Robert Hearin was one of the wealthiest men in the state of Mississippi. His wife, Annie Laurie Hearin, a devoted wife and mother, was kidnapped on July 26th, 1988. Twelve days later, Robert Hearin called a press conference at his home in an attempt to make a personal plea to the kidnapper. He said:
"My name is Robert Hearin. My wife Annie Laurie was taken from our home over 10 days ago. My children and I have done everything humanly possible to obtain her release. My children and I appeal to whoever has my wife that she may be safely returned to us. Thank you."
Robert's son, Robert Hearin Jr.:
"I think of my mom all the time. And I'm sure my dad does, too. There's no real way to quantify how enormous a tragedy and ordeal this has been to him and to the rest of the family."
The kidnapping of Annie Hearin was unusual. The ransom note demanded payment not to one person, but to twelve, all of whom had some connection to one of Robert Hearin's companies. It was a strange twist to an already troubling case. After checking with friends and family on the day of Annie's abduction, Robert called the police. Then he made a disturbing discovery: a note, apparently left by a kidnapper, lay by his front door. Jackson Chief of Police J.L. Black:
"The note said not to call the police. However, Mr. Hearin had notified the police prior to the note being discovered."
It was clear from the contents of the note that Annie's abduction was in some way connected to Robert's businesses. FBI Special Agent Wayne R. Taylor noticed the correlation:
"The demands in the note were very vague and made several demands of Mr. Hearin, concerning certain individuals listed in the note who were allegedly harmed by a company of which Mr. Hearin was president."
Robert Hearin had been president of a company called School Pictures. The company sold franchises to photographers throughout the United States to produce photo portraits of school children. Between 1981 and 1983, in an effort to collect money owed to them, School Pictures filed lawsuits against twelve franchise owners in eight states, including Florida.
On the day Annie was kidnapped, witnesses reported seeing a white cargo van with Florida plates in the neighborhood. Police soon discovered that the twelve names on the kidnapper's ransom note were the same twelve people who had been sued by School Pictures. J.L. Black doesn't believe that this necessarily implicates all twelve people:
"It's possible that these 12 people had absolutely nothing to do with this abduction. However, you can't rule out the fact that maybe somebody whohad the knowledge of School Pictures and its operation could've been involved with it."
As a result, letters were then sent out to the 12 individuals. Robert Hearin Jr.:
"School Pictures was requested to look into the files on these 12 people. The transactions were reviewed and letters were, of course, sent out to these people trying to determine what damages they had, and what they'd wanted. At that point, we didn't get a response except from several of them saying 'We don't want anything'."
Eight days after his press conference, on August 15th, Robert received a letter. He recognized the handwriting immediately: it was from his wife, Annie. For Robert Jr. and the family, this came as quite a relief:
"This gave us quite an emotional lift because it meant that Mother apparently had survived the initial struggle. But it still was extremely vague as to what we were to do. At that point, dad, in order to do something to show our good faith effort to comply with these demands, instructed his attorneys to find out how much School Pictures had sued these 12 individuals for."
Robert sent out checks totaling nearly one million dollars to the 12 people on the list. Half of the checks were returned. The letter in Annie's handwriting would be the last word that her family or police would ever receive from the kidnapper. For Robert Jr. and the Hearin family, the search and the struggle continue:
"It's been our sincere desire from the very beginning, from the moment of the kidnapping, that we do everything possible to comply with these demands. We want Mother back."
Update: Newton Alfred Winn, a 65-year old lawyer, was arrested by the FBI in Florida on charges related to the kidnapping of Annie Laurie Hearin. Winn was one of the 12 men named in the ransom note left at the Hearin mansion. Also, less than one month before the kidnapping, he had purchased a van that matched the description of the vehicle seen in the Hearin neighborhood.
Newton Alfred Winn was convicted of conspiracy to kidnap, extortion, and perjury. He was sentenced to 19 years and seven months in prison. Winn has since been released and still maintains that he is innocent of the kidnapping. Annie Laurie Hearin has never been found. Her husband, Robert, is now deceased, but Annie's family is still looking for her.