May 24th, 1935. Tacoma, Washington
J.P. Weyerhaeuser was the CEO of his family’s lumber company, founded in 1900. He and his wife, Helen seemed to have the perfect life.. A chauffeur, a mansion on a hill, and three all-american children- 13 year old Ann, 10 year old Philip and 9 year old George.
George attended Lowell School and on an average day, would walk to nearby Annie Wright Seminary to meet with his sister on their lunch break, where the Weyerhauser’s chauffeur would take the children home for lunch at noon. This particular Friday, Lowell released the students 10 to 15 minutes earlier than usual. George still went to the Seminary, but evidently decided to forego waiting for his sister and walked to their house. But George didn’t make it home that day.
Being a typical 9 year old boy, some suspected that he might have played hooky and speculated that he had gone to see the circus in nearby Puyallup. However, the family reported George missing to the police at 1:30 that afternoon. Two police officers were dispatched to investigate.
That same evening, a postal carrier delivered a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern” to the Weyerhaeuser house.
The letter was a ransom note. It contained 21 bullet pointed demands, including a $200,000 ransom in unmarked 5, 10 and 20 dollar bills in exchange for George’s safe return. The letter was punctuated by threats of violence and a 5 day deadline. On the back of the envelope was George’s signature.
The FBI quickly took over the case, per a new law enacted after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping just 3 years earlier in 1932.
The note instructed the Weyerhaeusers to run an ad in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to signal their willingness to comply with the demands. The Portland Oregon office of the FBI was notified of the case and sent agents to Tacoma to investigate.
Weyerhaeuser gathered the money and made the decision to abide by the kidnapper’s wishes. The boy’s family placed a personal ad in the paper, signed “Percie Minny”, per the instructions. Similar ads were placed on May 27th and May 29.
The 9th demand on the list was to quote unquote “keep it out of the papers”. While the Weyerhaeusers did their best, a host of reporters camped out in front of the Weyerhaeuser home. Just a day after the kidnapping, the Tacoma News Tribune ran a Saturday Extra edition that revealed key details of the ransom letter. On Sunday, a Seattle paper ran the letter in full.
Another letter arrived at the Weyerhaeuser house on May 29th. JP Weyerhaeuser was instructed to register at the Ambassador Hotel in Seattle Washington under the pseudonym James Paul Jones. No other instructions were given except to await further contact at the hotel. Enclosed in the letter was a short note written by George, indicating that he was safe.
Weyerhaeuser followed the instructions. A cab driver delivered another letter to the hotel at 10 o’clock that night. Per the new letter’s directions, Weyerhaeuser drove to a designated area where he found a piece of white cloth attached to two sticks driven into the ground. There was a message with directions to a second similar signal, but when he arrived, there was no message. He returned to the hotel, but only after waiting two hours at the site of the second signal.
Weyerhaeuser received an anonymous phone call stating that he had not followed orders. Weyerhaeuser explained that he was cooperating, but could not find the last note.
A man effecting a European accent phoned the boy’s father around 9:45 that night and gave him directions to a location where he would find a note in a tin can. That note held further instructions to other locations that each had notes with directions. Finally, Weyerhaeuser turned on to a dirt road off the main highway between Seattle and Tacoma.
There he found a flag with another note advising him to sit in his car with the dome light on for five minutes, then go to another white sign on the same road. The final instructions at that sign told Weyerhaeuser to leave his car and start walking back toward Seattle. The note stated that if the money was in order, he would have his son back within 30 hours.
After walking approximately 100 yards, Weyerhaeuser heard a loud noise from the bushes. He turned to see a man running out, entering Weyerhaeuser’s car and driving away with the $200,000 ransom. All J.P. Weyerhaeuser could do now was wait.
