6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History
6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History

6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History

Patrick Lynch - March 12, 2017

Kidnap is a horrendous ordeal not only for the victim, but also the loved ones who don’t know if the abductees will ever come home. In the United States alone, approximately 70 children are kidnapped each day, and there are also some 800,000 missing persons reported each year.

Some people are kidnapped for ransom due to their family connections, while others are snatched by depraved sexual predators. While a large percentage of kidnap victims return home safe and sound, a small proportion die in captivity. However, even those that survive suffer tremendous psychological strain and in some cases, are unable to live their lives to the fullest extent. In this piece, I look at six of the most famous kidnapping cases in history.

6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History
Frank Sinatra, Jr. Daily Mail

1 – Frank Sinatra Jr. (1963)

As the son of the legendary crooner, Frank Sinatra Jr. wasn’t exactly a surprising kidnap target, yet when he was taken on December 8, 1963, it was a crime that shocked America. Sinatra Jr. wanted to follow in the footsteps of his famous father and he toured dozens of cities as a singer. Unbeknownst to him, Joe Amsler and Barry Keenan followed him on this tour with a view to kidnap him for ransom.

The nation was still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so maybe that is why the duo decided to strike on December 8, a little over two weeks after the death of the president. On that evening, Sinatra Jr. was performing in Lake Tahoe at Harrah’s Club Lodge. At approximately 9 p.m., he was relaxing in his dressing room when Keenan knocked on the door and pretended to be a delivery man. When Sinatra Jr. answered the door, he was accosted by the two assailants while his friend in the room with him was tied up. Sinatra Jr. was blindfolded and taken outside to a getaway car.

His friend quickly untied himself and contacted the police. Roadblocks were set up almost immediately, and the kidnappers were stopped at one point, but somehow managed to bluff their way through. Within 40 minutes of the crime, the FBI in Reno became involved and met with the victim’s parents. Their recommendation to the Sinatra family was to wait for the ransom demand, pay it, and then allow the agents to track the money.

The following day, Keenan phoned John Irwin and asked his co-conspirator to act as the ransom contact. Irwin called the elder Sinatra and told him to wait for instructions. The following day, he phoned again and demanded $240,000 for the release of his son. Sinatra Sr. obeyed FBI instructions and gathered the cash. They completed the drop between a pair of buses in the town of Sepulveda, California on the morning of December 11 and waited.

While Keenan and Amsler gleefully collected the money, a nervous Irwin released Sinatra Jr. The victim was found in Bel Air, California, and the police placed him in the trunk to avoid the media glare before bringing him to his mother’s home. Although Sinatra Jr. saw or heard little, the FBI was able to find the home where the victim was held and found plenty of evidence at the scene. Irwin confessed to his brother, who subsequently called the police. By December 14, all three kidnappers were captured and almost all of the ransom money recovered.

The defendants tried to claim the kidnap was part of a publicity stunt, but with no evidence to back the claim, all three men were convicted. While they received lengthy sentences, they only served a fraction of their time behind bars. Keenan spent four-and-a-half years in prison and became a real-estate developer in later life.

6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History
Stayner and White. NBC Bay Area

2 – Steven Stayner (1972)

On December 4, 1972, in Merced, California, 7-year-old Steven Stayner was approached by a man who claimed to be collecting money for his church. The man, Ervin Edward Murphy, was an associate of pedophile Kenneth Parnell. Murphy asked Stayner if his mother would contribute and the young boy said she would. Murphy offered to take the boy to his house, and unfortunately, Stayner agreed. Parnell was waiting in the car, and so began a seven-year nightmare for young Steven Stayner.

Stayner was taken to a cabin in Catheys Valley, which was just a few hundred feet from his grandmother’s home. Parnell molested him on the very first night, and the vicious pedophile started raping the boy within two weeks of his capture. The sexual abuse continued, and Parnell slowly brainwashed the child and tried to convince him that his parents didn’t want him anymore. Parnell then told Stayner that he was now his legal guardian so the boy must call him ‘Dad.’ He even started calling the child ‘Dennis Gregory Parnell’ and enrolled him in different schools in California. Parnell plied his new son with alcohol and allowed him to move freely. However, a deeply confused Stayner did not use these opportunities to flee.

As he grew older, Stayner started to wonder if Parnell was telling the truth about his parents. He used to look through newspapers and TV reports to see if they were looking for him. Tragically, his parents sent flyers to schools he had attended, but no one ever recognized him. Eventually, Parnell decided that Stayner was getting too old and kidnapped another boy named Timothy White in February 1980.

The 5-year-old cried and begged to be taken home. Stayner knew that if he didn’t act, White would suffer the same fate as him. 16 days later, Stayner escaped with White and hitchhiked to a police station in Ukiah, California. Police arrested the two kidnappers, but Murphy only served two years in prison while, incredibly, Parnell only served five years. In 2004, Parnell received a 25-year sentence for trying to purchase a 4-year-old boy for $500.

