By Shane Borrowman, PhD
Above, nine-year-old George Weyerhaeuser stands alone while being photographed by press in Spokane, Washington after he was freed safely on May 30, 1935. He had been kidnapped one week earlier. Still photo from a Universal newsreel video clip.
When my children were very young, I would carry them through my house, reading aloud the headlines from my framed newspapers: “Allies Advance Several Miles in Gigantic Invasion of French Coast,” from the Auburn, New York, Citizen-Advertiser, June 6, 1944; “Attempt to Assassinate Roosevelt,” from the York, Pennsylvania, Gazette and Daily, February 16, 1933; “President is Hopeful Germany Will Yield,” from the Boston Post, April 21, 1916. I read these, and dozens of others, again and again, putting my finger beneath each word as I went along. I always skipped the Moline Daily Dispatch from May 13, 1932: “Lindbergh Baby Murdered.” A picture of the child appears above the fold, posed beside a birthday cake with a single candle upon it. The caption above the picture reads, “World Horrified Over Death of Child.” The kids didn’t need to hear such a tragedy.
Three years after the Lindbergh kidnapping, a more local kidnapping occurred and garnered national attention. It was a kidnapping that avoided a tragic end and, in fact, contained more than a few comedies of error. The crime was planned in Spokane and executed in Tacoma, and it ended in places as far flung as Butte, Montana, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The kidnapping was especially engaging for newspaper readers in the northwest, for it involved the heir of Washington lumber royalty.
The Weyerhaeuser family, as described by Timothy Egan in Breaking Blue, “had millions of acres of private timberland in the Northwest and enough money to fill bathtubs with twenty dollar bills.” Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834-1914) immigrated to America in 1852 and worked through the eastern and southern states. In 1900, he founded Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, specifically to purchase huge tracts of land that had been granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad (although he had begun purchasing Washington land during the American Civil War). Additionally, the company acquired tracts that were, at the time, inaccessible, including 900,000 acres sold to Frederick and his investors for as little as $6.00 per acre.
John, one of Frederick’s seven children, succeeded to the WTC presidency upon his father’s retirement. During World War I and World War II, WTC, which had always focused almost exclusively on selling raw timber, expanded its operations. The company built everything from combat and reconnaissance planes (in the Great War) to barracks for the troops. Expansion coupled with growth of other technologies, such as the development of the chainsaw, vastly increased the profit potential for WTC, but company founder Frederick’s business interests had always operated in the present with an eye toward the future. John was no different. Under his direction, WTC founded the first tree farms in America; later, in 1966, Frederick’s grandson, George, turned the company toward high-yield practices (clear-cutting followed by planting of new trees whose growth is enhanced chemically to make a faster turnaround time possible). George’s path to the presidency was uneventful — unlike his childhood.
In May of 1935, when George was nine years old, he was kidnapped. On May 24, George’s school, the Lowell School, let students out a few minutes early for lunch. Normally, George walked, upon lunch-time dismissal, to the seminary where his sister attended classes; the two would be picked up by the family’s chauffeur and driven home. George arrived at the seminary early, decided not to wait for his sister, and began to walk home on his own, taking a shortcut through tennis courts. He never arrived. But a ransom note for $200,000 came to the Weyerhaeuser home that evening.
Stock Video footage of George Weyerhaeuser on the day of his safe return
The kidnappers demanded unmarked bills. George’s signature on the back of the mailed envelope reinforced the demand. To prove they were willing to pay, the family was required to run a personal ad in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer three times, always signed “Percy Minnie.”
A second letter arrived at the Weyerhaeuser home on May 29. John was ordered to travel to Seattle and to register at the Ambassador Hotel, using the name James Paul Jones. A short note from George arrived with this letter, and further instructions were delivered to John that evening. As instructed, John drove to a designated rural location, where he found directions to yet another marker. At the second marker, no directions of any kind were given. John waited for several hours then returned home.
