It was almost noon on Christmas Eve 1993. Ruth Mayer was badly shaken and disheveled as she neared a stranger’s front door in El Sobrante, Cal. But there was an element of relief because her 63-hour ordeal at the hands of kidnappers was nearly over.
Dorothy Fredenburg opened her door, brought Ruth inside and dialed 911. As Ruth collapsed into a chair to wait for authorities to come pick her up, Fredenburg asked if Ruth wanted to call her family to say she was OK.
Mayer’s husband, jeweler Gene Mayer, says he was a “basket case” waiting to hear from the kidnappers who broke into their home, took valuables, drove away with Ruth and left him bound on the floor.
Even today, as the Mayers recount those horrible hours, their voices break and their hands quiver slightly. “You think you’re doing everything right and you think it’ll never happen to you,” Gene says. “But it happened to us. We don’t know why we were targeted. We were always aware that someday there might be a robbery. But we never expected this.”
Evening intruders: The saga began about 8 p.m. Dec. 21 at the Mayer home in Antioch, a community of 65,000 people about 40 miles east of San Francisco. Gene was at the three-generation family jewelry store. Ruth was at home. The doorbell rang, but Ruth didn’t answer. “I don’t open the door at night,” she says. She did look outside and saw two men standing near the door. She assumed they were interested in a car the Mayers were trying to sell.
Gene arrived home about 9 p.m. and the doorbell rang again. “I forgot to tell you, someone was here before,” Ruth told him. Gene went out a side door, and as he approached the two men, one of them said, “Mr. Mayer, I understand you have been getting a lot of bad credit slips at the store.” Gene knew something was wrong and asked what the men wanted. They each pulled a gun and asked how to get into the store. Gene told them it was a complicated process requiring two people and special codes, and that he doubted they’d be able to make it. “They bought it,” he recalls.
When Gene didn’t come back in, Ruth went outside and found Gene on his knees with guns pointed at his head. The guns were fitted with laser sights that emit a thin red beam. “Where the beam hits is where the bullet goes,” Gene says. “It was scary to see it pointed right at your face.”
When one assailant turned his gun on Ruth, Gene said, “Give them what they want.” The men marched Ruth and Gene into the house, forced them to lie down on the floor and bound their hands and feet with duct tape. They also taped their eyes shut.
By this time, another person had joined the two gunmen (in all, 10 people allegedly were involved in the crime). They wheeled the Mayers’ safe out of the house, ransacked their bedroom and took everything that seemed to be of value, including Gene’s money clip with some $100 bills in it. “They even took some batteries I had for the grandkids’ toys,” Ruth says.
Preparing to leave, the men said they would have to take a hostage. “Gene has high blood pressure and I was afraid he would have a heart attack because he was hyperventilating,” Ruth says, “so I told them I would go.” They cut the tape from her feet and retaped her hands in front of her, put her in a car and drove off with that and another vehicle. They abandoned both vehicles soon afterward and told Ruth she’d be back home soon.
After transferring Ruth to another car a short distance later, they changed their story. “You’re not going to go home. You won’t be home for Christmas, and you won’t be home for New Year’s,” they told her.
“Are you going to kill me?”
“No, if everything goes OK.”
That was the first time Ruth realized this was more than a robbery.
The hideout: The kidnappers drove Ruth to a garage and led her to a partitioned area in the rear. She remained blindfolded and guarded during almost all of her captivity. But once when she was left alone for a moment, she wriggled her arms loose and slid the tape from her eyes. The only things in the tiny space were a garden lounge chair and a mattress. She slept on the chair, her guard on the mattress.
While she was imprisoned, Ruth’s senses worked overtime. She realized they had not driven through a toll booth, so she knew they were still in the East Bay area. While in the garage, she heard a train, a cat, the flow of traffic as trucks and motorcycles sped nearby. She heard bottles rattling, as if in a recycling facility, and when she removed the tape from her eyes and looked out, she saw what looked to be a blue tarpaulin covering what she thought was a car. One of her captors read her an article about the kidnapping, and when the tape was off her eyes, she saw the masthead: West County Times.
