EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, we reported on days two and three of captivity in part 2 of our 4-part series on the 1992 kidnapping of Adobe Systems president Charles “Chuck” Geschke. This week, we recall Geschke’s final day with his captors and his safe release.
The kidnapper rang twice on Friday, both times earlier than he had claimed he’d call. In the first conversation, he checked to see that the Geschke’s daughter, Kathy, had the money and would drive the Cadillac. He told her that Chuck was in Mexico and would be released in San Francisco a few hours after the drop.
“You, no, you said an hour, yesterday. You told me one hour,” Kathy said, holding firm.
“Well, it’ll be an hour. Now, it’s two hours at most,” the kidnapper said. He warned her that if anyone followed her, if she was bugged or if the money had transmitters, the whole deal was off.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Kathy challenged.
“OK. Good. Good,” he said, apparently convinced she was negotiating in good faith.
FBI agents were in the midst of suiting Kathy into a bullet proof vest and wiring her in case she had to travel from phone booth to phone booth when the phone rang. Each call, amplified by the FBI’s enhancer, would send chills through the Geschke family members.
Peter’s stomach would knot up and he would leave the room, so as not to affect Kathy in any way.
All taped up with wires as the FBI instructed, and dressed in white as the kidnapper had instructed, Kathy dashed to the kitchen, turned on the recorder and picked up the phone.
The kidnapper played a tape from her father.
“Hi, Nancy. Hi, Kathy. This is Chuck. Oh, God. I’m well. I love you very much. I’m sorry that we’re in this situation. To prove that I’m still alive and well, the headline in the San Jose Mercury for the day is ‘Voters Lost in a Barrage of Candidate Attack Ads.’
“Kathy, I remember often saying that if I was stuck on a desert island, you’re the one I would depend upon to pull me through. I had no idea it would come to this, and I trust you with my life.
“I ask you to pay close attention to the directions that you’ve been given and not to gamble with your life or Nancy’s, or mine. Make sure that no one accompanies you in the car, either in the compartment of the car or in the trunk. Make sure there are no electronic devices on you or on the money or on the car. These people have ways of determining whether those devices are present.
“I’m sure that if you follow all of their directions, we should see one another in the morning. I’ll look forward to seeing you, and I love you both very much.”
The directions the kidnapper gave Kathy would take her from her home to a dead end called Dunes Drive in the seaside town of Marina.
She didn’t know it at the time, but her father had manipulated Steve’s planning process so that Kathy wouldn’t have to walk a couple miles on a darkened beach to make the drop as originally planned.
Chris and Marva Warnock, Peter and Nan Geschke held a little farewell ceremony as Kathy was leaving.
“She seemed like a small child to me, like someone playing dress up,” Marva Warnock said.
“I was in tears,” Kathy said. “I felt like I was saying my last goodbye to my family.”
Thus began the scariest thing Kathy ever had to do, deliver ransom money to save her hostage father. The drive to Monterey County was long and lonely, though she was not alone. Agent Harry Fujita was crouched on the back-seat floor, communicating via a walkie-talkie to other agents in unmarked cars and repeatedly chiding Kathy for driving too fast. She was supposed to make the drop at 11:30 p.m., but they hadn’t left until 10:30 p.m. The kidnapper would wait, Fujita reassured her. Besides, the FBI needed time to set up a perimeter. SWAT teams had left San Jose within half an hour of the final phone call. FBI agents took different routes to the drop-off point to avoid detection. Law enforcement agencies from San Jose to Monterey knew of the situation.
Kathy took Interstate 280 south to Highway 101 south, Interstate 156 west and Highway 1 south to the Reservation Road exit and then made the formidable right turn onto Dunes Drive. “I just really lost it emotionally,” she said.
Through her tears, she steered past rows of motels, a creepy mobile home and a few suspicious-looking cars parked on the side of the dimly lit street. The FBI, through Fujita, instructed her to drop the money under the light at the end of the cul-de-sac, so agents could see the kidnapper when he retrieved his loot.
Mouhannad Albukhari, “Steve,” was hiding only 10 feet away with a gun when Kathy leaned out of the window, plopped the backpack on the sidewalk and then floored it out of there. The Syrian native grabbed the bag of money and fled on foot into the foggy dunes. He abandoned his gun and shoes in the sand, discarded the electronically-bugged backpack and hunkered near the ground so the FBI helicopters couldn’t spot him.
“He basically got away at that point,” Agent Szady said. “But we had so many resources. We had agents on the street. Highway patrol was assisting us. With all the commotion taking place, we sort of forced him to go in a certain direction. North toward the cement factory.”
Twenty-five miles away in Hollister, Chuck Geschke sat blindfolded and more terrified than ever, while a nervous Rock paced back and forth, back and forth.
