Kidnapping Grandma Braun
When Grandma Braun went missing, folks figured she wandered off. Then came the ransom note.
March 21, 2004
LITTLE PRAIRIE, Wis. —It was cold the night Grandma Braun was taken, that bitter dead-of-winter cold when the countryside is sheathed in ice and the stillness is broken only by great gusts of snow that swirl across the fields and back roads, erasing footprints and car tracks and all traces of life.
Eighty-eight-year-old Hedwig Braun was in bed reading when the lights went out but she didn't pay much heed. In her tiny farmhouse on Bluff Road, miles from the nearest town, power outages are not uncommon. Pulling on her dressing gown and slippers, she lit a candle and padded into the kitchen. She poured a glass of milk, settled at the table and continued her book about angels.
The clock was stopped at 12:50 a.m.
A sudden blast of wind. A shadowy figure in the doorway.
"Eddie!" she screamed as the intruder lurched toward her, throwing something over her head. "Eddie come quick."
But her 88-year-old husband, asleep in the other room, didn't stir.
At 5-foot-2, weighing 80 pounds, Braun is a slip of a woman whose toughness is all inside. She had no strength to fight off her abductor. She didn't even try. She just prayed as she was flung into the trunk of her 1992 white Cadillac, kept praying as they tore down the country road, screeching to a halt beside a ditch, prayed even harder as she was tossed into the trunk of another car and they sped away again.
In the darkness, wedged against the spare tire, she wondered, "Why me? I'm just a nobody. What does he want with me?"
Nothing about the phone call made sense.
Robert Mann's grandmother never called. She was almost completely deaf, so phone conversations were difficult for her. Besides, she wouldn't have dreamed of interrupting her 33-year-old grandson's workday at 12:36 p.m.
It was Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2003. At his desk at Mann Brothers Inc. in Elkhorn, the road construction company his great-grandfather had founded, Mann didn't know what to think.
"Hi Grandma," he began. "Sorry I missed your birthday. How are you?"
"I'm OK," she said, though her teeth were chattering as though she were cold. "I'm not worried about dying. At my age I thought I would have died a long time ago."
Mann frowned. Where was this coming from? Aside from having to take heart medicine every day, his grandmother was healthy, her mind sharp. She never rambled like this.
"Grandma, you're not dying. You're going to live a long time," he bellowed into the phone. "Where are you?"
"I'm in a dark place. I'm tied up. There's a man. . . . he's shining a light. . . . He says I'm going to die."
"What man? Put the man on the phone."
But all Mann heard was a muffled sound as the phone went dead.
Mann waited for a few minutes, wondering if she would call back.
Still puzzled, he phoned his aunt, Joan Wolfram, who lives a mile down the road from her parents.
"Something is wrong with Grandma Braun," he said.
Wolfram hopped in her truck and drove to her parents' small green home on Bluff Road. Her mother's car was gone. Her father, who is blind, was sitting at the kitchen table.
He hadn't heard his wife since they had gone to bed the night before, though at one point he thought she had cried out. He assumed it was her leg cramps. When he didn't hear her in the morning, he thought she must have gone to visit one of their two sons, Richard or Tom, who both live close by. But when Wolfram raced over to their houses, neither was home.
Back at her parents' house, Wolfram felt a growing sense of unease.
The farthest her mother ever drove by herself was to Wolfram's house, and even then she always called first. She never just took off on her own.
In the bedroom Wolfram found her mother's day clothes laid out in a neat pile. Her Sunday clothes too. Missing were her nightclothes along with the burgundy fleece gown that Wolfram had given her for Christmas.
Wolfram could feel the panic rising in her stomach. Had her mother been in an accident? Was she lying in a hospital, unable to remember who she was? Was she frozen in a ditch, or huddled in a barn?
And what about the phone call?
"I'm calling the police," Mann said when his aunt called him back.
Wolfram hung up. She opened the yellow pages and began dialing emergency rooms.
In the frigid, winter wilderness of rural Wisconsin, old people go missing all the time. They forget their medicine, get lost or confused, drive off the road.
When Heddie Braun's car was discovered by a ditch about a 1/2 mile from her house, folks assumed the worst. The temperature was in the low 20s. An elderly woman couldn't last long in her nightgown and slippers.
