The Death of an Heir is Philip Jett's chilling true account of the Coors family’s gilded American dream that turned into a nightmare when a meticulously plotted kidnapping went horribly wrong (available September 26, 2017).
In the 1950s and 60s, the Coors dynasty reigned over Golden, Colorado, seemingly invincible. When rumblings about labor unions threatened to destabilize the family's brewery, Adolph Coors, Jr., the septuagenarian president of the company, drew a hard line, refusing to budge. They had worked hard for what they had, and no one had a right to take it from them. What they'd soon realize was that they had more to lose than they could have imagined.
On the morning of Tuesday, February 9, 1960, Adolph “Ad” Coors III, the 44-year-old CEO of the multimillion dollar Colorado beer empire, stepped into his car and headed for the brewery twelve miles away. At a bridge he stopped to help a man in a yellow Mercury sedan. On the back seat lay handcuffs and leg irons. The glove box held a ransom note ready to be mailed. His coat pocket shielded a loaded pistol.
What happened next set off the largest U.S. manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping. State and local authorities, along with the FBI personally spearheaded by its director J. Edgar Hoover, burst into action attempting to locate Ad and his kidnapper. The dragnet spanned a continent. All the while, Ad’s grief-stricken wife and children waited, tormented by the unrelenting silence. The Death of an Heir reveals the true story behind the tragic murder of Colorado’s favorite son.
Windshield wipers squeaked back and forth to reveal the white stripes flashing along the Colorado highway that cold February Sunday afternoon in 1960. Despite a heavy cloudburst, Joe Corbett Jr. spotted the sun reflecting on the mountain peaks in the direction he was traveling. On the back seat lay two polished high-powered rifles in cases along with a fully-loaded .22-caliber target pistol stuffed in the glove compartment. He’d left .45-caliber and .38-caliber revolvers and a 9 mm Llama automatic pistol with a stockpile of ammunition on the closet shelf in his Denver apartment. All of his weapons were capable of blowing a sizeable hole through anything or anyone. And he knew how to use them.
“They’re for target shooting,” he’d tell anyone who glanced in his car or ventured into his apartment. “I enjoy target shooting.”
Target shooting was one of Corbett’s hobbies, all right, as it was for many Coloradans. He frequently searched for a place to shoot that wasn’t posted, much like searching for a good fishing hole, some out-of-the-way place where he could take aim and fire at bottles, cans, or rats—anything would do to keep his aim sharp.
Most days, Corbett satisfied himself with excursions to mines, caves, and ghost towns abandoned decades earlier. He reconnoitered farther out sometimes, like Central City, Sedalia, and Morrison and as far south as Colorado Springs near the US Air Force Academy. Sometimes to shoot, sometimes to scout for places to shoot, and sometimes to just sit and watch.
This Sunday, he sat and watched. An hour passed. Still, he wasn’t satisfied. It might take longer today to observe what he was looking for. He was used to waiting. While he waited, he opened a book. Corbett was an avid reader and a thinker. Once, he’d been a Fulbright Scholar enrolled at the University of California–Berkeley, but he had dropped out of college after his mother died. Soon afterward, in December 1950, he stole a car and shot a hitchhiker twice in the back of the head during a botched robbery, leaving behind a horrific scene of blood and brain tissue. The young Corbett was tracked down and spent a year in San Quentin and three years in Soledad and Terminal Island on a second-degree-murder plea deal. He gained his warden’s trust and received a transfer to a minimum-security prison, the California Institution for Men in Chino, where he escaped three months later and hid in Los Angeles before fleeing to Colorado in November 1955.
Though no longer behind bars, Corbett found himself in another sort of prison, where he was forced to work dead-end jobs surrounded by men whom he believed read nothing more challenging than the sports page or girlie magazines. Unlike them, he possessed a library card from the Denver Public Library and regularly checked out books on multifarious scholarly subjects, such as chemistry, physics, math, philosophy, psychology, vocabulary, and foreign languages, like Russian and German.
