It was a sundrenched afternoon at Purdue University. In the parking lot behind Creative Arts Building No. 5, Susan Wells Cochran and fellow students in a ceramics class bent over a hay-fueled kiln. They were firing “raku” pots, occasionally exclaiming over an especially successful glaze or a cracked disaster. To all intents, Susan, 21, seemed like any other coed with nothing more on her mind than pottery.
There was. Within a few days she was scheduled to appear in court as the first witness in a bizarre kidnapping case. According to the charges, Susan, a fine-arts major at Purdue, had been abducted by Thomas R. Lippert, 25, a law professor at Southwest State College in Marshall, Minn., and a companion. Lippert, according to an assistant U.S. district attorney, then attempted to “brainwash her into falling in love with him.” During the alleged kidnapping, Susan, the daughter of an affluent engineer from Little Falls, N.J., traveled through more than half a dozen states with her abductors. Among other inducements to love, she was subjected to electric-shock treatment, confined in a mysterious “black box,” threatened with injury to her family and forced to sleep in the same bed, but not to have sex, with Lippert.
It all began last February, when Sue Cochran left a yellow “ride-wanted” card on a student bulletin board. She hoped to go to Boston to visit her boyfriend, Doug Grant, a student at Tufts. Meanwhile, Professor Lippert had conceived his “experiment in love” and persuaded a student, Harold Ross Tenneson, 21, to assist him. “We came to Purdue on February 19,” Tenneson has since admitted, after turning state’s evidence and pleading guilty to kidnap charges, “to find a girl, preferably good-looking, for his experiment.” They spotted Sue Cochran’s “ride-wanted” card, made contact and picked her up that night at the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house. “We got 30 miles out of town,” Sue recalls with a shudder. “And, well, that was it.”
She was forced to strip, she told the FBI, and to drink Southern Comfort until she passed out, and was then driven to Southwest State. At Lippert’s quarters, she says, she was placed in a large “black box” that was rigged for electrical-shock experiments.
Some days later Sue and Lippert drove to Atlanta for a week, where they visited his relatives, and then back to New Ulm, Minn., where they stayed overnight with his parents. The Lipperts, a working-class family, dote on their only son and have given him a first-rate education (he was a magna cum laude graduate of St. Cloud College and a brilliant law student at Notre Dame) and such gifts as a Porsche, a huge videotape machine and expensive trips.
Everywhere they went, Tom introduced Cochran as “Susan Wells.” Many professors and students at Southwest State saw her walking around the campus behaving like any normal college girl. Allan Larson, one of the college directors, says, “I assumed she was his girlfriend and saw nothing to indicate she was under duress.” Soon after the abduction, Sue called her parents and Doug Grant to explain “there had been car trouble and she was delayed.” Why had she not run away? “They had done terrible things to my mind,” says Sue. “He [Lippert] kept telling me that if they ever found me he would do terrible things to my family.” Tenneson’s lawyer, Joseph Trench, says Lippert “took her up to the University of Minnesota Burn Unit and showed her people who had been burned terribly in industrial accidents. He told her that if she tried to get away that would happen to her family.” There was no suggestion of sexual molestation: both Susan and Lippert later signed statements that they never had intercourse, although they had slept nude together in a bed and in the “black box.”
After he was arrested, Lippert retained Lindsay Arthur, a Minneapolis lawyer, who in turn called in F. Lee Bailey, Patty Hearst’s famous lawyer. Arthur is convinced Sue “turned on to the idea of being wined and dined around the country. I think Tom talked her into coming along and she decided she was having a good time. Tom never threatened her—she may have misunderstood him. Tom even paid her $100 and promised to give her three round-trip tickets to Boston to see her boyfriend for cooperating in the experiment.” He adds that Susan agreed to the shock treatment: “She thought it would be groovy, but after one test she decided she didn’t like it and Tom didn’t do it again.” Lippert says the “black box” is actually his photo darkroom, and adds, “she decided she’d been kidnapped when the FBI turned up and said, ‘Thank God we’ve found you.’ Then she realized her parents were probably teed off at her for taking off with me.”
On March 23, three weeks after a missing-persons alert had been issued, FBI agents found Susan reading art books in the Southwest State library. “I didn’t know if they were people on his side or on my side,” she says. She was afraid to admit she had been kidnapped “until they showed their badges.” Then, she says, she wept.
The real truth of the strange courtship may never be known, for when his trial opened Tom Lippert accepted a plea bargain offered by the government. It reduced the kidnap charges to a lesser one of conspiracy, on condition that he submit to psychiatric treatment for 90 days. Lippert may never go to jail, but his accomplice, Harold Tenneson, faces as much as 10 years as an admitted kidnapper, even though he turned state’s evidence. As for Sue Cochran, she says she is happy to “get this over with,” and adds sadly, “In a way, I’ve felt like I’m on trial.”