Little Prairie is a just a dot on the map, 12 miles from the small city of Elkhorn. It is no more than a crossroads really, a place of wide open fields and scattered farms, a place of comfort and security and trust. Doors are left unlocked in Little Prairie, car keys are left in the ignition. People know their neighbors. And in a crisis, everyone turns out to help.
Word spread fast that Heddie Braun was missing.
Eddie Braun affectionately calls his wife "my tough Norwegian," though she spent only the first six weeks of her life in Norway. Everyone else knows her as Grandma Braun, the tiny woman with the snow-white hair, who loves animals and her garden and adores her ever-expanding brood of great-grandchildren.
And so, when people learned that Grandma Braun was missing, it was as if the world stopped to join the search.
Family members left their jobs in Elkhorn, population about 7,000, and raced to Little Prairie—nieces and nephews and grandchildren and great-grandchildren all flocking to Wolfram's house. Neighbors arrived with snowmobiles and horses and dogs. Volunteer firefighters came from the neighboring towns of East Troy and Troy Center.
They fanned out over the frozen fields. They combed through the woods, knocked on doors and poked through barns.
"Heddie," they cried, their calls echoing over the countryside. "Grandma Braun."
Helicopters from the Civil Air Patrol flew low over the searchers. Her church started a prayer chain.
Wolfram trudged the fields, calling and crying and praying. When she was too hoarse and exhausted to do anything more, she went home and cooked great pots of chili for the searchers.
Robert Mann stayed at his desk late into the night, hoping for another phone call. He printed large fliers with a picture of his grandmother and asked drivers for Mann Brothers to post them all over the state. He e-mailed everyone he knew.
But the thought kept nagging him. What if there really was a man who had tied up his grandmother and was holding her hostage? But who? And for what purpose?
Walworth County Sheriff David Graves was uneasy, too. Police found power and phone lines cut at the Braun house. This was something more than a case of an old lady who had wandered off.
Graves, a 50-year-old veteran cop and former hostage negotiator was serving his first term as elected sheriff. Like everyone else, he knew the Brauns and the Manns. His wife's best friend is one of Heddie Braun's granddaughters. He had been to Republican Party fund-raisers at the home of Heddie's eldest daughter, Judy, and her husband, Richard Mann. The Manns are among the wealthiest and most politically connected families in the region.
The money part was too troubling to ignore.
Graves oversees a staff of 84 officers and nine detectives, and more than half were already working on the case. On Tuesday, he drove from Elkhorn to Little Prairie and spoke to the Braun family. By Wednesday, on Feb. 5, he was sure.
"No offense," he told Capt. Dana Nigbor, chief of detectives. "It's time to call the FBI."
Shackled in the darkness, praying for warmth—and for strength—Heddie Braun lost all sense of time.
At one point, she thought she heard helicopters and wondered if she was in a flight path or near an airport. Try to remember everything, she told herself, so when they find you, you can be of some help.
Briefly, she had glimpsed her masked abductor that first night as he carried her across a moonlit field and flung her inside a small, white utility trailer—the kind used for snowmobiles. But she had no idea where she was or how long she had been there.
Her legs were pinned to the floor, the chains cutting into her ankles. At first, he had tied her wrists too, but she had cried in such pain that he eventually released them.
In one corner a sputtering kerosene tank cast an eerie orange glow on the dirty mattress on which she was lying. A few blankets were thrown over her.
She prayed and dozed fitfully and tried not to think of the pain. Every now and then he came with food—orange juice and a hamburger.
Heddie tried to engage him in conversation, remembering her training from the home for mentally disabled where she had worked years ago. No matter what he has done, he is a person, just like me, she thought.
And so she thanked him politely for the food, asked if everything was going according to plan. But her abductor never said a word.
She knew her family would be searching for her. She knew she couldn't last much longer in this cold. She would bite small pieces of hamburger and press them against her stomach, trying to stay warm.
She worried about not taking her heart medicine. She worried about Eddie.
The first day, her kidnapper had shone a flashlight on a note demanding that she read it to her grandson, Robert, over a cell phone. The note said she would die if his instructions were not followed.
But Heddie was too deaf to understand what Robert was saying, and it was clear when the masked man yanked the phone from her that he was unhappy with the way the conversation had gone.
She was still baffled by her kidnapping.