And so he waited with a book in his hand until the rain stopped.
* * *
Though his love for shooting explained his guns, his hobby couldn’t explain the mail orders he’d received during the past few months—four pairs of leg irons and four pairs of handcuffs. He’d also purchased a Smith & Wesson K-32 Masterpiece revolver, for which he signed a statement: “I am over 21 years of age, have never been convicted of a felony, and am not now under indictment or a fugitive.” It gave him a big laugh.
Nor could simple curiosity explain the most recent titles checked out on his library card—books about traveling to foreign countries, learning the Spanish and Portuguese languages, and understanding criminology and methods of detection. Even the book he was reading on this Sunday, The FBI Story, detailed several federal crimes, including insurance fraud, embezzlement, and kidnapping.
No, there was no simple explanation, at least not one that would make sense to any law-abiding citizen, because Corbett’s reading and thinking had mutated into scheming, and his target shooting into stalking. He’d been planning a crime that would yield him loads of money since the first day he’d stepped his fugitive foot on Denver soil. But who would notice? No one knew where he was. No one could find him.
Even though he’d robbed a supermarket of $700 in Los Angeles after his escape from Chino, his illicit gains had not been so forthcoming since fleeing to Colorado. He’d planned to rob a liquor store and then considered robbing a coworker’s family business in Denver, but didn’t go through with either plan. In the summer of 1957, he and coworker Dave Reigel tried to rob a Texaco Bulk Station, but were unable to crack the safe.
Corbett’s natural proclivities soon demanded more audacious plans to quench his greed. He plotted a bank heist, yet decided against it.
“That would only net me about $5,000 to $10,000,” Corbett told coworker, Arthur Brynaert. “Enough of that small-time stuff. I’m planning something big. A big score. I’m talking a few hundred thousand to a million. With that kind of cash, I can go to Mexico or Australia, or maybe a country without an extradition treaty with the United States and never be heard from again.”
Maybe Corbett was shooting his mouth off. Perhaps that’s why he generally kept to himself, so his mouth wouldn’t get him into trouble. But those who knew him, like Brynaert, a coworker with a shadowy past himself, believed something might be in the works.
“Said he’d been planning something for two and a half years, something very big,” Brynaert told lawmen later. “Said he attempted to go into this venture, whatever it was, the previous summer, that would be the summer of ’58, during his two-week vacation. That something backfired and he wasn’t able to accomplish it, and had to postpone his plans.… Didn’t say why or what exactly he planned to do. I took it at first as just general bragging—you know. I’ve been in trouble with the law myself, nothing big, you understand, just little stuff like vagrancy, laying hot paper, you know,” Brynaert said.
On this rainy Sunday, Corbett’s subterfuge had taken him from the streets of Denver to rural Jefferson County. That’s why Corbett picked an out-of-the-way spot, parking on a seldom-traveled gravel road, alone. After all, if anyone asked him, what was he doing wrong? Only reading—and watching.
* * *
“Be sure and tighten that front cinch,” Ad Coors said to his sixteen-year-old daughter, Cecily, on that rainy Sunday after Ad’s return from the US Brewers Foundation convention in Miami the day before. “Need some help?”
“No. I can do it.”
The rain had stopped, so the two mounted their horses and rode along the trail away from the corral.
“Come on, Daddy,” Cecily said, riding ahead.
They headed southwest in the direction of the Dakota Hogback, a ridge rising up from the prairie that formed a beautiful boundary around the south end of the ranch. The sun was peeking through leaden clouds, spraying its rays of sunshine down on the colorless winter countryside, save for a sprinkling of emerald pine trees. Snowfall from two days earlier had all but melted in the lowlands, leaving muck for the horses’ hooves when they strayed off the sand-and-feldspar paths.
