Hoping Against Hope

UPDATED 07/06/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/06/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

IT WAS HIS FAMILIAR, PREDICTABLE workday routine: At 7:30 A.M. on April 29, Exxon executive Sidney Reso left his French colonial home in well-to-do Morris Township, N.J., and headed his white VW Dasher station wagon down his 200-foot private driveway. His office, where he ran the oil company's international division, was but a 10-minute drive away. But on this morning, Reso never made it to work. An hour after he left the house, a neighbor spotted his car at the end of his driveway. The engine was idling, the doors were closed, and Reso's briefcase, coat and umbrella were in the backseat. Reso, 57, had mysteriously disappeared.

It was the most dramatic kidnapping to shake New Jersey since Charles Lindbergh's infant son was abducted and killed 60 years ago. And it was just as frustrating for law enforcement authorities. On June 19, after seven weeks of intense investigation involving hundreds of federal agents and local police, the FBI arrested a New Jersey couple—Arthur and Irene Jacqueline Seale—on kidnapping charges. Authorities say the couple, who posed as ecoterrorists, wanted $18.5 million for Reso's return, the largest ransom demand in U.S. history. But despite the arrests, the FBI, as of last week, still had not found Reso, alive or dead. "This should be a cause for celebrating," W. Michael Murphy Jr., the Morris County prosecutor, told reporters, "but it isn't, because we still haven't achieved our goal, the safe return of Mr. Reso."

In many respects, Reso's abduction seemed like a replay of the unsolved 1973 kidnapping of an Exxon refinery manager in Argentina. In that case, Victor Samuelson, then 36, was returned unharmed 144 days later, after a $14.2 million ransom was paid. But unlike the Samuelson case, experts say, the Reso kidnapping was clearly the work of amateurs. "A professional would not leave the guy's car parked at the end of his drive," says Alan Bell of Intercon Security in Toronto. "A pro would take him en route, lake the car away to gain a couple of hours."

Another sign of amateur involvement emerged during protracted negotiations for Reso's release: The people claiming to hold him were unwilling, or unable, to deliver proof he was still alive. "That's crucial to the whole process, because you're not going to pay the ransom unless you know the guy is all right," Bell says. Without pictures or recordings of Reso, some investigators believe the executive—who had heart surgery three years ago and needed daily anti-cholesterol medication—may already be dead. "A lot of the logical conclusions you reach are not encouraging," one federal investigator told reporters following the arrest of the Scales. Perhaps more alarming are the stains found in one of the vans rented by the couple after the kidnapping. The FBI analysts are now trying to determine if they are from Reso's blood.

Federal authorities say they have enough evidence against the Seales to rule out any possibility that the executive staged the kidnapping himself. Not that those who know Reso had ever considered such a scenario. They describe him as hardworking and low key, tough but fair. "You'd never think he held such a high position," says Desmond Lloyd, a family friend and owner of the Grand Cafe Restaurant in Morristown, where Reso and his wife, Patricia, frequently had dinner. "They're nice people. Nothing pretentious about them at all."

Reso, a native of New Orleans, joined the oil company in 1957 and became president of Exxon International in 1988. He and his wife have been married for 37 years and have four grown children. A fifth, Gregory, died of AIDS a few years ago. Friends say Reso has three passions outside of his family: golfing, reading biographies and history, and his Catholic faith. He and Patricia helped run a soup kitchen sponsored by the Resurrection Roman Catholic Church in nearby Randolph, N.J. And they have been involved in helping both AIDS victims and the homeless.

During the ordeal, Patricia has attended Mass daily. She has also been keeping a journal in which she records daily details of her life as well as her emotions. She hopes her husband will return to read it. "I've tried to send as positive a message to him as I can when I write, because I know that he is a very optimistic, positive kind of person," she told reporters gathered in her living room June 16. One of the most emotional times since the kidnapping, she said, came on May 17, when their daughter Renee graduated from the American University School of Law in Washington. "Somehow I know that he was thinking about it all day long," she said.

During the June 16 meeting with reporters, Patricia Reso issued a short message to both the kidnappers—and her husband. "Sid, please, if you can hear me," she said, "know that we love you, we miss you, and we pray for you every day." Later that same day the FBI received a telephone call on a cellular phone, technology the kidnappers had demanded in their first note the day after the abduction. The caller told agents where to pick up an envelope. Inside was a letter demanding that $18.5 million in used $100 bills be readied and put in a specific type of laundry bag.

Two days later a male voice called with instructions that sent the FBI through a maze of phone calls and letter drops. Meanwhile, more than 100 teams of investigators were watching area phone booths. At one they spotted a man wearing rubber gloves making a call at the very moment the FBI was receiving instructions by telephone. The man hung up, took off his gloves and got into a white Oldsmobile, which the FBI traced to a local car rental agency. No money was delivered that night, and a few hours later the man dropped off the Olds. When his wife arrived to pick him up, they were both arrested. Among the items found in her car was a home address directory of Exxon executives.

Held without bail were Artie and "Jackie" Seale, both 45, a couple who have had many problems—mainly financial. As a young man, Seale had been a patrolman in the Hillside, N.J., police department, where his father, Arthur, was deputy chief. "He was a young aggressive officer," says Mayor James Welsh. But in 1976 he was injured on the job and look a disability pension. Later he went to work for Exxon as a $60,000-a-year security officer. The company declines to discuss his work; however, the FBI says he left "under a cloud" in 1986.

That same year the Seales moved to Hilton Head, S.C., where they purchased an interior-design firm that also leased furniture. Apparently using severance payments from Exxon, the Seales also bought an expensive home in the gated Sea Pines development and a 38-foot sailboat. And they enrolled their two children. Justin and Courtney, now 19 and 16, in private school. "They enjoyed life," says a former neighbor, Pamela Gumming. "They were outdoor people who talked about how they had always dreamed of living in a resort. This was a dream come true for them."

But it was a dream that didn't last. In 1989 their business failed, and creditors locked them out of their home. "They lost every dime in the business and all the equity in the house," says neighbor Jack Cumming. "Art had to get a court order to get his personal possessions out of the house. He got them, but let me tell you, he didn't need a moving van."

With several hundred thousand dollars in bad debts, the family moved to Vail, Colo., where they ultimately rented a posh four-bedroom town-house adjacent to a golf course and a national forest. "Artie was kind of snobbish," says their landlady. "They acted like they had a lot of money when they came to town."

Artie worked as a broker for Paine Webber in Denver for several months before quitting. Jackie was a secretary, but her constant talking got in the way, says her boss, Susan Brody. Police say the couple also had family problems. Vail police responded to one domestic argument and three reports of a runaway child. Eventually the Seales fell behind in their rent. One night, their landlady says, they simply packed up and left without notice.

Back in New Jersey, they moved in with Artie's parents while they looked for work. Last week the FBI searched the house and found a book about laundering money, handwritten notes listing the telex numbers of overseas banks, and nearly a dozen handguns and other weapons. The FBI suspects the Seales were assisted by at least one other person, perhaps someone in Hilton Head. One of the ransom calls received on the Reso cellular phone was placed from a gas station in nearby Pooler, Ga. Since the arrest, FBI agents have combed the area, raising hopes that Reso might be there as well. "I just want him back," Patricia Reso told reporters. "I want him back real bad."

JOE TREEN
TOM NUGENT in Morris Township. CINDY DAMPIER in Hilton Head, ALLEN BEST in Vail and SAM MEAD in New York City

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