Notorious Orono crime focus of a new book

In a matter of hours Virginia Piper went from happily tinkering in her Orono garden to being blindfolded and chained to a tree in a northern Minnesota forest.

In "Stolen from the Garden" William Swanson tells the story of the Virginia Piper kidnapping. (Submitted  photo)
In “Stolen from the Garden” William Swanson tells the story of the Virginia Piper kidnapping. (Submitted photo)

The July 1972 kidnapping of Virginia Piper was reported in newspapers across the nation. Virginia, or Ginny as her friends and family called her, was an attractive, 49-year-old woman who was taken out of her own home by masked gunmen. Her husband Harry Cushing Piper, Jr., known as Bobby, was the chairman and chief executive officer of Piper, Jaffray and Hopwood Inc. who acted quickly to pay the unprecedented ransom of $1 million for his wife’s safe return. Finally, after a search taken on by more than 100 FBI agents, Virginia was found dirty, exhausted and hungry, but alive in the forest.

The story remained big news for years because it included elements that were heroic, conflicting and terrible. Charges came in the case right before the statute of limitations expired, which led to two high-profile trials, but ultimately nobody was punished for the crime.

Author William Swanson has studied tens of thousands of pages of documents related to the kidnapping, read news accounts from the time and interviewed people familiar with the case. The result is his book “Stolen from the Garden,” which was published last month. “Stolen from the Garden” provides a look at the case from the point of view of the people who were active participants in it, including the Pipers, FBI agents, prosecutors, suspects and defense lawyers. It follows the strange twists and turns that the case took and reflects on how Virginia and Bobby each tried to come to terms with the crime for the rest of their lives. It also touches on what the top suspects in the kidnapping thought about the case against them.

In 1972, Swanson was a reporter for United Press International in Minneapolis. While he didn’t personally cover the Piper kidnapping, he did process some information related to the case for the news agency and the story has stuck in his mind.

“A lot of stories have stayed with me. This one, though, was the kidnapping of a wealthy woman at a time and in a place where that type of crime was virtually unheard of,” Swanson said.

The $1 million ransom also made the crime memorable. That amount of money for a single ransom was unprecedented in the FBI’s annals, Swanson said.

“It was very rare for crime to be committed for that amount of money,” he said.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why the Piper kidnapping is still remembered by so many people is the FBI’s two main suspects were eventually acquitted and nobody else was ever charged in the case.

“The case, in my mind, is still unresolved,” Swanson said.

Virginia Piper died in 1988 and Bobby died a couple of years later, well before Swanson began working on the book. Their three sons, Harry Cushing Piper, III, Addison (known as Tad) Piper and David Piper, all helped Swanson with the book.

Harry had wanted to write a book about his mother’s kidnapping and he spent a significant amount of time gathering documents and conducting interviews for the project. He even sued to get access to FBI documents relating to the case. Eventually, Harry decided against writing a book. In December of 2011, Swanson first talked to Harry about his mother’s kidnapping. In 2012, Swanson decided to write a book about Virginia’s kidnapping with Harry’s blessing.

William Swanson
William Swanson

Harry gave all of his research on the case to Swanson, which included 80,000 pages of documents about the FBI investigation that Harry obtained through his lawsuit. Those documents, though, were heavily redacted. Swanson met with Ron Meshbesher, who had defended one of the suspects in the case and got Meshbesher’s uncensored documents. Swanson also conducted his own extensive research into the case.

The three Piper brothers cooperated with Swanson with no strings attached. Swanson said that the only understanding among the Pipers and him was that Swanson would donate all of the documents and research that Harry had collected to the Minnesota Historical Society. The brothers were not given drafts of the book or any rights to change its contents.

“I said I would have to write it on my own terms,” Swanson said.

The Pipers agreed and allowed Swanson to do his work.

“They’ve been extremely helpful and generous with their time,” Swanson said of the brothers.  “They told me things they had not told anyone else. They didn’t have to do that.”

Harry, Tad and David have read the finished product and Swanson thinks they are pleased with it.

“I think they saw I really honored their parents,” Swanson said. “They were very courageous people. The case is so bizarre and so strange and so nightmarish, and they handled themselves exceptionally well.”

Swanson’s admiration for the Pipers extends beyond how they dealt with the kidnapping.

“I was very impressed with the family,” he said. “These were very generous people. They worked hard and took their responsibilities in the community seriously.”

The case that was built around the FBI’s top suspects for both of trials in the kidnapping didn’t necessarily impress Swanson.

“It was a weak case,” he said. “If I was on either one of the juries, I would have had a hard time convicting them.”

That’s not to say that Swanson didn’t appreciate the work that the FBI put into the case.

“I was impressed by them,” he said. “It’s hard to fault the FBI because of all of the effort they put into the case. They really wanted to solve it.”

A lot of people have done their best to find out who actually kidnapped Virginia Piper. The answer, though, seems destined to remain a mystery.

“It’s an intriguing story,” Swanson said.

One of the issues that most nags him is the contradictions that surround the kidnappers.

“This crime was so intricately plotted and choreographed and it was so ambitious, yet they made such dumb mistakes in the execution,” Swanson said.

Among the mistakes made by the kidnappers was driving the same car that they had initially taken Virginia away in back down to the metro to pick up the ransom. It was a car that was sought after by police officers throughout the state. The kidnappers also kept Virginia chained to a tree in the forest of a state park in July, during the height of the hiking and camping season in the area.

“I would give anything to ask them about it and to find out what they were thinking,” Swanson said.

Swanson will be doing a book reading and signing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11 in the History Lounge at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. Information about the book is available on the Minnesota Historical Society Press website at www.mnhspress.org.

Contact Amanda Schwarze at [email protected]