Two days of terror, uncertainty

Geschke family negotiates with kidnappers while investigators frantically search for clues

Part 2 of a 4-part series

EDITOR’S NOTE: We began our series on the 1992 Chuck Geschke kidnapping with the story in last week’s issue (Oct. 15), featuring the events leading up to the incident, the kidnapping itself, and the first night of captivity.

Nan felt better the next morning, once two of her three children arrived, after frightening 4 a.m. wake-up calls. The FBI agents briefed Kathy and Peter and then grilled them about names of people who could be involved.

Business associates. Childhood friends. Everybody was a suspect, even, for a brief nanosecond, their younger brother John. The FBI refused to let the Geschkes tell John what was happening. The fewer people who knew, the better. The FBI agents decided Kathy should handle the kidnapper’s phone calls. Just a few days out of school, it was plausible that she would be at the house. They worked on establishing a story that Nan was ill and Kathy came to care for her.

This was not far from the truth as Kathy turned out to be quite a rock. Chuck Geschke used to tease his two sons that if he were stuck on a desert island and had to have one of his children with him, he would want Kathy there because she was the most resourceful. She could figure out how to get off the island. So it was fitting that she would be the one to negotiate her father’s release, and she would be the one to deliver the ransom money.

She also was the one who ordered the FBI agents to stop coming in and out of the front door. And she was the one who answered every incoming call. If it wasn’t the kidnappers, she had to invent some excuse as to why her mother or brother couldn’t come to the phone. When her brother John, who was graduating from Princeton called, she fibbed that both her brother and mother had laryngitis and couldn’t speak. And when Peter’s then fiance, Diane Nielsen, called and wanted to come take care of her supposedly sick husband-to-be, Kathy told her she had everything covered. “It was hard lying to your own family members,” she said.

It was the job of Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, who has a doctorate in behavioral sciences, to coach Kathy on answering the kidnapper’s calls and then try and create a kidnapper profile from phrases he used and responses to questions. The preparation became more and more organized, with Peter typing up scripts of anticipated kidnapper statements and Kathy’s best replies.

The first real test came mid-afternoon. Kathy Geschke turned on the recording device and a man asked for Nan. Kathy told him that her mother was sick, practically in the hospital. She identified herself as Nan’s daughter.

“OK, good,” the man replied, likely affected by Chuck’s subtle coaxing. “Listen, you tell your mom, do not do anything stupid.”

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Kathy repeated.

“We know everything about you and your brother Peter. We know the house. We know everything about you people. Anything stupid, your dad will die. You understand?”

“Well, we fully intend to, uh..” Kathy stammered.

“Do you understand?” the voice demanded.

“Yes I do, but we fully understand to do anything you…” Kathy said.

The kidnapper played a recorded message from Chuck. “Hello, Nan. This is Chuck. I love you very much. I’m sick. At the moment, I’m OK. I’m being treated well. The people who have me are very serious. You should follow their directions. Please don’t report to the authorities. Our lives could be in danger. They’re watching the house. I love you very much.”

The man said he wanted Kathy to make the ransom drop, once she got the money. He would give her seven business days, until June 5. Once she delivered the money, her father would be released 12 hours later. Kathy said she would have the money earlier, possibly the next day, so the kidnapper promised to call then.

Steve returned to the Hollister safe house in an upbeat mood. He told Chuck that Kathy seemed bright and she would cooperate so “things are going to be all right now,” Chuck said.

Steve began quizzing Chuck on the various cars parked outside the Geschke residence; a Honda, Jaguar and Cadillac. Chuck could see what was coming. This wasn’t about their cars; it was about which vehicle Kathy would drive to deliver ransom money. Chuck maneuvered the conversation toward allowing Kathy to drive the Cadillac, which was, for one, the safest car, and for two, the only one that would protect Kathy, if the authorities were involved. So he told Steve that the jaguar was unreliable and the Honda desperately needed new tires. “I’ve been telling Kathy she needs new tires and she hasn’t done that. You know how kids are. That car just wouldn’t be safe driving on the freeway,” Chuck said.

“I don’t want her to drive that Cadillac. You know they could hide someone in that car,” Steve retorted.

“They are not going to do anything to compromise our lives. I know they are terrified of you guys,” Chuck reassured.

In his mind, Chuck continued to believe his family could deal with this situation. “It’s always hard for me to separate the natural instinct to try and survive and sort of maintain the hope of living vs. the reality of what I intellectually knew. I suspect that during the last 24 hours or so of this whole ordeal, I couldn’t tell the difference between that instinct to try and survive vs. if someone had actually said, “Now wait a minute, what do you really think?”

The mind games that the kidnappers played didn’t help. One conversation with Rock really unsettled Chuck.

“Do you love your wife?” he asked.

