Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease

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9780312376796: Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease

In 1953, six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, the son of a wealthy Kansas City automobile dealer and his wife, was kidnapped from his Roman Catholic elementary school by a woman named Bonnie Heady, a well-scrubbed prostitute who was posing as one of his distant aunts.  Her accomplice, Carl Austin Hall, a former playboy who had run through his inheritance and was just out of the Missouri State Penitentiary, was waiting in the getaway car with a gun, a length of rope and a plastic tarp.  The two grifters thought they had a plan that would put them on the road to Easy Street; but, actually, they were on a fast-track to the gas chamber.  Shortly after they snatched the little boy, the two demanded a ransom of $600,000.00 from the Greenlease family and it was paid; but, Bobby was already dead, shot in the head by Hall and buried in a flower garden behind the couple’s house, exactly where his body was found by police shortly thereafter.  The Greenlease ransom was the highest ransom ever paid in the US to that date and the case held the US transfixed in the same way the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby had done decades earlier.  In a bone-chilling account of kidnapping, murder and the dogged pursuit of a child’s killers, John Heidenry crafts a haunting narrative that involves mob boss Joe Costello, a cast of unsavory grifters, hardboiled detectives and a room at the legendary, but now razed, Coral Court Motel on Route 66. Heady and Hall were apprehended quickly, convicted and executed in a rare double execution in the State of Missouri’s gas chamber on a cold December night not long before Christmas.  By that time, little Bobby Greenlease was stone cold in his grave and a fickle America had turned back to its Post-War boom. However, one question has never been solved: as Hall was being pursued around Kansas City and St. Louis, half of the ransom was lost and never recovered.  Did it end up with the mob via Joe Costello?  To this day, no one knows and dead mob bosses tell no tales.  In a book that brings to mind films like “Chinatown” and “Double Indemnity”, John Heidenry has written a compelling work that blends true crime and American history to take a close look at one of the United States’ most notorious murders.

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About the Author:

John Heidenry is a contributing editor to The Week, the founding editor of St. Louis Magazine, and has written several books including "The Gashouse Gang." He lives in Hoboken, NJ.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1. Kansas City Noir

A granite obelisk stands in the cemetery of Trading Post, the oldest continuously occupied settlement in Kansas, about seventy-five miles south of Kansas City near the Missouri border. The historical marker commemorates the slaughter of innocent civilians in the so-called Marais des Cygnes Massacre, one of the bloodiest incidents in the Kansas-Missouri border struggles in the years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War. On the morning of May 19, 1858, Georgia native Charles Hamelton led a band of pro-slavery Missourians to Trading Post, captured eleven Free State settlers, and marched them to a nearby ravine. Hamelton fired the first shot, and then ordered his men to execute the rest. Five men were killed, and five others were wounded and left for dead, though they survived. The eleventh man, Austin Hall, escaped injury by feigning death.

Word of the massacre horrified the North. Abolitionist John Brown arrived at the site a few weeks later, and built a rudimentary log "fort," where he and several of his followers remained throughout that summer, lusting for a return engagement and revenge. John Greenleaf Whittier, the abolitionist poet and Quaker, immortalized the dead in his poem "Le Marais du Cygne," published in the September 1858 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote:

A taint in the sweet air

For wild bees to shun!

A stain that shall never

Bleach out in the sun!

Austin Hall later became one of Trading Post’s most prosperous citizens. His son John grew up to become an attorney and a community leader in nearby Pleasanton, a town named after Union general Alfred Pleasanton, whose population of 1,300 made it the biggest in Linn County. Known for its hunting and fishing, the county lies midway between Kansas wheat country and the Missouri corn belt. John Hall married a judge’s daughter, Zella Cannon. They lived in a spacious, multistoried house on 311 West 10th Street. John Hall was regarded as an exceptional lawyer, but also as an uncompromising man of stern principles. He once successfully defended a client accused of murder, but his fee was the man’s entire six-hundred-acre farm. The Halls’ first child, a boy, sustained a brain injury during his birth and at age three was placed in a mental institution. He died two years later. The second son, born July 1, 1919, in Kansas City, Missouri, and baptized Carl Austin, grew up to be the wealthy couple’s spoiled only child.

Carl’s grades in elementary school were average, and he never attracted special attention. In 1932, just before Carl’s thirteenth birthday, his father died suddenly of a brain tumor. That summer, Zella arranged for her increasingly unruly son to stay for a time with Pansy McDowall, a childless elderly widow who lived on a fifteen-hundred-acre ranch and had a reputation for helping raise children who had lost one or both parents. One night, McDowall found Carl sobbing in his bed and took him in her arms. He told her that he missed his father, and also his mother and maternal grandmother, whom he called "Tomama," for "two momma."

McDowall later characterized Zella Hall as "the most cold-blooded and hardest-hearted mother I have ever known." Carl, she remembered, though always courteous, was "quite a problem."

