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More than forty years later, the Virginia Piper kidnapping remains shrouded in mystery

To this day, no one has served a day of prison time for the crime.

Virginia Piper in 1975.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

On July 27, 1972, two armed, masked men walked into the Orono home of Virginia Lewis Piper and walked out with the forty-nine-year-old woman handcuffed and blindfolded. The next day, her husband, Harry C. Piper Jr., a prominent Twin Cities investment banker, personally delivered a $1 million ransom to the unidentified kidnappers. Four decades later, no one has served a day of prison time for the crime. Except for about four thousand dollars in scattered twenty-dollar bills, the Pipers’ million-dollar ransom has not been recovered.

The Piper kidnapping drew media attention from coast to coast, not only because of the amount of money involved, but because of the status of the well-to-do victims. Harry Piper Jr., known by his childhood nickname, Bobby, was a pillar of the Twin Cities business community and a respected figure on Wall Street. Virginia Piper, whom everyone called Ginny, was active in social, philanthropic, and civic affairs. The parents of three grown sons, the Pipers lived in unpretentious comfort near Lake Minnetonka.

The intruders probably intended to abduct Bobby Piper, whom they mistakenly believed had come home early that Thursday afternoon. Instead, they handcuffed Ginny, forced her into the back seat of their car, and, with her eyes covered, drove away.

Before departing, the kidnappers left a detailed, typed ransom note addressed to “Family.” It demanded $1 million in unmarked twenty-dollar bills, to be delivered according to precise and non-negotiable instructions the next evening. The FBI immediately took charge of the case. Despite the Bureau’s objections, Bobby Piper, alone and without law-enforcement surveillance, delivered a duffel bag stuffed with fifty thousand twenties on Friday night.

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Carefully following the kidnappers’ instructions, Bobby drove with the money on a circuitous route into Minneapolis. There, a note directed him to a dark parking lot behind a seedy bar in the shadow of downtown. While inside the bar, trying to make a phone call per the kidnappers’ orders, the ransom was almost certainly removed from the car he had left in the lot and spirited away. Bobby returned to his home after midnight not knowing who had made off with the money or, more crucially, the whereabouts and fate of his wife.

The next day — it was now Saturday morning — an unidentified male called a local clergyman and told him where Ginny Piper could be found. Three hours later, following the caller’s directions, the FBI recovered her from a heavily wooded area in Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth. She was wet from the rain, hungry, exhausted, and traumatized — but physically unharmed. She was immediately flown back to the Twin Cities, where she was reunited with ecstatic family members and friends.

The FBI then began what would turn out to be one of the most extensive manhunts in its history. It involved hundreds of agents around the country, who took a close look at more than a thousand persons of interest and spent tens of millions of dollars in the process. But it wasn’t until sixteen days before the expiration of the federal five-year statute of limitations for kidnapping that two middle-aged Twin Cities men — minor career criminals named Kenneth Callahan and Donald Larson — were arrested and charged with the crime.

In the fall of 1977, Callahan and Larson were tried in a federal courtroom in St. Paul. They were prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thorwald Anderson and defended by high-profile Twin Cities lawyers Ronald Meshbesher and Bruce Hartigan. After nearly a month of testimony and four days of deliberation, a jury found the two men guilty. That verdict, however, was overturned on appeal. In a second trial two years after the first, the defendants were found not guilty.

The FBI insisted that the second jury was mistaken and claimed that Callahan and Larson had indeed kidnapped Virginia Piper. Though most of the ransom money had not been found, the Bureau declared the case closed.

In fact, serious doubts remained. Many persons familiar with the case believe the job was too sophisticated for the likes of Callahan and Larson. They maintain that at least three persons were involved, and that, despite several amateurish mistakes, the perpetrators pulled off what’s been called “the nation’s most successful kidnapping.”

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.