MINNEAPOLIS — In the summer of 1972, police arrested burglars in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., Elton John had his first No. 1 album in the U.S. and “The Godfather” was tearing it up at the box office.
And in Minnesota, one of the most baffling and mysterious crimes in the state’s history was about to unfold — a whodunnit to the nth degree, with twists and turns, convictions, appeals and reversals, a crime which is even oddly connected to one of the most brutal mass killings in the state — set at a farm far from the big city lights of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
"It was a big deal," said William Swanson, who was a young reporter for United Press International in the Twin Cities in 1972. "It was the topic of conversation. It was international news. Needless to say all the Twin Cities papers were on it all the time and the television stations and so forth. But I've seen the headlines from around the world: 'Tycoon's Wife Kidnapped,' 'Million Dollar Ransom,' 'Socialite Held,' 'Socialite's Fate a Mystery,' stuff like that. But all over the place, this was a big deal."
In this special three-part report, Forum Communications examines the case of kidnapped socialite Virginia ”Ginny” Piper of Orono, Minn. Many questions still remain unanswered about what happened to her that summer day in 1972:
- Who is responsible for the crime?
- How many people were involved?
- Whatever happened to the $1 million ransom money?
- Why is the killing of five innocent people on a farm in Willow River, Minn., often mentioned in the same breath?
Who was Virginia Piper?
“She looks – well, like a million bucks,” is how Swanson, that young reporter for UPI in 1972 and now author of “Stolen from The Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper,” starts his book about the crime.
“Virginia Piper was a beautiful 49-year-old mother of three sons,” Swanson said. “She didn't have a job. She didn't have a profession, even though she was college-educated. But she was very prominent with the Twin Cities' charitable organizations.”
Newspapers of the time would call her a “socialite” and her husband a “tycoon.”
She was married to Harry Piper Jr., better known as Bobby, who was the CEO of prominent brokerage firm Piper, Jaffray and Hopwood (now Piper Sandler). Wealthy, respected and prominent, you might find them at the same cocktail parties with the likes of the Dayton or Pillsbury families.
Despite being part of the Twin Cities upper crust, Swanson said Ginny was pretty down to earth.
“She was very, very popular. She was beautiful. She was funny. Despite the money, everybody considered her very easy to know and unpretentious,” Swanson said.
July 27, 1972
Ginny’s popularity and ability to relate to people would play out in her favor on the warm afternoon of July 27, when her world was turned upside down.
This is how she described what happened in a news conference after she was rescued. The video is courtesy KSTP Television and the Minnesota Historical Society.
Virginia "Ginny" Piper talks about the day she was kidnapped:
Thursday afternoon about five minutes of one, I was out picking some dead pansies off one of my plants. and I had two cleaning ladies there that day because they always come on Thursday, and one of them came running out the terrace and said, "Oh, those men," and I couldn't imagine what she was talking about, so of course I went inside and here are these two gunman masked.
Both each one of them had two guns in their hands, and they said, "Go get the cleaning woman, the one who ran away," he said "get her back" and they tied them up, handcuffed me and asked me where the safe was and I said we didn't have one. "Where's the jewelry?" And I said, "you may have three of my pieces that are upstairs, that's all I had." And they said, "Where's your old man?" And I said, "He is not here. He's at the office," and they said "Okay Mrs Piper, you're coming with us."
Ginny went on to explain that they put a gun to her back and led her to their car where they put a pillowcase over her head and made her lay down in the back seat. They took off and started driving. She didn’t know where they were going.
The ransom note
Swanson says before they left the house, they did one other thing: They left an envelope addressed to “Family” on a desk by the front door.
“That, of course, is this extraordinary ransom note,” Swanson said. “It was the single largest kidnapping for ransom in FBI annals. There were other large ones, but none in the United States as large as this $1 million.”
Swanson said Bobby was the one to discover the cleaning ladies tied up and the note laying on the table.