Speculation was rampant as to who kidnapped young George. Without any concrete facts, a prevailing theory emerged. It was posited that a well-organized gang was behind the kidnapping. The Alvin Karpis mob was quickly associated with the story. Alvin “Creepy” Karpis was the co-founder of the Barker-Karpis gang along with Fred Barker- a son of the infamous Ma Barker. The gang was one of the longest lived Depression era gangs and had a history of ransoming kidnap victims. The theory was solidified when Karpis henchman Volney Davis was spotted in Tacoma. The papers ran with the story.
The story, as well as the organized gang theory, all but died when Volney Davis, thought to be in Tacoma, was arrested in Minnesota a day later.
Here’s what really happened.
Upon reading the May 17 obituary of George’s grandfather, J.P. Weyerhaeuser Sr, two men hatched a plot to ransom one of the Weyerhaeuser children.
They stayed in Seattle and scouted the Weyerhaeusers during trips to Tacoma. The perfect opportunity presented itself on May 24th.
George had taken a shortcut through some tennis courts on his way home from the Annie Wright Seminary on the afternoon of the abduction. As he exited the tennis courts, a man with brown hair and a moustache asked for directions. When George started to respond, the man picked him up and carried him to a nearby sedan, where a second man was waiting in the front seat of the car. George had a blanket thrown over him and was put in the back seat.
He heard the two men speaking in whispers to each other as he was driven around for over an hour. When the car finally stopped, the men took off the blanket and gave George an envelope. He was told to write his name on the back of it. The men then blindfolded George and carried him several steps when George heard rushing water. He said “Mister, you’re not going to throw me in the river and drown me, are you?”
The man answered “Don’t worry kid, you’re too valuable to throw away”.
9-year-old George was carried across a stream. Once on the other side, he was put down and led through the woods for nearly three quarters of a mile. They removed his blindfold and put him into a four foot by four foot hole they had dug in the ground. Chains were placed on George’s right wrist and leg and his captors covered the hole with a board. The two men took turns guarding the boy until around 10 o’clock that night.
George was carried back to the car and placed in the trunk. They drove for about an hour before he was removed from the car and led through the woods again. Once they reached their destination, George waited by a tree while his kidnappers dug another hole. He was placed once more into the hole, but this time he was given a seat from the car, two blankets and a kerosene lantern for warmth.
The two men, now accompanied by a woman, put George in the trunk of their car and drove through Washington to Idaho. They followed the highway past Blanchard Idaho until they reached a mountainous area. George was removed from the car. He was handcuffed to a tree and guarded until sundown.
He was then taken to a house in Spokane Washington, where his abductors kept him in a large closet, furnished with a mattress, two chairs and a small table.
Friday, May 31
One of the men told George they would be leaving the house soon. The two men went upstairs, leaving George alone on the first floor. George later said he didn’t try to run away because the men had told him that he would be going home soon.
Once more, the boy was placed into the car’s trunk and taken to a small shack near Issaquah Washington. His captors left George there at 3:30 the following morning, telling him that his father would soon come to take him home.
Issaquah, Washington. June 1
Farmer Louis Bonifas went to answer the front door of his farmhouse, most likely wondering who was visiting him so early in the morning. When he opened the door, a cold, wet and dirty George Weyerhaeuser stood on his doorstep.
After the 9 year old had been dropped off at the shack, he wandered the Issaquah-Hobart road for six miles until he came upon the Bonifas farm. The young heir to the Weyerhaeuser fortune was safe and in good spirits, given all that he’d gone through.
The Bonifas family cleaned George up, gave him clean clothes and fed him breakfast before taking him home.
With George Weyerhaeuser safely returned, the focus shifted to identifying and apprehending his kidnappers.
When the ransom money was prepared, the FBI sent the serial number of each of the bills to their headquarters in Washington, DC. Upon the money being received by the kidnappers, the list of numbers was immediately sent to all the Bureau’s field offices for distribution to banks, hotels, railway companies and other commercial vendors.
It didn’t take long for the money to be used.
One of the $20 ransom bills was used as payment for a railway ticket from Huntington, Oregon to Salt Lake City, Utah. FBI agents quickly determined that Harmon Metz Waley was the ticket holder.