"Why me? What do you want with me?" she asked, over and over.
The ransom note was typed in black. It was discovered by Robert Mann's cleaning lady in his mailbox early on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 6, more than two days after Heddie Braun disappeared.
"For the last time, no police.
So do exactly what we tell you
Remove all posted missing person flyers
If not, death will be the end result
$3 million (in black sports bag) is the sum of life."
The words pounded through Capt. Nigbor's head like a line from a bad crime novel. Only this was real.
Staring at the ransom note, the chief of detectives could almost hear her own heart thumping.
"Oh my God," she thought, looking around at the other detectives. "We've never worked a kidnapping before."
There were so many questions swimming around her head. Where was the victim? Who was holding her? How would the kidnapper contact them again?
And the most haunting question of all: How long could an 88-year-old woman, dressed only in her nightgown and slippers, survive the trauma—and the bitter February cold?
"Death will be the end result."
Did the writer mean it? Was this the true kidnapper, or someone playing a cruel prank after seeing Heddie Braun's picture pinned up all over town?
Was there just one person involved, or a gang?
Nigbor, a 40-year-old career cop whose briskly efficient manner is softened by a warm smile, had recently been promoted to chief of detectives after 14 years on the force. She had worked homicides, even a few domestic custody fights where children were taken. But she had never been in charge of anything like this.
She knew all eyes were watching her. She knew some wondered if she was up to the task.
Deep down she prayed they all were.
Grandma Braun's family began gathering the $3 million ransom. They would pay it willingly for her safe return.
March 22, 2004
LITTLE PRAIRIE, Wis. —At his home on Bluff Road, Eddie Braun sat at the kitchen table, refusing to eat or sleep, sobbing about how he had lost the love of his life. The blind, 88-year-old man was so despondent that at first his children were reluctant to tell him that their mother wasn't missing. She had been kidnapped.
"Kidnapped!" cried the Brauns' 53-year-old daughter Joan Wolfram, when police told her about the ransom note. "Why would anyone want to take my mother?"
But the motive was clear.
Heddie and Eddie Braun live in a modest one-story home about a mile from the crossroads that marks the area known as Little Prairie. Their only wealth lies in the 100 acres they once farmed.
But the Brauns' eldest daughter, Judy, had married Richard Mann of Mann Brothers Inc., one of the largest construction firms in the state. The Manns are considered the wealthiest, most politically connected family in the area. If anyone could raise millions, it was the Manns.
"Daddy you can't get sick on us now," pleaded Wolfram. "Mother is strong. You have to believe that she is still alive—and that the best people in the state are trying to find her."
But Wolfram knew she was really trying to persuade herself.
Where was Mother? she kept thinking. And what was the kidnapper doing to her?
"Please God," Wolfram prayed, "wherever Mother is, send your angels to protect her."
At police headquarters in Elkhorn, Sheriff David Graves and the FBI Special Agent in Charge of Wisconsin, Dave Mitchell, gathered Heddie's grown children and their spouses: Richard and Tom Braun, Judy and Richard Mann (who had flown back from vacation in St. Martin when they got the news), Joan and Donny Wolfram. Also there was Robert Mann, Heddie's 33-year-old grandson, who had received the ransom note earlier that day.
It was Thursday morning, more than two days since the abduction. Temperatures were dropping into single digits. Hope was fading too.
In grim silence, the family listened as police told them there was a 65 percent chance they knew the kidnapper.
"He might be a member of your extended family, a co-worker, a friend," Graves said. "We need to know everything about you and your family and your lives. You need to write down everything you did in the three days before Heddie disappeared. We need to know what you had for breakfast, who you talked to on the phone. We need to know the name of anyone you have ever had a disagreement with. There can be no skeletons, no secrets. We need to know EVERYTHING."
Wolfram was unsure whether she felt more angry or scared.
"We are all the people who love mother the most," she thought, "and we are suspects!"
But the nightmarish reality only got worse.
Police would need fingerprints from every family member, background checks, too. They would need to tap their phones. They would need an ironclad assurance that they would talk to no one, not even their closest friends or other family members about the case.
"You need to move your children to safe houses," Graves said. Police didn't know if they were dealing with a gang, or if this was a vendetta. They had to take every precaution.