Ad looked out over his ranch from the saddle. He’d missed the crisp air and the mountains while in Miami. This was the beginning of his second full year as a part-time rancher, and his enthusiasm hadn’t waned one bit. Since they’d married in 1940, he and Mary had always lived in Denver in a very nice section of the city. But over the last few years, Ad’s dreams of leaving Denver and living on a ranch had grown stronger. That’s all he talked about—a ranch with cattle and prize-winning bulls and quarter horses. Anything to counter the long days spent inside his office behind a desk. In 1956, his dream had come true at last. Mary acceded to relinquish her urban conveniences and build a new house on 480 acres above the Bergen Ditch in the Willow Springs area, south of the small town of Morrison, about fifteen miles south of Denver. After all, it wasn’t that far away, especially from the fashionable Cherry Creek area Mary enjoyed, maybe a twenty-minute drive. And Ad could make the twelve-mile drive to Golden without having to battle Denver traffic and lights.
The deal Ad struck with Mary seemed a natural one. He would design their home and its exterior and make the ranch whatever he wanted while the décor of the interior, the family’s living space, would rest solely within Mary’s province. Construction was completed in the summer of 1958, and the family moved into their ranch-style house. It was a beautiful residence with beautiful surroundings—hundreds of acres of Dakota red sandstone and prairie grass lying at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with a magnificent view of Pikes Peak to the southwest. Though it was hardly luxurious by the standards of the rich, Ad was happier than he’d been in years. At long last, he was going to be a rancher in his spare time, and he hoped it would be full-time very soon.
Ad had always loved the rugged outdoors, and he’d remained active despite sitting in an office. His physique was that of a younger, vigorous man. Every morning, Ad did push-ups and sit-ups, and he hiked the Colorado terrain and worked his ranch when he could. He also was a superb snow skier and an avid hunter. And his four children—Brooke (Brookie), eighteen; Cecily (Ces), sixteen; Adolph IV (Spike), fourteen; and James (Jim), ten—kept him busy joining them in their activities as he was doing with Cecily on that Sunday afternoon.
“Look, Daddy, there’s that car again.” Cecily pointed at a car with a single occupant, a man wearing a brown hat and dark-rimmed glasses. “I saw it earlier out the living room window. It’s been there for like an hour. Brookie saw it, too.”
Mary had told Ad the same thing. Her maid, Thelma Coffman, said she’d seen the automobile several times while Ad and Mary were in Miami the week before. Sometimes with one person, other times with two men inside, she thought, if it was the same car.
A parked car along a quiet country road, not known as belonging to a neighbor, generally raised suspicion that the occupants might be up to no good, like hunting on posted land, looking for something to steal, or worse.
“Let’s go see what we can do for him. Might be a poacher,” Ad said as he kicked his horse a bit to trot over.
No sooner had Ad and Cecily prodded their horses than the car spun away down the wet gravel road.
“Guess he wasn’t in the mood for conversation,” Ad said, believing that by the man’s actions, he must have been a poacher.
When Ad and Cecily arrived at the barn, Cecily told Bill Hosler about the car while unbuckling the girth from her saddle. The ranch manager shook his head and turned to Ad, saying, “I seen that same yellow car parked on the road one day last week. Seen others, too. Hunting for game off the preserve, I bet.”
“Can’t they read? Our land’s posted everywhere you look. I may have to place a call to the sheriff if they keep coming out here.”
Ad was referring to the metal placards tacked up on fence posts, gates, and utility poles surrounding his property that read:
Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted
Ad was more observant on the ranch than he’d been while he and his family lived on 840 Steele Street in Denver. The same man had parked near Ad’s house then, too, only in a 1957 two-tone white-and-gray Ford Fairlane Club Sedan. No one had really noticed the car parked down the city street among other cars lining the curb. When the mysterious man in the brown hat and eyeglasses had to change his plans because of Ad’s move to the ranch south of Morrison, he continued to watch just as before, but now folks were beginning to notice the stranger on the remote country road.