In subsequent years, Zella ignored and doted on Carl by turns, but mostly busied herself in the town’s social life—women’s clubs and civic activities. She was also active in her local Presbyterian church. One summer, in a bid to keep her son occupied, she persuaded the manager of the local telephone company to hire Carl as a telephone lineman at her own expense. The company had no need of extra help, but Zella wanted him off the streets from Monday through Saturday, and reimbursed the company’s payroll department.

Most of his classmates went on to the local public high school. Carl wanted to go there as well, but Zella sent him to the Kemper Military School one hundred miles away in Boonville, Missouri. By now, the troubled teenager was frequently getting into mischief, going with friends to Fort Scott and other nearby towns to pick up girls and get drunk. Hall boasted frequently of his exploits with women and occasionally wound up in jail for disturbing the peace. But Zella had her own convenience to consider. Having a rebellious adolescent son to look after interfered with her social life.

Boonville, built on a limestone crest overlooking the Missouri River, marked the point where the Ozark upland trailed into the western plains. Named for Daniel Boone, who spent his last years and died in the state, the town prospered in the early nineteenth century when immigrants heading west disembarked on river ferries there, and then turned west in their prairie schooners for the overland journey. German immigrant Frederick T. Kemper had founded the Kemper Military School—initially known as the Boonville Boarding School—in 1844 with just five students. By the end of the academic year, enrollment had grown to fifty.

In 1899, the school officially changed its name to the Kemper Military School, and began advertising itself as the "West Point of the West." Students, both male and female, even wore West Point–style gray uniforms. Humorist Will Rogers, its most prominent alumnus, attended the school in the 1890s. By the time Hall enrolled as a freshman in September 1933, the student body numbered about 450, with dress parade held every Sunday afternoon if weather permitted. Despite the severe financial hardships brought on by the Great Depression, the school still managed to build a new stadium and football field during this period.

Hall remained at Kemper for three years. One of his classmates, though they were not close friends, was Paul Robert Greenlease, the adopted son of a wealthy Cadillac dealer in Kansas City. At first Hall’s academic record was good. Comments in his file, for his first year, included: "On honor roll one month. Member of rifle team. Member of company basketball team." In his second year: "Dependable, conscientious, promising cadet. Very likeable boy [but] slow developing. Good mind, willing to work, but temperamental. Honest and dependable. Fine youngster, dependable, capable and ambitious. A kid with [a] capacity for affection. Member of company basketball team."

In his third academic year, 1935–1936, Cadet Hall took a turn for the worse. File notes from instructors included: "None too straightforward. Has ability but must be observed constantly. A worthless streak at times . . . Tries to bluff; authority must be shown over him." He was also hospitalized during this period for an unspecified illness, and a note in his file observed that Hall "had attempted to have liquor brought into him."

It also so happened that, in 1935, the nation was in the grip of the sensational trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was ultimately convicted of kidnapping and killing the twenty-month-old son of Charles Lindbergh. Hauptmann was executed in April 1936. Like millions of other Americans, Hall almost certainly was familiar with the case—the most sensational crime ever committed in the United States. The nation’s newspapers and the still relatively new medium of radio covered it around the clock. Just seventeen years later, Hall was to take his place in the annals of crime as the principal figure in a kidnapping case second only to the Lindbergh as the nation’s most notorious.

Hall left the school in 1936 and returned to Pleasanton, where he attended a local high school in his senior year and was elected vice president of his class. In the fall of 1937 he enrolled at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, a coeducational institution run by the Missouri Baptist General Association and named after the wealthy physician who had donated the land and initial endowment. Three months later, he dropped out. A family friend was later to recall that he got an underage girl in Fort Scott pregnant, and that criminal prosecution was avoided only after Zella Hall paid the family $2,000 to keep quiet. At his mother’s insistence, the obviously troubled young man signed up with the U.S. Marine Corps, enlisting in January 1938 for a four-year tour of duty.

Hall’s letters home were a chronicle of both a failing relationship between parent and child that was never to be repaired, and of his own free fall into increasingly reckless and irresponsible behavior. Early on, writing from San Diego on March 11, 1938, he played the good son, telling his mother:

I am positive that everything is going to be the way that they should be between a mother and her son. I now realize just how childish and demanding I have been, and I am truly sorry for the way I have acted. . . . I have definitely made up my mind, mother, that I want to study towards a law career. . . . All my love and kisses to you and Tomama.

By July 1941, life in the Marines had proved insupportable, and Hall wrote:

O, thank God! I am drawing nearer every day to getting out. I am going to put every dime I can get on an apartment as soon as I get up, so that I can get away from the barracks at night and sleep in a good bed where there is a little piece [sic] and quiet.

Often broke, he telephoned Samuel Tucker, his mother’s friend at the Pleasanton telephone company, asking him to intercede with Zella and urge her to wire him funds. Mrs. Hall, who was in failing health, silently listened in on some of those calls, and afterward directed Tucker either to send her son the money, or to ignore him.