The family could tell no one that the FBI had been called, or that the case was being investigated as a kidnapping.
"As far as the public is concerned," Graves said, "this is still a case of a missing person."
The FBI's Mitchell took over. It was time to talk about the ransom.
"The decision to pay or not to pay is yours and we won't question it," he said. "But all decisions about how to handle the drop, how to negotiate it, how to execute it—whether we follow him, whether we take him out. You are not making those decisions. We are.
"Do you understand?"
Around the table, the sons and daughters of Heddie Braun nodded. There was no doubt about the money. They would call their banks. They would raise as much as they could.
They would hand it over willingly in return for their mother's life.
At the command center in the sprawling police complex the atmosphere was electric. Dozens of FBI agents poured in from around the state. At first there was more confusion than cooperation as agencies tried to sort out their roles.
The first logistical problem was simply where to put everyone, though Graves quickly came up with a solution: the newly built but unoccupied wing of the 512-bed county jail next to the sheriff's headquarters. There S.W.A.T. teams suited up and napped on bunks as they waited for action.
Police called off the massive search near Braun's home and began focusing instead on any shred of information that could lead them to her kidnapper. But with just one phone call and one typed note, printed from a computer and delivered two days after the call, there was little to go on.
There were no fingerprints on the note. The local phone company confirmed that the phone used to make the call to Robert Mann was a prepaid disposable cell phone called a TracFone.
"What the heck is a TracFone?" Capt. Dana Nigbor, chief of detectives, wondered, as she assigned officers to write subpoenas for records from the Florida company that makes the phones. But she knew it could be days before they got the information.
In the meantime, the only thing to do was old-fashioned leg work—knocking on doors, interviewing anyone connected to the Braun and Mann families, grilling family members, talking to employees at Kmart in the nearby town of Delavan—the only place locally that sold TracFones.
The sheriff's department and the FBI quickly established a joint system of command: two 12-hour shifts run by a top officer from each agency. Phone banks were set up. Photographs of the white-haired, smiling Braun were pinned to the wall, along with a huge chart detailing both the Braun and Mann family trees.
Blackboards were continually scrawled with potential leads—a former Mann employee, an ex-girlfriend of a Braun relative—only to be crossed out and replaced with others.
"There was a sense the clock was ticking," Nigbor said, "and it was getting louder all the time."
Following the instructions on the ransom note, police placed a cell phone number and an American flag in the windows of Mann Brothers Inc. facing Route 12, the main highway north of Elkhorn. They set up round-the-clock surveillance from the country club across the road.
They worked with the phone company to scour the records of all cell phone calls made in the area on the day the kidnapper had forced Heddie to call her grandson. But there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of numbers.
"It was a needle-in-the-haystack kind of thing," Nigbor said. "We didn't even know what we were looking for—just anything that might lead us to the kidnapper."
Meanwhile, they waited for his next move.
Shivering in the cold and the dark, Heddie Braun knew she was failing.
The pain in her feet was excruciating. Her slippers had fallen off and ice encrusted the chains around her ankles. She knew she couldn't last much longer. Yet she didn't feel bitter, or scared.
She felt grateful.
Grateful her abductor hadn't beaten or raped her—her first awful thought when he shackled her legs to the floor. Grateful for the thick fleece nightgown her youngest daughter Joan had given her after fussing for years about her mother not keeping warm. Grateful she had been the one taken, and not a grandchild or great-grandchild.
Most of all, Heddie felt grateful for a life well lived, especially the 68 precious years with Eddie, the dear, charming man she had fallen in love with at a roller rink in Milwaukee all those years ago. They were married two months later, and over the years he had been a factory worker, a ditch digger, a railroad man, a farmer, and they had never stopped loving each other. They raised four fine children, and later, when the children had grown, they had made friends around the country on camping trips in their recreational vehicle.
It had been a simple life, but a good one. And though this wasn't the way she had expected it to end, she could accept it.
She had been to church the previous Sunday. A throng of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren had visited on Monday and celebrated her 88th birthday with cupcakes and candles.
She was kidnapped later that night.
She understood now that she was being held for a $3 million ransom. In written notes, the kidnapper had explained everything. She knew there was no hope. Three million dollars! She hadn't even considered a new hearing-aid because it cost $1,000.
