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THE NATION

Grandmother's Kidnapping Galvanizes a Community

First in a weekly series

March 21, 2004|Helen O'Neill | Associated Press Writer

LITTLE PRAIRIE, Wis. — It was cold the night that 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, car tracks and all traces of life.

Hedwig Braun, 88, was in bed reading when the lights went out, but she didn't pay much heed. In her tiny farmhouse miles from the nearest town, power outages were not uncommon. Pulling on her dressing gown, she lighted 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 had 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.

But her husband, 88, was asleep in the other room and didn't stir.

At 5-foot-2, weighing 80 pounds, Braun was a slip of a woman whose toughness was all inside. She had no strength to fight off her abductor, and she didn't try. She just prayed as she was flung into the trunk of her 1992 white Cadillac, prayed 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 that 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 deaf, so phone conversations were difficult for her.

It was Tuesday morning, Feb. 4, 2003. At his desk at Mann Bros. Inc. in Elkhorn, the family road construction company, Mann didn't know what to think.

"Hi Grandma," he began. "How are you?"

"I'm OK," she said. "I'm not worried about dying. At my age, I thought I would have died a long time ago."

Mann frowned. Aside from having to take heart medicine every day, his grandmother was healthy. She never rambled like this.

"Grandma, you're not dying," he said. "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 the phone went dead.

Still puzzled, Mann phoned his aunt, Joan Wolfram, who lives a mile down the road from her parents. Wolfram immediately drove to their small green home. 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, although at one point he thought he thought he heard her cry out. He assumed it was her leg cramps. When he didn't hear her in the morning, he thought that she must have gone to visit one of their two sons, who live close by. But when Wolfram raced to their houses, neither was home.

Back at her parents' house, Wolfram found her mother's day clothes laid out in a neat pile. Missing were her nightclothes, along with the burgundy fleece gown that Wolfram had given her for Christmas.

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?

"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 half a 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 just a dot on the map, 12 miles from Elkhorn, a place of wide open fields and scattered farms, a place where doors are left unlocked and car keys are left in the ignition.

Word spread fast that the woman everyone knew as Grandma Braun -- the tiny old lady with the snow-white hair and ever-expanding brood of great-grandchildren -- was missing.

Family members left their jobs in Elkhorn and raced to Little Prairie. Neighbors arrived with snowmobiles and dogs. Volunteer firefighters came from neighboring towns.

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!"

Wolfram trudged the fields, calling and praying.

Mann stayed at his desk late into the night. He printed fliers with a picture of his grandmother and asked drivers for Mann Bros. to post them all over the state.

But the thought kept nagging him: What if there really was a man who had tied up his grandmother and was holding her hostage?

Walworth County Sheriff David Graves was uneasy too. Police found power and phone lines cut at the Braun house.

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