupted.
Her little friend, Kathy Sigman, found herself under 24-hour police guard. The family doctor checked her for signs of sexual molestation. The newspapers ran a picture of Kathy showing off her mittens and pointing to the corner where Maria was snatched.
Kathy spent hours poring over mug shots of ex-cons and what police called "known perverts," but she didn't see Johnny. She remembers the shouting reporters and flashing camera bulbs that appeared every time she was escorted to a police lineup. At first, she enjoyed the attention, but as the case dragged on she felt exposed, like she was being put on display.
She recalls her mother bending down, placing her hands on her shoulders and looking her square in the eye.
Remember his face, Kathy, she said. You have to remember his face because you are the only one who can catch him. You are the only one who knows what he looks like.
'We have found exactly nothing'
T here was no ransom note. No phone call from the kidnapper. Authorities believed Maria's abductor had a twisted motive: He was a sexual predator.
The police chief was certain nobody from Sycamore would do such a thing. It had to be the work of a trucker or someone else passing through. The FBI wasn't so sure. As its investigation revealed, there was no shortage of potential suspects in town.
Hindenburg, the police chief, told reporters his men had rounded up and questioned "all known sexual deviates." They looked into a local Peeping Tom and followed tips about men nicknamed "Commando" and "Mr. X."
Investigators dug up a collapsed grave at Elmwood Cemetery. They traced freight cars that passed through Sycamore the night Maria went missing. They scoured lovers' lanes, drained a lake, set off dynamite in a quarry. And still they came up empty.
"We have chased down countless clues, and we have found exactly nothing," said a frustrated Carl A. Swanson, the state's attorney. FBI agents came and went, according to a writer for one of the Chicago papers, "checking into everything with the quiet persistence of bulldogs."
Three days after Maria vanished, an anonymous female caller alerted the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office to a boy named "Treschner" who lived in the neighborhood and fit the suspect's description. A pair of FBI agents showed up at the Tessier home on December 8.
Ralph and Eileen Tessier acknowledged that they had talked about how their son, John, fit the general description, but they insisted he was not in Sycamore when Maria was taken: He was 40 miles away, in Rockford, enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.
Phone records seemed to verify their story. Someone had made a collect call from Rockford to the Tessier home at about 7 p.m. John Tessier and his parents said he called for a ride home. This was the second alibi Eileen Tessier had given for her son. Earlier, as her daughters listened, she'd told Sycamore police that John was home all night.
Nobody questioned the young Tessier sisters, and they kept silent.
A fter a week of fruitless searching, authorities alerted residents to look out for scavengers: "It is entirely possible that her body has been discarded in a field or a nearby farm. Be alert to large gatherings of buzzards and crows, and if a body is located make sure nothing is touched."
The FBI was running out of steam.
"Our temporary office at Sycamore has been functioning for two weeks. Per diem cost for 29 agents is $3,600," Chicago's supervisor wrote in a December 15 memo to Hoover. They'd tracked down 250 leads and processed 200 suspects &mdash "all with negative results."
Agents still had about 125 leads to go.
The Chicago G-man found it "most peculiar" that such a rigorous investigation had not turned up a suspect. The locals were passing on tips about "all of their homosexuals, queers and fairies, etc." when the FBI was looking for "sex deviants of a different kind," the supervisor wrote in the pejorative and politically incorrect language of 1957.
Agents were hampered by the "sheer volume" of leads, he stated, adding this observation: "I have never seen as small a city as Sycamore with such a large volume of these unusual individuals."
Hoover urged them to keep going: "This case must receive continuous, aggressive, imaginative, investigative attention."
The best evidence they had was Kathy's story. Some of the details varied &mdash did Johnny have a missing tooth or a gap in his teeth? But she never wavered on the core facts. An agent described her as "the most completely mature little girl I have ever seen," seemingly fearless during questioning and police lineups. "She has remained steadfast," he reported, even though the FBI's bulldogs had "ridden her hard."
It was a somber holiday season in Sycamore. The local papers carried front-page stories about the Ridulphs, including a large photo of Maria's family sitting by their Christmas tree. Her mother had bought a typewriter for Maria and wrapped her other gifts.
Their leads exhausted, the FBI agents packed up and went home for the holidays. With no new developments, the case dropped from the headlines, but folks in town remained jittery. One Chicago newspaper noted at the end of January that Sycamore was afflicted with "a wound that won't heal." The place had changed, and not for the better.
"Let a strange man walk down an alley in Sycamore today and the police are likely to get a call," said James E. Boyle, an assistant prosecutor who went on to become state's attorney, and then a judge. "I tried to help two young girls across a busy intersection the other day. They just looked at me wide-eyed."