Her family couldn't possibly raise that kind of money—and even if they could, she was too old to be worth it. After 88 years, her life was over.
And so, at peace with her life and her Lord, Heddie Braun prepared to die.
Yet, as she drifted into an uneasy sleep, she couldn't help but wonder,
"How does he plan to kill me?"
Robert Mann didn't believe in miracles. He believed in fighting whoever was terrorizing his family
March 23, 2004
ELKHORN, Wis. —The kidnapper was getting nervous.
Nothing was going as planned. The old lady was deaf as a plank and she hadn't followed his written instructions about what to say on the phone to her grandson.
He couldn't talk to her—or call the grandson himself—because he was afraid his accent would give him away. He had even tried practicing with a tape recorder, but it was no use. His accent was too strong.
Even the new, disposable cell phone hadn't worked out properly. He had tried to activate it from pay phones so the call couldn't be traced, but it didn't work. After complaining bitterly to customer service representatives, he gave up in frustration and used his home computer line.
The old lady kept moaning about the cold, and though he was feeding her hamburgers every day, he knew she couldn't last much longer in the trailer.
Her picture was plastered all over town. He had to either get the money or get rid of her.
And he had to act soon.
The e-mail flashed onto Robert Mann's computer screen, terrifying in its directness.
"Are you ready to discuss business so we can send her home healthy?"
"We have contact," an FBI agent yelled, as other agents scrambled for computers and phones at Mann Brothers Inc., a construction company in Elkhorn which, in recent days, had begun to resemble a satellite FBI post.
"Are you ready?" one agent asked Mann.
Mann nodded. He had spent the past few days waiting for this moment, rarely leaving his desk, grabbing just a few hours sleep on an office sofa.
It was 2:11 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 7.
Four days had passed since Mann's grandmother, Heddie Braun disappeared and, by now, everyone was losing hope. There had been no word from the kidnapper in over 24 hours, since the delivery of a ransom note to Mann demanding $3 million.
Exhausted by lack of sleep and lack of information, frustrated by chasing leads that always seemed to prove false, police were preparing the family for the worst.
"More and more it seemed like we were all hoping for a miracle," said Sheriff David Graves.
Robert Mann didn't believe in miracles. He believed in action. He believed in fighting whoever was terrorizing his family, forcing Mann—at the request of the FBI—to send his fiancee and their children to a relative's home for safekeeping. Other family members had moved to safehouses, too.
At 33, Mann has dark good looks and penetrating blue eyes and the steely intensity of someone who has won tough fights before—from hard-fought construction contracts to recovering from a broken back.
Even some of the most hard-bitten FBI agents marveled at his determination to complete the "mission" as he called it. He would be one tough negotiator.
"Make your grandmother human," the FBI agent assigned to be Manns' "coach" said over his shoulder. There were so many agents swarming around, Mann didn't even know their names.
"Tell him something that makes him relate to her as a person, not just as a victim."
The sender's address was bulletproof_655hotmail.com
Mann felt pure rage as he stared at it. But he forced himself to stay calm. Taking a deep breath, he started typing,
"My grandmother needs her heart medicine," he wrote. "Is there any way I can get it to her?"
Across town at the Walworth County Sheriff's Department, Capt. Dana Nigbor, chief of detectives, combed through the stack of records that had just arrived from the TracFone company. Police had subpoenaed the records when they learned the type of phone the kidnapper had used to make a call to Mann's office earlier in the week.
The records included the serial number of the cell phone and the number from which the phone had been recently activated.
Nigbor paused. It was a local area code.
She typed the number into the computer using a reverse directory service.
An address popped up: N6974 Peck Station Road in the Town of LaFayette, about six miles from Elkhorn.
Nigbor clicked on the computer again. The house belonged to Reinier Ravesteijn.
Another click—this time to run a police background check.
A picture popped up, of a burly looking guy, dark, slightly balding. Ravesteijn had been booked on breaking and entry charges in 1997.
Heart thumping, still uncertain of what exactly she had found, Nigbor printed a copy of the mug shot and showed it to Detective Michael Banaszynski.
"I think we have a suspect," she said.
Banaszynski, universally known as "Bambi" because his name is so difficult to pronounce, had a deep, personal investment in finding Heddie Braun, a neighbor of his in Little Prairie. The families were friends. Banaszynski had been in charge of the massive ground search until it was called off two days earlier.