Hall served four years in the Marines as a telephone equipment lineman before being honorably discharged as a private first class, earning an "excellent" rating from his commanding officer. He then reenlisted, and served another four years. Given his antipathy for barracks life and his eagerness to return to civilian status, the only plausible explanation for his reenlistment was that his mother—whose considerable estate he stood to inherit—insisted on it.

Almost immediately, though, Hall found himself in trouble with the authorities, usually for being drunk. In a letter postmarked August 23, 1942, he did not hesitate to grovel:

I want to wish you a very wonderful & happy birthday. I would have sent a telegram but was flat broke. Most of my punishment was in form of a heavy fine. I am so plowed under with financial obligations, I hardly know where to turn. . . . I heard directly that I was going to be shipped to New River, N.C. and be there about a week—enough to draw gas masks, etc.—then aboard a transport ship and to one of the Islands to fight the Japs. . . .

Mother, if you will I will appreciate no end if you could send something. I know I shouldn’t but you’re my only turn to, and also I’ll see if you have forgotten me. Please send me a wire either telling me you’ll help me or not—because on the strength of that, I may be able to borrow enough money to tide me over till I get your air mail letter.

A letter postmarked September 14 and sent on the stationery of the Hotel Van Rensselaer in New York thanked his mother for ignoring his request:

I am glad you didn’t send me the money I asked for—I would probably be in more trouble than I now am in if you had. I am so sorry I have caused you so much grief and trouble, dear, but I guess I just wasn’t man enough to let liquor alone. If you disown me, I can’t blame you. I am not fit to use the family name. God knows what punishment I’ll get but I rate everything I get—only sorry I could not learn from previous lessons, but I guess I am a little crazy.

This time, instead of having to pay a fine for being drunk and AWOL, Hall was court-martialed and sentenced to serve time in the U.S. military stockade in Quantico, Virginia. During his incarceration, Zella Hall redrew her will, disinheriting Carl and naming his grandmother Tomama as her principal beneficiary. Writing from prison, in an undated letter, Hall sarcastically told his mother:

I never thought that anyone or anything could change your mind to such an extent that you would disown your only son. I know that you went to the city and had your will changed where I wouldn’t get anything—or if I do get any little pittance I will be too old to put it to an education or any business. Life is so short anyway and everything is so uncertain nowdays that I can hardly understand.

Yes, I know I have been a criminal and everything horrible. My, but I must be terrible, much worse than I thought, to warrant this. However there are two sides to every question, and of course I don’t guess you can understand what this outfit can do to one. . . . Wonder what father would say. . . .

Goodbye. I will always love you though you have disowned me. I know that you were influenced. If you don’t write I’ll understand.

Never forget—no matter what you can do, I’ll someday be a credit to my father. He only left one son, but it’s not too late for said son to do something, even though his mother didn’t think so.

After serving his sentence at Quantico, Hall was sent to the Pacific with the 7th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, and saw almost continuous action for twenty months in New Britain and the Solomon Islands. During this period, he earned several decorations, including two Bronze Stars. In September 1944, he took part in the assault landings against enemy positions on Peleliu Island, and later on Okinawa. Zella Hall died while her son was fighting in Okinawa, bequeathing $200,000 in stocks, bonds, and real estate (roughly the equivalent of slightly more than $3 million in today’s money) to her mother. The estate included the Halls’ family home and 1170 acres of prime Missouri and Kansas farmland.

Although Hall was again promoted, this time to corporal, in April 1945, he was also disciplined six times, mostly for drinking binges, and he was AWOL on four occasions. In January 1946, he was discharged "under honorable conditions," which was less than an honorable discharge. He had made sergeant but was demoted back to corporal for being absent without leave. By now the stockily built Hall, who stood five feet ten inches, had become a chain-smoking alcoholic who drank a fifth of whiskey every day. He also became addicted to Benzedrine, an amphetamine that some pharmacists sold under the counter. Known colloquially as "bennies," amphetamines produced a feeling of exhilaration and temporarily banished fatigue, although aftereffects included heightened fatigue, insomnia, and possibly even suicidal tendencies. Dieters and long-haul truckers used amphetamines to curb their appetite or stay awake for long hours. When asked how he obtained bennies, Hall once explained that his technique was to hand a druggist a $20 bill and say, "This is my prescription."

Now a civilian and unencumbered by a disapproving mother, Hall was also, suddenly, a wealthy man. His grandmother died, leaving him the bulk of the estate Zella Hall never wanted him to have. Returning to Pleasanton, he quickly converted his real estate and stock holdings into cash, telling Marshall K. Hoag, a lawyer who handled his affairs, "Sentiment doesn’t mean a damn thing to me." He also complained, "People got their noses up at me. They’re jealous because I got money. I’ll show ’em how money and brains can really get goin’." He was twenty-six at the time.

He also paid a visit to Samuel Tucker. Hall’s father had owned $10,000 in preferred stock in the telephone company. Hall informed the older man that he wanted to sell it. Two days later, he returned to the office, picked up the check without looking at the amount, an...

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