The giant elm tree on the corner of Archie Place and Center Cross Street was cut down. Sycamore settled into a fugue state.
Looking back, Kathy remembers her childhood in two parts: Before Maria was taken, and after.
"We were safe before, but not afterward," she said. "People can disappear in big cities but somebody doesn't disappear in a small town like Sycamore."
'There wasn't much left to her'
M aria was found in the spring, 120 miles from home. A man scrounging for morel mushrooms found her skeleton tucked under a fallen tree on Roy Cahill's farm off U.S. 20 outside Woodbine, not far from the Iowa border.
Birds and animals had fed on her corpse, clad only in a black-and-white checked shirt, an undershirt and brown socks.
At a coroner's inquest, Frank A. Sitar, a retiree from Minnesota, described the scene he encountered on the afternoon of April 26, 1958:
"I thought it was an old deer hide. I came up to it then and I could see some bones and I thought somebody had shot a dog. Then I looked closer, and it looked like human bones. I noticed the jacket, but I didn't pay any attention to it until I noticed the skull. Then I started to look further, and I noticed the hair. And I saw then that it was a little girl."
He walked back to the car, told his wife, and they drove to a farmhouse and summoned authorities.
"There wasn't much left to her," observed James Furlong, the 28-year-old rookie coroner of Jo Daviess County. Son of the local funeral home director, he'd never handled a murder case before. No crime scene photos were taken, he said, because he didn't want them "slobbered all over the front pages."
Neither the autopsy nor the inquest determined a cause of death, beyond "suspected foul play."
Frances Ridulph always said if a child's body was found wearing brown socks, it would be Maria. Sure enough, the size and manufacturer's information stamped on the instep of Maria's socks could still be read. Her mother touched the patch she'd sewn on the black-and-white flannel shirt, recognizing the material. Dental records confirmed what the family already knew.
Maria was laid to rest in a small white casket on a warm spring day. An overflow crowd, at least 300, filled the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John. Her friend Kathy was there under police guard.
Maria was remembered as a bright little girl who had a perfect attendance record at Sunday school.
"This little girl has entered into everlasting peace, probably on the night she was taken," said the Rev. Louis I. Going. "Maria was taken out of life through unusual circumstances, but nothing could deprive her of God-given salvation."
The church organist played "Jesus Loves Me." It was Maria's favorite hymn.
The trail goes cold
T he disappearance and death of her best friend never left Kathy. Nothing could fill the space where Maria once was – the games, the laughter, the shared secrets. She was left with survivor's guilt and the social stigma of being connected to a notorious crime.
"It robbed me of my childhood," she said recently. "I was labeled. I was the girl who was with Maria. A lot of parents wouldn't let their girls play with me. They were afraid he'd come back and take their child.
"I couldn't wait to get out of Sycamore. It bothered me my whole life why he took her and not me. For years I would ask myself, 'Was she prettier than I was?'"
Kathy's family moved away from Archie Place in 1961 to a subdivision on the outskirts of town. When a young man named Mike Chapman met her at a bowling alley, his mother tried to talk him out of dating her. "Don't you know who she is?" the mother asked. "She's the one who was with Maria. Can't you find someone else?"
But Mike wanted only Kathy, and she knew he was the key to a new life. They left Sycamore in 1969 and married in San Antonio, Texas, where Mike attended technical school. They moved around a bit, then settled in Tampa, Florida, before returning to Sycamore to care for aging parents. They raised three children.
Kathy says her own parents were so overprotective she felt like a prisoner. As a mother, she went the other way, letting her kids make their own decisions and their own mistakes. The couple now lives in St. Charles, about a half-hour drive from Sycamore.
No matter where they went, Kathy looked back over her shoulder.
Johnny was still out there.
How this story was reported
The 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph is the nation's oldest cold case to go to trial. This story was pieced together by CNN's Ann O'Neill through interviews and public records.
She and video producer Brandon Ancil traveled to Sycamore, Illinois, and Seattle, Washington, to interview investigators, witnesses, prosecutors and family members of the man convicted of the crime. They interviewed the convicted killer in prison and obtained a video copy of his eight-hour interrogation by police.
O'Neill reviewed numerous documents, including transcripts of the trial and key pretrial hearings. She obtained several hundred pages of 1957 FBI reports from the National Archives through a public records request. Thousands of pages more remain classified, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The exhibits presented at trial were unsealed at CNN's request by the Second District of the Illinois Appellate Court.
Some of the people quoted in this story are dead. Their quotes come from police and FBI reports and media reports from 1957.