He stared at the photo intently.
"Oh my God!" Banaszynski cried. "That's Rene."
"You KNOW this guy?"
"I've known him for 20 years."
"What?" Nigbor was incredulous. "Is he capable of kidnapping....of killing?"
Slowly Banaszynski nodded.
"I think so," he said. "I mean ... if he was desperate."
"When are you ready to do the trade."
A second e-mail flashed across Mann's screen. Nearly three hours had passed since the last one, and he hadn't moved from his desk. At the urging of the FBI, he had written about a dozen e-mails trying to re-establish contact. But bulletproof_655 had not responded—until now.
It was Friday, Feb. 7 at 5 p.m., nearly four days since the kidnapping.
"Ask for details," urged the FBI agent. "Where you should go? When? Assure him that you have the money and you are ready."
Investigators hadn't traced the e-mail yet but they were working on it, and the longer Mann could keep the connection the better chance they had.
The Mann family had already raised about $180,000 in cash. The banks had promised more. They had bought a black gym bag.
"I'm ready," Mann typed.
He had no idea that police already had a suspect.
At the command center across town, Banaszynski sat at his desk painstakingly writing everything he could about the larger-than-life Dutchman he had met years ago. Ravesteijn, now 45, had immigrated from the Netherlands to marry a local girl, Karen Evenson after they met on an overseas trip when she was a student. Her sister was once married to Banaszynski's ex-partner.
The Ravesteijns were well known in the area. Karen had worked for years as a waitress at Millie's Restaurant in Delavan. Their three children, ages 10, 12 and 14, attended local schools. Ravesteijn, a carpenter, had a reputation as a good worker, but a difficult one—a hothead who smoked marijuana, used salty language, and didn't much care for authority.
Through the Evensons, the Ravesteijns had become friendly with the Manns. They went to parties at Dick and Judy Mann's house. Once, when Robert Mann was 12, they had all gone on a trip to the Netherlands together.
Though he had never been in serious trouble with the law, Ravesteijn had been in minor scrapes. Banaszynski had no doubt he had a violent streak if pushed.
But premeditated kidnapping? Ransom? Was Rene capable of that?
Banaszynski thought long and hard before ending his report.
"Detective Banaszynski based on his personal knowledge of Ravesteijn, believes he is capable of committing the kidnapping," he wrote. "Detective Banaszynski also believes Ravesteijn is capable of causing bodily harm to the victim if necessary, to allow his escape or if he is pressured."
Reading it, Nigbor's heart sank.
"Poor Heddie," she thought.
By Friday evening, Feb. 7, local television stations were reporting the kidnapping despite the best efforts of police to continue to present the case as a "missing person." The family was frantic. Locals were getting uneasy, too. There were so many agents in town that people were calling to report suspicious activity—a van parked near a cell phone tower for an unusually long time (the FBI S.W.A.T team), strange cars at the country club.
By now, investigators had traced the e-mails to the iColiseum Internet Cafe in West Allis, about 40 miles from Elkhorn. A video surveillance camera had captured a fuzzy picture of Ravesteijn. A manager confirmed it was the man in the police mug shot.
There was no doubt that Ravesteijn was their suspect.
There was no doubt they would arrest him, and soon. The question was when, and where.
Did they take him at his home, risking an emotional scene with his wife and children and the possibility that he would deny everything and never lead them to the victim?
Did they try to stop him on the road, risking a high-speed chase and shootout?
Were they further endangering Heddie's life by leaving her with Ravesteijn one more day?
In the end, they decided, that is what they had to do.
"There was this unanimous feeling that he was going to be in jail by the end of Saturday," Nigbor said. "The question was, would he lead us to Heddie?"
And was she still alive?
"Suspect is mobile!" Finally, it was time for action.
March 24, 2004
ELKHORN, Wis. —All night long, S.W.A.T team members crouched in a snowy embankment, their sniper scopes trained on Reinier Ravesteijn's house, a small yellow raised ranch on a remote country road about six miles from Elkhorn.
There wasn't even a tree to hide behind, just frozen fields and the roadside ditch. Temperatures dipped into the single digits. The wind was blowing at 20 miles per hour. Agents took two-hour shifts, it was so cold.