It began to dawn on Chuck that he couldn’t come up with one plausible reason why his captors would free him. Their stories had changed throughout the week. First they’d let him go in San Francisco, then San Jose. In 12 hours. No, one hour. Make that two. Then they said it would take 10 days to convert the money into foreign currency so they could flee the country. “This didn’t compute, that they would let me go and have me hanging around for 10 days without telling anyone,” Chuck said. Yet there were a few positive signs. Behind Rock’s back, Steve had given Chuck $100 and his credit cards, without fingerprints, to keep for emancipation day.
Before Steve had left, he said he planned to pick up the money at midnight and should return before 2 a.m. If he was not back by 4 a.m., something had clearly gone wrong and Rock would take care of Chuck. Chuck had sent him off with generous parting words: “This may sound strange to you, but I pray God is with you on this journey so that you come back safely, nothing happens to Kathy and I will be left free.”
Chuck listened to the sounds of cars approaching and fading as he whispered the prayer of the rosary. He couldn’t remember the five mysteries of the rosary to meditate on so he substituted his children, wife and father. It helped him stay in touch psychologically with the people nearest to him. In fact, he was so deep in prayer he is convinced he saw Nan.
“It was almost like there was a telepathy that happened. I
felt she was about to talk to me. It was a real dramatic feeling,” he said. He would later learn that his wife, who would periodically steal away from the chaos to the solitude of her bedroom and pray, had felt his presence with her.
“I don’t know if we were praying at the same time, but there was definitely a connection,” Nan said.
Suddenly an alarm buzzed. Rock let it ring for 15 seconds. “What does that mean?” Chuck asked.
“It’s 3 o’clock and you’ve got an hour to live,” Rock stated.
Chuck took the offensive with some mind games of his own. He told Rock that he was sure Kathy had complied with all the demands, but maybe Steve decided to take the money and run. By the way, how much did you ask for?
Three hundred thousand, Rock answered.
“Well, I have to tell you, Steve told me he asked for more than that. He didn’t tell me how much, but he did say it was hundreds of thousands more. Maybe if he comes back, he isn’t going to give you your share,” Chuck said, attempting to drive a wedge between his abductors. Then he worked on giving Rock a way out. “You know I’ve never seen your face. I don’t know who you are. Why don’t you drive me up to a Versateller and I’ll take out whatever money it will give me and you can take it and split?”
The alarm sounded again at 4 a.m. Rock was sure something was wrong, but he said he’d wait another half an hour before implementing plan B.
“What’s plan B?” Geschke asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Rock said. He handcuffed Chuck’s hands behind his back and attached two more cuffs around his ankles.
Like a mantra, Chuck repeated the memorare and then began his last confession to God. As a Jesuit seminarian, part of Chuck’s training included how to pray and what to pray for. Though three decades had passed, it all came back to him that night. “I certainly felt that was a major source of strength for me. The feeling I could be sitting there, talking to God, having a conversation about the miserable circumstance he put me in.”
In the last few hours, he progressed in his prayer. Until then he had prayed for his family and for his release. Now he decided that was presumptuous. He decided to pray for whatever was God’s will or intention. He would live or die with the consequences.
“I also believed I had more to give in life, and, hopefully, God would see that and give me a chance to prove it,” he said.
A half-hour passed. Rock directed Chuck to sit in a closet and moved his handcuffs to the front. He unhitched the leg irons but replaced them with the elephant chain that he fastened between two bolts on the floor and around Chuck’s legs. Rock left the house, reminding Chuck not to try to escape. Chuck immediately pulled up his blindfold and realized that Rock had done a shoddy job of confining him. He worked his legs out of the chains, jammed a blanket over the bolts and leveraged his way out of the closet. He paused for a moment, wondering whether this was the rational thing to do. “If I get caught, they are obviously going to do me in. But on the other hand, how can I face myself if given an opportunity to run, I don’t run?”
He initially tried to climb over a back yard fence, but couldn’t make it with the handcuffs so he headed for the street side, an alley with six houses. Maybe he could knock on a door. But what would the person think seeing a stranger with handcuffs on? A safety-paranoid person might just shoot him.
He ran to the end of the alley, where he had to choose between going right or left. As a wannabe basketball player years back, he never achieved his potential because if he was trying to get to the basket and a defensive player challenged him, he always went right. And so he instinctively turned right at the intersection and there was Rock, carrying something that looked like a knife.
“Get back in there,” Rock ordered, quickly catching up with Chuck. Back to the closet, this time lying flat on his face with duct tape over his eyes, chains on his legs, a lamp cord around his handcuffs and legs and a gag in his mouth, which he fortunately was able to spit out before it choked him. Rock warned Chuck if he tried to escape again he would die and then cranked up the music.
Meanwhile, Albukhari had walked and run all night, avoiding capture. The heat was on - dogs, local police, SWAT team, even the military. Early in the morning he tried to bribe a cement factory worker into giving him a ride. When the worker refused, Albukhari headed north again, this time hiding in a 1/2 mile-wide thickly wooded area between the beach and the road. Apparently thinking the FBI had retreated, he strolled out onto the road and walked right into an enclave of a Ninja-suited SWAT team. He innocently told the agents he had slept on the beach. But he had the same last name as the owner of the gun the FBI had recovered from the sand and traced.
