KANSAS CITY, Mo. – More than 50 years after the case was closed, a get-rich-quick plot to hold the son of a Kansas City-area multimillionaire for ransom is still widely regarded as Missouri’s own crime of the century. Nationwide grief over a child lost compounded by an ongoing mystery surrounding the location of missing ransom.
Carl Austin Hall was the son of a well-to-do lawyer. After his parents died, Hall received a substantial inheritance and the family’s 1,100-acre property in Pleasanton, Kansas. He sold the property, left town, and got married. But in the coming years, he squandered his money, got divorced, and became an alcoholic and morphine addict. He got sent to Missouri State Penitentiary after robbing a cab driver of $38. While behind bars, Hall dreamed of one big score that would set him up for life.
When Hall got out of prison on probation, he moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he met Bonnie Brown Heady. Like Hall, she had been twice married and was living off a sizeable inheritance from her father. She hosted drunken parties at her home and would occasionally prostitute herself, even though she didn’t need the money. She was drawn to criminals as well. Her first husband was a bank robber who was shot to death by police in the mid-1930s after escaping prison. The year before meeting Hall, she divorced her second husband.
The grand scheme
Hall confided in Heady his goal of cashing in with one grand crime – kidnapping. And he had the perfect target already in mind: Robert Greenlease Sr., a successful Cadillac dealer with a personal worth of tens of millions of dollars. Hall met Greenlease’s eldest son, Paul, many years ago while the two were enrolled in a military school in Boonville. It’s unclear if Hall had any particular animosity against the Greenlease family or if he viewed his encounter with the older Greenlease child as happenstance.
In the summer of 1953, both Hall and Heady visited the Kansas City area to watch the Greenlease family travel around the city and to and from their posh suburb in Mission Hills, Kansas. Initially, Hall and Heady planned on kidnapping the Greenleases’ 11-year-old daughter. They settled on taking the couple’s youngest son, 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease, because he would be easier to subdue.
Hall and Heady enacted their dastardly scheme on the morning of Sept. 28, 1953. Just before 11 a.m., Heady took a cab to Notre Dame de Sion pre-school in Kansas City. Once there, she told a nun at the school she was Bobby’s aunt and that she had come to pick him up because his mother, Virginia, had suffered a heart attack. The nun had no reason to suspect the woman’s story and retrieved Bobby. Although she did not tell the boy about his mother’s alleged condition.
When the nun presented Bobby to Heady, the 6-year-old was all-too-trusting and had no doubts about going along with this woman pretending to be his aunt. The nun would later tell investigators she last saw Bobby and the woman get into the cab together and ride away.
Less than an hour after turning the boy over to Bonnie Heady, the school attempted to call the Greenlease family to inquire about Virginia’s condition. School officials were shocked when they realized they were speaking with Virginia Greenlease herself. Both parties came to the terrifying realization that someone had taken young Bobby. Virginia contacted her husband in a panic. He phoned the Kansas City Police Department and the FBI was called to assist in locating the boy.
Unfortunately, Bobby Greenlease was already dead. After Heady and the boy left the school, they were dropped off at a drugstore where Hall was waiting. Hall drove Heady and Bobby across state lines to Overland Park, Kansas and parked the car in a vacant field. Hall had no intention of allowing the boy to live.
Hall tried to strangle Bobby with a piece of rope but the rope was too short. In a rage, Hall punched the 6-year-old in the face and knocked out a tooth. Hall shoved Bobby to the floor of the car and shot him in the head with a .38-caliber pistol at point-blank range.
Hall and Heady took Bobby’s body and drove to Heady’s home in St. Joseph, Missouri. They wrapped the boy’s body in a plastic bag and placed him in a pre-dug grave at the foot of a trellis in the backyard. Hall and Heady dumped a large quantity of lime onto the bag hoping to eliminate or cover up the smell of a dead body. Hall then planted chrysanthemums over the grave so neighbors wouldn’t be suspicious.
That evening, Hall wrote the first of several ransom letters to Robert and Virginia Greenlease. He demanded $600,000—equivalent to $6.37 million as of this writing—in $10s and $20s for Bobby’s safe return. In the book “A History of St. Louis Gangsters,” author and former KTVI reporter John Auble wrote that Hall determined a million-dollar ransom would be far too heavy for him to carry. Hall settled on $600,000 after calculating that amount would weigh approximately 80 pounds.
The next day, the Greenleases received another note making the same demands, but this letter was accompanied by a pin or medal that Bobby had been wearing.
