Notes From a Kidnapping

Jack Teich and his wife after the kidnapping. Photo: Charles Ruppmann/New York Daily News via MNS Publicity

Boca snowbird Jack Teich remembers his terrifying week in captivity

Jack Teich was just 33 years old on Nov. 12, 1974, but he remembers that evening with stark clarity. Rain spattered the windshield of his 1971 Lincoln coupe as he arrived at his craftsman-style house on Kings Point, Long Island. It was 6:40 p.m.—dusk. Autumn leaves clung to the wet ground.

Teich was returning home from work, as usual, from his post as vice-president of his family business, the steel fabrication company Acme Steel. Everything seemed normal except for the car that had been following him for several blocks, and that came to a stop behind his own. As Teich exited his car, a voice called out: “Excuse me, do you know how to get to Northern Boulevard?”

Teich hesitated in his driveway, and before he knew it, the speaker, a Black man of 5-foot-7-inch height, had stepped out of his car. A dark green ski mask disguised his features, and he pointed a long-barreled pistol at Teich.

“Come on, you’re coming with us,” he demanded. “Get over here, or we’re going to blow your head off—now!”

So began one of the highest-profile kidnap-for-ransom cases in modern American history. Teich would spend a harrowing week in captivity, an ordeal he recounted, some 46 years later, in his memoir Operation Jacknap, released last year.

“About two years ago, I got a calling that said, I need to document this, as much as I can, for my children and grandchildren,” says Teich, a Boca Raton snowbird, in a Zoom conversation with Boca magazine. “My five grandchildren knew nothing about it. My daughter wasn’t born yet. It was something that was never a topic of conversation in the house. It was just too painful to talk about.

“Friends had questions over the years but never had any answers. They were either reluctant to ask the question, or if they did ask the question, they didn’t get a full, complete answer. So I said, ‘it’s about time.’”

The kidnapping itself spanned just two minutes from the time Teich pulled into his driveway to the moment he was forced at gunpoint into the backseat of his captors’ vehicle. He has thought about how he could have handled the encounter differently, but with his wife and two small children steps away, he always arrived at the same result.

“I knew at that moment, I either had to go with them, or I had to take off,” he recalls. “There were woods behind my house that I was very familiar with. It was dark; I could have taken off and lost them in the woods. However, I said to myself, if I do that, will they go into my house? We’re 25 feet from the kitchen door.

“I would do the same thing today. I wouldn’t take the chance.”

RELIVING THE TRAUMA

In the getaway car, Teich curled into a fetal position as his abductors—two Black males—slapped handcuffs on him, removed his glasses and covered his eyes with patches of putty. They headed toward an abandonment tenement 45 minutes away, in what would later be determined was the West Bronx.

At first, they promised it was a simple robbery, and that they’d let him go after 20 minutes. Teich found himself in a dire situation. For the entire commute, he heard a gasoline can sloshing on the floor of the backseat, and as he writes in Operation Jacknap, he imagined “the flammable cardboard covering my body. I tried not to let my mind go there.”

As he recalls today, “I felt that as the days wore on, maybe not the first day or two, that I wasn’t coming out of there. They’d just throw a match into the room, or the apartment, and the building would go up, and that would be the end of it.”

At their destination, Teich’s captors walked their blind prey approximately 30 stairs up until they reached a door. They undid two locks and ushered Teich into a room; he remembers his dress shoes clacking against the hard floor. His most vocal kidnapper, the man he would refer to as the Keeper, wrapped chains around his feet, locked two padlocks around his ankles and shuffled him into a closet. He locked a third padlock to a chain around his neck.

Later estimated at 2 by 5 feet, this would be Teich’s prison cell for the next three days. He was given a modicum of food, which he didn’t eat—not out of protest but for lack of appetite.

When nature called, he was provided a pail lined with a plastic bag. He managed to pass the time, keeping a keen ear out for noises—subway sounds, garbage trucks—that might help identify the location later. “Even though the room was dark, the body slept so many hours a day, and it was up so many hours a day,”

Teich says. “And there was a radio on in the other room constantly, so I would hear the time of the day, or a news broadcast. I thought of the family, the children. I tried to think of happy thoughts, as much as I could.”

His first 24 hours in the closet were met with a barrage of questions from the Keeper—about his financial records, his stock portfolio, his company revenues. Teich’s Jewish faith regularly surfaced among the Keeper’s rants, as he peppered his victim with anti-Semitic slurs. It didn’t take long for Teich to realize that he wasn’t a random robbery victim from a fairly affluent Long Island neighborhood. His kidnappers, who subscribed to a Black Nationalist ideology, had political motivations too. They set Teich’s ransom at $750,000, which they vowed would go to “poor Black people” that, in the Keeper’s mind, had been oppressed by Jewish overlords like Jack Teich of Acme Steel.

