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Kidnapped Grandma's Family Is Grilled

Police tell relatives there is a 65% chance they know the intruder -- and 'we need to know everything about you.'

March 28, 2004|Helen O'Neill | Associated Press Writer

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' daughter, Joan Wolfram, 53, 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 in 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 Bros. Inc., one of the largest construction firms in the state. The Manns are considered the wealthiest, most politically connected family in the area.

"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, David Mitchell, gathered Heddie's immediate family. It was Thursday morning, more than two days since the abduction.

In grim silence, the family listened as police told them that there was a 65% chance that they knew the kidnapper.

"We need to know everything about you and your family and your lives," Graves said. "We need to know the name of anyone you have ever had a disagreement with. There can be no skeletons, no secrets."

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 ... you are not making those decisions. We are."

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.

*

Police called off the massive search near Braun's home and began focusing on any shred of information that could lead them to her kidnapper. But there was little to go on.

There were no fingerprints on the ransom note. The phone company confirmed that the phone used to make the call to Robert Mann was a prepaid disposable cellphone called a TracFone.

Officers were assigned to write subpoenas for records from the Florida company that makes the phones. But it could be days before they got the information.

In the meantime, the only thing to do was old-fashioned legwork -- knocking on doors, interviewing anyone connected to the Braun and Mann families, 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 as dozens of agents poured in from around the state. 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.

"There was a sense the clock was ticking," said Capt. Dana Nigbor, the sheriff's department chief of detectives, "and it was getting louder all the time."

Following the instructions on the ransom note, police placed a cellphone number in the windows of Mann Bros. Inc. facing Route 12, the main highway north of Elkhorn. They set up round-the-clock surveillance from the country club across the road.

Meanwhile, they waited for the kidnapper's next move.

*

Shivering in the cold and dark, Heddie Braun knew that she was failing.

The pain in her feet was excruciating. Her slippers had fallen off and ice encrusted her ankles. She knew that she couldn't last much longer. Yet she didn't feel bitter or scared.

She felt grateful.

Grateful that her abductor hadn't beaten or raped her. Grateful that she had been the one taken, and not a grandchild or great-grandchild.

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