Mystery and Mayhem at the Coral Court Motel
On October 7, 1953, police officers in St. Joseph, Missouri made a gruesome discovery in the backyard of a woman named Bonnie Heady. The blades of their shovels turned up the decaying corpse of a young kidnapping victim named Bobby Greenlease, who had been missing for days. It was the ending to a strange saga that had started on the other side of the state and had direct connections to an infamous motor lodge on Route 66, the Coral Court Motel.
During the glory days of the American highway, Route 66 reigned supreme as the most famous of the country’s motorways. And there were few motels on Route 66 -- or just about anywhere-- that earned the kind of tawdry reputation like that of the Coral Court Motel, which was located just outside the city limits of St. Louis. When it comes to mystery, intrigue and the sheer tawdriness of a “no-tell motel,” you couldn’t beat the place.
The Coral Court Motel during its fading years
The brick motor court, located at 7755 Watson Road, was designed in the 1940s and a classic example of an Art Deco-style motel. The Coral Court first became famous because of its prime location on Route 66. Heading west on the Mother Road, it was the perfect place to stop after a day-long drive from Chicago. Later, it would earn its seamy reputation as a perfect hiding spot for philanderers and for its grim connection to a St. Louis kidnapping and murder case.
The Coral Court was started by John Carr in 1841. It was painstakingly designed by architect Adolph L. Struebig, who was hired by Carr to give him a little something special. There were a lot of “mom and pop” motels in those days, with eight or so units, but Carr didn’t want that. He told Struebig that he wanted something outstanding. Construction was started that summer and by early 1942, the Coral Court was greetings its first guest. The first 10 bungalows were built in a grand style with honey-colored glazed bricks and large glass block windows. Each unit had two rooms and two garages and this helped the Coral Court to become an immediate success.
After World War II, 23 additional units (or 46 rooms) were designed by architect Harold T. Tyre. They used the same materials and varied only slightly from the original units. The new units featured triangular glass block windows, but the overall look of the place remained. Another expansion took place in 1953 with the additional of three more (ordinary-looking) two-story units, also designed by Tyre, at the back of the property. A swimming pool was added in the early 1960s.
For many locals, the Coral Court was sort of a rite of passage. Attending a late night, post-prom party or swiping a Coral Court towel or matchbook was the thing to do for St. Louis teenagers. For those who wanted to remain anonymous, the motel was the place to go for an illicit rendezvous. It soon began to be known as St. Louis’ best “no-tell motel.” The reasons why were simple -- The rooms could be rented for a rest period of 4 or 8 hours, which was originally created as a courtesy for truck drivers, but had obvious benefits for lovers. Each room had its own garage, so cars were hidden from prying eyes. And the management of the Coral Court was absolutely discreet. Thanks to this, the legend of the motel spread all across the United States.
The notorious moment in the motel’s history, though, was its connection to the Greenlease kidnapping case in 1953. The incident received national attention and became known as one of the most tragic crimes of the 1950s. It also brought lasting infamy to the Coral Court, largely due to the fact that the Coral Court was used as a hideout by the kidnappers – and the fact that half of the $600,000 ransom vanished at the motel.
Bobby Greenlease, Jr. was the son of Robert and Virginia Greenlease, residents of Mission Hills, Kansas, a prominent suburb of Kansas City. Robert Greenlease was one of the largest Cadillac dealers in the nation. In comparison to the wealth of the Greenlease family, Bobby’s kidnappers, Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Heady, were dead broke. However, both had known privilege earlier in their lives. It had been at military school that Hall had met Paul Greenlease, Bobby’s older, adopted brother. Hall later inherited a large sum of money from his father, but lost it all in bad business ventures. After that, he turned to crime. He was arrested for robbing cab drivers (his total take was only $38) and he was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary. In prison, he dreamed of the "big score" and began planning the kidnapping that would help him to retire.
After getting out of prison, Hall moved to St. Joseph, Missouri and he started dating Bonnie Heady. She was no catch, having a reputation for not only sleeping around but also for occasionally dabbling in prostitution. The good news was that she owned her own home and she and Hall often drank themselves into a stupor there, never being bothered by anyone. They had a violent relationship and in fact, when Heady was arrested for kidnapping, she still bore the bruises of her latest beating. Her willingness to put up with Hall’s abuse is probably a clue as to why she agreed to go along with his kidnapping scheme.
Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady
During the summer months of 1953, Hall and Heady made repeated trips to Kansas City to follow the Greenlease family. After some debate, they decided that Bobby would be the easiest prey. At that time, the boy was enrolled at Notre Dame de Sion, a fashionable Catholic school. In the late morning of September 28, Heady entered the school and told a nun that she was Bobby’s aunt. She and Virginia Greenlease had been shopping at the Country Club Plaza, she told the nun, when Virginia had suffered a heart attack. Heady said that she had come to take Bobby to the hospital. When Bobby was brought out of his class, he immediately took Heady’s hand in his, as if he knew her. Heady would later say, "He was so trusting."
Heady met Hall a few minutes later at the Katz Drugstore and they drove across town and then across the state line into Kansas. When Bobby was taken across state lines, the Lindbergh Statute (name for the famous case) went into effect and became a Federal crime. And it was just about to get worse.
In a vacant field in Overland Park, Heady got out of the car and walked a short distance away while Hall killed Bobby. First, he tried to strangle the little boy, but the rope he used was too short. Then, he punched him in the face, knocking out one tooth. Finally, he pushed Bobby down and shot him in the head with a .38 caliber pistol. The boy was dead less than 30 minutes after he had been abducted. After that, they drove back to St. Joseph and buried the body in the back yard of Heady’s home. Hall had dug the grave the night before. After the body was covered, he planted flowers in the freshly churned soil, hoping to cover all evidence of the horrific crime.
The Greenlease family got their first inkling of trouble when the nun who had released Bobby from school called to inquire about Virginia’s health. Soon after, they got the ransom demands from Hall. He also mailed them a pin that Bobby had been wearing when he was taken. The killer demanded a ransom of $600,000 in $10 and $20 bills.
Robert Greenlease called several of his closest friends and he began putting together the money. He also called the head of the local bank, Arthur Eisenhower (brother of Dwight D. Eisenhower), and the two men put together a plan to record the serial numbers of all of the ransom bills. While the money was being accumulated, Hall called the Greenlease residence repeatedly. He continually reassured them that Bobby was alive. Finally, a week after the kidnapping, the money was delivered. Actually, it was delivered two times because Hall couldn’t find it the first time.
Finally, after almost bungling another money drop on a dark country road, Hall was able to get the money. It was just after midnight on October 5 and Hall made one last phone call to a friend of Robert Greenlease, Robert Ledterman, who had been assisting with the ransom payment. He promised Ledterman that the family would have Bobby back within 24 hours.
While Robert and Virginia waited for word of where to find their son, Hall and Heady drove to St. Louis with a money bag that weighed more than 85 pounds. As they traveled, word of the kidnapping leaked to the media and it became a nationwide sensation. When they arrived in St. Louis, Hall and Heady were stunned to find themselves at the center of the story. They ditched their car and started using taxicabs. They rented a small apartment on Arsenal Street in South St. Louis and decided to lay low. Hall quickly got restless and one afternoon, left a drunken Heady in the apartment with a few thousand dollars and vanished. He departed for the "good life."
Hall then hooked up with an ex-con cab driver and a prostitute. The three of them ended up at the Coral Court Motel on Route 66. It was renowned as a place where a fellow could stay for a while with no questions asked. Rumor had it that the motel’s owner, John Carr, was mob-connected and had operated a posh brothel in St. Louis for many years.
Hiding out at the Coral Court, Hall began to lavish money on his seedy new companions. The prostitute would later say that Hall stayed so drunk, and was so nervous, that he couldn’t perform sexually. As for the cab driver, Hall had turned the man into his own personal valet. He gave the man fistfuls of money and told him to buy new clothes and whatever else he thought he might need. What the cab driver brought him was trouble. The owner of the cab company was a man named Joe Costello, a well-known local gangster. When Costello heard about the big spending customer, he contacted St. Louis Police Lieutenant Louis Shoulders. Since Costello and Shoulders always denied stealing the ransom money, it is unknown whether Costello figured out that Hall was the Greenlease kidnapper and gave Shoulders a tip for the arrest of a lifetime -- or whether they simply conspired to rip Hall off.
However, what is known is that Hall, guided by the cab driver, rented an apartment on the edge of St. Louis. A short time after moving in, he was arrested by Shoulders and a patrolman named Elmer Dolan. Hall was picked up for questioning about the large amount of money that he was flashing around. He was taken to the police station on Newstead Avenue and allegedly, the remaining ransom money was stuffed into a suitcase and a footlocker. The footlocker, which contained about $300,000, was recovered, but the elusive suitcase was never seen again.
Patrolman Elmer Dolan shows a revolver, which he and Lt. Louis Shoulders (left) seized after arresting Hall on the night of October 6.