This was, from the family’s perspective, the first indication that something odd was at work, something that aligned badly with the seemingly slick and professional approach the kidnappers had taken in their previous dealings with the family.
The family never would have guessed what a circus the kidnapping already was.
The kidnapping-for-ransom plot was devised, initially, by William “Swede” Dainard and Harmon Waley. Margaret, wife of Harmon, read a newspaper story about the Weyerhaeuser family, and the trio quickly drove to Tacoma, where Swede and Harmon snatched George off the street—not because of fine planning but because they sought the boy right when random circumstances left him alone and unprotected.
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George was taken from the Tacoma streets, tossed into the backseat of a sedan, and covered with a blanket. His captors drove around town for hours; then George was taken to a piece of logged-out land east of Seattle, where he was left in a pit three or four feet square and six feet deep—the top covered with boards. For good measure, the kidnappers kept George blindfolded until he was ordered into the pit; before his descent into the hole, however, his legs were chained. George remained in the pit for several hours, guarded by Swede and Harmon. Later, he was moved to another site where he waited while a new hole was dug. He was left there for several days, chained in the dark, in the presence of what the FBI refer to in their public summary of the case as “lizards and spiders which could have endangered the child’s health.”
George’s captors were thoughtful enough to leave the backseat of their car in this second pit to add to the boy’s comfort.
While the family dealt with the kidnappers, George was moved again and again. From Seattle, he was dumped in the trunk of a car and driven through Blanchard, Idaho, where his captors handcuffed him to a tree. Then he was taken to Spokane, where he was kept in a closet. George admitted that he was, at one point, left unguarded, but he made no attempt to escape, as his kidnappers had told him he would soon be returned to his family. After several days, he was driven to a shack outside Issaquah, Washington.
During this time, the kidnappers were having little luck getting their hands on the ransom, which the family was willing to pay. The logistics of the first attempt caused its failure, when John was left alone in the countryside with no sense of how to proceed. On May 30, John was directed, via an anonymous telephone call, to an abandoned home where he found a tin can. The note inside the can provided directions to another canned note, and the pattern repeated multiple times. In the end, John was directed to a spot between Seattle and Issaquah, where he left his car, dome light burning in the dark, and walked away. One of the kidnappers rushed from the bushes and drove away in John’s car. The ransom was finally delivered. George was abandoned at the shack, and he later found his way afoot to a nearby farmhouse—and then to his home.
Prior to its delivery, the FBI made careful note of all of the serial numbers of the unmarked small bills. Once the exchange was made, the FBI spread the list widely to its field offices, each of which was tasked with contacting local businesses.
On June 2, a marked $20 was used to purchase a train ticket to Salt Lake City. Shortly thereafter, many marked bills began to appear there. Within a week, Margaret Waley was arrested in Woolworth. After little interrogation, Margaret provided the authorities with her home address, and Harmon was arrested there soon after.
On June 9, Swede managed to elude capture after being recognized by a police officer in Butte, Montana. In May of 1936, just weeks shy of the crime’s one-year anniversary, the final fugitive was captured in Los Angeles after exchanging multiple marked bills at two local banks. Although he was armed with a .45, he gave up without a fight when agents from the San Francisco office confronted him.
Of the $200,000 ransom, nearly $160,000 worth of marked bills were recovered.
Margaret pleaded not guilty, unlike both Swede and Harmon. William “Swede” Dainard received two 60-year sentences, set to run concurrently. Margaret Waley was found guilty and received concurrent 20-year sentences. Harmon Waley received concurrent 45-year sentences and served part of his time on Alcatraz Island. Harmon was the last of the kidnappers to be released from prison, 28 years after the crime, at the age of 52.
George Weyerhaeuser became President of his family’s company in 1966 and was a major player in the company’s salvage and reforestation work in the wake of the Mount Saint Helen’s eruption in 1980. He retired in 1988, 53 years after the Spokane-hatched kidnapping that marked his childhood.