Soon after, ransom bills started appearing in several Salt Lake City area discount stores. The FBI didn’t have enough special agents available in Salt Lake City, so police officers were stationed in each downtown discount store. On June 8, a cashier at a Woolworth store notified a police detective in the building that a woman had just given her one of the ransom bills. The detective took the woman, Margaret Waley to the FBI’s field office in Salt Lake City. Margaret Waley turned out to the be the wife of the railway ticket holder, Harmon Waley.
More ransom bills were found in her pocket book and once her home address was obtained, Harmon Waley was arrested as well. Waley did not cooperate and made many false statements, but eventually confessed that he and William Dainard had kidnapped George Weyerhaeuser. He stated that his wife had no knowledge of the plot until their arrival in Spokane. $3,700 of the ransom money was positively identified after being found partially burnt in the Waley’s stove.
Waley and Dainard were to split the money, but Dainard had cheated Waley out of $5000. Waley had purchased a Ford Roadster and buried the remaining $90,790 under a clump of bushes. Special agents recovered the money on June 11.
Dainard had managed to avoid arrest and was on the lam.
June 19, 1935
William Dainard, Harmon Waley and Margaret Waley were indicted by a Federal grand jury in Tacoma, and charged with kidnapping and conspiracy to kidnap.
Harmon Waley entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to serve concurrent terms of 45 years for kidnapping and 2 years for conspiring to kidnap. He was sent to the US Penitentiary on McNeil Island and was later transferred to Alcatraz.
Margaret Waley pleaded not guilty to all charges. After being brought to trial on July 5th, she was sentenced to serve two concurrent 20 year terms in the United States Detention Farm in Milan, Michigan.
William Dainard had fled to Butte, Montana where he was recognized by a police officer who tried to apprehend him. Dainard escaped the officer and his car was later found to have been abandoned along with over $15,000 in ransom money.
Bills with altered serial numbers began to surface in the western part of the country in early 1936. FBI examination revealed that the true serial numbers matched those of the ransom bills. The FBI issued an alert to banks, advising them to be on the lookout for any person presenting altered currency for exchange.
May 6, 1936
A man was reported to have exchanged altered bills at two separate banks in Los Angeles California. Even though the license number recorded by bank personnel was issued to Bert Cole, Special agents tracked William Dainard down at the address listed for the license number. While Dainard was detained, agents recovered over $37,000 at his residence and an additional $14,000 that he had buried in Utah.
Dainard was taken to Tacoma Washington where he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to serve two concurrent 60 year prison terms for kidnapping and conspiring to kidnap. He was initially sent to McNeil Island, but was soon transferred to Leavenworth, where prison authorities ultimately determined him to be insane, and recommended that he be confined to a hospital.
George Weyerhaeuser took his traumatizing ordeal in stride, in large part due to the grounded parenting style of J.P. and Helen Weyerhaeuser.
George married his wife Wendy in 1948 and had four daughters and two sons together.
He graduated with honors from Yale University in 1949 with a bachelor of science degree in industrial administration, and worked his way up in his family’s company, eventually becoming CEO and president in 1966. He was an advocate for addressing environmental aspects of forest management long before it became a popular cause. He retired in 1999 and was inducted into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in 2001.
The fact that the kidnappers treated him well always stayed with George Weyerhaeuser. Harmon Metz sent letters of apology to George from prison over the years, and upon his release on June 3, 1963, he even asked George for a job. In an inspiring show of compassion and forgiveness, George Weyerhaeuser found a job for his former kidnapper at one of his Oregon plants.
In a 2015 interview, an 89 year old George said that while he has vivid memories of those 8 suspenseful days in 1935, he doesn’t read the old articles and doesn’t think about it much. He credits his parents for helping him to live a normal childhood and keeping the traumatic event from hanging over his head the rest of his life.
He said “My own motto is ‘Trust your hopes, and not your fears”.
Words for us all to live by.
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