THE DROP-OFF

Celebrity kidnappings were briefly in vogue. A year before Teich’s abduction, John Paul Getty III had been held in Italy for a record $17 million, and his captors ultimately settled for a $2.2 million ransom. The same year Teich was kidnapped, Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. But as Teich says, “it’s a very rare crime. Like the police told me, ‘there aren’t textbooks, or courses, that we give on kidnappings.’ There’s no two that are the same.”

Teich’s ransom, at three-quarters of a million dollars, is equivalent to $4 million in today’s currency. It fell on Jack’s wife, Janet, and brother, Buddy, to communicate with the kidnappers back on Long Island, under the advisement of local and state police and the FBI. Just like in a movie, the kidnappers recorded ransom tapes of Teich holding the day’s newspaper and reciting a script of the kidnappers’ demands.

Teich’s family borrowed the ransom money from Acme’s employee profit-sharing fund, obtaining the balance in just two days. Under the Keeper’s orders, they delivered the money, at a predetermined time, to a locker in bustling Penn Station. The law enforcement operation was massive, with more than 450 undercover agents, detectives and police officers descending on the railroad station, eager to spot their suspect walking off with the moneybag. None were able to capture him, owing to a technical snafu with their communication devices. The Keeper, donning a long coat and fedora, disappeared into the crowd carrying 8,200 bills in a vinyl bag.

To their meager credit, the kidnappers kept their word. After three days in the claustrophobic closet, and four in a slightly upgraded adjoining room—on a musty mattress, padlocked to a bed frame—Teich finally saw the light of day. His captors drove him to a random spot in an African-American neighborhood, slathered his face with shoe polish—so he wouldn’t look conspicuous—left him on the side of the road, and instructed him to count to 50.

Teich writes that he was “half expecting a bullet to the back of my head. But it never came.” He walked to a nearby motel, where he was picked up by more than two dozen FBI and police vehicles carrying more than 60 agents.

Teich tells Boca that had events transpired differently, he wouldn’t be around to tell his story. “I am certain that had the news broke all over the newspapers, and they’d be looking for me all over the place, that I would not have come out alive. There’s absolutely no question in my mind. The [kidnappers] would have gotten too nervous. They were too militant. And lives meant nothing to them.”

THE AFTERMATH

It took nearly two years for law enforcement to uncover the mastermind behind the kidnapping: Richard Williams, Teich’s“Keeper.” A 43-year-old academic, real estate agent and Korean War veteran, Williams’ embrace of radical politics and anti-Semitism warped, in Teich’s view, a person of promising potential.

Diligent policework led to the arrest of Williams in September 1976, the day he left Los Angeles in a motor home, heading northeast. He had been under surveillance for six months. As Teich writes, “Williams stopped to service the 32-foot motor home at Barstow Tire & Break before crossing the Mojave Desert. He went inside a free man and came out in handcuffs.”

The events following the arrest are rich in cinematic detail. First, Williams was found with $10,300 of Teich’s marked money on his person. Next, the motorhome was taken to a nearby dealership, when a repairman noticed chipped paint around some screws on the vehicle’s overhang. He climbed a ladder, removed the screws, and another $10,000 in marked hundred-dollar bills rained down. An additional $18,000 was found in a wheel well.

Williams’ trial began on March 1, 1978, then one of the longest trials in Nassau County history. After 17 weeks, 43 witnesses and 123 pieces of evidence, the jury deliberated for two days, and returned with a guilty verdict on all three counts—kidnapping, conspiracy and grand larceny. Williams ultimately served 21 years in prison, during which time he struck up a penpal relationship with, in Teich’s estimation, a “lonely spinster,” and married her. She happened to be white.

Williams’ accomplice, a friend named Charles Berkley, is the direct link to Teich: He worked for Acme Steel for 15 years as an engineer, and had left the company two years before the kidnapping. Unknown to Teich at the time, Berkley had distributed Black Nationalist literature at Acme, and had accrued knowledge of the firm’s finances. He was indicted for the crimes, but the indictment was overturned on a technicality.

Elements of the case remain unsolved. The site of Teich’s captivity has never been identified. He suspects that at least three accomplices assisted Williams in the kidnapping scheme, but only Williams has been tried. Just $38,000 of the ransom money has been returned.

For Teich, the damage from his kidnapping resulted in PTSD symptoms only alleviated by intensive therapy. He attributes the experience to his first heart attack, which he suffered at 38. But sharing his story, first to private groups and then in book form, has proven cathartic.

These days Jack and Janet Teich enjoy a comfortable life, but with a level of peripheral unease that may never leave them.

“Over the years, [the trauma] didn’t go away, but it allowed me to function pretty much close to normal,” he says. “I look in my rearview mirror all the time, especially when I turn in and out of my driveway. It’s one of the things I have to do—I see what’s lurking behind me. It’s just something we live with.”

This story is from the January 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.