“Bobby is a no-nonsense guy. When he read that note, he had no doubt in his mind that these guys meant business. This was not a prank. These were not some buffoons who were just playing around. These people were serious and dangerous, and he wasn’t going to mess around with them,” Swanson said.
The FBI was called in immediately.
“I think they felt that Ginny Piper was probably dead, she was a goner. That's usually the way these things work, which isn't necessarily true. But it's often the way they work.”
Chained to a tree
But Ginny was still alive. After driving for a couple of hours, they took her out of the car, and taped her eyes shut. It was raining as they began to walk her through the woods, through some deep grass.
She said at that point, they laid some kind of tarp down. Ginny didn't know it, but they had taken her to Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth.
And they told me to sit down. So I did. Fortunately I had on a pair of slacks, and a blazer. Otherwise I would have been very cold. And we just sort of sat there for two days. I sat up straight and one of the kidnappers was in my attendance all of that time. He only chained me up to the tree, when he left to go. If he heard a funny noise or something in the woods. I was handcuffed the entire time. The most miserable part about it was that it was so terribly cold and wet and damp and he was even shivering as much as I was. But then Friday night, he told me that my husband was delivering the ransom.
The ransom note was very specific. The kidnappers asked for used $20 bills without markings to be bound in four separate packages and put inside a canvas bag. Bobby followed an intricate set of instructions about the drop-off of the money and returned without incident. The kidnappers appeared to have the money, but Bobby had no clue about who they are.
But while Ginny waited for the ransom to be delivered, she sat and waited. She was told not to look at her captor. Only one man stayed behind to guard her. The other man had left, presumably to deal with the other specifics of the kidnapping, including picking up the ransom money.
Swanson said Ginny was thinking the only way she could survive her ordeal was not to necessarily make friends with the man, but at least engage him — keep him talking about anything.
“She goes to cocktail parties all the time. That's what these socialites did in the evenings,” Swanson said. “She was really good at it. She was a charming woman. I don't know if you could say she charmed this guy. But he treated her decently.”
In fact, Swanson said Ginny would later bring up how differently the kidnapping could have turned out if their intended target was home.
“She said, more than once, it was a good thing they kidnapped her instead of Bobby, because Bobby did not have those social skills. And Bobby would have probably defied these guys and been killed. I mean, Ginny believed that,” Swanson said.
With the ransom exchange underway, more than 24 hours into her ordeal, the kidnapper promised Ginny he would set her free Saturday morning if all of the money was in order.
They left me Friday night chained to the tree and didn't come back. So I figured that nobody would ever find me again. And then fortunately at 1 o'clock I thought it was about 5 but it was 1 o'clock Saturday afternoon. In the distance I heard a door slam. And I thought it was a car. So I yelled "HELP!" And it was the FBI. And five of them came running through the underbrush and I've never been so glad to see people as I was to see them.
Searching for suspects
While authorities were no doubt thrilled at the return of Virginia Piper to her loving family, which included three sons, Harry III, Tad and David, the pressure was now on to find those responsible and recover the ransom money. But it wasn’t going well.
“This was a bad time for the FBI. It had been a very embarrassing time for a lot of reasons and they had a lot of stuff going on,” Swanson said.
The D.B. Cooper hijacking had just happened a few months earlier. Agents were dealing with the Black Panthers, widespread campus unrest and antiwar protests. On top of that, longtime FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had just died.
“I mean, it just couldn't have been worse,” Swanson said. “And they were desperate and here’s this big high-profile case, and they can't come up with anything.”
Swanson said they interviewed at least 1,000 people, among them a couple of petty Twin Cities area criminals named Donald Larson and James Callahan. But they were eventually cleared by the fall of 1972.
But that wasn’t the end for Larson, who was about to commit a crime far worse than the kidnapping — a mass murder of five people, including his own son. That crime led him right back to the watchful eye of the detectives on the Piper case. Did the murders have anything to do with the kidnapping? Was Donald Larson trying to shut someone up?
Find out next week, Thursday, Oct. 14, on "The 'Perfect' Kidnapping of Virginia Piper."