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Kidnapping of Virginia Piper

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Black and white photograph of Virginia Piper in Jay Cooke State Park after her rescue by the FBI. Photographed by the FBI on July 29, 1972. Used with the permission of Harry Piper III.

Virginia Piper in Jay Cooke State Park after her rescue by the FBI. Photographed by the FBI on July 29, 1972. Used with the permission of Harry Piper III.

On July 27, 1972, two armed, masked men walked into the Orono home of Virginia Lewis Piper and walked out with the forty-nine-year-old woman handcuffed and blindfolded. The next day, her husband, Harry C. Piper Jr., a prominent Twin Cities investment banker, personally delivered a $1 million ransom to the unidentified kidnappers. Four decades later, no one has served a day of prison time for the crime. Except for about four thousand dollars in scattered twenty-dollar bills, the Pipers’ million-dollar ransom has not been recovered.

The Piper kidnapping drew media attention from coast to coast, not only because of the amount of money involved, but because of the status of the well-to-do victims. Harry Piper Jr., known by his childhood nickname, Bobby, was a pillar of the Twin Cities business community and a respected figure on Wall Street. Virginia Piper, whom everyone called Ginny, was active in social, philanthropic, and civic affairs. The parents of three grown sons, the Pipers lived in unpretentious comfort near Lake Minnetonka.

The intruders probably intended to abduct Bobby Piper, whom they mistakenly believed had come home early that Thursday afternoon. Instead, they handcuffed Ginny, forced her into the back seat of their car, and, with her eyes covered, drove away.

Before departing, the kidnappers left a detailed, typed ransom note addressed to “Family.” It demanded $1 million in unmarked twenty-dollar bills, to be delivered according to precise and non-negotiable instructions the next evening. The FBI immediately took charge of the case. Despite the Bureau’s objections, Bobby Piper, alone and without law-enforcement surveillance, delivered a duffel bag stuffed with fifty thousand twenties on Friday night.

Carefully following the kidnappers’ instructions, Bobby drove with the money on a circuitous route into Minneapolis. There, a note directed him to a dark parking lot behind a seedy bar in the shadow of downtown. While inside the bar, trying to make a phone call per the kidnappers’ orders, the ransom was almost certainly removed from the car he had left in the lot and spirited away. Bobby returned to his home after midnight not knowing who had made off with the money or, more crucially, the whereabouts and fate of his wife.

The next day––it was now Saturday morning––an unidentified male called a local clergyman and told him where Ginny Piper could be found. Three hours later, following the caller’s directions, the FBI recovered her from a heavily wooded area in Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth. She was wet from the rain, hungry, exhausted, and traumatized––but physically unharmed. She was immediately flown back to the Twin Cities, where she was reunited with ecstatic family members and friends.

The FBI then began what would turn out to be one of the most extensive manhunts in its history. It involved hundreds of agents around the country, who took a close look at more than a thousand persons of interest and spent tens of millions of dollars in the process. But it wasn’t until sixteen days before the expiration of the federal five-year statute of limitations for kidnapping that two middle-aged Twin Cities men––minor career criminals named Kenneth Callahan and Donald Larson––were arrested and charged with the crime.

In the fall of 1977, Callahan and Larson were tried in a federal courtroom in St. Paul. They were prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thorwald Anderson and defended by high-profile Twin Cities lawyers Ronald Meshbesher and Bruce Hartigan. After nearly a month of testimony and four days of deliberation, a jury found the two men guilty. That verdict, however, was overturned on appeal. In a second trial two years after the first, the defendants were found not guilty.

The FBI insisted that the second jury was mistaken and claimed that Callahan and Larson had indeed kidnapped Virginia Piper. Though most of the ransom money had not been found, the Bureau declared the case closed.

In fact, serious doubts remained. Many persons familiar with the case believe the job was too sophisticated for the likes of Callahan and Larson. They maintain that at least three persons were involved, and that, despite several amateurish mistakes, the perpetrators pulled off what’s been called “the nation’s most successful kidnapping.”

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

O’Meara, Sheri, and Merle Minda. Famous Crimes: Stories of Law and Order in Minnesota. Minneapolis: D Media, 2008.

Swanson, William. Stolen from the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014.

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Related Images

Black and white photograph of Virginia Piper in Jay Cooke State Park after her rescue by the FBI. Photographed by the FBI on July 29, 1972. Used with the permission of Harry Piper III.
Black and white photograph of Virginia Piper in Jay Cooke State Park after her rescue by the FBI. Photographed by the FBI on July 29, 1972. Used with the permission of Harry Piper III.
Color image of Virginia and Bobby Piper, c.1980.
Color image of Virginia and Bobby Piper, c.1980.

Turning Point

Late on the night of July 28, 1972, Bobby Piper delivers $1 million in unmarked twenty-dollar bills to the parking lot of a bar near downtown Minneapolis. The following day, Ginny Piper–– abandoned by her abductors chained to a tree in a northeastern Minnesota park––is rescued by the FBI and brought home to her family.


July 27, 1972

“Socialite” Virginia Piper is abducted from her family’s Orono home.

July 28, 1972

Following the kidnappers’ precise instructions, Ginny Piper’s husband, Bobby, delivers $1 million––fifty thousand unmarked twenty-dollar bills secured in a large duffel bag custom-made for the ransom––to the rear of a bar near downtown Minneapolis.

July 29, 1972

Acting on a tip from an anonymous caller, FBI agents locate Ginny Piper chained to a tree but physically unhurt in a state park near Duluth, about forty-eight hours after her abduction.

November 28, 1972

A few dozen twenty-dollar bills, identified by their recorded serial numbers as part of the Piper ransom, are exchanged for “clean” money at a handful of southern Minnesota banks. The men exchanging the money are neither identified nor apprehended.

July 11, 1977

Two Twin Cities men with long criminal records are arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury, sixteen days before the five-year statute of limitations expires.

October 11, 1977

The first trial of Kenneth Callahan and Donald Larson begins in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.

November 4, 1977

The federal court jury finds both men guilty of kidnapping Virginia Piper.

January 26, 1979

The Eighth U.S. Court of Appeals overturns the convictions.

December 6, 1979

A different federal court jury, following a two-month second trial in St. Paul, finds Callahan and Larson not guilty.


In the wake of the acquittals and absent any significant new leads, the FBI closes its Piper file; forensic evidence is discarded or destroyed.

October 24, 1988

Ginny Piper dies of cancer at the age of sixty-five.

August 19, 1990

Bobby Piper, seventy-two, dies of cancer.

May 1991

The Virginia Piper Cancer Institute opens at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.