Kidnappings split the lives of victims and their loved ones in two: one minute here and the next, gone.
“It’s the most devastating thing you can imagine,” the parent of one missing girl told PEOPLE in 2009. “Not knowing, not having a clue where she is — it keeps you up night after night after night.”
The history of infamous kidnappings in America is long and often wrenching, stretching back more than a century and including such names as Amber Hagerman, Patty Hearst, Charles Lindbergh Jr. and Adam Walsh.
In some cases, the missing were recovered alive. Other disappearances remain unresolved, even after decades. In still others, the captors faced justice while leaving mysteries behind.
What unites them all was the overwhelming absence each abduction created in the lives of those around them.
As Ernie Allen, then the president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said in 2009: “It creates a kind of suspended animation for these families. It hovers over everything they do; it’s part of their lives every minute.”
Below is a look at some of the most infamous kidnappings in American history.
The 1976 Chowchilla school bus kidnapping
On July 15, 1976, three men in their 20s seeking $5 million in ransom hijacked a busload of 26 schoolkids in Chowchilla, California. They forced the driver and children, ages 5 to 14, to climb through a hole in the ground into a moving van buried in a rock quarry.
After sealing the hole, the kidnappers took off, leaving their hostages buried alive for 16 hours. But they escaped by stacking mattresses the kidnappers had left, moving a metal plate and two industrial batteries to seal the roof and digging through 3 feet of dirt.
Driver Ed Ray, who died May 17, 2012, at age 91, emerged as a hero, rallying the children and directing their escape.
The victims, despite their anguish, have found comfort and healing in one another, they told PEOPLE in a 2012 article. Out of touch for many years, some reconnected through Facebook and at Ray’s funeral.
“It’s been healthy for us to share our feelings. We have this unspoken bond,” Jodi Heffington Medrano, 10 years old during the kidnapping, told PEOPLE. “[At Ray’s funeral] someone said, ‘We are glad we are here today.’ We all laughed because we are all here and we are doing well.”
John Paul Getty III
When billionaire J. Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, was snatched off the streets of Rome in the wee hours of July 10, 1973, the most shocking aspect of his ordeal was that the person with the power to rescue him refused to do so. Getty, then the world’s richest private citizen, wouldn’t budge, leaving Paul as the five-month hostage of Italian gangsters who hoped to extort $17 million for his return.
Even when the boy’s captors sliced off one of his ears and mailed it to a Rome newspaper, the oil tycoon was unmoved.
In the end what saved Paul was a tax loophole through which Getty found he could write off a portion of the $2.89 million bargained-down ransom he eventually paid. He designated the rest a loan to his son John Paul Getty II to be paid off at 4 percent interest.
The miserly patriarch “was a genius at business,” biographer Robert Lenzner once told PEOPLE, “but an illiterate with respect to intimacy and family.”
Getty’s vast fortune makes the tale of his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping all the more poignant. “The problem could have been solved instantly,” says screenwriter David Scarpa, who adapted the Getty kidnapping as All the Money in the World. “The money’s there, the entire problem exists in the head of one man.”
After his release, Paul “was more angry about them taking off his ear than he was psychologically traumatized by the kidnapping,” said journalist A. Craig Copetas, who befriended Paul after interviewing him for Rolling Stone. “He wanted to be a superstar, basking in 15 minutes of Warholian fame. I felt sorry for him. He was a very nice, confused kid from an exceptionally dysfunctional family.”
At 18, Paul wed his girlfriend, Gisela Martine Zacher, who was pregnant with their son Balthazar.
At 25, he overdosed on drugs, causing a stroke that left him a quadriplegic and partially blind. He died in 2011.
The crime could scarcely have been more horrific: In January 1996, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, was kidnapped by an unknown man who forced her off her bike and into his black pickup. Four days later her body was found in a drainage ditch several miles away. Her kidnapping and killing have never been solved.
It may not entirely make up for that terrible loss, but some good did come from that still-unsolved killing.
Convinced that a more coordinated response to child abductions could save lives, media broadcasters and Dallas-Fort Worth police devised a rapid warning system for, naming it “AMBER Alert” after the little girl.
Launched in July 1997, AMBER Alert plans have been established in all 50 states since 2005 and are coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice. State plans vary somewhat, but they generally require that a child 17 or younger be in serious danger and that sufficient information exist on the child or kidnapper. Not just delivered over the media, the alerts are also sent to cell phones.
