It was the Northwest’s most notorious kidnapping case. Little George Weyerhaeuser had been snatched off the streets of Tacoma and held for $200,000 ransom.
Eighty years later, Weyerhaeuser, the timber titan, told me he hadn’t read much news coverage about his kidnapping.
He has a vivid memory of those eight days, he said, but he hadn’t dug through those old stories from 1935. He was 9 at the time, after all, and his parents wanted to leave the kidnapping in the past. They wanted him to grow up without this traumatic event hanging over his life.
I wrote to Weyerhaeuser around Thanksgiving because I had listened to an old KUOW interview about the hours after he was released.
The interview was with the legendary columnist Emmett Watson. Watson said that on the morning of George’s release, a Seattle Times reporter got a hot tip about his whereabouts. The reporter, Johnny Dreher, intercepted the boy’s return and interviewed him. He described George as chipper and asked him for a kiss.
The story seemed … implausible.
But it was the scoop of a lifetime, especially at a time when kidnapping was a sensational crime. The Lindbergh baby, recall, had been snatched from his crib three years before. The Northwest was gripped by the unfolding drama.
When George failed to come home on May 24, his father, J.P. Weyerhaeuser, called police.
The kidnappers drove George around – first to the woods where they placed him in a hole in the ground while they took turns standing guard. Accounts at the time had them driving him to Idaho.
They sent a letter to J.P. Weyerhaeuser, telling him to register at a hotel and follow a trail of notes. Those notes would tell him where to drop off the ransom.
According to the FBI, on May 30, J.P. Weyerhaeuser drove out as instructed to a dirt road between Seattle and Tacoma. There he found a note telling him to leave his car and walk toward Seattle.
Mr. Weyerhaeuser had walked about 100 yards when he heard a loud noise from the bushes. A man ran out, got in the car and drove away with the $200,000 ransom money.
Young George Weyerhaeuser was released at a shack near Issaquah, Washington, on the morning of June 1, 1935.
George wandered into a farmhouse and announced his identity. The family took him in, washed him, gave him clean clothes, and drove him to Tacoma, Washington, in their car.
That’s the FBI version. Dreher’s account in The Seattle Times offers an alternate ending, with him as key character:
Our watch on the Weyerhaeuser home was doubled. Our men at Haddaway Hall were warned to be on alert. The boys at Police Headquarters were put on their toes.
We figured the boy must be coming to Tacoma from Issaquah in the farmer’s automobile.
Dreher, 59, hired a cab and set out for Issaquah. On the road, he wrote that he spotted the farmer’s vehicle and stopped it. He said the farmer must have believed he was a police officer.
Young George climbed into the back seat with Dreher. Dreher’s taxi turned around and headed for the Weyerhaeuser mansion in Tacoma.
“George, we sure are glad to see you,” Dreher said, according to the newspaper story he wrote.
From there, the story becomes even odder.
From there, the story becomes even odder.
Dreher describes George – a boy who had just spent eight days alternately buried underground and chained up – as chipper. George is “tickled” when Dreher tells him that he is actually a newspaper reporter.
“What if I’d been another kidnapper?” Dreher jokes with George. Then this:
Just a kid, but what an experience, what a chapter in his life! I guess I got a little soft as these thoughts went through my mind and this old police reporter said, ‘George, would you give me a kiss?’ And he did. And we talked some more.
George, the little cuss, wanted to talk as much as I wanted to talk to him. Boy, is he smart! He was just bubbling over.
Dreher’s story was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (it didn’t win). "Nice guy,” Watson said of Dreher in 1992. “He was about 58, 59, kind of working his way toward retirement, and he happened to be down there early when that phone call came in.”
According to Watson, Dreher and Weyerhaeuser arrived in Tacoma to little fanfare.
“He drove back to the Weyerhaeuser mansion to deliver the kid expecting to be swept up and greeted and, ‘Oh, thank you for bringing a child back,’” Watson said. “But he said that he got pushed in the face.”
Weyerhaeuser grew up to lead his father’s company. He’s 89 now and retired in Palm Springs.
After listening to the Watson interview, I wanted to know if the newspaper account was true. I wrote Weyerhaeuser a letter.
As a mother, the interview struck me as odd. The tone was off for a child who had been away from his parents for eight days. For that reason, I hoped you might tell me if you recall Mr. Dreher interviewing you on the way home.
He called me a week later. He was funny and frank, but he didn’t want to go into the details of his kidnapping. Although his story is part of Northwest lore, his family chose not to dwell on it. It wasn’t a sensitive subject for him, he said, but it wasn’t something they discussed.
He didn’t remember Dreher. He said it had been too long for him to say definitively whether the reporter had made up or embellished the account, but he said the story seemed off to him, too.
He was a reserved child, he said, so his quotes didn’t make sense – and he certainly wouldn’t have kissed a stranger.
“If you had talked to me before all this” – before reading The Seattle Times’ version – “I would say the farmer took me home.”
He said he doubted the farmer would have given him up so easily.
“He was a welcome man, and a nice one,” Weyerhaeuser said. “I felt that he really did me a great favor. I would say that was an unusual effort he went to. I do remember him and always will.”
Dreher’s report does match some details in the FBI’s account. Dreher knew that young George had been shackled, and that he had spent time near a river.
If Dreher’s account was true, Weyerhaeuser said, “It doesn’t endear me to him.”
Weyerhaeuser’s three kidnappers were later caught and sentenced. He hired one of them upon release. I asked him why.
“Remember, he was young,” Weyerhaeuser said. “He did me no harm. And he was only in his 20s.”
Dreher died several months after the article was published. We don’t know whether he exaggerated this story, and it occurred to me as I poked around that perhaps it was OK to be a fabulist newshound in the 1930s.
I called Alex MacLeod, the former managing editor of The Seattle Times, whose father had been the editor at the time of the Weyerhaeuser kidnapping.
MacLeod said embellishing a story or making up details wouldn’t have been OK, even in the 1930s.
“I never heard my dad say that he doubted the story,” MacLeod said. “And my dad was a real, real careful person.”