on security

Lessons From a Kidnapping Gone Wrong

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READFeb 15, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Joseph Corbett killed Adolph Coors III in 1960 during a botched kidnapping for ransom.
(Federal Bureau of Investigation/flickr)

Though Adolph Coors III had reportedly spotted a canary yellow Mercury lurking near his house, he nevertheless stopped when he saw the same car apparently experiencing mechanical failure on a nearby bridge. The breakdown was part of a ploy to kidnap Coors.

  • Philip Jett's meticulous account of the failed kidnapping of Adolph Coors III provides several important lessons about personal security.
  • Recognizing the threat of kidnapping is a crucial step toward avoiding it.
  • Being on the alert for surveillance operations or other suspicious activity can help thwart an abduction.

Fred Burton's recent interview with the author Philip Jett inspired me. Their discussion of Jett's recent book, The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty, compelled me to read it for myself. Meticulously chronicling the crime, and the preparation the perpetrator conducted in advance, the book makes for a fascinating read. And although the incident it details — Adolph Coors III's tragic death during a botched kidnapping — happened more than 50 years ago, the story offers valuable lessons for personal security that ring true still today.

Facing Danger Head-On

Perhaps the first thing that jumped out at me as I read Jett's book was the Coors family's apparent obliviousness to the potential risks to their safety. A healthy security mindset depends on recognizing the existence of threats, accepting responsibility for one's personal safety and taking action to ensure it. Coors demonstrated during his abduction that he was willing to take charge of his own security and even took steps to safeguard it by resisting his kidnapper, who shot and killed him as a result. But because he was unaware of the possible threat to his safety and lacked the training to counter it, he wasn't prepared to recognize the unfolding attack against him. The victim took no immediate action to avoid the situation before the assailant struck. Instead of driving away from the scene, for example, he got out of his car just as the attacker intended.  

That he walked into the trap was hardly the result of a well-crafted crime. Coors' kidnapper and killer, Joseph Corbett, exhibited the type of sloppy surveillance tradecraft normally associated with untrained criminals and even terrorists. The FBI investigation into the murder determined that many of the victim's neighbors had seen a suspicious canary yellow Mercury lurking around the Coors ranch. Even Coors had spotted the car while on a horseback ride with his teenage daughter, but he explained away the suspicious behavior by figuring Corbett was in the area to poach game (which is a crime in itself). Had he instead called the sheriff's office or a game warden to report Corbett, Coors may have stopped the attack before it even started, or at the very least prompted the assailant to think twice about his target. The reason criminals like Corbett can get away with such terrible surveillance skills is that, for the most part, people aren't looking for them and don't accept the fact that they or their friends or neighbors may be in danger. 

Not every high net-worth individual needs an executive protection detail. Training, however, can equip high-profile people like the Coors heir with the necessary tools to assess and quickly respond to the threats they face. Knowing whom to call to report suspicious activity can also go a long way toward ensuring personal security, as can understanding the criminal planning cycle.

Follow the Process

By the time Coors spotted the suspected poacher, Corbett had already selected his target and started planning the attack. Kidnapping for ransom, one of the most complex types of crimes to conduct, requires extensive preparation; the process is even more onerous when the perpetrator is acting alone. As a result, the planning cycle for kidnapping is typically a long and involved undertaking. The kidnapper may not be visible to the target at all stages of the cycle, for instance while preparing a location to hold the captive or acquiring weapons to carry out the abduction. At plenty of other points during the planning, though, aspiring abductors have to risk detection to accomplish their crime. Pre-operational surveillance offers a prime example. Kidnappers are perhaps most vulnerable to detection during this phase of the planning, when they are trying to pinpoint a time and place to ambush their victims. Without a crew of people to take turns keeping watch, and thereby deflect suspicion, a sole assailant conducting surveillance dramatically increases the risk of detection.

The Criminal Planning Cycle

Most kidnappings are avoidable because of these factors. But to detect and disrupt a kidnapping plot, a target must be aware of and alert to signs of hostile surveillance.

The objective of pre-operational surveillance is to get a sense of the target's habits to identify places where the prospective victim will be at predictable times. Based on that information, a kidnapper will select a location for the crime that offers the best chance of finding and abducting the target. The morning trip from home to work is one of the most predictable parts of the day for many people. Corbett, in fact, chose a point along Coors' commute to stage the attack. He chose a narrow bridge that was a choke point on the route between work and home — a place Coors had to pass to get where he was going. Better yet, it was narrow enough that Corbett could block the bridge, limiting or controlling his target's movement.

People can figure out which parts of their daily routine are the most predictable — and, by extension, the most vulnerable to attack — by analyzing their schedules. One way to shake off any surveillance is to vary routes and departure times, if possible. If not, then paying special attention to signs of surveillance or activity that could indicate an attack in progress is key. Executive protection teams take care of the job for those who hire them, but for those who don't, the responsibility falls on their own shoulders.

Thwarting an Abduction

During a kidnapping for ransom, the most dangerous point for the victim is the initial abduction. Though the chances of escaping a kidnapper are the best at this stage, the risk of an accidental injury or death is also at its highest. The Coors kidnapping is a case in point.

Kidnappers have three objectives at the abduction site: fix, dominate and control the victim. Corbett accomplished the first goal by faking a breakdown and parking his yellow Mercury on the bridge he knew Coors would have to cross, "fixing" his victim in place. (Once Coors left his vehicle, he made the task easier for Corbett.) The abduction took a wrong turn, however, in the dominate and control phases. Corbett had purchased handcuffs and leg irons to restrain his target, but merely displaying his handgun wasn't enough to make Coors cooperate with his commands. A larger abduction team probably would have had an easier time dominating and controlling the target. Corbett, on the other hand, resorted to shooting Coors when he tried to escape on foot.

Coors' death demonstrates the wisdom in complying with armed abductors under most circumstances. It's better to be a live hostage than a dead victim, after all. (Unlike a target of a financial kidnapping, though, a victim of a political kidnapping who may be slaughtered for propaganda purposes has nothing to lose by resisting.)

Of course, a better strategy still is to avoid kidnapping by anticipating the threat and taking action to protect against it. Had Coors received training on the criminal planning cycle, he could have observed that the car he had noticed earlier was stopped at a choke point along his morning drive to work and recognized it as a potential threat. He then could have taken steps to thwart the abduction by driving away rather than allowing himself to be sucked into Corbett's ruse. The terrible tragedy that played out instead continues to offer valuable reminders about personal security six decades later.

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