“Finding Amber’s body is a sad moment I’ll never forget,” Tarrant County sheriff Dee Anderson, who played a key role in getting the system adopted around the country, told PEOPLE.
In the years since, at least hundreds of abducted children have been brought home in part thanks to Amber — including Tamara Brooks and Jacque Morris, then 16 and 17, who were taken on Aug. 1, 2002, but managed to survive their abductor.
“I’m so happy those two girls are home where they belong,” Amber’s mom, Donna, said to PEOPLE at the time. “My daughter is in heaven watching out for those girls. “
“It’s a shame my daughter had to be butchered and had to go through what she went through for us to have the Amber Alert,” Donna told Yahoo News in 2016, “but I know she would be proud of it.”
The SLA, labeled a domestic terrorist group by the FBI, wanted to wage war against the government and take down the “capitalist state.” Within two months of her capture, the SLA released a video with Hearst saying she had joined their cause. Soon after, she was seen leading a bank robbery.
She eventually was found in September 1975, about 19 months after her kidnapping, where she was arrested for bank robbery and other crimes. Hearst said she had been abused, threatened and brainwashed, but at the time there was no legal precedent for acquittal due to such manipulation.
She was sentenced to seven years in prison and served two before her sentence was commuted by then-President Jimmy Carter. President Bill Clinton later pardoned her during his administration.
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Charles Lindbergh Jr.
Around 9 p.m. on March 1, 1932, the worst fears of famed aviator Charles Linderbgh and his wife, writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were fulfilled when the couple’s golden-haired, 20-month-old baby, Charles Jr., was taken from his crib in their home in Hopewell, New Jersey.
The child’s disappearance was reported by his nurse around 10 p.m. and a ransom note, for $50,000, was found at the nursery window.
Within days, another ransom demand arrived for the family, this time for $70,000. Two days after that, a third arrived. More notes came in subsequent weeks and a ransom was eventually paid, though Charles Jr. was not returned.
On May 12, 1932, his body was found in a shallow grave a few miles from his home — a dreadful end to “the crime of the century.”
Kidnapping for ransom was rampant during the Depression, and, wrote A. Scott Berg in a 1998 biography, the Lindberghs’ “fame and wealth cost them their firstborn child.” Although they went on to have five more children, “I know the loss was immeasurable and unspeakable,” daughter Reeve Lindbergh said in her memoir.
The kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was identified and arrested in September 1934, after a lengthy investigation. Convicted of first-degree murder, he was put to death in 1936. While prosecutors used circumstantial evidence to make their case, Hauptmann’s guilt has been the subject of some continued debate. His widow, Anna Hauptmann, publicly argued he was innocent until her death in 1994.
In 1874, Charley Ross was the fetching 4-year-old son of a Philadelphia dry-goods merchant. On a drowsy July afternoon of that year, he (or so it is believed by some) became America’s first known victim of a kidnaping for ransom.
Two days after the abduction, the kidnapers sent Charley’s father the first of 23 notes demanding $20,000 for the child’s return. The father tried to pay, but the police protested that this would encourage further kidnappings.
Charley’s father, Christian Ross, wrote a book about his experiences in which he recounted, in part, the “varied expressions of horror” that came with realizing that a child’s kidnapping was even possible.
Five months after Charley disappeared, Joseph Douglas and William Mosher, a couple of smalltime burglars, were shot while robbing a house on Long Island. As Douglas lay dying, he told a witness: “It’s no use lying now. Mosher and I stole Charley Ross.”
Where was the boy? “Mosher knows,” replied Douglas. “Ask him.”
But Mosher was dead. “Then God help his poor wife and family,” said Douglas.
For the next 60 years or so, the hunt for Charley continued all over the country, while young boys, then mature men, then greying old folks — 5,000 people in all — turned up to claim the honor. But none of them proved it and Charley’s ultimate fate remains unknown.
According to one later account, the two men responsible for the abduction were regular passersby at the Ross home, where they would speak with the kids and sometimes bring them candy. This detail spawned the expression “don’t take candy from strangers,” or so goes the urban legend.
Frank Sinatra Jr.
Barry Keenan was in a haze then, flying to the moon on booze and Percodan, but he recalls indelibly the night of Dec. 8, 1963, when he went to a Lake Tahoe, Nevada, hotel room and kidnapped Frank Sinatra Jr.