(After the kidnappers released Ruth, she reported these clues to police and FBI investigators, who then were able to locate the garage. How did they know it was the right garage? “I put my fingerprints on every place I could in that little space,” she says. “I wanted someone to know I was there.”)
The investigation begins: Back at the Mayers’ home, Gene was able to stretch the duct tape enough to free an arm and call 911. He reported that his wife had been taken, and the dispatcher calmly asked if they had taken a car. Gene ran outside and realized they had taken two, but he couldn’t remember the license plate numbers. The dispatcher asked if they’d taken anything else, and Gene realized the safe was gone.
The police arrived while Gene was still on the telephone with the dispatcher. Soon after came a cameraman for a San Francisco television station who had picked up the police call on his scanner. The kidnapping was reported on the 11 o’clock news.
By that time, Gene had notified his family and his four children had all headed for the house. When FBI agents arrived about 2 a.m., they asked Gene to go to the police station with them, questioned him for several hours and gave him a polygraph test. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was the No. 1 suspect,” he says. “In a case like this, the spouse is automatically the first suspect.”
Heidi, a daughter-in-law, was the first to find a ransom note. “I missed it and the police missed it,” Gene says. “It was on a coffee table about three feet from where I was tied up on the floor. It was partially hidden by some Christmas decorations.” The kidnappers wanted $2 million dropped into the bay from a pier in Berkeley. The plan, Gene later learned, was for gang members to retrieve the money using scuba gear stolen from a dive shop. The reason for dropping it in the water: any bugs the FBI placed on the money wouldn’t work under water.
The wait continues: The FBI set up a command post in the Mayers’ bedroom, and two additional phone lines were installed by 4 a.m. Gene was taken back to the police station the next day to work with Jean Boylan, a composite sketch specialist who was flown in from Oregon. “She asked questions and then sketched, then asked more questions and then sketched some more,” he says. “It took 61/2 hours, but she came up with a composite that I thought looked like the guys who came into the house.” Just a few weeks earlier, Boylan had created the composite sketch that led to the capture of the man who kidnapped and killed Polly Klaas in a widely publicized case in California earlier in the year.
Gene made a tearful plea on television, asking the kidnappers to return Ruth. (One of the kidnappers told Ruth he had seen it and told her, “Your husband loves you very much.”) The composite sketch was reproduced, released to the news media and distributed in airports and other public places all over the coast.
But Gene thought time was running against them: “The police chief told me, in a nice way, that unless we could get Ruth back within 48 hours, she’d probably be killed,” he recalls.
Ruth thought the same thing. “I figured I was going to die,” she says. “But I didn’t know how. As soon as I was put in the garage, I didn’t think I’d get out alive. I told them, ‘If you kill me, my husband will do everything possible to find you. If you do kill me, at least tell my family where my body is.'” One captor once took off his ski mask and Ruth thought they would kill her for sure then because she had seen his face. “I can truthfully say I wasn’t afraid,” she says. “I guess that’s the same way people think when they’re told they have a terminal illness. I sort of slid into my own little world.”
The FBI trained Gene, his daughter Kristel and daughter-in-law Heidi how to answer the phone and what to say if the kidnappers called to arrange the ransom payment. “We had to keep the phone free,” Gene says. “When our bishop called, Kristel answered and told him, ‘Thanks for calling, but I can’t talk now’ and hung up on him.”
Support pours in: The community and the jewelry industry quickly joined in support of the Mayers. “Everyone jelled together,” Gene says. Former employees, friends and even customers staffed the store on Dec. 23 and 24. (The store was closed Dec. 22.) The City of Antioch offered $100,000 as a reward for information leading to the capture of the abductors; the California Jewelers Association (Gene is a past president) chipped in $35,000; Jewelers of America offered $15,000; and the Antioch Rotary Club committed $25,000.
