The ransom that never was
- Virginia Vickery
- Forest Grove News-Times - News
A pair of FBI agents walked into Terry Stewart's Forest Grove bank 32 years ago and told him three men were planning to kidnap his wife and son the next day - and then asked for his help
Last week, Terry Stewart marked a harrowing anniversary: the day his wife and young son were nearly kidnapped during one of the most infamous crime capers in Forest Grove's history.
It's been 32 years since the FBI foiled the plot, but the memory of the brazen bank robbery attempt still burns in Stewart's mind.
The plan - hatched by Dennis Ronald Ross, then 30, his 21-year-old accomplice Richard Alan Reichard and Richard Alexander Garcia, then 23 - was to abduct Stewart's wife, Janet, and the couple's young son from their Forest Gale Heights home, then hold them ransom for $150,000.
The plot crumbled after Garcia tipped off the FBI, leading federal agents to swoop into Forest Grove to set up a sting. But for two days the Stewarts were at the center of a tense standoff between the three would-be abductors and the police officers hoping to thwart them.
Day One: The 'suits' show up
Stewart still remembers Thursday, Aug. 30, 1979, when a pair of agents walked into Forest Grove National Bank, where he worked as a vice-president overseeing lending.
'Two black suits came in [and] said, 'Is there someplace we can talk?' and flashed badges,' he said. 'I just remember thinking, 'What the hell did I do?''
The agents told Stewart the plot, and that Garcia got cold feet and contacted law enforcement just days before it was to be carried out.
'I immediately start shuddering,' Stewart said. 'I went home for lunch and told my wife, Janet, 'You better sit down for what I have to tell you.' She thought I was joking.'
Janet Stewart was at home sick with their two-and-a-half year old son, Brian, who would usually be at a babysitter's house. Ross and his associates also knew the pair were home, because they had been casing the house for weeks.
Later that day, FBI agents came to their house to make arrangements for a sting.
'They said, 'Is there anybody you can trust implicitly with your lives?'' Stewart said.
They decided on their next-door neighbors, Jim and Kathy Morrison. Other than the Morrisons, the only other person clued in was Forest Grove National Bank President Merle Bryan. The FBI told the Stewarts to keep it that way.
'We couldn't tell anyone what was going on - not even our family,' Stewart said. 'I had to go back to the bank and we had to act like nothing was happening.'
Over the next 24 hours, dozens of FBI agents descended upon Forest Grove and worked with local law enforcement to decide on the strategy that should be employed to apprehend the would-be kidnappers.
Meanwhile, Ross, Reichard and Garcia were preparing for Friday. They bought guns, practiced writing ransom notes and purchased coveralls, stocking caps and dark glasses in Beaverton.
Unbeknownst to Ross and Reichard, Garcia was relaying all of this information to the FBI. Garcia was on probation for stealing a foosball table and some records and was under investigation for another robbery. According to news reports from the era, Garcia figured that if he informed police of the kidnapping plot, he could escape other charges and that the FBI would relocate him to another state to start his life fresh.
Day Two: The doorbell rings
At 5 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 31, 1979, FBI agents and Forest Grove police officers positioned themselves for an ambush at the Stewart and Morrison houses. Terry Stewart went to work at the bank on Pacific Avenue armed with a walkie-talkie and a bulletproof vest.
At home, Janet Stewart expended nervous energy by cleaning the house all morning, waiting for the men who intended to kidnap her to knock at the door.
At 10:30 a.m., the phone rang. The caller said he had the wrong number, but the FBI suspected it was the final check by the kidnappers to see if Janet and Brian were at home.
Janet positioned herself by a picture window so that she could see both the side and back yard of the house. Ten minutes later, a strange man began walking through the field behind the house. She took Brian in her arms and headed to the basement.
Then the doorbell rang.
Back at the bank, Terry Stewart got a call from the FBI at 10:30 a.m. letting him know the sting was underway. They'd call again when it was over. Until then, he had to wait.
'It was hard for me to concentrate on my loan customers at the time,' Stewart said.
Across the street from the bank, Ross was waiting in a phone booth, where agents expected him to get a call from his associates after they had Janet and Brian.
Because of Garcia's information, law enforcement knew that the men planned to spirit the captives to a nearby graveyard and later demand that $150,000 be delivered from the bank by Terry Stewart in exchange for their safe return.
Ross even dropped a note on Terry Stewart's car that morning, reading, 'You will never see your wife and child again.'
But the plot was about to be scuttled.
At the Stewart home, the doorbell ringing grew more insistent and the door handle jiggled. That's when dozens of agents and police charged from inside the door and from a gate in the Morrisons' yard with their weapons drawn, converging on the two armed men.
Back at the bank, Ross had just slipped a dime into the pay phone to make a call when agents rushed the booth and apprehended him.
'I finally got the call from agents that it has all gone down and everyone was fine and safe,' Terry Stewart said. 'I just kind of collapsed in the president's office.'
The Stewarts had escaped the danger of the kidnapping plot, but the court case wound on for years.
Reichard and Ross were initially sentenced to almost 25 years in prison between the two of them, but in August 1980 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. A second trial led to convictions for both men on extortion charges, which were upheld by a Ninth Circuit decision in 1984.
Garcia was never relocated or paid by the government but the bank awarded him their prize money for thwarting a bank robbery.
Just about a year ago, when Ross was found shot to death in his McMinnville home on June 17, 2010, the Stewarts were reminded again of what could have happened so long ago.
At the time of his death, Ross was 60 years old.
On Tuesday, Aug. 30 - 32 years after FBI agents first walked into Stewart's bank - U.S. Marshals took Mitchell Douglas Ramon, 26, into custody on murder charges in connection with Ross's death.
'Every Labor Day we think about this,' Stewart said. 'It still comes up these many years later.'