I wish I could tell you that Stayner’s story had a happy ending, but in reality, the poor man met a tragic end. He did not receive counseling for his ordeal and left school early after cruel kids teased him about being molested. He struggled with alcohol as he used it to cover the trauma he felt. However, he battled on and was married by the age of 20 with two children. His wife, Jody, said he was finally found peace when on September 16, 1989 he was killed when a car collided with the motorcycle.

6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History
Hearst and DeFreeze rob a bank. FBI

3 – Patty Hearst (1974)

The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is one of the most famous in American history. Not only because she was the daughter of media mogul, William Randolph Hearst, but also because of the events that followed her abduction. At around 9 p.m. on February 4, 1974, there was a knock on Hearst’s apartment door. When she answered, a group of armed men and women known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) streamed in, beat up her fiancé, and kidnapped Hearst.

The SLA, led by Donald DeFreeze, hated the U.S. government and was determined to destroy the capitalist state. Hearst was an obvious kidnap target since she came from a wealthy and nationally recognized family. Hearst’s abduction gave the SLA what they craved; media attention. They initially demanded a ransom of millions of dollars in food donations for her release, but soon decided on a better use for their victim.

They started to abuse and brainwash Hearst, with the goal of turning her into the poster child for their supposed ‘revolution.’ Within two months, they released an audiotape of Hearst claiming she joined their fight and she even had a new name. On April 15, 1974, Hearst was captured on CCTV during an SLA bank robbery. She was wielding a gun and appeared to be a willing accomplice.

The FBI launched an intensive manhunt to find Hearst and shut down the SLA. A month after the bank robbery, they found an SLA safe house in Los Angeles, and in the ensuing shootout, six SLA members were killed, including their leader DeFreeze. They still couldn’t locate Hearst, who helped the SLA in further crimes, including the extortion of an estimated $2 million from her father.

Eventually, the FBI caught Hearst in San Francisco on September 18, 1975, and she was arrested and charged with crimes including bank robbery. Despite her defense lawyer claiming she was coerced into the crimes, Hearst was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison.

It was a controversial decision, as psychologists found clear signs of trauma, with one doctor describing her as a low-IQ zombie. She weighed just 87 pounds at the time of her arrest, and her IQ had fallen by 18 points during the time she spent with the SLA. It isn’t inconceivable that Hearst had been brainwashed, yet with no evidence of mental illness, there was little chance of the heiress escaping jail time. President Jimmy Carter commuted her prison term in 1979, so she served just 22 months.

On January 20, 2001, President Bill Clinton gave Hearst a full pardon, and by 2002, the FBI had arrested every member of the SLA. Psychologists attribute Hearst’s change in behavior to a phenomenon called Stockholm Syndrome, whereby a hostage starts to feel compassion towards their captors.

6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History
Aldo Moro. Primo Piano Molise

4 – Aldo Moro (1978)

The most tragic entry on the list might be Aldo Moro, former Italian Prime Minister and leader of the Christian Democracy Party, was kidnapped in bloody fashion. On March 16, 1978, a group of terrorists called the Red Brigades attacked Moro’s car and killed both of the politician’s bodyguards and the three policemen in the car behind him. The group demanded the release of 13 leftist prisoners in exchange for Moro.

Even to this day, the exact location of Moro’s ‘prison’ is in dispute. Officially, the Red Brigades held him in an apartment in Via Camillo Montalcini in Rome. However, Moro’s brother, Carlo Alfredo, believes the politician was held in a seaside location. During his captivity, Moro was allowed to write a series of letters (86 in total) to various individuals, including his family and Pope Paul VI.

Moro was held captive for 55 days, and during this period, the Red Brigades issued a total of nine communications which outlined their reasons for kidnapping the hostage. Initially, they wanted the release of various terrorists, but ultimately, they announced that Moro would be released in exchange for only one terrorist.

Eventually, the Red Brigades grew tired of waiting, and on May 9, 1978, they held a ‘process of the people’ where Moro was clearly ‘found guilty’ and executed by a man named Mario Moretti. On the morning of the execution, the kidnappers woke Moro up at 6 a.m. and said they were moving him to another location. One of the Red Brigades members apparently told Moro that he was ‘pardoned,’ but instead; they placed him in a wicker basket and brought the politician to the parking lot of their base. Next, Moro was placed in the trunk of the Renault, covered with a red sheet and shot by Moretti.