Maria's brother, Chuck Ridulph, declined to be interviewed, as did the defendant's half sisters, Janet and Jeanne Tessier. Their accounts are based on their trial testimony, public records and interviews with other media.
Development and design: Curt Merrill, Bryan Perry, Kyle Ellis, Ken Uzquiano, Rick Hallman, Judith Siegel and Alberto Mier
Photo editing: Cody McCloy
Copy editing: Phil Gast
Director, Photography: Simon Barnett
Senior Director, News Design: Aimee Schier
Supervising Producer, Original Video: Michael Senzon
Director, Interactives: Manav Tanneeru
Senior Editor, Enterprise: Jan Winburn
Iraq's Baby Noor: an unfinished miracle
American soldiers plucked the child from her Iraqi home at the height of the war and brought her to America for life-saving surgery. But how did she fare after her return to a war-torn nation struggling to stand on its own?
She came to America after the Taliban hacked off her nose and ears, a symbol of the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Since then, she's been showcased like a star and shielded like a child. The fairy-tale ending everyone hoped for remains elusive.
Slavery's last stronghold
Mauritania's endless sea of sand dunes hides an open secret: An estimated 10% to 20% of the population lives in slavery. But as one women's journey shows, the first step toward freedom is realizing you're enslaved.
The gift of Charles
He was a troubled 13-year-old when he finally found a home, with parents and siblings who embraced him. But Charles Daniel would live only two more years. It was time enough to change everything – and everyone.
War and fashion
War is ugly. Fashion is beautiful. There are photographers who shoot both: battlefields and runways, guns and glamour. At first, photographing war and fashion appear as incongruous acts that are difficult to reconcile. Until, perhaps, you take a deeper look.
Grit on wry: Dinner with Elmore Leonard
People who write about crime for a living have curious dinner conversations. As they pass the potatoes, they dwell on the unsavory details of hookers and pimps, junkies and bookies, crime scenes and corpses.
Alix, Ernest K. Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874 – 1974: The Creation of a Capital Crime. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
American Jurisprudence. Kidnapping. West Publishing Group, 1964. Current through April 1999 Cumulative Supplement.
Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4th ed. Edited by George Chase. New York: Banks Law Publishing Co., 1926.
Davis, Samuel M. Scott, Elizabeth S. Wadlington, Walter and Whitebread, Charles H. Children in the Legal System. 2d ed. Westbury, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1997.
Goldstein, Anne B. "The Tragedy of the Interstate Child: A Critical Reexamination of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act and the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act." University of California – Davis Law Review 25 (1992): 845.
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Bride Kidnapping: A Tradition Or A Crime?
Some 200 people took to the streets in a northern Kyrgyz province earlier this week to protest the longstanding practice of bride kidnapping.
The custom -- in which single young men kidnap their bride of choice and pressure them to agree to marriage -- is not uncommon in Kyrgyzstan.
But bride kidnapping has recently come under sharp criticism in the Central Asian country after two kidnapped brides committed suicide in a matter of months.
The site of this week's rally, the northern Issyk-Kul Province, is home to the two suicide victims -- Venera Kasymalieva and Nurzat Kalykova, both 20-year-old students.
The rally, dubbed "Spring without Them," was organized by local women's NGOs and other activists and held in the town of Karakol. During the protest participants called on authorities and community leaders to put an end to the old tradition.
Bride kidnapping is officially a criminal offence in Kyrgyzstan, where the criminal code stipulates a maximum three-year prison term for bride-kidnapping.
In reality, however, few cases reach the courtroom, and those who are tried for bride-kidnapping usually walk away after paying a small fine.
"Once bride-kidnapping was characteristic mostly to rural areas, but it has become widespread everywhere, including the capital, Bishkek," says Gazbubu Babayarova, founder of Kyz Korgon Institute, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns to eliminate the tradition of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.
"Our researches indicate that between 68 and 75 percent of marriages in Kyrgyzstan take place with bride kidnapping."
Babayarova says economic hardship is one of many reasons behind the recent rise of bride kidnapping, as many families try to avoid paying dowries and wedding expenses. But it is by no means the only motivation.
"It is encouraged by parents of the boys," Babayarova says. "And sometimes, boys are afraid of asking the girls' permission. They think it's easier just to kidnap her, because they are afraid maybe she will refuse.
"Another reason is that even if there is a law, it's not being implemented. Since the kidnappers go unpunished, bride-kidnapping is happening again and again."
How It's Done
According to the tradition, when a Kyrgyz man, usually in his twenties, wants to get married for the first time, he picks a bride and starts to arrange her kidnapping.
The man and his friends seize the young woman in streets, sometimes using violence, and forcibly drive her to the captor's family home. The rest is left to female relatives of the man, who try to persuade the kidnapped woman to marry her captor.
