Sixty years ago tomorrow is the anniversary of one of the most famous kidnappings in the nation’s history, and it tied together Missouri’s two largest cities.
On the morning of September 28, 1953, a woman walked into the Notre Dame De Sion Catholic School and told the nuns there that she was the aunt of a student whose mother had a heart attack while the two ladies were out shopping. She said the mother was asking for her son and she would take the boy to the hospital to see her.
The boy was pulled out of class and left with his “aunt.” It was later said he took the woman’s hand as if he knew her.
This was how Bonnie Brown Heady, a prostitute and widow of a bank robber, kidnapped 6-year-old Robert “Bobby” Cosgrove Greenlease, Junior. The case is recounted in Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease, written by John Heidenry. He says this was the high-profile, sensational crime case of its day, and was followed internationally.
“Only the Lindbergh kidnapping eclipsed it in news value, and that was simply because Lindbergh was a national hero, but on the level of a human tragedy and a family tragedy they are remarkably alike: two young children who were killed for money.”
Heidenry writes, Heady took the boy in a cab to meet her lover, Carl Austin Hall, a former Marine who had just been paroled from the Missouri State Penitentiary the previous April. Hall had squandered a $200,000 inheritance and was in prison for robbing a cab driver.
Heidenry describes the two as “losers,” both of whom had enjoyed wealth earlier in their lives. Heady had been abused by her late husband and was reduced to prostitution out of her home in St. Joseph, which is how she met Hall. One weakness they both shared was alcohol.
“By the time the two of them got together each of them were so addicted to alcohol that they each consumed on average a bottle of whiskey a day. I think all she wanted was a little affection … his only interest in Bonnie Heady was as somebody who could go get Bobby from the Academy in Kansas City.”
After Heady rejoined Hall, the trio drove into Kansas where Hall fatally shot Bobby. He buried the young boy’s body in a flower garden at her home in St. Joseph.
Greenlease’s father, 71-year-old Robert Greenlease was a wealthy Cadillac dealer in Kansas City. He quickly paid the $600,000 that Hall and Heady demanded. After two failed attempts to get the ransom to the kidnappers, the two finally recovered the money. Hall then panicked, afraid he was being pursued, and the couple drove to St. Louis.
There, Hall was apprehended by two St. Louis policemen that had been tipped off by the cab driver Hall had running errands for him. He led police to Bonnie, who he had punched and knocked out, angry that she couldn’t stay sober. He had left her in a motel with $2,500 of the ransom.
Here, Heidenry says, the case took a turn. Roughly half of the ransom money disappeared. Heidenry thinks it wound up in the control of a St. Louis mob boss, Joe Costello.
“What he did with it is anybody’s guess. I doubt if there’s a single person outside a very tight circle of mobsters who did know. The consensus seems to be the money … eventually made its way up to the Chicago mob.”
Hall and Heady first told authorities a story about a third person being the murderer, but eventually the two confessed to their crimes and were convicted in federal court. 81 days after Bobby died, they were executed side-by-side in the gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
The two sought to be married while on death row, but that was denied them.
“Their last words to each other … according to people who were there and who could in effect read their lips … they each told one another that they loved each other. So there is that kind of sadness to it, but … I have very little sympathy for them. They were cold-blooded murderers.”
Heidenry says he believes the two never felt remorse for the kidnapping or the murder. He says Hall’s displays of contrition while on death row were not believable, and says Heady only spoke of sorrow at having been caught.
“The thing that she seemed to be most remorseful about was that Hall had screwed up.”
He says the case helped prompt new laws and regulations that governed who can pick up a child from school, “So that children could no longer simply be excused when somebody like Bonnie Heady showed up … very strict guidelines, laws actually, on how children were to be left out of school with somebody other than their parents were enacted as a result of the Greenlease case.”
Heidenry says the Greenlease family never recovered from the incident. Bobby’s half-brother and sister both died young. He says the case was a tragedy in all respects.
“There were no winners in that kidnapping at all.”
AUDIO: Mike Lear interviews author John Heidenry, 30:00