Once he was arrested, Hall almost immediately broke down. Heady was quickly arrested at the small apartment where Hall had dumped her. On October 7, police officers and reporters raced for Heady’s house in St. Joseph, where they dug up Bobby’s body from the backyard.
And once Hall and Heady confessed to the crime, they resigned themselves to being executed for the murder. When a Federal jury in Kansas City returned the verdict, it has been said that Heady actually smiled. On December 18, only 81 days after the kidnapping, Hall and Heady were executed side-by-side at the Missouri State Penitentiary. The pair had declined to seek mercy at the trial and did not appeal the verdict. Missouri authorities had a second chair installed in the gas chamber so that Heady and Hall could be executed at the same time. Heady was the only woman to ever be put to death in the gas chamber and it’s said that she talked cheerfully to the guards and the officials while she was being strapped in. She did not fall silent until Hall finally told her to shut up.
Amidst the widespread anger about the murder of Bobby Greenlease, there was also an immediate investigation into the money that went missing. The glory that should have led to promotions for Shoulders and Dolan became a dirty scandal that highlighted the widespread corruption of the St. Louis police department in the 1950s.
The two officers were later convicted in a Federal court on a charge of perjury, for supposedly lying about the sequence of events from the time they arrested Hall until the time the money was brought to the police station and counted. Various police clerks and officers testified that they never saw the men carrying anything when they entered the station with Hall and they certainly did not see the suitcase or the foot locker. Shoulders stated that the money was outside in the car and that he brought it into the station after bringing Hall inside.
The official theory was that Shoulders and Dolan, who both left the station on personal errands after booking Hall, returned to Hall’s apartment and stole half the money. They brought the remaining half to the station through the rear door. Hall’s statement, not surprisingly, directly contradicted that of Shoulders and Dolan. Hall maintained that the money had been left in the apartment when he was arrested.
Over time, numerous theories have been floated as to who actually took the money. Most pointed fingers at Shoulders and his connection with Joe Costello, while others blamed the corruption in the police department itself. Costello was accused of taking the money by the FBI, who followed him for years, tapping his phones and questioning his associates. They could never make the theft charges stick, but Costello was eventually arrested on weapons charges and sent to prison.
So if the cops and Costello didn‘t have it, then where could the money have gone? Some have suggested that Coral Court owner John Carr may have been involved. If Carr knew about the money (and it’s possible that he did), he could have entered Hall’s room using a pass key and walked out with half the money, believing that Hall would never miss it. And even if he did miss it, what would he be able to do about it? When John Carr died, he was a multi-millionaire. Could any of that remaining fortune have been part of the Greenlease kidnapping money? Obviously, we will never know. Whoever took the money, though, it was gone. For many years after, it was news whenever any of the bills linked to the missing Greenlease money turned up. But where was it coming from? No one knew and now, with so many principals in the case long dead, it can only be realized that the vanished money will always remain a mystery – a lingering stain on the history of the Coral Court Motel.
John Carr died in 1984 and left the Coral Court to his wife, Jessie, and head housekeeper, Martha Shutt. Jessie and her second husband, Robert Williams, operated the place until August 1993 but by then, the lack of maintenance had taken its toll. Even though many Coral Court fans tried to protect the place from destruction, there was nothing they could to protect it from the wishes of the owners. They didn’t want to bother with the Coral Court anymore and they attorney advised them to sell the property.
As the fate of the place became clear, the concern of its supporters shifted to trying to prevent any further damage to the place while it was on the market. Although the motel was roped off and patrolled regularly by the police, it did not prevent “souvenirs-seekers” and vandals from breaking into the rooms. Some even loaded the bricks into their cars, hoping they would become valuable later on. Tragically, this only brought about the definite destruction of the motel.
The Coral Court was closed in 1993 and razed two years later. The motel was on the market for almost three years but no one could afford the steep price tag and the money that would be needed for renovation. Finally, in June 1995, the motel (except for one unit) was demolished. Luckily for Coral Court supporters, the Missouri Museum of Transportation, with help from scores of volunteers, worked for weeks to disassemble a complete Coral Court unit and move it, piece by piece, to the museum. The exhibit opened in May 2000 and remains on display for anyone who wants to catch a glimpse of the motel’s history as it played out on Route 66.
Unfortunately, there is little trace remaining at the site of the Coral Court today. It is now a subdivision called Oak Knoll Manor, although the original, distinctive stone gates are still in place. It’s hard to imagine the drama, passion and excitement that one played out at one of America’s original “no-tell motels” but it’s a story that could have only taken place on Route 66.