Adobe chairman Chuck Geschke and family vividly recall five harrowing days that changed their lives forever
EDITOR’S NOTE: The kidnapping of Adobe Systems co-founder and prominent Los Altos resident Charles “Chuck” Geschke sent shock waves through this quiet bedroom community back in May 1992. Until now, the Geschkes have kept quiet about the ordeal. In an attempt for them - and us - to bring closure to this dark time in their lives, former Town Crier editor Anne Chappell Belden offers an exhaustive overview of the five-day ordeal, what has transpired since and the ramifications on the Geschke family. The following is the first installment of a four-part series.
Chuck Geschke woke several times the night before his only daughter Kathy’s June wedding day, anxiously pondering the toast he would give at her reception. Though as Adobe Systems’ Chairman of the Board, he was accustomed to speaking before hundreds of people, preparing this short speech made him exceptionally nervous. When the moment arrived, with family, friends and acquaintances of two families gathered in the Geschkes’ back yard, Chuck told his new son-in-law how much Kathy meant to the family and that if he, her husband, was ever marooned on a desert island, he could be sure Kathy would help him find safe harbor.
To about half of the wedding guests, Chuck Geschke’s toast to his daughter was merely touching. The ones who knew the Geschkes, however, could comprehend a much deeper meaning, stemming from the most traumatic week the Geschke family, or any family for that matter, ever endured. It was a week when even during separation, the whole family pulled together, and Kathy took command of an implausible situation, negotiating with kidnappers for five days and actually driving ransom money to a drop-off point in hopes of freeing her kidnapped father.
It was a week that changed the family forever, but not by choice. Immediately following the kidnapping, the family vowed to not allow the terrifying events change their lifestyle. They didn’t want to run away, or hire bodyguards to escort them through daily routines. They pledged to try and recover as much normalcy as they could, so the crime wouldn’t take from them what it had no right to take, the way they already lived their lives. After all, Chuck was alive and safe and relatively unharmed. They were all thankful. A happy ending, right?
Wrong. It sounds good, but a lot of the damage was already done. It’s not easy to forget being seized in broad daylight by two armed men, blindfolded and held hostage on the brink of death for five torturous days while your horrified family negotiates with captors who repeatedly threaten to turn you into shark bait and blow up your entire neighborhood. In the days, months and years since the ordeal, fear, anger, hostility and insecurities deluged the Geschkes. Five years later, though they’ve healed most wounds, some of their scars appear permanent. In that sense, this story is tragic. Yet it is mostly triumphant. The Geschkes have waded through the post-trauma emotional flood and braved a sluggish legal system with their faith and family intact, both closer and stronger than ever.
For two decades, Chuck and Nan Geschke raised their three children in a traditional beige wood and red-brick house with a white picket fence that all blended inconspicuously into the redwood tree-lined road in Los Altos’ oldest neighborhood. Though Nan, 54, was active in the American Red Cross and the Los Altos Historical Commission, as a couple they kept a low-profile lifestyle, never flaunting the considerable income Chuck, 58, was bringing home from his phenomenally successful computer graphics company, Adobe Systems.
Both before and after the kidnapping, they shunned publicity. Chuck is especially critical of the San Jose Mercury News, which he believes have exploited his privacy by publicizing the value of his stock options with a characterization of his face. “That may or may not be right for football and baseball players, but I don’t understand why an industrialist like myself needs to be put in that position. I don’t see how the public is served by having that kind of exposure,” he said. He wonders if such media coverage played a role in the kidnappers selecting him.
Chuck, with his neatly trimmed, silverized beard and mustache, seems more like a benevolent college professor than the high-tech president who negotiated a $500 million merger with Aldus Corp. and built new Adobe headquarters in downtown San Jose. “He just has an aura about him that is extremely kind,” said Marva Warnock, a close friend who babysat the family during their five-day crisis. After the kidnapping, Chuck was not himself for at least two years, she said. “What they’ve gone through is probably the hardest thing any family would have to go through.”