The woman is put under enormous pressure, including physical violence, but in the majority of cases, the captor refrains from rape, Babayarova says.
If the woman finally agrees to marriage, the family of her potential husband puts a white kerchief on her head, and asks her to write a letter to her parents. They take the letter to the bride's family to ask their daughter's hand in marriage and arrange a quick wedding ceremony.
While the groom's relatives take part in "choosing" and arranging the kidnapping of their future daughter-in-law, the potential bride and her family do not usually know the captors or their intentions until after the kidnapping takes place.
Many brides follow tradition and simply accept their fate. But some of the marriages born from bride-kidnapping fall apart and for some -- like the two young students in Issyk-Kul -- this can bring a tragic end.
"She Wasn't Ready for Marriage So I Kidnapped Her"
Kalykova's acquaintance, Ulan, once asked her if she wanted to marry him. Kalykova and her parents refused the marriage proposal but they didn't predict Ulan would not take no for an answer.
Late one evening in November 2010, Kalykova 's parents came home from a dinner party to find their daughter had gone missing. Days later, they found out that Kalykova has been kidnapped by Ulan, who was now asking their permission to conduct a marriage ceremony.
The parents brought Kalykova back home. But under constant pressures from relatives, Kalykova and her parents eventually accepted the marriage proposal.
The marriage didn't last long -- Kalykova committed suicide just four months later.
Despite the outcome, Ulan sees nothing wrong in his approach to marriage.
"We were friends with Nurzat for three years before our marriage. I wanted to marry her, but she always postponed it. Perhaps she wasn't ready," Ulan told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
Ulan doesn't hold himself responsible for his wife's suicide.
"We lived alright, we were friendly," he says. "To this point, I don't understand what possibly could have gone wrong."
Authorities say they have launched a probe into Kalykova's case but it is unclear whether Ulan will be charged with kidnapping.
Organizers of today's rally in Karakol called on authorities to enforce existing laws to punish men who opt for kidnapping as a means of finding a wife.
In a tearful address to participants, Venera Kasymalieva's father, Oken, said his daughter's kidnapping ruined his family's life.
I call on young men to refrain from kidnapping, he said. "I don't wish any young girl to commit suicide in the future. My wife died suddenly five years ago, and that's why my daughter [Venera] was like a mother to my younger kids."
Abaz Jyrgalbekov, a 20-year-old man who also joined the rally, says not all Kyrgyz men support the kidnapping tradition.
It's a way for insecure men to get girls, Jyrgalbekov says. "Who usually kidnaps a woman? Guys with no self-confidence who are afraid that a girl doesn't like him."
"I want to marry in a normal way," he adds.
Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region&rsquos ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Kane Kidnappings: A History
Erica's pre-wedding abduction on AMC is just the latest in a long line of Kane family kidnappings. Here's a look back at 11 other abductions.
1985: After their marriage fell apart, Adam kidnapped Erica and brought her to the Canadian wilderness. Jeremy Hunter rescued her.
1987: Stuart's first wife, Chandler housekeeper Joanna, abducted Erica — and Brooke was the one who figured out who had snatched her rival.
1988: Baby Bianca was kidnapped by Steven Andrews in a scheme-gone-awry cooked up for insurance money by her father, Travis Montgomery.
1992: This was an abduction-heavy year for Erica, who was snatched first by Edmund (when Dimitri wouldn't submit to a DNA test to prove that he and Edmund were brothers) and then Helga, the nefarious mom of Dimitri's first wife, Angelique, who locked her in the Marick family crypt.
1996: Evil Dr. Jonathan Kinder attempted to kidnap Bianca, but was foiled and fell to his presumed dead (he actually survived but was later apprehended).
2004: Convinced that baby Bess was actually Miranda, her own presumed dead daughter, Bianca abducted her from the hospital. The tot was returned to presumed parents JR and Babe, but by the end of the year, it would be revealed that Bianca's instincts had been right.
2005: During his era as a deranged psychopath, Jonathan Lavery kidnapped Kendall (and Greenlee and Lily) and stashed them in a cave.
2005: When Erica got cold feet before marrying Jack, he kidnapped her (albeit in a loving way) and brought her to Boca Raton. After flying in the rest of the family, the duo finally became husband and wife.
2007: Zach's serial killer father, Alexander Cambias, kidnapped Kendall and tried to kill her, but Ryan and Zach found her in time.
2009: When Aidan went off the deep end, he kidnapped Kendall, with whom he was then obsessed. Zach saved her.
2010: More of a hostage situation than a genuine kidnapping, David kept Erica tied up in her own glam loft — and she returned the favor the same year.