“Yes,” Chuck replied.

“If we were to release you and take her captive, how many millions would you be willing to pay for her?” Rock asked.

Chuck didn’t know how to answer. “Obviously I’m going to pay anything to get my wife free, but if I say that, do I put a price tag on her head? Or do I sort of lie, and say, ‘No, I really wouldn’t do that.’ I’ve already told them several times that I love my wife so I decided to tell the truth. Yes I’d pay any amount, but I’d much rather you get any amount for me. It did scare me that they would get a certain amount for me and then just flip it.”

It was clear that Rock was playing the bad cop and Steve the good cop. When Steve was away, Rock would pace, clicking the gun the whole time. At times, he would go off and play loud music and lift weights. When he tired of the physical activity, sometimes he would drop the elephant chain, “for no other reason than to scare the hell out of me,” Chuck said.

At times, however, the duo was oddly accommodating, rushing out to buy Chuck coffee on request and allowing him to order his own food. “From their point of view, keeping me somewhat content meant they didn’t have to deal with constraining me and they could be more focused on their plan to get the money. I don’t think it was an honest concern for my well-being,” Chuck said.

Other times, they were almost comical in their attempts to impress Chuck with their expert planning. Like when Steve said, “You know Chuck, we’ve invested a lot of money to make this happen. We spent $30,000 to purchase a one-man submarine.” Chuck feigned admiration.

“Well, you know we even have torpedoes for it. Here, feel this,” he said, removing an object from a Styrofoam box.

Chuck felt the cone-shaped object with a propeller, guessing it was a dive vehicle that scuba divers use to propel themselves under water.

“It sure feels like a torpedo to me. That’s pretty impressive,” he said.

Steve, playing the operation’s mastermind, continued to engage Chuck in conversation, discussing religion and other subjects and describing his plan for retrieving the money. “I would sort of let that happen, as a way to humanize the relationship and make it harder for him to kill me,” Chuck said.

Steve planned to have Kathy deliver the money on the beach. An experienced scuba diver, he would swim the loot under Monterey Bay to a waiting car, thus eluding police. The drop-off point, however, was near Fort Ord, so he would have had to literally cross Monterey Bay. “These guys may have been clever. I don’t know if they were smart,” Chuck said.

Day Three

On Thursday, a frustrated Steve returned from talking to Kathy. “Dammit Chuck. I don’t understand your daughter,” he said. “She’s on the phone and she’s negotiating with me. Doesn’t she understand that I’m the kidnapper and you don’t negotiate with the kidnapper? I don’t get what’s going on.”

Inside himself, Chuck was ecstatic that his daughter was handling this guy. “I sort of said to myself, ‘that’s what I would expect of Kathy.’”

Steve was also concerned because Kathy was getting the money so quickly. He asked how a Mr. Brown in the investment business could gather so much cash so fast? Known for his quick wit, Chuck responded that Alex Brown Investment Co. had been in business since the Revolutionary War and was located in Maryland near the Federal Reserve, so if anyone could get money quickly, it would be that company. Steve seemed to buy it.

Meanwhile tension mounted in Los Altos. More than 200 agents were now on the case. Interviews and document searches at Adobe Systems had failed to turn over new leads.

The Geschkes slept little and prayed a lot. “I said more Hail Marys in those four days than I have ever said,” said Peter, 31, a high school teacher in Fremont. The Warnocks brought over food and emotional support several times a day. Peter specifically requested that Chris Warnock, his long-time family friend, come over Thursday night so he could let off steam, cuss and say things he deemed inappropriate for the female FBI agents to hear. Kathy and Peter kept their mother out of the loop a bit, not telling her about the shark bait threats or letting her listen to her husband’s voice on tape.

In the latest conversation with the kidnapper, Kathy, with preparation from the FBI, had managed to negotiate driving the Cadillac for the drop-off the next day. That had angered the kidnapper, but had given Kathy a measure of control.

At times, it seemed the kidnapper had sympathy for her. Whenever she heard her father’s taped messages, she cried hysterically. “I was so emotional that I would have fallen to the ground if Mary Ellen O’Toole hadn’t propped me up,” she said. The kidnapper would sometimes pause a minute, intentionally giving her time to regain her composure.

Occasionally, the grievous drama was dotted with laughter. On Thursday afternoon, a graduation flower arrangement arrived at the door courtesy of family friends.

“I was so happy to see something beautiful in the midst of all the chaos and fear we were going through,” she said. But she hadn’t closed the door and opened the card when FBI agents seized the bouquet and plucked it apart petal by petal searching for electronic bugs. Agents even made Kathy call the senders to confirm they had, in fact, ordered the arrangement. “That kind of caused some laughter in the house,” Kathy said.

Next week: Day 4 of captivity.

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