The Geschkes declined to talk to the press about what they’d been through immediately after the kidnapping. But the story of Chuck’s rescue was documented in hundreds of newspapers nationwide. The FBI said Chuck’s kidnapping was its largest Bay Area investigation since the Patty Hearst kidnapping. It got even more play when New Jersey authorities discovered the body of Exxon executive Sidney Reso the following month. Abducted a month before Chuck, Reso died in a brutal death in captivity after struggling with his kidnappers.
Friends and acquaintances have repeatedly asked the Geschkes to publish their compelling version of events. “I think people need to know they have the strength to get through this type of thing. There’s a survival instinct that just takes over you,” Nan said. With the trial, sentencing and some healing time behind them, they wish to share their tale of suffering and survival, and then close this chapter in their lives.
It began on an apparently normal workday, Tuesday, May 26, 1992. Dressed in slacks and a white Polo golf shirt, Chuck Geschke left for work a little later than usual, after wrestling with a broken garden hose. On his way out the door, Nan reminded him to call her as soon as he arrived at work because she needed his June schedule to make travel plans. Chuck entered the Adobe Systems parking lot in Mountain View around 8:55 a.m. and pulled his green Mercedes 500SL into his usual spot. As he removed his briefcase from the trunk, a light gray Ford Taurus pulled up and a slender, black-haired young man jumped out from the back seat with a map in his hand. It’s typical for people to get lost around Charleston Road, a cluster of two-story research and development buildings.
“Do you work here?” the man asked.
“Yes, can I help you?” Chuck asked and instinctively moved toward him. The man pulled his map aside and revealed a gun. “You’re coming with me,” the man said. By then Chuck was within arms reach so he did not protest when the man grabbed his arm and directed him into the car. He would later replay this moment dozens of times, questioning his decision to obey.
With the gun jammed against Chuck’s ribs, the man said, “You’re being kidnapped. I want you to keep your eyes down.” He took two duct tape cut-outs and placed them over Chuck’s eyes. He covered those with a pair of sunglasses, so no one could see from outside that Chuck was blindfolded. As the car pulled away, his abductor told Chuck, “If you attempt to do anything, like get away from us, we’ll kill you. We know where your family is. We’ll kill them, too.”
This man, Mouhammad Albukhari, Chuck would know as “Steve.” The driver, Ahmad “Jack” Sayeh, Chuck would address as “Rock.” Chuck prefers to talk about them using their aliases.
As they were driving, Rock complimented Chuck’s car and asked how much he paid for it. He answered $90,000.
“You’re lying,” Rock charged. “You paid $125,000 for it. We’re going to blow up your f—— house.”
Steve explained that they had a remote control device that could detonate a bomb great enough to blow up not only the Geschkes’ house but all the neighbors’ homes as well. He said that a relative who was a munitions expert had planted the bomb. “Well that obviously got my attention,” Chuck said. “I figured there was no point in messing around.”
His two captors also told him they were part of a much larger Middle Eastern organization. Once they collected ransom on Chuck, they planned to turn him over to the organization, which would take him to Lebanon and demand even more money.
With the loss of his sight, Chuck’s other senses sharpened. He was attuned to traffic noise and the sun gleaming through the car’s left side. He was pretty sure they were headed south on 101, and he calibrated the time to 30 minutes when they pulled off the highway and into a motel.
Rock and Steve ushered Chuck into the corner of a room, and proceeded to interrogate him on his personal finances. He cooperated. “I didn’t know how much they knew about me. Because they said if I lied to them, both my life and my family’s life were going to be in jeopardy, I figured the only thing I could do was play it fairly straight with them,” he said. “They were very interested in what could be made liquid. They clearly wanted to get money fast.”
He told them a majority of his assets were in Adobe stock, which he couldn’t sell because of SEC rules. This was a half-truth. Other money was tied up in investments that would take weeks to liquidate. Another half truth. He indicated he had about $300,000 in cash set aside for taxes.
