St. Louis native John Heidenry has given us a true-crime tale starring a pair of "sorry losers straight out of a bad pulp novel." So why should we care? Because the two sorry losers are Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady, the kidnappers and murderers of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease of Kansas City in 1953.
Hall and Heady ended up in St. Louis. Two St. Louis police officers found them, along with $600,000 in ransom money that would be worth almost $5 million today. But somewhere along the line, half of the money disappeared. To this day, nobody knows for sure where it went.
In "Zero at the Bone" (subtitled "The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease"), author Heidenry musters a lot of evidence that the two St. Louis cops handed the $300,000 to St. Louis mobster Joe Costello.
An earlier book - "A Grave for Bobby" by the late Post-Dispatch writer James Deakin - delved into the kidnapping, the murder and the missing money. But that book came out in 1990, almost two decades ago. It got so-so reviews and all but disappeared.
"Zero at the Bone" ought to do better, at least in St. Louis, where most of the story unwinds. After all, Heidenry has a new generation as an audience, a generation with only the haziest knowledge of a crime that gripped the entire nation in 1953. As Heidenry notes, the kidnapping, murder and missing money became the first crime given continuing national coverage by that new medium, network television news.
The playboy of the book's subtitle was Hall, who squandered a comfortable inheritance. The prostitute was Heady, who drank away a tidy nest egg. On Sept. 28, 1953, these sorry bumblers kidnapped young Greenlease, the son of a rich car dealer in Kansas City.
Heidenry writes that Hall and Heady swilled so much booze and popped so many pills that their instructions on dropping the ransom money were confusing and at times incoherent. But finally, the pair picked up the money and headed off to St. Louis. Heidenry traces their travels from bar to bar in the city's South Side, their drunken free spending and their boasting in the company of a cab driver.
The cabbie soon figured out that he was driving the Greenlease kidnappers. In Heidenry's account, the cabbie tipped off his cab company's owner: Costello, the mobster. In turn, Costello approached an old friend, Detective Lt. Louis Shoulders. On Oct. 6, Shoulders grabbed Patrolman Elmer Dolan. They arrested Hall and Heady. But Shoulders and Dolan turned in only half of the ransom money.
The wheels of justice all but spun in high gear for Hall and Heady. In mid-November, they stood trial in federal court in Kansas City. A week before Christmas 1953, the two were executed in the gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary. The time span from crime to punishment ran for just a bit less than three months.
In workmanlike prose, Heidenry tells it all. Perhaps the most interesting angle of the story is how two sorry losers like Hall and Heady could pull off such a lucrative crime. Heidenry also writes about how the crime lives on through the missing money.
And in the last chapter, "The Greenlease Curse," he says the crime dogged those who rubbed up against it - people like Costello, Shoulders and Dolan, all of whom came to unhappy ends.
So did one of the key locales in the book, one of the hideouts for Hall and Heady and a place that fascinates author Heidenry: the Coral Courts Motel of less-than-blessed memory.
'Zero at the Bone'
By John Heidenry
Published by St. Martin's, 230 pages, $25.99
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.