Kidnapped and Trapped Below Ground

“If you don’t give them $75,000, they will kill me. These people mean business.” There was a click, then the hum of a dead line.

For Benny Baucom, that hum prefaced an agonising ordeal. The co-founder and president of Bebco Industries, an industrial company in La Marque, Texas, Benny had been called to the phone in his office on Wednesday, September 22, 1982. The voice on the other end belonged to his 20-year-old son, Michael, and Benny could tell it was a recording. He could make out only a phrase or two, then the chilling final sentence: “These people mean business.”

His son had been kidnapped. Fighting back panic, Benny asked Sheri, his daughter and secretary, about the original caller. It had been a man, she said. In short order, Benny informed several company officials of the abduction. They should maintain an appearance of business as usual, Benny said, and share the information with no one.

Benny’s mind raced as he headed home to tell Glendell, his wife and Mike’s mother. His thoughts kept returning to a former Bebco salesman named Ronald Floyd White, who had quit his job a few months earlier. A gun enthusiast who referred to himself as a ‘mercenary’, White had come across as a sort of con man.

As he drove, Benny wondered about the $75,000 ransom demand. Why not three times that much? Then it hit him: a few months earlier, he had sold some property for $80,000. White, who knew about this sale, must have reasoned that his former employer had that amount of cash readily available. Now Benny was certain that the ex-salesman had kidnapped his son.

The previous evening, Mike Baucom had been watching television at his home in Santa Fe, Texas, a little more than ten kilometres from his father’s plant. Around 9.30pm, he heard three knocks on his door. When he opened it, Mike found himself looking down the barrel of a .357 Magnum wielded by a man around his own age. Behind him stood a guy with jet-black hair holding a shotgun. The pair forced Mike into the kitchen, where they blindfolded him, bound his hands and gagged him with duct tape. Then they walked him out to his own pick-up, pushed him into the cab and began to back out of the driveway.

After half an hour, the pick-up reached a secluded, heavily wooded area in an abandoned oil field north of Houston. There, the abductors made Mike repeat two separate messages into a tape recorder. Benny would hear the first one over the phone the next morning.

The second message contained a set of instructions: “Drive to the San Jacinto Monument, east of Houston. Take the Lynchburg Ferry across the ship channel. Follow the road to the grocery store at Interstate 10 and wait at the parking lot phone booths for a call.”

When they’d finished recording, the pair walked Mike over to a hole in the ground. It contained a flimsy plywood box that was 2.5 m long, 79 cm wide and nearly 68 cm deep. “We’re giving you half a loaf of bread and a plastic bottle full of water,” one said. “Be cool. If everything goes right, we’ll be back in a couple of days to get you out.”

They forced Mike to lie down in the plywood box, added a lid, jammed in breathing tubes made of four plastic pipes approximately 2 cm in diameter and shovelled dirt into the hole. To cover their handiwork, they scattered worn-out tyres over the burial site. Then they drove away. As Mike huddled there, underground, he thought about the changes he would make to his life if he ever got out.

Once Benny had spoken to his wife, he called the Santa Fe police. Chief Bryan Lamb arrived within ten minutes to thoroughly question Benny, who shared his suspicions about White. Lamb sent the distraught father back to work and returned to the police station, where he notified the FBI.

En route to the factory, Benny swung by Mike’s house. When he saw that the yard was empty, he concluded that the kidnappers had taken his son away in his own pick-up. Benny checked in at Bebco, then drove to a sporting goods store and bought ammunition for the deer rifle he had placed in his car boot before leaving home. He headed for White’s trailer in Houston. “If Mike’s pick-up had been there,” he said later, “I’d have killed everybody who might’ve been in the place.”

But the pick-up was not there, so Benny settled down to wait. No one came. Finally, around 5pm, he drove to a nearby store and called his factory. He was put through to an FBI agent who was very firm: Benny was to stay put. Agents would be leaving immediately to escort him home. In conjunction with local police, the bureau had taken over. There were to be agents at the Baucom home around the clock, and a small army of lawmen had set up a command post at the factory.

Meanwhile, 130 km to the north, Mike had managed to turn over onto his stomach. From this vantage, he discovered a gap between the end of the box and the sides. The more he worked on the end board, the looser it became. He was propped on his elbows when the end board came free, causing the lid of the box, with its burden of earth, to collapse towards his head. Mike had just enough time to jam a scrap of wood between the lid and the floor to avoid being crushed. Now he was pinned in place, face down.

At 4.30 the next morning, Thursday, the phone rang in the Baucom home. Benny found himself listening to the same recording of Mike’s voice he had heard before. At the end of the transmission, a man’s voice came on. “You’ve got two days to get the money.” The conversation had lasted 25 seconds, not long enough for the FBI to trace it. And they still had no delivery instructions. That afternoon, Benny picked up the ransom money with the lawmen. They made up a package of $5000 in $10 notes wrapped around a wad of fake notes, with an electronic tracker at the core.

The phone call finally came on Friday evening. A man’s voice told Benny to go back to the factory and await instructions. The two agents who would act as Benny’s bodyguards fitted him with a bulletproof vest and put a radio transmitter in his shirt pocket; the device would allow Benny to communicate if he ventured beyond voice range.