The rewards weren’t claimed because the leader of the gang got careless. The day after the kidnapping, he took the cash from Gene’s money clip and went to a bank to make a loan payment with the $100 bills. The teller was suspicious, then recognized him as a person wanted for bank robbery. The police arrested him and later found some of the Mayers’ jewelry in his house. While he was in custody, his cellular phone kept ringing as other gang members tried to reach him. The police traced the calls, located and arrested the callers and found some more of the jewelry.
In the meantime, members of the gang were getting nervous without any leadership. They hastily decided to free Ruth because the plan seemed to be falling apart. When the message was delivered to her guard, he said to her, “I told you I’d get you home for Christmas, and I’m going to do that.”
Ruth knew it was Dec. 24, because a radio that had been on since the day before was now playing Christmas carols. “They announced that they’d start playing carols at midnight, and I woke up and heard the carols and knew that it must be Christmas Eve day.”
Nervous release: It was nearly noon. A captor gave Ruth a Raiders’ jacket, told her to pull a cap low over her face (even though she was still blindfolded) and put her in a truck. “I knew we were in a downtown-like area because we stopped for lights and went under freeways,” Ruth says. “I was still concerned that they would kill me, and maybe him, too. I thought the gang would blow both of us away.”
The driver pulled onto a residential street in El Sobrante, slowed and said, “There’s a wo man looking out a window. I’m sure she’ll take care of you.” Then he told Ruth to walk slowly to the house. “Give me a few minutes. I don’t want to get the man who owns this truck in trouble.” Ruth got out of the car, fearing she would be shot. The car took off, Ruth pulled the tape from her face and walked toward the door. By the time she reached the house, Fredenburg had opened the door.
The FBI and police arrived moments later. After they questioned her and made her strip off all her clothing (they wanted to analyze the clothing for clues – she was wearing a many-sizes-too-big sweatsuit when she finally arrived back home), they took her away in a car. She recalls one of the agents saying, “You’ve made our Christmas for us. This is the 10th kidnapping we’ve handled this year, and you’re the only one who got out alive.” The Polly Klaas case was the last one his team had worked on, he told her.
Ruth’s release was announced on public address systems in supermarkets and other public places; people cheered and hugged each other. Marc Klaas called Gene to tell him how happy he was the case turned out well. “It was hard to talk with him,” Gene says. “All I could say was that I was sorry he didn’t have the same result.”
Reliving the ordeal: The Mayers are forced to relive the event over and over. As the kidnappers go to trial, Ruth and Gene must testify, either as eyewitnesses in the case of the two men who broke into their home or to relate what happened with the others, even if they weren’t eyewitnesses. “It’s very difficult,” Ruth says. “It doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times we tell the story.”
In addition to the criminal cases, the Mayers are testifying in a civil suit. The gang leader, though in jail, has indicated he plans to write a book, so the Mayers have filed a suit to prevent him from getting any financial gain. “The attorneys are very rough on us,” Gene says. “You’d think we were the criminals, not the victims.”
But there have been good days, too. Not long after her release, the FBI came to the house and showed the Mayers two plastic bags containing jewelry. When they recognized it as theirs, the FBI agent broke out in a
big grin. “This is our link,” he said. “We’ve got them now.” (Only about 30% of the family’s jewelry was recovered.)
The Mayers highly praise the FBI and the Antioch Police Department. “They were right on top of everything. The FBI has unlimited resources,” Gene says. “They have a lot of technology that local police departments can’t afford. The parents of some of the police officers have been our customers, and we know them well.”
At press time, two kidnappers had been convicted, three others were in jail on other charges and it’s likely that some won’t be charged. “I have become accustomed to the idea that some of them might go free,” Ruth says. “During the first trial, when it looked as if he might be acquitted, I felt pain all over. I can’t live with that forever. I must accept the fact that he may go free. The sun will come up, light will follow darkness and life will go on.”
