In the 1950s, Kansas City had changed from a wide-open ­circus ruled by the machine of “Boss” Tom Pendergast into a sedate, somewhat unexciting Midwestern town. The mold was shattered on Sept. 28, 1953, when news of a sensational kidnapping broke.

Bobby Greenlease, 6-year-old son of a wealthy Kansas City Cadillac dealer, was abducted from his school. A ransom note demanded $600,000 in return for his life. John Heidenry retells the gruesome tale in “Zero at the Bone.” It’s a murder without much mystery. The perpetrators were caught almost at once. But there’s considerable fascination in watching two losers bungle their way to the gas chamber, with the help of a cast of shady, double-crossing characters.

The seed for the kidnapping scheme was planted in the mind of Carl Austin Hall as early as his high-school days during the 1930s at ­Kemper Military School in Boonville, Mo. Hall was the troubled, rebellious son of inattentive parents. One of his classmates was Paul Greenlease, the adopted son of the auto magnate Robert Cosgrove Greenlease, who had obtained a Cadillac dealership in Kansas City in 1908 and, as his ­business prospered, was soon selling cars across much of the ­Midwest. The aura of wealth ­surrounding the Greenlease name made a powerful impression on Hall and returned with force when hard times visited him later in life.

Hall’s mother disowned him, but he eventually inherited the bulk of her substantial estate, which he ­managed to squander in the late 1940s on the high life and ­ill-conceived business ventures. From a big shot with a fondness for grand pronouncements—“I hate little ­people. I like to be big”—Hall was ­reduced to robbing taxi cabs for small change. He wound up in prison. When he got out, he began to plot a kidnapping: Robert Greenlease had divorced the mother of Hall’s former schoolmate, then remarried and had two late-in-life children, a daughter born in 1941, and a son, in 1947. Hall figured that a good way to get rich again, and fast, would be to snatch the Greenlease boy, Bobby, and ­extract a ransom from the auto dealer, who was then in his late 60s.

When Hall met Bonnie Brown Heady in May 1953, it was a match made in the lower depths. She had also inherited a modest fortune, but she too had frittered it away. Heady turned to prostitution; Hall was one of her customers. Soon he became her pimp. Both were prodigious drinkers, each polishing off a bottle of whiskey a day. Heady was pliable, and Hall easily drew her in as his ­accomplice.

After the two had observed the Greenlease household routine, Heady showed up at the Roman Catholic ­elementary school that Bobby ­attended, posing as his aunt. Bobby’s mother had suffered a heart attack and wanted to see him, she said. By luck, a gullible nun was on duty. Bobby left the school holding the hand of a woman he’d never seen in his life. An hour later, he was dead, shot through the head in a car parked along a rural field. Bobby Greenlease and his father, Kansas City auto dealer Robert Greenlease, vacationed in Europe a month before the 6-year-old’s disappearance. St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri - St. Louis

From the beginning, Heady and Hall displayed a breathtaking ­aptitude for incompetence. Hall had planned to strangle the child, but the rope he’d brought wasn’t long enough. The pistol shot spattered blood all over his car and his clothes. Instead of destroying his bloody suit, he took it to the cleaners and said he’d had an accident. Heady left her brown velvet hat at the scene of the crime. Hall put the wrong address on his ransom note. (The postal service, alerted by the police, spied the letter and made sure it got to the ­Greenleases.) The woman who sold the shovel to Hall that he would use for digging a backyard grave ­remembered him because of his ­flippant remark: “I’m only going to use it once.”

Nevertheless, the plot went ­forward. The Greenleases, ­desperately hoping to save the boy’s life, asked the police not to ­intervene. Eight days after the ­kidnapping and a series of ludicrous missteps, Hall and Heady picked up a duffel bag holding the $600,000 ­ransom. Adjusted for inflation, it was the largest ever paid in America, ­according to Mr. Heidenry.

The pair had a fair prospect of ­ultimate success, had they laid low in Heady’s St. Joseph, Mo., home. But Hall became possessed with a fear that the men who’d dropped off the money had taken down the license-plate number of the rental car that he and Heady had been driving. He imagined that the police would be waiting for them in Heady’s front yard. On an impulse, he insisted that they drive to St. Louis. Both were drunk and without a plan. They hadn’t even packed for the trip.

Hall’s behavior became more ­erratic when they reached St. Louis. Flashing money and talking big, he befriended an ex-con cab driver and engaged him in a bizarre ploy. They would hire a prostitute to mail a ­letter from California with ­instructions to a friend of Hall’s to arrange for the destruction of ­incriminating rental-car records. ­Everywhere he went, he aroused the interest of predators with a nose for money. In short order, a crooked cop with underworld connections showed up at his doorway. In Hall’s own words, the jig was up.

Mr. Heidenry tells the story in a straight-forward manner, though some of the details and digressions have a boilerplate feel. He follows Hall and Heady to their deaths in the gas chamber, just 81 days after the kidnapping—justice was swift back then. Their only remotely redeeming feature was the almost cheerful way in which they met their doom. More worried about her appearance than Judgment Day, Heady allowed: “I’d rather be dead than poor.” Only half of the ransom money was ­recovered—firing the dreams of ­treasure-hunters for years afterward. But according to Mr. Heidenry, the rest of the cash wound up in the hands of a ­mobster, a crony of the policeman who made the arrest.

More attention to the kidnapping’s impact on Kansas City might have added interest to “Zero at the Bone” (the title comes from Emily ­Dickinson’s herpetological meditation “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”). Many Kansas Citians who still vividly ­remember the Greenlease tragedy could have made contributions to the book. Mr. Heidenry touches on ­Robert Greenlease’s pioneering ­involvement in the early automobile industry, but there is more to be mined. Of particular interest, in the context of the current tribulations of General Motors, is the industry folk tale that Greenlease bailed out GM during the Depression.

I was 12 years old in Kansas City when the Greenlease kidnapping hit the news. I can still recall the pall of fear that spread over the town. ­Mothers were afraid to let their ­children out of sight and suspected a kidnapper lurking behind every tree. The New York Times called the ­murder a crime of “incredible ­inhumanity,” for which “no punishment the civilized laws of this land allow seems quite adequate.” It’s still possible to summon a sense of horror at the story. But today it takes a ­massacre such as Columbine to shock us. We’ve become inured to metal ­detectors and security guards in the schools. How did we get from there to here?

—Mr. Gurley lives in Vinland, Kan. He is a retired columnist and book-review editor for the Kansas City Star.

Zero at the Bone

By John Heidenry 
St. Martin’s

230 pages, $25.99

Evil Called at School

By George H. Gurley
Revisiting an infamous kidnapping in the Midwest

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