One of Mississippi’s most perplexing mysteries turned 30 years old this past summer.
On July 26, 1988, 72-year-old Annie Lauren Hearin, a prominent Jackson socialite and wife of one of the state’s wealthiest businessmen, went missing from her Jackson home where she had hosted a bridge club party earlier in the day.
Drops of blood were found in the house as well as a ransom note saying Mrs. Hearin would be freed only if her husband, Robert M. Hearin, paid an unspecified amount to 12 people whom he allegedly had wronged, including Newton Alfred Winn, a St. Petersburg, Fla., attorney. The 12 were linked to Hearin through a school pictures business.
It was 24 hours later that the case began making state and national headlines. Dale Danks, mayor of Jackson at the time, said news of the abduction had been withheld for fear the kidnapper or kidnappers would kill the woman if they knew police had been notified. He said the family decided to go public in order to let the kidnapper know they were willing to do whatever was necessary to secure the release of Mrs. Hearin.
An excerpt from one early report, noted:
“Hearin, whose net worth reportedly exceeds $100 million, is co-owner of Mississippi Valley Gas Co. He and New Jersey oilman Leon Hess own controlling interest in Lamar Life Corp., a Jackson insurance company, which in turn is the largest shareholder in Trustmark National Bank, the second-largest bank in Mississippi.”
A New York Times report estimated Hearin’s net worth at more than $200 million.
Later the Hearin family received a letter with an Atlanta postmark from Annie Laurie pleading for Bob to cooperate with “these people” or they would confine her to a cellar with a few jugs of water. Bob Hearin then paid nearly $1 million to the 12 businessmen.
After FBI investigations and a long federal grand jury probe, Winn was convicted on conspiracy to kidnap, extortion and perjury in the case. He was the only one charged, and he never admitted guilt.
He served 16 years of a 19-year sentence in prison, being released in 2006. He died in 2012.
Mrs. Hearin was declared legally deceased in 1991. A memorial bench is placed near her husband’s gravesite. He died of a heart attack in 1990, two years after his wife’s abduction.
Mrs. Hearin’s body was never found and, in all probability, never will be.
What triggered my reflection on the case was a text message from my son, Martin, saying he was sending over a replica of the first fuel truck operated by Leon Hess who founded the energy company that bears his name and who partnered with Hearin in a number of business ventures.
According to Wikipedia, Hess worked as a driver for his father’s company and – after it went bankrupt in 1933 during the Great Depression – he reorganized the company. “He built an oil terminal in Perth Amboy, New Jersey out of old oil tankers and aggressively underbid his competitors to win federal oil contracts. He served in World War II, rising to the rank of Major, and serving as the fuel supply officer for General George S. Patton, where he further developed his logistical expertise.”
Leon Hess died in 1999, and his son John Hess is now CEO of the Hess Corporation where my son works.
I’m not sure how Bob Hearin and Leon Hess developed their relationship. It probably was through a mutual interest in the oil and gas business where they both were highly successful. Obviously they were close friends as well as business partners.
In addition to the aforementioned partnerships, Hearin was an investor along with Hess in the New York Jets professional football team.
Their legacies live on in Mississippi, long after their deaths.
Major scholastic scholarships at both Ole Miss and Mississippi State are funded by foundation gifts bearing the names of the two businessmen.
Charlie Dunagin is editor and publisher emeritus of the McComb Enterprise-Journal. He lives in Oxford.