In 1974, Bobby Joe Keesee (in photo), recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his actions during the Korean War, kidnapped Vice Consul John Patterson and held him for a $500,000 ransom. While the United States refused to pay the ransom, Patterson’s mother worked with the U.S. government and State Department officials in Mexico City to organize an exchange between the kidnappers and approved personnel. Charles Anthony “Tony” Gillespie Jr., who served as the Supervisory General Services Officer from 1972 to 1975, describes how he and two others drove from Mexico to various points in California with the half a million dollars in cash in a sealed Samsonite cosmetic bag on what turned out to be a futile venture; Patterson had been killed shortly after being kidnapped.
Keesee was sentenced to 20 years but only served 10. He was later convicted of an alleged scam impersonating a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official issuing phony purchase orders to buy equipment that was supposedly needed to fight disasters. He was also involved in two plane hijackings — one to Cuba, the other to North Vietnam — and the theft of an airplane while posing as a CIA agent.
Gillespie was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in September 1995. David Zweifel served as Political Officer from 1970-1974 in Mexico City; he was interviewed by Thomas Dunnigan beginning in September 1996. You can read about others who died in service to their country and about the Consul General who was kidnapped in 1973 but was released three days later.
“Their attitude was, ‘U.S. policy be damned’”
ZWEIFEL: A more tragic case was that of John Patterson, a first-tour consular officer serving in Hermosillo (at left). The Consulate General there habitually closed down over the lunch hour. One day, John was seen leaving for lunch in the company of someone vaguely familiar, someone who had been around the office on occasion. When the offices reopened after lunch, there was a strange note from John under the door saying, in essence, “Apparently I have been kidnapped” – not much more.
GILLESPIE: There was, of course, a second kidnapping in Mexico while I was there. This involved another consular officer, John Patterson. This incident occurred in March 1974 — just about a year later. It involved another entire series of facts, stories, and policy related matters that affected it….
We received a ransom message of some kind. One of the very few Hispanic FBI agents was stationed in Hermosillo, because there was a lot of law enforcement activity going on there in the Sinaloa Desert area. So [Executive Counselor Victor “Vic” H] Dikeos and I got on a plane and flew up to Hermosillo. Also with us was Keith Jenkins, the Security Officer at the Embassy, if I remember correctly. He was a very serious, professional security type — not your old time, heavy drinking [type]
Jenkins was a college graduate, had been an officer in the military service, I think – in the Navy Intelligence Service, or something like that. He was a very sharp guy. The three of us got on a plane and flew up to Hermosillo. We met with the Consul General and his family and with Mrs. Patterson. All of the people up there, the FBI agent, and the local authorities were hard at work on this incident.
We returned to Mexico City and set up another Crisis Management Center. Then we found out that John Patterson’s mother was the divorced wife or the widow — I don’t remember which — of a very wealthy or well-connected Philadelphia banker. Their attitude was, “U.S. policy be damned.” She was going to get her son out.
She was lobbying on the Hill. We had the Senate, we had the House of Representatives, we had everybody and his brother involved in this matter. The pressure was really heavy on the State Department in Washington and on Ambassador [Joseph John] Jova and the Embassy in Mexico City.
I really saw John Jova under pressure… Senators and Congressmen were calling him directly. They wanted a read-out of exactly what was going on. I saw Ambassador Jova handle this matter, and I’ll tell you, he’s a real professional. He gave them what he had to give them but he didn’t let them beat him up. I saw how an ambassador can deal with such an incident and handle it in a straightforward way. It was tough. These Congressional callers were accusing the Embassy and Mexican Government officials of not doing enough. Ambassador Jova didn’t fall into the trap of defending what was being done. He explained what was going on. He said, this is what we are doing, and we are keeping these pressures on.
We really got into heavy pressure. We had calls from Secretary Kissinger, the U.S. Attorney General, and the FBI Director. All of these senior people in Washington were involved in this matter. It was decided that, while the U.S. would not pay ransom, we could not prevent the families of free, U.S. citizens from taking action. However, we were in a foreign jurisdiction and how would we handle what was done?
Mrs. Patterson, John’s wife agreed to a plan under which there would be an attempt to make a ransom payment that would be thoroughly covered by law enforcement authorities, both Mexican and U.S. The money itself would be marked in several ways and would all be under control. How would we do this? Dikeos, Gillespie, the Security Officer, and Mrs. Patterson would make the payoff.
I was the driver of the vehicle used and, basically, the facilitator. Keith, the Security Officer, was sort of the “pistol,” the “shotgun.” Vic was the “brains,” and Ann was the family member.