Robert Greenlease believed if he paid the money he would get his son back. He reached out to several close friends and associates, including the executive vice president at Commerce Trust Company – Arthur Eisenhower. If that name sounds familiar, it should; his brother was President of the United States at the time. Arthur Eisenhower made sure that every bank clerk handling the ransom money made note of the serial numbers on all of the bills. That list of serial numbers was printed in newspapers around the country.
All told, the Greenleases received six ransom letters and 15 phone calls. They agreed to pay the ransom and complied with Hall’s instructions. On the evening of Oct. 4, 1953, after two prior drop-offs failed, the money was left in a duffel bag at a bridge near Highway 40 just east of Kansas City. Hall made final contact with the Greenleases in the early morning hours of October 5 to confirm he’d retrieved the money and that Bobby would be returned within 24 hours.
With the money in tow, Hall and Heady fled across the state to St. Louis. According to the FBI, Hall bought a pair of metal suitcases and stashed the money in them. Hall rented an apartment on Arsenal Street across from Tower Grove Park. When Heady fell asleep—investigators said she’d been drinking—Hall put $2,000 in her purse from their six-figure haul and left.
According to reporter John Auble, Hall also hired a cab driver to be his personal chauffeur. Hall got a room at the Coral Court, an infamous no-tell motel on Route 66, to plan his next moves. He met up with a prostitute named Sandra O’Day to enlist her to help draw the attention of investigators away from Missouri altogether. O’Day was supposed to fly to Los Angeles in order to mail the Greenlease family a letter Hall had written. Meanwhile, Hall is believed to have bought two garbage cans and a shovel and drove a rental car to a place along the Meramec River in St. Louis County with the intention of hiding the money. Unfortunately for Hall, he didn’t find a good spot to bury the cans and kept the money with him.
The cab driver, an ex-con, contacted his boss at the cab company, Joe Costello.
Costello had mob ties and connections within the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. When he heard from his driver that a customer was throwing around a lot of money, Costello reached out to Lt. Louis Shoulders.
Lt. Shoulders and his driver, Patrolman Elmer Dolan, located and arrested Hall at the Town House Hotel on the evening of October 6. Hall had the ransom money with him at the time of his arrest. Between the arrest and Hall’s arrival at the police station, half of the ransom money went missing. We’ll come back to that later.
Hall quickly gave up Bonnie Heady’s location and she was arrested that same night. At first, Hall tried to pin the murder on a fictious suspect. Bobby’s remains were recovered on Oct. 7 and moved to a local funeral home. His body was identified by a family dentist before being interred inside a mausoleum at Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City.
Hall and Heady finally confessed to kidnapping and killing Bobbie Greenlease on October 11 or October 12, depending on who you believe. John Auble wrote that the two “resigned themselves to being executed.” On Oct. 30, 1953, Hall and Heady appeared in Kansas City federal court and pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder charges. On Nov. 19, the jury hearing the case recommended the death penalty and the judge signed off on that sentence.
Both Hall and Heady declined any attempt at an appeal and were executed at Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City on Dec. 18, 1953, just 81 days after the kidnapping. Hall was 34 and Heady was 41. Missouri prison authorities moved a second chair into the gas chamber so the pair could be executed at the same time. Heady was reportedly very talkative as she and Hall were led into the chamber and strapped down to their chairs until an annoyed Hall finally told her to be quiet.
Heady is one of four women in American history to be executed by federal authorities.
What happened to the missing ransom money?
Lt. Shoulders and Patrolman Dolan intially claimed to have brought all the money with them to the police station. Witnesses would later testify at a perjury trial that no one ever saw Shoulders and Dolan handling any money or luggage that could have contained such vast sums. Both Shoulders and Dolan were convicted of perjury and sentenced to three-year and two-year terms, respectively.
Dolan would later tell the FBI in 1962 that Shoulders and Joe Costello stole half of the ransom money. Dolan waited until both Shoulders and Costello were dead before speaking to federal investigators out of fear of retribution. He would ultimately receive a pardon from President Lyndon B. Johnson in July 1965. Dolan died in 1973.
Only $300,000 of the ransom money was recovered.The Greenlease case was closed on March 25, 1970.
The $600,000 would be the largest paid ransom in American history until the kidnapping of Virginia Piper in July 1972.
The Coral Court Motel was closed in 1993 and demolished in 1995.
Robert and Virginia Greenlease remained inconsolable after their son’s murder. Robert’s oldest son Paul, a child from an earlier marriage, died at 47 years of age in 1964. Robert passed away on Sept. 17, 1969 at age 87. The couple’s daughter, Virginia Sue Sterk, died in Nov. 1984 at age 42. Virginia Greenlease died on Sept. 24, 2001 at the age of 91. The entire family is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.