The terrorists dumped Moro’s body in the trunk of a red Renault, and it was found in the historic center of Rome. There were traces of sand in the socks and pockets (the reason why Moro’s brother believed he was held near the beach) and traces of vegetables. Up to 10 terrorists were involved in the kidnapping, and eight were arrested. Alvaro Lojacono and Alessio Casimirri managed to flee to Switzerland and Nicaragua, respectively.

6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History
Elizabeth Smart. Her Campus

5 – Elizabeth Smart (2002)

Smart suffered a harrowing nine-month ordeal after her kidnap on June 5, 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The case attracted widespread media attention as America was shocked that a 14-year-old girl could be snatched from her bedroom where she was supposed to be safe. Just after midnight on the fateful night, Brian Mitchell snuck into Smart’s bedroom, held a knife to her throat and told her not to make a sound. He marched her out of the house and into a camp in the forest where his wife, Wanda Barzee, awaited.

Mitchell believed he was a prophet called Immanuel and he performed a bizarre marriage ceremony before telling Smart that she was now his wife. Mitchell and Barzee held Smart captive for nine months, moving between Utah and California. Mitchell raped his unfortunate victim on a daily basis. Also, he forced her to consume alcohol and marijuana while starving her for several days at a time. During the ordeal, Mitchell routinely tried to convince his victim that he was, in fact, a prophet.

Smart’s traumatized sister, Mary Katherine, shared a bedroom with Elizabeth and was fortunate not to be taken on the night of the kidnapping. She pretended to be asleep and tried to identify the assailant. For months, she struggled to remember until one day, she recalled a laborer who worked at the house called Immanuel and came to the conclusion that he was the kidnapper, as he resembled the attacker on the harrowing night.

Eventually, the police identified the man as Brian Mitchell and featured his picture on an episode of America’s Most Wanted in February 2003. On March 12, 2003, someone spotted Mitchell walking with a young girl in a veil and sunglasses and alerted the authorities. Police swooped in and arrested Mitchell and Barzee, and Smart returned home to her family that same day.

Due to questions about Mitchell’s mental state, the case against him and his wife dragged on for years. Finally, Barzee was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The court dismissed Mitchell’s insanity defense, and on May 25, 2011, he was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences.

One would expect Smart’s life to be ruined by such a horrible experience (like Steven Stayner), but remarkably, she has managed to lead a fulfilling life to date. Just weeks after her return, Smart hiked with her family to the camp where she was held hostage for nine months. She enrolled at Brigham Young University to study music performance in 2008 and in 2013, she released ‘My Story,’ a memoir outlining the horrors she faced while in the clutches of Mitchell.

6 Most Horrifying Kidnapping Cases in History
Berry, DeJesus, and Knight. ABC News

6 – Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus (2002-2004)

Knight, Berry, and DeJesus were all kidnapped by Ariel Castro in Cleveland, Ohio from August 2002 to April 2004. All three accepted rides from Castro and in each case, he drove the girls to his home, lured them inside, and restrained them in his basement.

Castro kidnapped 21-year-old Knight on August 23, 2002. 16-year-old Berry was his next victim on April 21, 2003, while 14-year-old DeJesus was his final capture on April 2, 2004. Police later acknowledged that they didn’t use enough of their resources to search for Knight. On the day of her abduction, Knight was due to appear in court regarding a child custody case revolving around her son, who was at that time in the custody of the state of Ohio. Police assumed that Knight ran away due to anger over losing her son.

In Berry’s case, police treated her as a runaway until a week after the kidnapping, when a man called her mother and said that he had her daughter. Both Berry and DeJesus were featured on an episode of America’s Most Wanted in 2004, and the episode aired again in 2005 and 2006. Castro subjected all three women to horrific treatment during their captivity. According to Knight, Castro impregnated her five times but the beatings she sustained resulted in miscarriages in all but one occasion where Knight managed to resuscitate the baby.

As well as sexually abusing his victims, Castro only fed them once a day and routinely beat them. Despite the manhunt, the police did not view Castro as a viable suspect. Although they did visit his house on one occasion, it was for an unrelated incident. The nightmare ended on May 6, 2013, when Castro left the house and Knight was able to make contact with neighbors. When the kidnapper left, he forgot to lock the large inside door, although the exterior storm door remained locked.

During their ordeal, Castro used to ‘test’ the captives by leaving doors and exits partially unlocked, and if the women tried to escape, he beat them. As a result on that day, Knight did not try to escape, but she did scream for help when she spotted the neighbors outside. They called the police, who searched the house and found the other two women. The police arrested Castro on that day and in court, he pled guilty to 937 of the whopping 977 charges against him. On August 1, 2013, he was sentenced to life in prison plus 1,000 years. Castro’s property was confiscated, and he was also fined $100,000.

Castro’s house was demolished on August 7, 2013. As for Ariel Castro, he was unable to face life in prison and committed suicide on September 3, 2013, just one month into his sentence.