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Virginia Piper kidnapping gets a new look in 'Stolen From the Garden'

When journalists write books, it’s only natural that so many of them look to the criminal underworld for inspiration. John Sandford, Julie Kramer, Larry Millett and numerous other Minnesota crime and mystery writers first contemplated the misadventures of the criminal mind during their careers in the newsroom, where truth is proven stranger than fiction every day.

William Swanson

Instead of inventing stories, William Swanson prefers to revisit real-life crimes from Minnesota’s colorful past, particularly from the 1960s and '70s. “Those were kind of my salad days, when I was coming of age as a young reporter,” says Swanson, whose books “Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson” and “Black White Blue” center on two of Minnesota’s most notorious crimes of that era. His new book, “Stolen From the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper” (Borealis Books), explores the largest kidnap-for-ransom crime in FBI history.

“That crime was a little bit like the first Kennedy assassination in that a lot of people remember where they were when they first heard the news,” he said. “It was a shocking crime, audacious and brilliant.”

And it remains essentially unsolved. The people who did it? They got away with it.

In July of 1972, Swanson was a young reporter with United Press International when the story broke: Virginia Piper — the wife of Harry “Bobby” Piper, the chairman and CEO of the investment firm Piper, Jaffray and Hopwood, Inc. — had been kidnapped while gardening outside her Orono home.

A ransom note was left in the house with detailed instructions: The victim would be released in exchange for $1 million. There would only be one chance, and if a single move was not made according to the kidnapper’s specifications, the victim would not be released. The money had to be delivered the very next evening by someone closely connected to Piper, Jaffray and Hopwood. Bobby Piper volunteered to be the messenger and save his wife. Officers working on the case advised the Piper sons that they might never see either of their parents alive again.

“I’ve always been interested in crime and police work. These stories are portals into worlds I’m not a part of, filled with fascinating characters. Those small-time criminals, just guys who stole stuff — or hoods, as we used to call them — are really quite intriguing,” says Swanson. “Sometimes sympathetic, sometimes frightening. If they got caught and went to prison, they’d get into a whole separate world of criminal society. They’d make friends with other criminals, and then go to court and call their friends liars — I just find all that so fascinating, and this story is filled with those kind of guys,” says Swanson.

The victims were just as interesting. “I grew up in blue collar South Minneapolis, so the Wayzata country club world was pretty exotic to me. You might as well have been talking about the Kennedy compound,” says Swanson. “And in terms of this crime, you’re talking about extremely large amounts of money, which adds to the boldness of the crime.”

Bobby was private, reserved and powerful. Ginny Piper is as dignified and self-possessed a lady as ever wore a pillowcase over her head, and Swanson describes her as a spunky and rather unusual heroine who does her best to charm her kidnappers, plots a difficult and determined escape, and gracefully weathers a social landscape changed by this event.

“I’m also interested in the aftermath of crime. What happens to the victims later, or their survivors? How does this event reshape the rest of their lives? That’s an under-covered aspect of crime reporting, and something I really enjoy exploring in book-length reporting,” he says.

Swanson’s research took him into the archives at the Minnesota History Center; the offices of attorney Ron Meshbesher, who was a defense counsel in the criminal trials of the accused kidnappers (who were first convicted and later acquitted); and into the Piper family. Harry Piper, the eldest Piper son, planned to write a book about the kidnapping himself, and conducted extensive interviews with numerous people associated with the case, but his father was against it. By the time Swanson began researching the case, Harry had decided his book wasn’t going to happen, and turned over numerous boxes of research and interviews, including ones with people who are no longer living — a tremendous gift to a writer working decades after the fact.

“The family was extremely generous with their time. Tad [another Piper son] didn’t want the book at all, but he said, ‘I know you are going to do it anyway, so I'm going to help you do it right.’ I wish all sources were like that,” said Swanson. ‘They looked at my previous books and felt I would treat the story with respect. I do not write sensational crime stories. I write accurate, comprehensive, and true stories, given the sources at my disposal.”

So who did it? Despite the acquittals, the crime was considered solved by law enforcement. But theories remain. The Piper sons disagree on who they think did it, and Swanson concludes his story with an investigation of his own, ruling out a number of suspects, and speculating on a possible few others — getting into the mind of the criminal type, as he’s done many times before, as a writer. A million dollars is still out there, maybe hidden in Minnesota or Wisconsin, maybe circulating across the country, or probably long since laundered, spent, and shredded. It was the perfect crime — for 1972. In 2014, they likely wouldn’t have gotten away with it.

“Today everything is different," Swanson said. "There would have been technologies to solve this crime, using forensic evidence. Hair from the car would have been tested, fingerprints compared to databases, DNA would have been lifted, and there would have been very little question of who did it. But that evidence was all destroyed, and most of the people involved are now dead, so unless someone comes forward with something new, we’ll probably never know.”

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Comments (2)

Vivid Memories

I was a bit too young to remember the actual kidnapping. But when I was about 12, I was a newspaper carrier for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and the Dispatch. The Dispatch was the afternoon paper, and as I walked my route, I read details of the trial. It was captivating.

Virginia Piper was left bound to a tree in Jay Cooke State Park. The trial centered on whether or not the accused kidnappers venture into Wisconsin, which would have made it a federal case. The state statute of limitations had passed, but not so for federal kidnapping charges. The road(s) in that area weave in and out of the two states. My older sister thought the kidnappers themselves didn't even know if they went into Wisconsin. The trial was the first time I became familiar with the name "Meshbesher" and an attorney.

Around 2007, I stayed in Jay Cooke State Park. I asked about the kidnapping at the ranger station. There was a ranger that worked there during the time of the kidnapping, but unfortunately he was on vacation the week I stayed. The ranger I spoke with did indicate on the park map the general part of the park Piper was in. it was very remote.

While the trial was in progress, my sister was reading "All The President's Men." In the book, a government official mentions being distracted because the wife of his friend, Harry Piper, was just kidnapped. A foot note said the she had just been found alive. We enjoyed the irony.

My Dad Marveled that the crime was accomplished without Virginia Piper ever seeing the perpetrators.

Around that time, there always seemed to be a sensational trial
going on or upcoming in Minnesota. The Piper kidnapping, the Elizabeth Congdon murder, the trial of Ming Sen Shue. I'm looking forward to this book.

I remember this story

I had to be about 10 years old and my mother worked as a bartender at a bar called The Sportsmans Retreat in North Minneapolis. The kidnappers, as I heard the story had left the key to release Mrs Piper in the mens bathroom of that bar. So the FBI questioned my Mother and figuring that shes Native American would start talking after given a couple of drinks. My Mom didnt drink. The Ironic part of this story is that I was just sitting in with a genetic specialist from the Virginia Piper Institute, as I was just diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, and the memories came back to me. I had told my son this story as a part of his questions of my life growing up in low income North Minneapolis. I remember my Mother telling me the story distinctly. At least the kidnappers kept their word and did not harm her. I never knew how they had as defendants, I might have to look deeper or even read her book. I would much rather read a book that would have the proceeds donated to her institute. They are going to let me know if I will lose one breast or both due to genetics and if my daughters have to beware. I want to say Thank you to the Piper family for establishing a foundation what a wonderful way to memorialize your Mother.