“There was no doubt he was the kidnapper,” Szady said.
Agents interrogated him in a nearby motel room and eventually broke him. They convinced him it was in his best interest to cooperate, that he could face the death sentence if Geschke was murdered. Albukhari finally confessed and said he wasn’t sure whether his partner would honor the deadline and kill Geschke. He agreed to take them to the scene.
Kathy had driven at top speeds all the way home, even though the FBI agent in the car said he probably couldn’t get her out of a ticket on the return trip. Her bulletproof vest was so incredibly uncomfortable that she had to pull over to remove it on the way.
The Geschkes and Warnocks had stayed up most of the night, praying, crying and waiting around the living room coffee table. When Kathy returned, everyone sobbed. Kathy curled up on the couch like a little girl, Marva Warnock recalls. But Kathy couldn’t sleep. She repeatedly woke up the agents and told them to call San Jose headquarters for news. “We just played the waiting game. Every hour that went past, it was more and more terrifying because we hadn’t heard anything.” By morning, an ominous feeling was brewing inside her, until 9:30 a.m., when they learned that the FBI had captured Albukhari. Agents faxed a copy of his driver’s license to see if anyone knew him. No one did. They continued to wait.
Chuck too was waiting, blindfolded in the dark closet. Rock periodically checked on him but had given him no food. At one point Rock played a trick on Chuck, pretending he was a third person from “The Organization” who was trying to clean up the mess Rock and Steve had made. He blew the gag, however, by failing to change his shoes or pants until after Chuck had noticed the likeness through the crack in his blindfold.
A couple more hours passed.
“What happened next was probably the scariest thing that has ever happened to me,” Chuck said. People began screaming, “FBI. FBI. Get down. It’s going down. FBI.” Chuck assumed a full fetal position, sure that gunfire would erupt any second. “I thought, ‘That’s it. This is the end.’”
Suddenly someone opened the closet door and said, “Hi. I’m Larry Taylor. I’m with the FBI,” Chuck recalls.
“At this point, I was about as close to Looney Toons as you can get without flipping out. I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’”
“Really. I’m Larry Taylor, and I’m with the FBI,” Taylor said.
“If you’d been through what I’ve been through you would realize that I just don’t believe you. I’m sorry,” Chuck said.
Taylor removed Chuck’s blindfold. The man Chuck saw was clearly not Middle Eastern. In fact, he looked more like the astronaut character on the television series “Northern Exposure.” Chuck still wasn’t convinced. “Show me your badge,” he demanded. Taylor smiled widely. “I want to see your badge too,” Chuck said to the agent behind Taylor, not that he had ever seen an FBI badge or would know what to look for.
“I’m glad to see you’re safe and sound Mr. Geschke,” Taylor said.
Unsteady on his feet, Chuck put on his shoes and walked out front, into a black sea of SWAT team soldiers, some with diver hoods, bulletproof vests and what looked like machine guns. Chuck remembers thinking, or even saying, “I don’t know what an angel looks like. I always thought angels were in white. You guys are in black, but you sure like angels to me. I actually felt like God sent this army of angels to sort of sweep me up.”
Chuck’s first priority was to contact his family. Taylor, the same agent whose broken cellular phone sent Nan into a frenzy the first night, offered his portable. It didn’t work. They had to approach a neighbor working on his car.
At 12:09 p.m. the phone rang, again sending chills through the sleep-deprived Geschke family. Kathy answered the call. An FBI man asked for Agent O’Toole. “When they asked for Mary Ellen, I didn’t think my Dad had made it. They talked to Mary Ellen, and she had absolutely no emotion on her face. And then she said, ‘Kathy, come here.’ She gave me the phone. It was my Dad and he just said ‘Kathy’ and I started to cry. And he was crying. He had known what I went through. He wanted to tell me he was OK, and he was coming home.”
O’Toole summoned Nan from the living room to the phone. Hearing her husband’s voice, she screamed. Peter flopped backward onto the floor and cried. “It was just elation, jubilation,” Nan said.
Before taking him home, the FBI loaded Chuck into a helicopter and made a few beach passes looking for the money. He didn’t care about the money, he told them, so they flew him to the San Jose headquarters for debriefing. There he received a standing ovation from the agents who had been working around-the-clock to secure his freedom. Chuck shook hands with each of them, and then the FBI returned his briefcase. Under his initials, CMG, the kidnappers had scratched in the words “is dead.” “That was going to be my tombstone,” Chuck said.
A “Welcome Back Chuck” banner and a dozen friends and relatives anxious for hugs greeted the ex-hostage as he pulled into his driveway. Included in the crowd were Chuck’s elderly father, whom Peter summoned from a nearby retirement facility, and Peter’s fiance, Diane. Everybody was crying. Chuck took a few minutes to change his five-day-old clothes before toasting his closest friends and relatives, who trickled in all day and evening.
Next issue: The recovery.