The horrific tale of the only couple on death row at the Missouri State Penitentiary.
On the morning of September 28, 1953, a woman approached a Kansas City school. She informed the staff she was there to pick up her nephew, 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease, because his mother had a medical emergency and was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital. The teacher pulled Bobby from class, and he took the woman’s hand — following her to the cab waiting outside. Little did anyone know, this would be the start of Missouri’s death row love story.
Soon after, a check-in to the Greenlease house revealed the story was false, and the Kansas City police and FBI were quickly brought on the case. At 6 p.m., Robert and Virginia Greenlease received a special delivery letter. Bobby’s kidnappers demanded a ransom to be delivered. Once the money was collected, the family was instructed to place a classified ad in the newspaper. Bobby’s safe return was promised once ransom was met. His parents received a second letter the next evening containing Bobby’s school medal. Over the course of eight days, the family would receive a half dozen notes and 15 phone calls.
During one call, Mrs. Greenlease asked the kidnappers to ask Bobby two questions, including what activity he was doing his last night at home. The next night, the man who identified himself as “M.,” said Bobby was uncooperative and refused to answer. This conversation began to confirm their worst fears. Desperate for their son’s return, the Greenleases held off law enforcement, opting to pay the ransom. Robert, a successful auto dealer, reached out to several friends and associates, including Commerce Trust Company Executive Arthur Eisenhower. Eighty clerks were tasked with assembly and instructed to track serial numbers on each bill. Numbers were soon published in newspapers nationwide. At $600,000, it was the largest ransom in U.S. history at the time.
Meanwhile, Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady prepared to flee St. Joseph for St. Louis. With their demands met, the couple feared local police would trace them to their nearby location. Carl left Bonnie sleeping while he unsuccessfully attempted to bury the ransom in two metal suitcases. An FBI investigation would later establish that while these suitcases were in Carl’s possession upon his arrest, they never arrived at the precinct.
That evening, a call from a cab driver to his employer detailed Carl displaying an exorbitant amount of cash. This led to Carl’s arrest, and it was revealed that Bobby had been killed soon after his kidnapping. However, he attributed Bobby’s death to a man named Tom Marsh. It quickly came to light that Marsh was completely fabricated.
Upon her own arrest, Bonnie said she was shopping and noticed a large bundle under a blanket in Carl’s car but was told not to worry about it. Carl backed up the tale, however, Bonnie’s fingerprints were discovered on the first ransom note. Staying true to a death row love story, she then confessed to preparing the letters and obtaining custody of Bobby. After confessing, Carl sank into sullen silence while Bonnie requested a pencil to fill out a crossword puzzle. As a maximum security prisoner, her request was denied, but she was able to read a comic book.
The son of an attorney in Pleasanton, Kansas, Carl had a checkered past. Always in trouble, Carl talked about how he would make big money without working. He would eventually inherit a large sum of money and his father’s farm. However, it didn’t take long for the money to be squandered, and the farm was immediately sold. At the age of 11, he was sent to Kemper Military School. It was here that Carl met Paul Robert Greenlease, Bobby’s adopted older brother, and Carl began his scheme to exploit the wealthy family. Carl first entered the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1952 for robbery, but he was paroled in April 1953 after serving 14 months of his five-year sentence. He soon met Bonnie Brown Heady, the daughter of a prosperous farmer known for her wild parties and lifestyle. It was a whirlwind romance. They met in July 1953, just a few months before fulfilling Carl’s scheme. After Bobby’s kidnapping, Bonnie would write a letter from death row stating, “My case was loving not wisely, but too well. I wanted so much for him to be happy…”
On November 19, 1953, Bonnie and Carl entered guilty pleas in federal court. After an hour of deliberations, a jury sentenced them both to the death penalty. The judge quickly set an execution date, stating this case was “the most cold-blooded, brutal murder” he’d ever tried.
A month later, the couple was executed side-by-side in the gas chamber of the Missouri State Penitentiary just after midnight on December 18, 1953, sealing their fate of a tragic death row love story.. A priest led them in the Lord’s Prayer, and their final words were spoken as gas made its way into the chamber.