By the time kidnappers freed 9-year-old George Weyerhaeuser on June 1, 1935, newspapers across America had feasted on a nine-day drama that played like a Hollywood movie, complete with G-men, coded want ads and a late-night ransom drop.
George reappeared at the crack of dawn on a farmer’s doorstep near Issaquah, wet, cold and dirty and in good spirits, considering his harrowing ordeal. But there had been a moment when he feared for his life.
The kidnappers had driven him into the woods and ordered him to sign the back of an envelope. He was blindfolded, and got scared when he was carried toward the sound of rushing water.
“Say, mister, you’re not going to throw me in the river and drown me, are you?” George asked.
“Don’t worry kid, you’re too valuable to throw away,” said one of the two ex-cons who had a $200,000 ransom in mind when they snatched him off a Tacoma street earlier that Friday.
George, an heir to the Weyerhaeuser timber fortune, was carried across the stream and led through the woods to a hole in the ground. After dark, he was carried in the trunk of a car to a new hole, where he spent a lonely night in chains with a kerosene lantern for warmth.
By then a carefully composed, 21-point ransom note had arrived at the North End home of his father, J.P. Weyerhaeuser Jr. The ransom demand was backed by a threat of violence and a five-day deadline.
The Weyerhaeusers did their best to comply with No. 9 on the list – “Keep it out of the papers” – but a horde of reporters maintained a weeklong vigil outside the Weyerhaeuser home.
George had fallen into the clutches of Harmon Metz Waley and William Dainard, who hatched their plot in Spokane after reading about the Weyerhaeusers in the May 17 obituary of George’s grandfather, J.P. Weyerhaeuser Sr.
They holed up in Seattle and scouted the Weyerhaeusers during trips to Tacoma. They got lucky when George walked by after bypassing the family chauffeur in favor of walking home for lunch from Lowell School.
They threw him into the back of a 1927 Buick, covered him with a blanket and sped away.
WAS IT FOR REAL?
George was a typical kid his age, so some suspected he might have played hooky to see the circus in Puyallup. Two cops were sent to check it out after he was reported missing at 1:30 p.m.
Hopes of mere mischief dissolved when the ransom letter arrived at 6:34 p.m. As police sulked, the case was taken over by G-men, FBI agents empowered by a law enacted after the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
Official acknowledgement of the crime came Saturday afternoon, in time for a Tacoma News Tribune “Extra!” that revealed key details of the ransom note.
The letter ordered George’s family to keep things quiet and to communicate through the classified ads of the Seattle P-I, using the name “Percy Minnie.” On Sunday, a Seattle paper ran the ransom letter in full.
Meanwhile, George was moved again. The kidnappers put him in the trunk of a Ford and drove to the mountains outside Blanchard, Idaho. He was handcuffed to a tree until dark, then moved to a house in Spokane and imprisoned in a closet.
The criminals treated him well, even showing him newspaper accounts of his plight.
The kidnapping had become the top story in the country, and reporters flocked to Tacoma to await a break in the case.
With few facts to report, pages were filled with conjecture. The prevailing view was that a “well-organized gang,” most likely the Alvin Karpis mob, was behind the abduction. This theory gained credence when Karpis henchman Volney Davis was spotted in Tacoma.
GRASPING AT GRAMMAR
The News Tribune printed the ransom note, along with an analysis that included this gem: “The word ‘lain’ was used at one place where ‘laid’ would have been preferred. No comment has been made on the possible significance of this.”
On Tuesday, May 28, the day before the ransom deadline, George’s father had assembled the cash and placed the ad, “We are ready. Percy Minnie.” The next evening Weyerhaeuser received a letter and, as federal agents stepped aside, followed instructions to the Rainier Valley. No one showed up.
At 9 the next evening, a man affecting a European accent sent him to Seattle, where a string of notes led him to a side road off Highway 99 near Angle Lake. The final note told him to leave his 1933 Pontiac running and to walk away. When he did, someone jumped into the car and drove off.
Two days later, George was returned to a car trunk, driven to a shack on the Issaquah-Hobart Road and left with the kidnap blanket and a dollar bill. He wandered six miles to the farmhouse of Louis Bonifas, where he warmed up, ate breakfast and headed home with the farmer in a dilapidated Model T.
Bonifas called police from Renton at 7 a.m. to report he was bringing George home. A Seattle Times golf reporter, John Dreher, got wind of the story, hired a taxi and flagged Bonifas down on the highway. He led the farmer to believe he was a cop and transferred George to the taxi.
While police searched in vain for the Model T, Dreher crouched on the floor as George reclined on the back seat for an interview. In Dreher’s copyrighted account of the taxi ride, George shared anecdotes of his ordeal and recalled that the kidnappers used the names Alvin, Harry and Bill.
The News Tribune headline later in the day screamed “KIDNAPED BOY SAFE HOME AS G-MEN TRAIL KARPIS MOB!”
The newspaper took credit for breaking the Karpis story, noting that the names provided by George matched up with Alvin Karpis, Harry Campbell and William Weaver, all members of the notorious gang.
The story died a day later when Volney Davis, the gang member thought to be in Tacoma, was arrested in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the kidnappers split up. G-men, out in force now that George was safe, followed a trail of marked bills to Salt Lake City, where they arrested the Waleys on June 8. The FBI eventually recovered $157,000 of the ransom money.
Dainard, captured in California a year later, was sentenced to 60 years and ended up at Alcatraz.
Margaret Waley argued that she was obligated by her Mormon religion to obey her husband, but still got 20 years. Harmon Waley was given 45 years, and was the last of the trio to go free when he walked out of Alcatraz in 1963.
Three years after that, George became CEO of Weyerhaeuser.
NOT THAT TRAUMATIZED
These days, retired at 81 in Palm Springs, Calif., George would rather not talk about the kidnapping.
But in an interview on the 30th anniversary of the crime, he said his parents treated him so normally afterward that he was never afraid of “being grabbed by strangers.”
He also said he harbored no unusual worries about his own six children.
“My own motto,” he said, sharing a philosophy that may have had roots in his kidnapping experience, “is ‘Trust your hopes and not your fears.’”
Pat McCoid: 253-597-8272