After they arrived at the factory, the agents quickly secured the building, then told Benny to enter. At 10.30pm, the phone rang. Benny picked it up and heard Mike’s voice on tape: “Drive to the San Jacinto Monument, east of Houston….” At the end of the instructions Benny cried, “Hey, I want to talk to my son! I’ve got your damn money. Where is Mike?” He was talking to a dead line.

Thus began the longest night in Benny Baucom’s life. With the agents crouched on the floor of the car’s back seat, covered by a sleeping bag, he drove to the monument, took the ferry across the channel and headed to the market where he was to receive the kidnappers’ call. There were four phone booths by the parking lot. One of the lines began ringing. Benny picked up the receiver. “Get on I-10 and drive west to the Exxon station,” a voice said. “Wait by the phone booths for further instructions.”

Benny headed to the petrol station and waited. After two hours, one of the phones finally rang. It was a woman’s voice this time: “Drive back to the Minute market, park under the lights and open all the doors of your car – all the doors, front and back, and the boot. Then wait for further instructions.”

Benny would now have to go it alone. Shortly after 2am, en route to the market, he let the agents out of his car. At his destination, Benny switched off his engine and opened the doors – and waited. Finally, at 5am, he saw movement in the shadows at the edge of the parking area. An FBI agent came over to him. “They phoned your house a few minutes ago and said it’s been called off for tonight.”

On Saturday night, the pair who’d stolen Mike away in his own pick-up visited the burial site. When they shone a torch down one of the breathing tubes, they heard Mike’s voice, very weak: “I’m out of water. I need more water.” But the two men walked away.

Despite the massive FBI effort, hope was beginning to fade. Then, out of the blue, came an unexpected break. At 12.30am on Sunday, the sheriff’s office in Montgomery County, 50 km north of Houston, received a call from a local resident reporting a suspicious car parked at a darkened Jiffi Stop convenience store.

Deputies Jim Hall and John Orr responded. As they drove up, they saw a man with black hair filling plastic bottles from a tap. The man told Hall he was replenishing the water supply for a camp back in the woods. Orr had been shining his torch around the interior of the beat-up car beside him. Suddenly he shouted, “Look out, Jim, there’s a pistol on the front seat!”

The deputies frisked the man and searched his car. They found a shotgun on the back seat, and in the boot, a semi-automatic machine pistol, a bag of ammunition, a tape recorder, wire, rope and a briefcase containing a passport for Ronald Floyd White. The name meant nothing to the deputies, who had no knowledge of the Baucom case. The suspect in hand said he was Timothy Connelly, and he claimed to have been picked up by two men who offered to pay him if he’d get some water for their camp. While he was talking, the deputies spotted a slip of paper between the car seats. It contained a series of driving instructions with orders to wait for telephone calls. One line read, “You’ll see Mike alive again if…”

Hall and Orr called their dispatcher and asked for a statewide check on White. The reply came back fast: he was wanted down south – as a suspect in an ongoing kidnapping. While Hall and Orr were booking Connelly, they heard over the radio that colleagues had spotted a camp fire in the woods. They raced to the scene, arriving just as two new suspects were being taken into custody: a bearded, long-haired man named Mark Oler and a young woman named Debbie Williams. There was no sign of White.

When questioned, Oler admitted that White had been at the camp that evening. Hall still did not know the name of the kidnap victim – all he had was “Mike” in the ransom note. “Look, Oler,” he said, “we know you’ve got Mike, and it looks like White has left you holding the bag. So as far as we’re concerned, you’re the kidnapper, and if anything happens to the victim, you’ll face a murder rap.”

The bluff worked. Oler led the police to the middle of an abandoned oil field. Stepping out into the pre-dawn cold, Hall shouted, “Mike?” He heard a voice, muffled and faint. He shouted again, and again the barely audible voice replied. The police began digging frantically, using their bare hands. They found a hole, and Hall reached down as far as he could. A desperate hand grasped his wrist.

At 7.30 on Sunday morning, Benny Baucom heard his front door open. “We have Mike,” Chief Lamb told him. He drove Benny and Glendell to Montgomery County Courthouse, where they were briefed on their son’s ordeal. He had lost 10 kg but, apart from insect bites and dehydration, seemed to be in good shape. Minutes later, freshly showered and wearing police coveralls, Mike walked in.

After a joyous family reunion, Mike told law officers and then reporters of his five-day nightmare. Speaking in a steady voice, he described his panic when the lid on the box began to sag; he recalled his realisation that if it rained, he would probably drown. With ants biting his hands and eyelids, he’d had hallucinations about being chewed down to a skeleton. Finally, he’d heard someone calling his name, and there had been earth falling and a hand in a hole above his head.

When the rescuers had placed Mike in their squad car, they asked him what he wanted. A soft drink, he replied – and to share his joy. Moments later, he picked up the car’s radio transmitter. “This is Mike Baucom speaking,” he said. “I want to thank everybody! You got me out of the hole. I’m free! I’m alive!

On September 30, 1982, Ronald Floyd White was captured after a high-speed chase near Rio Hondo, Texas. Along with Connelly, Oler and Williams, he was later convicted of aggravated kidnapping. The same week he had held Baucom captive, White was also charged with the abductions of two other men, 27-year-old firefighter Coby Garland Hamilton and 40-year-old oil-field worker Robert Cameron. White had trapped both men in the boots of separate cars, and both had managed to escape.

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