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Son recalls Minnesota mom's kidnapping and fear 'that I might never see either of my parents again'

In 1972, kidnappers took his mother away and demanded his father deliver the $1 million ransom. Virginia Piper's son remembers the traumatic day 50 years ago that changed his family forever.

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Virginia and Harry C. Piper Jr. with their three sons in the mid-1950s. In the back, Harry III (Pipes) and Addison (Tad). David is in the front. The sons are still wondering who kidnapped their mother in 1972.
Contributed / Piper family
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ORONO, Minn. — Like many teenage boys, David Piper’s relationship with his mom was kind of like two ships passing in the night. He was a busy 19-year-old in the summer of 1972, doing his own thing — maybe uttering a quick goodbye to her when he’d leave for his job as a lifeguard a few miles away.

But everything changed the afternoon of July 27, when Piper heard over the radio that his mom, Virginia, had been kidnapped.

“I said to myself, 'This just has to be somebody else. It cannot be Mom,'” Piper said in a recent interview from the Twin Cities.

For the past month, Forum Communications Co. has marked the 50th anniversary of the kidnapping of Virginia Piper through a series of reports reexamining the case from the crime scene to who might be responsible. In this final installment, we’ll visit with Virginia Piper’s youngest son, David, who walked us through what that day was really like and how it forever changed his family.

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Forum Communications is publishing a 4-part report, including new podcasts, detailing the unusual and puzzling crime. The podcasts and stories will be released every Wednesday from July 6-27.
Graphic by Josie Gereszek and Alexis Dietz

Piper’s full interview can be heard on our podcast, “The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper — 50 years later,” along with the other three installments of the series .

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David Piper said it doesn’t seem like it’s been a half-century since that awful day when his mom was stolen from her garden by two masked men. The Piper family (the “Piper” in the investment banking firm of Piper, Jaffray and Hopwood) lived in a quiet neighborhood in Orono, Minn.

“We were a low-key family. I mean, my parents were not pretentious. They were wealthy, but they weren't really pretentious. They actually led a fairly low-key life,” Piper said.

Nonetheless, the men responsible for the kidnapping saw the potential for a big payout if they could successfully kidnap a member of the family. Now 50 years later, the kidnapping is still considered one of the most successful in FBI history and has left law enforcement and family members still questioning what really happened.

For Piper, it sometimes feels like just yesterday.

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David Piper, the youngest of the Piper sons, vividly remembers the day his mother was kidnapped.
Contributed / David Piper

'I needed to brace myself that I might not see either of my parents again'

“I remember those days so well,” he said. “I’m sketchy on some of the details, but because it was so traumatic, I was just such a shock to the system.”

After hearing news of the kidnapping over the car radio after leaving work, Piper made his way to his family’s home in Orono.

“I'll never forget this. I turned into our driveway and there were just a ton of police cars and reporters and then I knew that it was real and this tragic event had really occurred,” Piper said.

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The Piper's living room in 1972. The passage on the right leads to the front door where the kidnappers entered. The writing desk where they left the ransom note is to the left of the front door. The back room where the light shines is the sitting room where Harry and the Piper sons huddled with FBI agents awaiting word from Ginny's captors.
Contributed / 'Stolen from the Garden' / Bill Swanson and Piper family

Piper said from there it became “a surreal experience for two days” as his father, Harry Piper Jr., and the FBI worked to deliver the $1 million ransom. Piper was told his father would deliver the ransom to the kidnappers.

“The FBI told me that I needed to brace myself that I might not see either of my parents again,” Piper said. “Your brain just kind of shuts down.”

The ransom was eventually delivered and Virginia rescued. To learn more about the specifics of the kidnapping and rescue, read our first story .

'I just dissolved into a puddle of tears'

Piper said after his mother was found, a doctor looked her over and like a lot of moms might say, “I’m fine. I’m fine.” He said she was physically exhausted after being chained to the tree for 48 hours, but she didn’t need to be hospitalized. She was able to come home to her family.

“When she came back, she said something like, ‘Well, did you really miss me?’ So at that point, I just dissolved into a puddle of tears.  It was a very emotional time and you can tell I’m still emotional talking about it to this day," he said.

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Harry, Virginia and David Piper shortly after the news conference following the kidnapping.
Forum archives / Star Tribune

Piper said in the months and years to follow, his mother talked about the kidnapping to the family, mostly with her husband, Harry. But she wouldn’t say much about it to others.

He said it changed his family forever, strengthening his relationship with the mother he describes as “feminine, charming, sweet and warm.”

He says the kidnapping helped shed light that she was much more than those qualities.

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“She was intelligent, intuitive. She was also a lot stronger than I think people gave her credit for. Perhaps, a bit of sexism at the time, in the ‘70s and ‘80s," he said.

Watch a recap of The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper:

'I'd just like to know who did it'

After Virginia Piper settled back into normal life, the search went on for her kidnappers. One early suspect was Donald Larson, who was convicted of killing four people, including his estranged wife, in Willow River, Minn., four years later . - Part 2. (Five people were killed, but Larson was found not guilty by reason of insanity for one of the deaths).

Larson and another suspect, Kenneth Callahan, were initially convicted for Piper’s kidnapping, but later acquitted after an appeal and another trial. - Part 3.

The statute of limitations had run out and the Piper family was left with unanswered questions that still bother Piper and his two brothers, Harry III (Pipes) and Addison (Tad).

“I’d like to know who did it just just, that's all I want. I don't care about anything else. I don't care about proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I don't want the money back. I'm not even angry. I just want to know with some certainty who did it,” Piper said. “My parents both died. But it will give me some peace of mind. So that's, that's the only thing I want out of this.”

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Virginia and Harry Piper in 1980.
Contributed / Piper family

What happened to everyone?

  • Virginia "Ginny" Piper, following the kidnapping, remained active in civic and community affairs. She devoted 25 years to Abbott Northwestern Hospital where she served on the board of trustees. She died in 1988 at the age of 65 from cancer.
  • Harry "Bobby" Piper Jr. continued building the brokerage firm founded by his family in 1895. He retired as chairman in 1987. He died in 1992 at the age of 72 from cancer.
  • Harry “Pipes” Piper III became an attorney.
  • Addison “Tad” Piper joined the family business.
  • David Piper became an attorney.
  • Kenneth Callahan died in 2004 at the age of 79 from a heart attack. He lived by himself in Wisconsin and still occasionally did carpentry jobs. His family maintained his innocence.
  • Donald Larson died in 2008 at the age of 82 while still in prison. He was believed to be Minnesota’s oldest inmate at the time.

To listen to all four parts of "The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper — 50 years later," search for "The Vault FCC" wherever you get your podcasts.

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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