The Mayers learned later they had been stalked for two months. Ruth told one captor that she had heart problems and had an angiogram a month earlier. “We know,” he replied. She also told him she exercised and walked each day. “We know.”
That’s when Ruth remembered a man staring at her when she took a walk one day and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. She also remembered she had been boxed in while driving on a freeway; when she slowed and pulled toward the right, the other cars sped away. “I didn’t think to take down the license plate,” she says. And she remembered one day when she and her sister went to the doctor, whose office was on a one-block dead-end street. As they drove up, a car with two men that had followed them onto the street pulled into a driveway, turned around and sped off. Her sister later saw the same car with the same two men sitting in front of the building. When they saw her, they drove away.
Shortly after Ruth was taken captive, her captors said they had watched her open the store. “I haven’t worked at the store in 10 years,” she told them, then realized they had mixed her up with her daughter-in-law.
The captors kept close tabs on the family the day of the kidnapping. Gene and his son Garrett worked late in the store. “I should have been gone by a little after 8 p.m.” Gene says. “But I was still there about 8:20 when someone called and hung up. The police later traced the call to the leader’s phone. Obviously, he was checking to see if I had left the store yet.
“It’s frightening to think that someone knows so much about you.”
Difficult as it may be to imagine, there were a few mildly humorous moments for Ruth during the ordeal. “I don’t think they were very bright,” she says. “One of them asked me, ‘Do you bring home the money from the store at night?'” Ruth remembers. “He thought we had a half million dollars in cash at the house. And another asked me, ‘Do you buy the jewelry for the store wholesale?’ I had to give him a lesson in how to run a business.”
KIDNAP PROTECTION TIPS
As a result of their experience, Gene and Ruth Mayer offer these tips to protect yourself and your family from kidnapping:
Don’t use so-called vanity license plates with anything that would identify you (such as your family name, “24-K” or “Diamonds”).
Lower your profile. “Our home phone number has always been unlisted, and when I have to give an address, I use the store address,” Gene says. “It’s nice to be active in community things, but make sure it’s not overdone. When we travel, we dress low-key and don’t wear jewelry.”
Cooperate with criminals. “I don’t doubt for a moment that we’d have been killed if we’d tried to resist,” Gene says.
Install a sophisticated security system in your home. “We now have one with two buttons that ring a silent alarm directly into the police station,” he says. “We also have a secured steel screen door with irreversible bolts. Police told us some places they raid for narcotics have these bolts, and it slows them down by 15 or 20 minutes. We also never used to turn our alarm on at night unless we left the house. Now it’s on all night every night.”
Keep up your antennae. Be aware of people and everything else around you, especially when you’re away from home. Be aware of the neighborhood that you’re driving in. Don’t think “It can’t happen to me.”
If you think you’re being followed, look at the person carefully so you can give an accurate description. If you’re being followed by a vehicle, get the license number.
Don’t be afraid to call the police. “Don’t think they can’t do anything about it,” Ruth says. “The police told us to let them worry about that. They said to call when we think something is wrong.”
Perhaps most important, learn how to give a description. “When the second kidnapper went on trial, he almost went free because my description was off,” Gene says. “I said he was 5 feet 9 inches, but he was closer to 6 feet. I said he was about 170 pounds, but he was about 200. The district attorney got a photo of him taken about the time of the kidnapping, and he weighed less then. While in jail he pumped iron and bulked up. But he almost walked because my description wasn’t exact.”
Conduct drills for all store employees. Pick out a customer and have everyone describe him or her. “Keep practicing this,” he says. “It’s vital that an accurate description be given. Not just the height and weight, but also the clothing, the characteristics, everything. For example, Ruth told police one of the kidnappers was wearing an Eisenhower-like jacket, and they found three of them in his closet. She was able to pick out the one he wore.
“A description is important not only in catching criminals, but also in the trial. I can’t emphasize that enough.”