They repeated their warnings. “If I didn’t cooperate, they’d cut me up in pieces and feed me to the sharks,” Chuck said.
When they finished threatening him, they said, “It’s time to kick back. Chuck, you kick back, and we’re going to kick back.” They flipped on HBO and watched the movie “Ghost” until noon, when Steve left to call Nan Geschke.
Nan had just returned from Russia the Friday before, attended Kathy’s graduation from the University of San Francisco on Saturday and hosted a party for her daughter Monday night. “I knew she was extremely tired,” Chuck said. “I candidly did not know how she would react to this, whether or not she would take it seriously. I let them know that so if she didn’t respond in the way Steve wanted, he wouldn’t fly off the handle.”
At home, Nan was trying to figure out why her habitually responsible husband had failed to call. His secretary hadn’t seen him and an 11 a.m. paging rendered no response. “I was afraid he had had a heart attack,” Nan said. By noon, he was still missing. “I thought it was strange but there had to be an explanation. I never thought of foul play.”
Nan, the daughter of a firefighter and nurse, and Chuck, the son of a photo engraver, grew up only a few blocks from each other in Cleveland, Ohio. Though they shared the same piano teacher, they did not meet until college. She was a freshman at Marygrove College in Detroit. He was a junior at Xavier University in Cincinnati who had spent four years in a Jesuit Seminary before deciding the priesthood wasn’t for him. Both happened to attend the same religious conference on social action that spring. Chuck called Nan that summer and the pair began dating. “That was it,” she said. “I think we had the same ideals.”
They married in 1964 and moved to Pittsburgh four years later so Chuck could pursue a doctorate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon. Living on $300 a month, with two of their three children, the couple could barely make ends meet. Both had to take side jobs, Chuck as a teacher, Nan grading English papers. The family moved to Los Altos in 1972 so Chuck could join the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
At 12:30 p.m., Nan’s phone rang. The caller told her it was important to listen to him. Her husband had been kidnapped and taken out of state. If she did not comply with their demands, Chuck would be cut into a million pieces and left on her doorstep. The obscurely accented voice ordered her to retrieve her husband’s car from the Adobe Systems lot before 5 p.m., come up with $650,000 and keep silent because she was being watched and followed.
“I instantly believed him because of how the morning had set up,” Nan said.
Frightened to call from the house, she decided to find a public phone and warn Adobe Systems CEO John Warnock, in case he was next. She was sure she was being followed as she drove into downtown Mountain View. The former chapter president of the Special Libraries Association, Nan headed for familiar turf and begged to use a librarian friend’s office phone. She told Warnock it was imperative he meet her at Rancho Shopping Center at 3:30 p.m. She also called two stockbrokers and demanded that they liquidate stocks into $100 bills within 10 days. In the Adobe Systems parking lot, Nan switched cars, drove home and changed clothes.
Then she left on foot, thinking the kidnappers might not recognize her, and zigzagged her way down well-traveled Los Altos streets for three miles. At Rancho Market, she casually passed John Warnock a note that described the day’s events and stated that John could reach her at the Foothill College television studio, where she produces the Los Altos History show. “I felt safer outside the house than I did in,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the motel room, Rock clicked the metal safety on the gun until Steve returned. “Obviously your wife does not love you. She’s not very bright. I don’t know what she’s going to do, how she’s going to respond to this,” Steve told Chuck.
Chuck tried to reassure him. “I told you that my wife has been under a lot of pressure and fatigue from this trip. You have to give her a chance to respond. I’m sure you have terrified her by making this phone call. Maybe my daughter or someone else can help her,” Chuck said.
Chuck’s motives were two-fold. One, he wanted to prepare Steve for the likelihood of Nan bringing Kathy into the action. Second, he was trying to boost Steve’s confidence. “I didn’t want him to lose hope that there was money out there because I figured when I did that, either Nan and the kids, or I were going to be in big trouble.”
