'Too much evidence to acquit,' so why did 2 men walk away after the kidnapping of Virginia Piper?
With just 16 days before the statute of limitations ran out on the kidnapping of a wealthy Orono, Minn., woman in 1972, the FBI indicted two men in the crime. But the case was far from over. In fact, the roller coaster ride was just beginning. Here is Part 3 of "The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper — 50 years later."
MINNEAPOLIS — You could only imagine the pressure FBI agents were under that summer of 1977. By July 27, if they didn’t find the men who kidnapped Virginia “Ginny” Piper from her garden five years earlier, they’d have to close the book on the case.
Ginny, who was a member of the wealthy Piper family behind the investment firm Piper, Jaffray and Hopwood, had moved on with her life after the three-day ordeal in the summer of ‘72 when she was chained to a tree in woods, eating soggy sandwiches in the rain under the watchful eye of her captor.
Read more about the kidnapping here in Part 1.
But nearly five years later, no one had been arrested for the crime, and the statute of limitations was running out.
On July 11, with just over two weeks to spare, agents took the plunge, indicting the men they thought were responsible: Donald Larson and Kenneth Callahan, a couple of petty Twin Cities-area criminals they had named as “prime suspects” the year before. Another man they had named as a prime suspect, Timothy Grey, was not indicted, although the FBI did not rule out that he could have been involved.
According to the book “Stolen from the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper” by William Swanson, Callahan, who was a cabinet maker, was picked up at his cabin in Cumberland, Wis. Larson found out about the indictment while in his cell at the state prison in Stillwater, Minn., where he was serving a life sentence for the 1976 murders of his estranged wife Ruth Larson, their son, Mark, his wife’s lover, James Falch Sr., and his son James Falch Jr. Larson was found not guilty in the death of Ruth’s son, Scott Powell, for reasons of temporary insanity.
The murders, which happened at Larson’s property in Willow River, Minn, were said to have been the result of Larson’s jealous rage over his wife leaving him for his best friend.
Read more about the Willow River murders here in Part 2.
The evidence and conviction
Even after five years of interviewing more than 1,000 possible suspects for the Piper kidnapping, the FBI knew the case against Larson and Callahan wouldn’t be a slam dunk. The evidence was hardly overwhelming. It included a partial fingerprint found on a ripped grocery bag in the kidnapper’s car which matched Larson’s left pinkie finger and a 6-inch strand of reddish hair that prosecutors said microscopically resembled Callahan’s hair.
Callahan also looked a little bit like an artist’s sketch of a man who had been seen passing ransom bills in 1974. Virginia Piper testified that his voice was "similar" to the man who stayed back in the woods with her for two days.
The case could have gone either way, but after 30 hours of deliberation, the federal jury convicted both men in the kidnapping. In a Nov. 5, 1977, story from the Star Tribune, jurors said they were initially leaning toward acquittal.
“I think we were voting with our hearts and not with the evidence,” said juror Gail Frisbie of Rochester. But in the end, she said, “there was just too much evidence to acquit.”
The attorneys for Callahan and Larson, Bruce Hartigan and Ronald Meshbesher, appealed the conviction.
The appeal and acquittal
According to Swanson, the second trial was even more complicated than the first, with 154 witnesses taking the stand. The defense pointed out that Callahan and Larson had been taken off the suspect list and were only put back on it when the statute of limitations was running out and the bureau was desperate for a conviction of any kind.
And the fingerprint? The defense pointed out how convenient it was that the first three times the fingerprint was tested, it did not match Larson. But suddenly, "like magic" the fourth time, it became a match. Hartigan called it “the fingerprint that lied.”
Additionally, the attorneys pointed out that Piper described one of the kidnappers as having an unusual eye condition where an opaque band surrounds the pupil. After looking into their eyes, Virginia Piper admitted neither Callahan nor Larson’s eyes looked like that.
The defense pointed out that while Piper thought Callahan’s voice sounded similar to the man who guarded her in the woods, she was unable to identify Callahan in a lineup. The defense also addressed the most important issue of whether the FBI even had jurisdiction in the case, since it wasn’t clear whether the kidnappers crossed state lines from Minnesota to Wisconsin and back to Minnesota where they chained Piper to a tree at Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth.
All of that evidence, or lack thereof, added up. After just four hours, the second jury came back with a verdict of “not guilty,” simply saying the government failed to prove its case. The case was closed.
Larson went back to serve the rest of his life sentence in Stillwater, Callahan tried to resume his life in Wisconsin, and the Piper family tried to recover from the tragic events of that weekend in late July 1972 and learn to be content with not getting the answers they so desperately wanted.
Possible answers to the most-asked questions
As we observe the 50th anniversary of the Piper kidnapping, in many ways we know less about the case than we did a half century ago. In his book, “Stolen from The Garden,” Swanson explained it like this: “Making definitive sense of this case is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle using pieces from half a dozen different kits.”
Many of the people in the case are long gone, leaving any new theories to be raised by those with secondhand knowledge of what happened. Or perhaps descendants of those responsible will come forward with credible evidence.
Whether more answers ever come, the kidnapping of Virginia Piper was the top story of the year in 1972 and to this day remains one of Minnesota's biggest true crime mysteries. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions.
Did Callahan and Larson kidnap Virginia Piper?
Even the Piper family itself was split on this one. Both Virginia and Bobby Piper went to their graves convinced Callahan and Larson were involved. Their middle son, Tad, agreed with his parents, stating in Swanson’s book that “Mom was a very intelligent woman. If she believed those guys did it, they probably did.”
However, oldest son Harry Piper III believes the two are innocent and for a while was even looking into writing a book about the case, going so far as to interview Callahan, the man once thought to be the person who chained his mother to a tree in the woods.
