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The $1 million kidnap



The white 35ft yacht could have been one of dozens cruising into Mobile Bay, Alabama, on a spring morning in 2006, but FBI agents standing on the quayside knew differently. Acting on a tip-off they jumped aboard as soon as the yacht came alongside, flourished a warrant and started a bow-to-stern search. The result: 40lb of cocaine hidden in a locker — and four would-be illegal immigrants who had each paid $6,000 for the trip from Colombia. The balding 60-year-old who had chartered the yacht was unwilling to admit to any wrong-doing and even more reluctant to disclose his name.

Which was hardly surprising: 40 years earlier Gary Krist had masterminded the $1 million kidnapping of the daughter of one of America's richest men — and very nearly got away with it. The story of the crime that shocked a nation began in December 1968 when Mrs Jane Mackle and her 20-year-old daughter Barbara Jane were staying in the Rodeway Inn Motel in Atlanta, Georgia, while Barbara Jane recovered from a bout of flu. She was a student at nearby Emory University but had left temporarily out of consideration for her roommates and her mother was nursing her back to health before they flew back to the family home in Florida for the holidays.

The doorbell rang. Assuming it was room service, Mrs Mackle opened the door. The next moment a thick-set young man in a black leather jacket burst in brandishing a sawn-off shotgun. He was followed by a woman wearing a ski-mask. Mrs Mackle was quickly bound hand and foot and gagged with adhesive tape. Barbara Jane, still in a flannel nightgown, was dragged from the room.

After a few minutes Mrs Mackle managed to reach the door and raise the alarm. Not surprisingly, senior detectives and FBI agents were quickly on the scene: the missing girl's father was Robert F. Mackle, one of America's richest men and a close friend of President Richard Nixon. But the girl and her abductors had vanished. Two days later after Mrs Mackle had returned to the family home in Coral Gables, Florida came the first phone call. A male voice gave instructions that under a tree in the grounds of the Mackle mansion was a note giving detailed instructions which must be followed if Barbara Jane was to be returned unharmed.

The three-page note demanded a $1 million ransom which must be packed in a suitcase of specified length and depth. The family should then put an advertisement in the Miami Herald saying they were awaiting further instructions.

Under FBI supervision this was done. Two days later Robert Mackle took a phone call with further instructions but this time he told no one. Instead, he took the suitcase containing $1 million and drove to an uninhabited island in Biscayne Bay and as instructed, lowered it over a sea-wall at low tide. Then he returned home to await word of his daughter's release. Then followed an unseen sequence of events which wrecked everyone's plans. A local police sheriff patrolling the area saw two people behaving suspiciously near a parked car.

One was carrying a suitcase and one what looked like a rifle. As he approached they ran away and the man with the gun opened fire. The sheriff returned the shots and the pair disappeared into undergrowth leaving the bag behind. It contained $1 million. Confessing to the FBI what he had done, Robert Mackle asked agents to put out a statement assuring the kidnappers that he had nothing to do with the unfortunate events and that he still wanted to cooperate for his daughter's safe return.

Meanwhile an old Volvo estate car was found near where the money had been left and its registration plates traced to a man named George Deacon working as a technician at a Miami marine institute and living with his wife and two children in a caravan park in the city. Further checking showed that Deacon was in fact an alias used by 23-year-old Gary Steven Krist, a convict who had escaped in November 1966. During the break-out, Krist's companion had been shot and killed.  

Evidence found in the Volvo also identified Krist's companion — 26-year-old Ruth Eismann-Schier an academic with a master's degree in three subjects and fluent in four languages. Inquiries at the caravan park revealed that Deacon had a wife and two small children. He was an unfriendly secretive man who spent long periods away. The FBI now had warrants for the arrest of Krist and his associate but were hoping that the kidnappers would once again contact the Mackle family.

And two weeks later they did— through local priest Father John Malcahy. Once again instruction were given to leave the money in a remote spot, this time north of the city and this was done by a family friend, shadowed by FBI undercover agents. Once there was an agonising wait. When no word came of Barbara Jane's release, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover ordered the arrest of the two suspects. He warned that Krist was armed and very dangerous and was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

But only hours later came an anonymous call that transformed the whole case and sent agents hurrying to a spot some 20 miles north east of Miami near the remote Lake Berkeley. It was here, said the mystery informant, that Barbara Jane would be found.
Over 50 detectives unsuccessfully scoured the area until one, cautiously searching a clump of pine and sweetgum, heard a thumping noise almost under his feet. Glancing down he saw two pipes sticking out from the earth. When he bent down and called through the pipe there was renewed thumping. There was someone down there ... someone alive. Moments later officers were frantically digging at the earth with their bare hands. About 18 inches down they discovered a wooden coffin-like box. The pipes, which later proved to be a skin-diver's snorkel, protruded from the top.

Wrenching off the top of the box, the agents saw an astounding sight. Stretched out in the box and still wearing her flannel nightdress, Barbara Jane Mackle stared up incredulously at the agents, blinking against the winter light which filtered into what could so easily have been her grave. Barbara Jane, who slowly recovered from her horrifying ordeal of being buried alive, later told a court that "she had been entombed for 83 hours in the dark and without food or water. She said that her major concern was about her family and how much they had worried.

"She said she spent the time underground recalling the words of every song she had ever known. I really thought I would die and now every day of my life will be a bonus," she said. Meanwhile, what had happened to the kidnappers and the ransom money? The answer came when a boat firm in Florida's West Palm Beach reported that a man fitting Krist's description, but calling himself Arthur Horowitz, had bought a speedboat and paid for it with cash out of a paper bag. The cash was later found to be part of the ransom money. The hunt for Krist neared its end three hours later when the speedboat was spotted leaving the Gulf Coast. As a patrolboat closed in, Krist ran his boat aground and jumped out lugging a briefcase. He was captured at gunpoint in a nearby mangrove swamp.

Ruth Eismann-Schier was found in Oklahoma and extradited to Georgia where she stood trial with Krist and was jailed for seven years. Krist, who had $18,000 of the ransom money with him when arrested was sentenced to life imprisonment for abduction. He was spared the death penalty after it was proved that he had made the mystery phonecall which led to Barbara Jane's discovery.

In fact Krist proved such a model prisoner that he was released after only ten years, was granted a full pardon, trained as a doctor and set up a practice in Indiana. But apparently old criminal habits died hard and now the man who claimed he had left his past behind for good, is back in jail.

He is serving five years for cocaine and alien smuggling. And now the police want to quiz him about at least two murders he is thought to have committed while on the run from the law.

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