As the evening progressed, Rock and Steve fantasized aloud about what kind of cars they would buy once they got the money. They brought Chuck some food, and when he refused to eat, they became upset. “You know you have to maintain your strength. You’re no good to us unless you’re in good health,” they said.
The television was on the whole time, and Chuck cringed whenever he heard a news update. “I was just terrified that they would come on and say, ‘It’s been reported that’ or ‘the disappearance of’ and these guys would go nonlinear, and I’m a dead man.”
Back in Los Altos, John Warnock drove from Rancho Shopping Center to his Los Altos home. “The look on his face. I thought someone had died,” his wife Marva said. The couple argued over what action to take. Marva strongly believed they should call the FBI, while John thought it would be a betrayal, if something happened to Chuck.
Besides being good friends, John Warnock and Chuck had worked together for more than 16 years. When Chuck managed the imaging sciences lab at Xerox, Warnock was his chief scientist. The pair developed a programming language called Interpress but could not convince Xerox to use it. Believing their invention had potential, they launched Adobe Systems in 1982. Thanks to a big break from Steve Jobs, their “Postscript” software was used for the first Apple laserwriter. Successful from the beginning, Adobe Systems’ revenues topped $786 million last year.
As the Warnock’s three children trickled into the bizarre crisis unraveling in their living room, they sided with their mother about contacting the FBI. John Warnock called Nan at Foothill and she gave her seal of approval, telling the Warnocks that she couldn’t handle this on her own. Approximately 20 minutes later, an FBI agent appeared at the television studio and escorted Nan back to the Warnocks, where they proceeded to interrogate her for more than six hours.
Dave Szady, Supervisory Special Agent of San Jose’s Violent Crimes/Gang Squad who supervised the FBI’s investigation into the Geschke kidnapping, said they were working from the inside out, ruling out suspects closest to home first.
“As time went on, it was obvious the wife was very distraught. We had a very solid corporation here, with people who were very cooperative and willing to do anything to get the victim freed. We established we had a kidnapper or kidnappers who were interested in money, and it was a classical kidnapping,” Szady said. FBI agents were at a disadvantage though, because the kidnapping trail was already 10 hours old.
At 9 p.m., the kidnappers moved Chuck Geschke to a “safe house” about 20 minutes away. They led him into a bedroom and ordered him to sit on the hardwood floor. A loud clattering of a metallic object hitting the floor startled Chuck. He asked what it was. One kidnapper said it was the elephant chains that their organization requires they bind hostages with, but since Chuck was cooperating, they would forego the chains and handcuffs.
They allowed Chuck to wash out his eyes, which had begun to water and itch from the airtight patches. When he finished, they placed a sleeping mask over his eyes and wrapped duct tape around his head. They gave him a sleeping bag, a spot on the floor and a warning that they’d be watching him all night.
“I don’t know if it was survival or just the fact that the adrenaline had been pumping for so long that when it slowed down, I collapsed.” He slept at least part of the night, and listened for distinctive sounds the rest, attempting to pinpoint his location.
Around 2 a.m., when FBI agents finished quizzing Nan, they sent her home, against her will. She discovered that four FBI agents had already been there for hours, setting up a phone system and searching for clues. Nan wanted Marva Warnock to come stay with her so she picked up the phone to call and the line was dead. “I just lost it,” Nan said. “I put my husband’s and my lives in your hands. I want you to leave,” she told the FBI agents. They argued with her but retreated outside. Soon after, the Warnocks arrived and persuaded Nan to let the FBI stay. All parties agreed that Kathy and Peter Geschke, 24 and 26 at the time, should be notified.
“It was obvious that I was completely exhausted by then and not very coherent,” Nan said. That state was heightened by the fact that this was not her first brush with hard-core violence.
Nan’s sister was shot and killed in 1985 by her estranged husband. He retained custody of the couple’s two children.
“It was on my mind throughout the whole ordeal,” Nan said.
Next week: Part II - Days 2 and 3 of captivity.