Lights flickered on and off, and shadows moved through different rooms, and when finally the house went dark, the S.W.A.T teams made their move.
In the moonlight, a couple of agents crept up the drive. They placed two infrared beacons near a trailer at the back of the house. They would be used as spotters for aerial surveillance. Then they slipped a transmitter underneath Ravesteijn's white van.
It took just a few minutes before they crept back to the ditch.
It was Friday, Feb. 7.
They would wait through the night and leave before sunrise.
Saturday morning, around 9 a.m.
"Suspect is mobile."
At the police command center, all eyes latched onto the little red dot as it moved across the computer screen—the transmitter attached to Ravesteijn's van.
Finally, it was time for action.
They were baffled by what happened next.
First Ravesteijn drove to the Ace Hardware store and bought a kerosene tank.
Then he drove to McDonald's and bought a couple of hamburgers.
"What the heck?" Walworth County Sheriff's Department Capt. Dana Nigbor said, voicing the thoughts of everyone else. "Where's Grandma?"
Sheriff David Graves had a bad feeling. The more the clock ticked, the more likely the suspect would panic, dump the body and try to flee.
He's on to us, Graves thought, watching the little red dot as Ravesteijn drove home. He's pretending to be normal, he thought. He's not going to lead us to Heddie.
For the next agonizing hour and a half, police debated what to do.
Should they go to his home? Should they wait a few more hours?
Then the cry went up again.
"Suspect is mobile!"
Again the little red dot moved across the screen. Again everyone crowded around to watch. This time Ravesteijn was on the highway, heading north. It looked like he was fleeing town. Another few miles and he would cross county lines.
Graves' head was pounding. He prayed he was making the right call.
"Stop him," Graves cried. "Take him now."
It was 11:15 a.m.
Along I-43, the scene was surreal—a convoy of 30 unmarked police cars trailing the suspect's white Dodge van. Police had blocked the road from other traffic as they waited for word from headquarters.
"Go! Go! Go!"
The two lead cars swept past Ravesteijn's van and another two screeched up behind, barricading him at the side of the road.
Sirens blared. Flashbangs—small popping devices used to disorient suspects—exploded. Officers leaped from their cars, dragged Ravesteijn from his van and shoved him face down onto the road. Guns were pointed at his head. Everyone was yelling.
An officer grabbed Ravesteijn's shirt and screamed into his face. Another held a gun to his throat.
"Tell us where she's at? Where's Heddie?"
Ravesteijn looked terrified.
"I don't know what you are talking about," he cried. "Let me go. Just treat me like a man."
But the screaming just got louder.
"WHERE'S HEDDIE? WHERE'S GRANDMA?"
Detective Michael Banaszynski watched from a distance. Banaszynski, 43, is short and dark with a round face and friendly eyes and a gentle manner. The nickname Bambi suits him well.
Slowly he got out of the car and walked toward Ravesteijn. His cell phone and radio were turned on, so everyone at the command center could hear what was happening.
From the ground Ravesteijn spotted his old friend.
"Bambi!" he cried. "I'll talk to Bambi."
The screaming stopped. Officers pulled Ravesteijn to his feet.
"Rene," Banaszynski looked him in the eye. "Is she alive?"
"Bambi . . . I was desperate."
IS SHE ALIVE?"
Ravesteijn nodded furiously. "She's alive."
"How do you know?"
"I saw her this morning."
At the command center, cheers erupted as investigators pulled off headphones and leaped across the room with whoops and hugs.
Only the sheriff held back.
"If he's telling the truth," Graves thought, "what shape is she in?"
In the police car, Ravesteijn confessed to Banaszynski how he concocted the kidnaping scheme after losing his $32-an-hour job. He hadn't even told his wife about the job, he said. He pretended to drive to work every morning, while secretly driving to a parking place where he could sleep or do cocaine.
Banaszynski listened in silence. He had no sympathy, nor any time for a formal interrogation. That would come later. He just prayed that Heddie Braun was alive.
In the car, Ravesteijn told Banaszynski where Braun was imprisoned. When the police car pulled into the drive, the detective raced to the small white trailer behind Ravesteijn's house.
Banaszynski pushed the door open and peered inside. There was an eerie whooshing sound from the kerosene tank in the corner, and the dank smell of urine. All he could see was a pile of filthy blankets, some McDonald's containers, and some kind of plastic sheet underneath.
