For Benny Baucom, founder and president of Bebco Industries, an electronics company in La Marque, Texas, that hum signaled the beginning of an agonizing wait. Benny had been called to the phone in his office on September 22, 1982, a Wednesday. The voice that came faintly over the wire belonged to his 21-year-old son, Michael, and Baucom recognized that it was on tape. He could make out only a phrase or two and then the chilling final sentence: “These people mean business.”
Baucom fought back panic as he realized that his son had been kidnapped. He walked into the outer office and asked Sherry, his daughter and secretary, if she knew who had asked for him on the phone. It had been a man. Baucom then called in several company officials and told them Michael had been abducted. They should maintain an appearance of business as usual, he said, and they should tell no one.
On the way home to tell Mike’s mother, Benny’s mind kept racing around in a vortex, at the center of which was a man, Ronald Floyd White, a former Bebco salesman, who had quit his job that spring. Personally, he had seemed to Benny to be a sort of conman, a gun nut who liked to refer to himself as a “mercenary.”
Suddenly it all fell into place. Benny had been wondering about the $75,000 ransom demand. Why that amount? Why not three times that much? He remembered that a few months earlier he had sold some property for $80,000. White knew about this sale, and must have reasoned that his former employer had that much money readily available. Now Benny had no doubt that Ron White was the man who had kidnapped his son.
At 9:30 the previous evening, Mike Baucom was watching television at his bachelor’s home in the residential community of Santa Fe, seven miles from his father’s plant. When he heard three raps on the door, he went to open it—and found himself looking down the barrel of a .357 Magnum. The man with the pistol had long hair and was about his own age. Behind him was a man with jet-black hair holding a shotgun. They forced Mike into the kitchen, bound his hands, blindfolded and gagged him with duct tape. Then they walked him out to his own truck, pushed him into the cab and backed out the driveway.
They drove through Houston and then north for half an hour to a secluded, heavily wooded area in an abandoned oil field. There the abductors made Mike repeat two separate messages into a tape recorder. The first: “Dad, I’m in trouble. These people are tough. If you don’t give them $75,000…”
The second message contained instructions: “Drive to the San Jacinto monument east of Houston. Take the Lynchburg ferry across the ship channel. Follow the road to Junior’s Minute Man, the grocery store at Interstate 10, and wait at the parking lot phone booths for a call.”
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When the taping was done, the two men walked Mike across a field to a hole in the ground. At the bottom of the hole was a flimsy plywood box, 8 feet long, 24 inches wide and 14 inches high. “We’re giving you half a loaf of bread and a plastic bottle full of water,” one said. “Be cool. If everything goes right, we’ll be back in a couple of days to get you out.”
They forced him to a lying position in the box, placed a lid on top, jammed in four lengths of 3/4-inch plastic pipe for breathing tubes, and started shoveling in dirt to fill the hole. To cover their handiwork, they scattered some worn-out tires over the burial site. Then they drove away.
After conveying the bad news to his wife, Glendell, Benny Baucom called Chief Bryan Lamb of the Santa Fe police. Lamb arrived in ten minutes and thoroughly questioned Benny, who mentioned his suspicions about White. Lamb told him to return to the factory and wait. Back at the police station, Lamb notified the FBI.
On the way to the factory, Benny swung by Mike’s house and saw that the yard was empty. He concluded that the kidnappers had taken him off in his own truck. Giving way to fury, he checked in at Bebco; then he drove to a sporting-goods store and bought two boxes of ammunition for the deer rifle he had placed in his car trunk before leaving home. He loaded the rifle and headed for Ron White’s trailer in Houston. “If Mike’s truck had been there,” he said later, “I’d have killed everybody in the place.”
But the truck was not there, so Benny settled down to wait. No one came. Finally, around 5 p.m., he drove to a nearby store and called his factory. He was put through to an FBI agent who was very firm. Benny was to stay exactly where he was. Agents would be leaving immediately to escort him home.
In conjunction with local police, the Bureau had taken over. There were to be agents at the Baucom home around the clock, and at the factory a small army of lawmen had set up a command post.
In his isolated tomb 80 miles to the north, Mike had found a way to turn over onto his stomach. From this position he discovered a gap between the end of the box and the sides. The more he worked on the end board, the looser it became. He was on his stomach, propped on his elbows, when the end board came free, letting the lid of the box with its burden of earth sag onto his head. He had time just to grab a scrap of lumber left in the box and jam it between the lid and the floor to avoid being crushed. Now he was pinned to the floor, face down.
At 4:30 the next morning, Thursday, the phone rang in the Baucom home. Once again Benny found himself listening to Mike’s voice—the same tape he had heard before. He broke in on it this time. “Tell me how you want the money!” he shouted. At the end of the transmission, a man’s voice came on. “You’ve got two days to get the money.” Then there was a click, followed by the deadline hum. The conversation had lasted 25 seconds, not long enough for the FBI men to trace it. And they still had no delivery instructions.
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Benny went to the factory that day and tried to work. As usual, there were constant calls from salesmen and engineers. Not one was the call he was waiting for. In the afternoon he picked up the ransom money with the lawmen. They made up a package of $5,000 in $10 bills wrapped around a wad of fake bills, with an electronic tracking beeper at the core.
Finally, on Friday evening, the call came to the Baucom house. A man’s voice told Benny to go back to the factory and wait for instructions.
Preparations were fast and thorough, for the factory was a perfect place for an ambush. The two agents who would act as Benny’s bodyguards fitted him with a bulletproof vest and put a tape recorder in his side jacket pocket and a radio transmitter in his shirt pocket. If Benny should get out of voice range, he was to talk into the transmitter.
When they drove up to the factory, the agents moved inside quickly, turning on lights, securing the building. Then they called to Benny to come in.