“We were doing things which are illegal under U.S. law. We were now taking a half million dollars in cash into Mexico”
Q: Ann was John’s wife.
GILLESPIE: Yes. She was not in complete agreement with John’s mother, but she also was not going to fight her mother-in-law. John’s mother got the bank in Philadelphia to provide $500,000. The bank basically put up the money in small bills, which were generated in Tucson, Arizona. The three men — Dikeos, Gillespie, and Keith Jenkins — the Security Officer flew up to Hermosillo in a DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] plane, where John Patterson’s wife, Ann, joined us. We then used Consul General Ford’s black station wagon. It was nearly new. I had obtained a bunch of new cars for our constituent posts. Consul General Ford’s car had low mileage on it, so it was in good condition.
The three of us from the Embassy in Mexico City, Consul General Ford, and Ann Patterson got in the station wagon and drove up to Tucson, Arizona.
In Tucson we went to the FBI office, where we picked up $500,000 in a blue, Samsonite cosmetic case. It had a little seal on it. Of course, we couldn’t open that seal, but we were told that it contained $500,000. So I had to sign for a case whose contents sight unseen were supposedly $500,000! We put the case in the back jump-seat well of the station wagon. Keith got into the back seat, and then Vic and Ann alternated between the front and back seats.
Then we drove to the first, designated drop point, a place called Rosarito Beach in the State of Baja California. First, we drove from Tucson, Arizona, to San Diego, California. We were doing things which are illegal under U.S. law. We were now taking a half million dollars in cash into Mexico.
We had nothing with us in the car, in the way of a piece of paper. However, we understood that the skids had been greased for us, so that we shouldn’t have a problem, but we didn’t know who was watching us. There was this ransom demand, and it sounded as if it could involve a gang. We didn’t know if they were Mexicans, Cubans, Germans, Americans, or whoever. We went down to Rosarito Beach. We were supposed to see certain signs. We were only to leave the money in a certain place if there were certain indicators that that’s what we were supposed to do. We went down there and spent two nights. It was a terribly tense, difficult time. Here was Ann Patterson with us, and we were all worked up. We spent two nights there at Rosarito Beach, but the signs never appeared.
So we went back into the U.S. with the money. We went on a sort of hegira trip [the journey of the prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina] across the Southwestern part of the U.S. We went to Texas, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and came back that way. We returned to Hermosillo.
There was another message there which said, “You screwed up. You didn’t give us the money there at Rosarito Beach. Now we’re going to do it someplace else.” So we went to the next place listed. I think that it was back up in the U.S. this time. There was nothing there at all, so we figured either that the kidnappers had given up or something had happened.
ZWEIFEL: We had, at that time, a Legal Attaché at the Embassy, an FBI Officer who was able to work closely with Mexican law enforcement authorities. He was able to obtain the registries of all Americans who had stayed at hotels in Hermosillo for several days surrounding the incident. Those were run through FBI records files in Washington. Only one was a hit, that of a man named [Bobby] Joe Keesee.
Next, the FBI put together a montage of perhaps a hundred photos of various men. This was shown to the local employee who had seen John leaving the office on the day of the kidnapping. This employee spent a lot of time going over the pictures, finally saying “Well, it was either A or B” as he picked out two of the photos. It turned out that both were of [Bobby] Joe Keesee, taken ten years apart.
Meanwhile, a legal wiretap had been placed on the telephone of our Consul General, Elmer Yelton. Through this means, we received the only subsequent contact from Patterson’s captor. The caller purported to be a fellow victim and stated that a ransom would be required with details to follow.
As it turned out, Patterson’s wife was prepared, in principle, to meet such demands. In the meantime, the taped telephone conversation was played for Keesee’s brother, whose immediate reaction was “Oh yeah, that’s [Bobby] Joe.” His mother was a bit more circumspect, but the evidence was mounting. By that time, the FBI had staked out both the water bed factory where Keesee was employed and his apartment.
To make a long story shorter, he came back to the apartment one afternoon and was apprehended. Since the Mexicans had no particular interest in seeking his extradition for a crime against another American, the most serious charge that could be levied against Keesee was conspiracy to kidnap. That, even though it turned out that Patterson had been killed almost immediately after being taken captive.