"Heddie!" he called. "Heddie?"
Banaszynski heard a muffled moan. He pulled off one blanket.
Heddie's huge blue eyes gazed up at him, startled but calm.
"Who are you?" she said.
"We're the police. We've come to take you home."
Banaszynski put his arms around the old lady, all skin and bones and frozen. She looked close to death. Her feet were bruised and swollen. Ice coated the chains around her ankles. Banaszynski felt sick. How could Rene have done such a thing?
"You're safe now," Banaszynski said.
"What took you so long?" she whispered.
Banaszynski couldn't bring himself to smile. He was crying too hard.
"You are one tough lady," he said, choking on his tears.
Across town, at police headquarters, everyone listening was crying, too.
At first doctors told Heddie she might lose her left foot, it was so damaged by frostbite. She had blood clots in her legs. Her heartbeat was irregular because she had been off her medicine. Doctors didn't think she could have survived another day.
Heddie just smiles when asked how she remained so strong.
"I'm Norwegian," she says.
Her foot was saved, and she went home from the hospital after two weeks.
The family reunions were joyful. The church dinner to thank the rescuers was special, too. Heddie dressed in a dark blue suit with flowers on her lapel, listened to the speeches and offered a simple thank-you of her own. She showed no anger or bitterness. And she never shed a tear.
She has rarely talked about her ordeal, other than the required interviews with police.
"That's the past," she says. "We can't live in the past."
Once, months later, when her daughter, Joan Wolfram, was driving her to one of her countless doctor's appointments, she said, "I forgive him. You have to, too."
"The forgiving is not the hard part," Wolfram says. "It's forgetting that's hard."
It was especially hard to sit in court at Ravesteijn's December sentencing—the Manns and Brauns on one side, the Ravesteijns on the other—and hear the rambling apology of the man they had once considered a friend.
It was galling to hear his wife, Karen Ravesteijn, plead for leniency. She had, after all, taken part in a botched plan to help him escape by smuggling saw blades in a Bible into the jail. She ended up being placed on two years' probation.
The Ravesteijn children heartbreakingly climbed onto the stand and, one by one, begged the judge to give them back their dad.
And then Heddie's family spoke.
In letters to the judge, in speeches in court, they told of how the kidnapping had robbed them of their sense of safety, peace and trust. They have security systems in their homes now, they said. They worry about someone trying to kidnap their children.
But the worst was the betrayal.
"How do you tell your grandchildren that a `friend' kidnapped Grandma, and tortured her like she was prisoner of war?" asked Wolfram. "How can they ever understand?"
At the back of the courtroom Heddie Braun clutched the hand of her wheelchair-bound husband, Eddie, and listened. She didn't feel any joy, she said later. She was curious about what her kidnapper looked like without his black face mask. But mostly she felt sad for his wife and children.
Not Eddie. For Eddie, life in prison was not punishment enough for the monster who had taken his wife.
So he gave a grim smile when the judge sentenced Ravesteijn to 45 years for kidnapping, burglary and false imprisonment. Heddie let out a gasp.
Forty-five years? For kidnapping her?
But I'm just a nobody, she protested.
"No ma'am," Sheriff Graves said.
Her family thinks she may have suffered a mild stroke, brought on by the ordeal. Heddie says the pain in her foot wears her down, and that is why she seems so frail and tired.
She sleeps a lot these days, more than she used to.
She locks the door now. And she always leaves the lights on.
EDITOR'S NOTE—This story is based on interviews with nine members of the Braun and Mann families, including Hedwig and Edward Braun, Joan Wolfram and Robert Mann; with Sheriff David Graves, Capt. Dana Nigbor, Detective Michael Banaszynski and two other members of the Walworth County Sheriff's Department; with Walworth County District Attorney Philip Koss and three members of his staff; with the FBI Special Agent in Charge of Wisconsin, David Mitchell; and with Reinier Ravesteijn's attorney, Larry Steen. It is also based on Walworth County Circuit Court criminal records, sheriff's department police reports, a videotaped sheriff's department interview with Hedwig Braun, and transcripts of Ravesteijn's confession to police.
Stories copyright 2004 The Associated Press. Reprinted with permission.
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