“Yes, sir, I saw an older-model car parked at the mouth of a cave fifty feet from Turkey Creek Bridge. I was on my way home from my waitressing job. It was Saturday, Saturday the sixth of February,” answered Mrs. Virginia Massey to a question posed by assistant district attorney Richard Hite in a stuffy Jefferson County courtroom in March of the following year. She explained the type of car and its color the best she could recall, and then she looked at the defendant and declared, “Yes, sir. That’s the man.”
* * *
Viola Merys hurried along the third floor of the Perlmor Apartments in Denver, anxious to return to her room and relax after a long day. Though only fifty, she appeared older, wearing a hairstyle and floral dress similar to those of her mother, with a pair of eyeglasses that rested crookedly on her nose.
“Oh!” Ms. Merys squealed when the door to room 305 swung open. “Why, hello,” she said to a tenant. “You scared me. How are you tonight?”
“I’m fine,” said the tall, lanky tenant, stooping slightly as he ambled along the hallway.
“I’m doing fine, too,” Mrs. Merys offered. “Oh, and before I forget, are you sure about that parking space? I don’t want to give it to somebody else and then you change your mind.” (The apartment had only eight parking spaces for thirty rooms.)
“I’m sure. I’ve leased a spot in a garage. Good night,” he called back.
The lease extension stated the tenant’s name as Walter Osborne. California prison records identified him as the fugitive Joseph Corbett Jr. The fastidious tenant kept a spotless apartment. He even folded his dirty laundry. His car was no different. He’d recently sold his 1957 gray-and-white Ford Fairlane to a used car dealer named Nathan Yanish. “It was immaculate, unusually spotless, and purred like a kitten. One of the very few cars I have purchased that I didn’t have to do anything to before I sold it,” said Yanish. The man known to his neighbors and former coworkers as Walter Osborne bought a 1951 yellow Mercury sedan two weeks later and kept it out of sight inside a garage, protected from the harsh Colorado winter and anyone who might be seeking to bother it—or him.
The studious-looking young Corbett reached the end of the hallway and started down the stairwell, flanked on the street side by large window panels that split the front of the apartment building in two.
“Good night,” Mrs. Merys said as she stopped to empty an ashtray into a metal trash can before also heading down the stairs. Such a quiet, courteous man, the landlady thought. I wish all my tenants were like him.
The night of Sunday, February 7, 1960, was bitterly cold. Denver had collected another layer of snow the day before, and its icy surface crunched beneath Corbett’s shoes as he made his way to King Soopers grocery around the corner. He struggled back home against a bone-chilling wind, clasping his coat’s collar tightly around his neck. Once inside, the cool stairs and hallway did little to relieve his chill. At last, he stepped inside his warm apartment.
The thin-walled studio apartment had welcomed him as its only tenant since it opened in April 1956 when Corbett moved from an older apartment on South Santa Fe Drive. The room was small, like most of the Perlmor Apartments, providing a mere four hundred square feet of living space for seventy-five dollars a month, though it seemed larger because of the bare white walls and scarcity of furnishings. A golden-brown sleeper couch along with a small black-and-white TV took up the far end of the apartment. The studio also had a miniature refrigerator and kitchen table, with a hot plate and toaster oven on a counter by the sink. A tiny bathroom lay off the kitchen area. The typical personal adornments were noticeably absent—no photographs of friends or family, no sports memorabilia, no souvenirs of trips taken, and no knickknacks. Only a portable transistor radio sat atop the TV. He didn’t even have a telephone.
Corbett rarely watched television and listened to the radio sparingly. Like many folks during that era, he preferred to read. “The most distinguished thing about him was there was nothing you would remember him by,” said Charles Spencer, who lived down the hall.
Corbett was a frugal man, having resigned from his job two months earlier. Forced to scrimp with money running low, he had decided the time had come to find a better job. To Corbett, this was something he really wanted. He began to think of his future. No more job hunts. No more wasting his life. He hoped this would be his last job, one that would provide him with a comfortable life full of good food, luxurious accommodations, and travel to exotic places. On his chrome-bordered kitchen table rested a new Royalite portable typewriter that would help him obtain that job. Once a proficient typist who could type fifty to sixty words a minute, Corbett was rusty, and so was his old Underwood typewriter. Casting the Underwood aside, he was anxious to give his new typewriter a trial run.