At 10:30 p.m. the phone rang. Benny picked it up and heard Mike’s voice on tape: “Drive to the San Jacinto monument east of Houston…”
At the end of the instructions Benny blurted, “Hey, I want to talk to my son! I’ve got your damn money. Where is Mike?” He was talking to a dead line.
Thus began the longest night in Benny Baucom’s life. With the agents crouched on the floor of the car’s back seat, covered by a sleeping bag, he drove to the monument and boarded the ferry. A two-way radio kept the agents in touch with other Bureau personnel in the area—in cars, spotter planes, even a powerboat trailing the ferry.
They drove to the market where Benny was to receive the kidnappers’ call. Its parking lot had four phone booths near the curb. With the money satchel in his hand, Benny stepped out of the car. One of the phones began ringing. “Is this Benny?” a voice said. “Get on I-10 and drive west to the Exxon station at the Uvalde Street exit. Wait by the two phone booths for further instructions.”
At Uvalde Street, Benny pulled into the gas station and parked beside the phone booths. After two hours, one of the phones finally rang. It was a woman’s voice this time: “Drive back to the minute market, park under the lights and open all the doors of your car—all the doors, front and back, and the trunk. Then wait for further instructions.”
Benny would now have to go it on his own. Shortly after 2 p.m., en route to the market, he let out the two agents. At the market Benny switched off his engine and opened all the car doors and trunk—and waited. Finally, at 5 p.m., he saw movement in the shadows at the edge of the parking area. A man, an FBI agent, came up to him and said, “It’s off. They phoned your house a few minutes ago and said it’s been called off for tonight.”
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On Saturday night, two men visited the burial site. When they played a flashlight beam down one of the breathing tubes, they heard Mike’s voice, very weak: “I’m out of water. I need more water.” But the two men walked away.
Despite the massive FBI effort, hope was beginning to fade. Then, as sometimes happens in such cases, a break occurred totally unconnected to the FBI operation. At 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, the sheriff’s office in Montgomery County, 40 miles north of Houston, received a call from a local resident reporting a suspicious vehicle parked at a darkened Jiffy Stop convenience store. Deputies Jim Hall and John Orr responded. As they drove up, they saw a man with black hair beside a beat-up car filling plastic bottles from a faucet. The man told Hall he was replenishing the water supply for a camp back in the woods. Orr had been shining his flashlight around the interior of the car. Suddenly he shouted, “Look out, Jim, there’s a pistol on the front seat!”
After frisking the man, they searched his car. They found a shotgun on the back seat and in the trunk a semi-automatic machine pistol, a bag of ammunition, a tape recorder, wire and rope, and a briefcase containing a passport for Ronald Floyd White. The name meant nothing to the deputies; indeed, they had no knowledge of the Baucom case. The suspect in hand said he was Timothy Connelly. His story: he had been picked up by two men who offered to pay him if he’d get some water for their camp. He didn’t know where the camp was—they had told him they would come back to get him. While he was talking the deputies spotted a slip of paper between the car seats. It contained a series of driving instructions with orders to wait for telephone calls. One line read, “You’ll see Mike alive again if…”
Hall and Orr called their dispatcher and asked for a statewide check on White. The reply came back fast: he was wanted down south—as a suspect in an ongoing kidnapping! While Hall and Orr were booking Connelly, they heard over the radio that colleagues had spotted a campfire in the woods. They raced to the scene, arriving just as two new suspects were being taken into custody: a bearded, long-haired man named Mark Oler, and a young woman, Debbie Williams. There was no sign of Ron White.
In the course of questioning by Jim Hall, Oler admitted that White had been at the camp that evening. Hall still did not know the name of the kidnap victim—all he had was “Mike” in the ransom note—and he was grilling the suspect largely on bluff. “Look, Oler,” he said, “we know you’ve got Mike, and it looks like White has walked off and left you holding the bag. So far as we’re concerned, you’re the kidnapper, and if anything happens to the victim you’ll face a murder rap.”
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The bluff worked. Oler led the police to the middle of an abandoned oil field. Stepping out into the pre-dawn cold, Hall shouted, “Mike?” He heard a voice, muffled and faint. He shouted again, and again the barely audible voice replied. The police began digging frantically, using their bare hands. They found a hole and Hall reached down into it as far as he could. He felt a hand seize him by the wrist in a steely grip that would not let go.
At 7:30 that morning Benny Baucom heard the front door open. “We have Mike,” Chief Lamb told him. He had a police car waiting and drove Benny and Glendell to Montgomery County Court House, where they were briefed on their son’s incarceration. Mike had lost 23 pounds but, apart from a rash of insect bites and dehydration, seemed to be in good shape. Minutes later, freshly showered and wearing police coveralls, Mike himself walked in.
After a brief but joyous family reunion, Mike told law officers and then a crowd of reporters of his five-day ordeal. Speaking in a steady voice, he recalled his panic when the wooden lid of his box began to sag. Later it occurred to him that if it should rain he would probably drown. Days and nights ran together. Ants were biting his hands and eyelids, and he had hallucinations about being chewed down to a skeleton. Finally, he heard someone calling his name, and there was earth falling and a hand in a hole above his head. He seized it and pulled.
Minutes later, seated in his rescuers’ squad car, Mike was asked what he wanted. A cold soda, he replied. And to share his joy. Before the startled officers knew what he was about, he had picked up the car’s radio transmitter. “This is Mike Baucom speaking,” he said. “I want to thank everybody! You got me out of the hole. I’m free! I’m alive!”
Three days later, Ronald Floyd White was captured after a high speed chase near Rio Hondo, Texas. White, Connelly, Oler and Williams were all later convicted of aggravated kidnapping.
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A: A mechanic.
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