Youngest son David, according to Swanson, goes back and forth on whether the two men were guilty or innocent.
Swanson, who has become as much an expert on this case as anyone, for his part, thinks Callahan and Larson were not involved in the kidnapping. He says the state’s evidence was circumstantial, including the fingerprint that, after three failed attempts to match Larson, suddenly matched on a fourth try. He called it a “Hail Mary” before the statute of limitations ran out. He also said the case featured unreliable witnesses and lacked common sense and logic.
“Callahan and Larson were career small-timers, lacking the ambition and imagination to conceive and execute a million-dollar job,” he said.
But retired Pine County Deputy Jerry Olson, in 1976 a 20-something deputy who dealt with Larson when he murdered five people, has another take.
“I might agree that he (Larson) might not be the mastermind, but he's certainly a capable participant. And he wasn't that stupid. He played dumb, but he was pretty shrewd,” Olson said.
Some have theorized that Swanson and Larson were simply the grunts tasked with carrying out the plan that a more sophisticated, intelligent criminal mastermind designed. In the past 50 or so years, while Callahan and Larson certainly didn’t live like kings on any $1 million ransom, they also seemed to come up with money when needed.
Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson said Larson bought the Willow River property, built an expensive garage and paid his wife $4,000 for their pending divorce shortly after the kidnapping.
“Despite being on food stamps and being unemployed, suddenly he’s got the money to build this,” Frederickson said. “So they always wonder where did he get money for that?”
But Swanson said Larson’s personality also makes it unlikely he was involved.
“Don Larson was an inveterate blabbermouth. They called him 'The Mouth.' That was his nickname,” Swanson said. “He would have been the most popular inmate in the system, because he pulled off the largest ransom kidnapping ever, and was not convicted for it. So do you think he would have kept his mouth shut?”
Were the Willow River murders related to the kidnapping?
On the surface, the murders in Willow River seem to be a clear case of a jilted husband violently losing control in a jealous rage. After all, Larson arrived at his former house to find his estranged wife and her lover packing up his truck to move her out. But some, including police and the FBI, have theorized that the jealous rage could have just been an excuse — the easy story — and the murders could have been a way to cover up Larson’s earlier crime.
Sgt. Jerry Olson, who was the first deputy to arrive at the murder scene on April 24, 1976, didn’t even know the FBI suspected Larson in the Piper kidnapping, but that changed when he was asked to stay overnight at the crime scene.
“So the next morning, probably about 6:30 or 7 o'clock, I noticed there was a car down at the end of the driveway with two well-dressed gentlemen standing outside,” Olson said.
When he asked if he could help them, they told him they were with the FBI.
“He was telling me that he had come up to talk to Mrs. Larson on the previous Thursday, and asked if he could interview her. And she said, ‘Well I'm leaving Don, so if you can wait till next week, I'd be glad to talk to you,'" Olson said.
Ruth had been Larson’s alibi the weekend of the Piper kidnapping. Could she have been ready to come clean and change her story, once she was away from Larson?
Maybe, maybe not, said Olson, but he thinks it’s possible. The following day, Larson came to pick up Mark to take him to Minneapolis, and Olson said perhaps Mark told his father that the FBI had come to see Mom. Could the “jealous rage” story have been an excuse and Larson, instead, killed his wife to shut her up before she could change her story?
Olson said too many things just don’t add up.
“I've always wondered why he would take two guns, an extra box of shells and 10 gallons of gas when he claimed that he went up there just to protect himself in case it got violent between him and his wife's new boyfriend. Yeah, a lot of things like that,” Olson said.
"I might agree that he (Larson) might not be the mastermind but he's certainly a capable participant. And he wasn't that stupid. He played dumb, but he was pretty shrewd."
- Retired Sgt. Jerry Olson, the first deputy on the scene of the Willow River murders on whether Larson was involved in the kidnapping of Virginia Piper.
But Swanson doesn’t think that theory makes a lot of sense.
“Even a dope like Don Larson is going to understand that five life sentences is a lot more to deal with than 20 years for a kidnapping,” Swanson said. “I mean, why would you do that? And his 5-year-old son apparently was the apple of his eye. I mean, it's just such a sad, ugly chapter. We just don’t know.”
Where is the ransom money?
It’s literally the million-dollar question. Make that the $996,000 question, as $4,000 of the ransom money was eventually recovered after being circulated by someone in southern Minnesota. Should would-be treasure hunters go to Willow River? If Larson was guilty, did he bury the money somewhere on his property?
Olson doesn’t think that’s likely.
“Well, the FBI went through with backhoes and basically tore the place apart looking for it and they didn't find anything,” Olson said. “Anything's possible, but I think it's pretty rare and not very likely to be on that property or buried somewhere else here.”
Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson said he’s been told by Larson’s family members that he wasn’t the kind of guy who would have buried something, but he probably would have put it in the rafters.
"Making definitive sense of this case is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle using pieces from half a dozen different kits."
-William Swanson, author of "Stolen from the Garden - The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper.
“I had someone come up to me and she said that her theory is that when the house was torn down, that's when whoever owned the property at the time got the money out of the house, and that's why it was torn down,” he said.
Other theories suggest that whoever kidnapped and collected the ransom money spent it or laundered it through legitimate businesses years ago.
Swanson’s book details more theories regarding the ransom money and possible other suspects. “Stolen from the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper” is available from Amazon, The Minnesota Historical Society Press, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores. Swanson also writes fiction under the pen name W.A. Winter. His website is wawinterbooks.com .
In Part 4: a visit with David Piper, Virginia's youngest son. He'll recap what that July day in 1972 was like and what happened to his family in the years that followed.