“I’m still not sure in my own mind that it was the right or the wrong thing to do, but we did it”
GILLESPIE: To make a long story short, a little while later, John Patterson’s body was found in a shallow grave right outside of Hermosillo. It turned out that the FBI, using the traditional FBI methods, had sent a team to Hermosillo. They went through every lodging receipt in the town of Hermosillo for a period of three months before he was kidnapped and afterwards. They found the registration of an American, Bobby Joe Keesee, a ne’er-do-well, Vietnam [Note: The Los Angeles Times says Korean War] veteran, probably mentally troubled, who had tried to defect to Cuba, flying a light airplane from Louisiana. He was a Californian.
Eventually, the FBI located him, and it was learned that he was the guy who had set up the scheme to get $500,000.
It turned out that Keesee had gone down to Hermosillo and had met with Patterson as a purported American businessman who wanted to do business in Hermosillo. John, who was also the Commercial Officer, had had lunch with him. Evidence that John had met with Keesee came out in the course of the investigation. That’s the way that case ended. The money was returned and so on. Again, this was a case where Washington tried to tell the people in Mexico City what’s going on.
I can remember Ambassador Jova having to deal with this case as [Charge d’Affaires] Bill Dean had done in the Leonhardy case. In the Patterson case we were at least doing something. I’m still not sure in my own mind that it was the right or the wrong thing to do, but we did it. Those were the orders as to the way it was going to be handled. I think that Patterson’s mother [had] a lawsuit, alleging that the State Department mismanaged or mishandled the case. The fact was that there was nothing to mishandle.
The authorities later learned, or surmised, that Keesee had taken John Patterson out of Hermosillo, supposedly to look at a property which he wanted to invest in. Keesee apparently attacked and tried to subdue John Patterson and, in the process, hit him too hard and killed him. He then buried him in this shallow grave just outside of Hermosillo.
Although Keesee tried twice to see if he could get the ransom, he had never gone to the Rosarito Beach site, and the other place was named just to throw everybody off the trail. Keesee had actually gone back to California, gone underground, and tried to avoid arrest. Keesee eventually copped a plea for second degree manslaughter in the U.S. He eventually pled guilty and eventually was sentenced to about eight to 10 years in prison and then was released…. [Note: Keesee was sentenced to 20 years and served 10.]
“”I’ll have to see an awful lot of proof before I’ll accept that a young Foreign Service Officer and his wife are doing this’”
Obviously, this was a fascinating episode. You join the Foreign Service but you don’t know what you’re going to get into. We literally drove thousands of miles, sitting on this money. Think of the discussions you can get into regarding what’s going on, what the policy is, and what it all means! Ann Patterson was the youngest of the three of us – that is, the Security Officer, me, and Ann herself, although not by much. Of course, Vic Dikeos was older, and this was a kind of an interesting mix of people. We saw it all happen.
You really have to say that it was an amazing situation, but, then, we’re an amazing country. We were a funny group of people. We were pulled into this event, we went off, and it all happened. DEA was flying us around. They brought stuff to us in airplanes. The CIA was doing things. The FBI was doing things. On the one hand they do fantastic drudge work, and it paid off. We saw other things that they tried to do. And then you realize that they have feet of clay like all the rest of us.
In the Foreign Service you see some really strong people and hear anecdotes about some of these things. We went through a period in Mexico City before we got into the actual ransom hegira that I went on. We sat in these offices and then wondered, “Could these young people have set this up themselves?”
Ambassador Jova, bless his soul, said, “I will not reject any hypothesis. However, we’re going to have to see some awfully strong proof before we go very much further down that road. This is something that I simply do not want to believe. If there’s any evidence that points in this direction, we’ll pursue it, but…” Then he looked at me and said, “Let’s get on this and figure it out. What do we know, how can we find out?”
Jova had a wonderful remark which he’d use at Country Team meetings [with representatives from the key offices and agencies at post] or in his office or in a group, where some subject would be up for discussion or decision. He would reach a decision — whatever it was or how it would be expressed. We’d all just sit there. Then he’d say, “You don’t understand, do you? If you agree, nod your damned head. Otherwise, get out of here!”
He used this comment in this particular case. He said, “We will not reject any hypothesis, but I’ll have to see an awful lot of proof before I’ll accept that a young Foreign Service Officer and his wife are doing this.” So we went through the whole record. Eventually, as you say, that kind of talk came out.
John Patterson’s mother heard about this, and Congress heard about this. You can’t reject the possibility that it was right. However, Ambassador Jova was really staunch. There were different members of the Country Team, some of whom had thought about this possibility and put a lot of intellectual energy into what was going on here, what should we be doing, and how we should do it. This whole episode showed me a lot about our capacities and the people we have.