“I can see Junior looking at the bullets,” Keenan later recalled to PEOPLE of how he waved a revolver in the face of the singer’s only son, then 20 and on tour singing in nightclubs.
To appreciate Keenan’s power trip, consider that to many Americans then, Frank Sinatra was a vaguely sinister god in a fedora — the one star whose kid you wouldn’t dare nap. But Keenan, a school chum of Sinatra’s daughter Nancy, thought he had the angles figured. He would “borrow” Frank Jr., invest the ransom and repay Sinatra — with interest.
“In my demented state,” he said, “I saw it as a business deal.”
“I knew Frank Jr. had been in boarding school and wasn’t close to his father,” explained Keenan, who had never met this younger Sinatra. His drug-addled rationalization: “A kidnapping would draw them closer.”
The abduction itself, one of the most sensational since the Lindbergh baby’s, was a fiasco.
Posing as room-service waiters at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, where Frank Jr. was performing, Keenan and a friend entered room 417. Hustling Junior to their rented car, they drove to Los Angeles and phoned Frank Sr., who was waiting in Reno, Nevada. “He was a nervous wreck,” recalled Jim Mahoney, Frank Sr.’s former publicist.
Frank Sr. paid the $240,000 ransom, which an FBI agent dropped off in L.A. between two parked school buses. But before Keenan picked up the loot, Irwin panicked and released Frank Jr.
At his trial, Keenan tried to portray the crime as a publicity stunt to boost Frank Jr.’s career. The jury didn’t buy it, but the lie lingered in public memory. “It is one of my biggest regrets,” said Keenan. “Junior has lived with the stigma the rest of his life.”
After Frank Jr.’s safe return, most of the ransom was recovered, and Keenan and his two accomplices got life sentences (a term later reduced for complex technical reasons to 12 years). But when he was paroled four years later — the others had already been released — Keenan went through an impressive transformation, morphing from a hapless con to a wealthy entrepreneur.
Sobering up, he made, lost and then remade millions as a real estate developer and consultant specializing in resorts and casinos, mostly in the Southwest. He also developed drug-and-alcohol rehab centers and spoke against substance abuse to youth groups.
Not everyone was impressed by Keenan’s comeback, however. “He should still be in the slammer,” Mahoney said.
Adam Walsh was 6 years old on July 27, 1981, when he was abducted while shopping with his mother, Reve Walsh, at a mall near their home in Hollywood, Florida.
Leaving him alone in the toy department, Reve returned 10 minutes later to discover Adam had vanished. Two weeks later, she and her husband, John Walsh, flew to New York City to plead on Good Morning America for Adam’s return. Later that day, the Walshes were in their hotel room when Hollywood police called with grim news: That morning, two fishermen had found a head bobbing in a canal in Vero Beach, Florida, 120 miles north of Hollywood. Dental records confirmed the remains were Adam’s.
While his wife wept, John, in a blind fury, trashed their room. Recalling the crime to PEOPLE in 1996, his eyes welled up, his voice choking. “[Losing him] broke my heart; it almost killed me,” he said. “Believe me, you never get over it.”
After Adam’s slaying, John gave up his job as a hotel executive to lobby full-time for passage of a 1982 act that mandated immediate investigation of any child reported missing. Two years later, another John-backed bill established the nonprofit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. By sharing its database with the FBI and police, NCMEC has helped locate tens of thousands of vanished kids.
John also became the host of the long-running TV series America’s Most Wanted, which shared stories of fugitives around the country and solicited tips from the public.
“It’s a wound that never heals,” John said in 1996, of Adam’s killing. “I don’t know what I’d do if I met his killer. But I truly believe that if he isn’t caught in this lifetime, he will be in the next. I’ll never give up hope.”
In 2008, nearly 30 years after Adam vanished, authorities in Florida said the convicted serial killer Ottis Toole was to blame.
“Who could take a 6-year-old and murder and decapitate him? Who?” John said then. “We needed to know. We needed to know. And today we know. The not knowing has been a torture, but that journey’s over.”
• With VICKIE BANE, ADAM CARLSON, BRUCE FRANKEL, BILL HEWITT, RICHARD JEROME, MICHAEL A. LIPTON, DIANA PEARL, JILL SMOLOWE, TIME STAFF, KARA WARNER and SUSAN YOUNG