Typically dressed in creased khakis, starched white shirt, and black oxfords, Corbett poured himself a cup of coffee and cranked a sheet of paper into the typewriter. He wanted this letter to be perfect, wholly free of errors. He knew the correct margins and punctuation to use. While in college, he’d worked for a typing service. He typed business documents, papers for other students, and correspondence.
His run-in with California authorities over shooting and killing a man a decade earlier had taken him away from college after his junior year. Though he assured his family and acquaintances he would be going back after his release from prison, perhaps returning to the University of California–Berkeley to study courses in engineering or premedicine one day, he instead escaped and his family hadn’t heard from him since.
After absconding to Denver four months later, he told his landlord he was enrolling at the University of Colorado–Boulder. Instead, he took a job as a laborer at Colorado Cold Storage for a few weeks, and then at Chemical Sales Company for three months, before finding a better job as an alkyd resin cooker at the three-story Benjamin Moore & Co. paint factory north of downtown Denver. It paid $2.70 an hour, earning him about $110 for the week. He worked the night shift, 3:15–11:30 p.m., with a single coworker. No one else was in the building after 5:30, which suited Corbett’s desire for solitude. Though Benjamin Moore wasn’t the job he desired, he was a loner, not liking to be around people since high school, never going to parties or participating in other social functions.
Corbett’s former production manager at Benjamin Moore, Don Herring, described “Walter Osborne” to a Rocky Mountain News reporter: “Everyone liked him. When we needed a cooker, we put an ad in the paper and 117 people applied. Walt was head and shoulders above the others. He never missed a day’s work in the three years he was with us. The only thing you might call unusual about him was that he always kept to himself. No one ever knew anything about his personal life. But that seemed natural enough to us, since he worked the night shift, with only one helper. When Walt left, he resigned. We were very sorry to see him go.”
Sitting with his back erect, Corbett pushed his horn-rimmed glasses to the bridge of his nose and commenced typing scales he’d learned to increase dexterity before attempting the letter. Minutes later, he selected more substantial text from the February 1960 issue of Popular Science magazine he’d just purchased at King Soopers—an article about a nuclear-bomb shelter that could accommodate a family of up to six comfortably.
The typewriter keys clacked as they struck the paper loudly, and the ding of the bell sang out, signaling to the practicing typist to swipe the return lever, whisking the carriage to its starting position with a zing. Flipping to page 103 of another magazine, Popular Mechanics, he continued on with a story about flying saucer sightings.
If he made a mistake, he’d rip out the paper, crumple it, and toss it into the trash can. Other times, he’d shove his chair back and stand up to pace about the room. Corbett’s mercurial temperament could make him his harshest critic. He was a perfectionist about many things, yet he could be perfunctory about important matters, like failing to finish college and quitting his most recent job.
Across the hall from Corbett lived Vivian Cherveny in apartment 306. When asked, Miss Cherveny agreed with her neighbor Herman Rask when he said: “He was a good neighbor. Never gave anyone any trouble.”
But that night, they heard their typically quiet neighbor typing very late into the evening. For more than an hour, Corbett flipped through magazines and typed advertisements and news stories as the keys clacked loudly and the bell rang repeatedly. He eventually moved on to the letter and kept working at it until the letter was perfect—precise alignment, no misstrikes of the keys, and two spaces after a period, like he’d learned in school. And the words were carefully chosen to convey to its recipient his qualifications and commitment to success.
“Understand this: Adolph’s life is in your hands. We have no desire to commit murder. All we want is that money.”
Copyright © 2017 Philip Jett.
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Philip Jett is a former corporate attorney who has represented multinational corporations, CEOs, and celebrities from the music, television, and sports industries. He is the author of The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder that Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty. Jett now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.