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‘Mormon Rivals’ — How a kidnapping changed the Huntsmans forever

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2015 09:24 pm

“Mormon Rivals” » High-profile Utah clan discovers the high cost of being in the public spotlight.

Two masked men with a knife ambushed James Huntsman as he left his family's house around dinnertime Dec. 8, 1987.

The men handcuffed and blindfolded the 16-year-old before driving him across Salt Lake City to Budget Bob's Motel, where they chained him to a bathroom sink.

One of the men pressed a blade to James' throat, telling him to be quiet or die.

Looking back, Jon Huntsman Jr. believes the dangerous and bloody kidnapping of his younger brother became a major turning point for family members, a moment when they understood that wealth and renown had their drawbacks. But more than that, he believes this crime is what turned the Huntsman name into one of the most widely known in Utah.

Earlier that year, Jon Huntsman Sr. made his first headline-grabbing donation, giving the University of Utah $5 million and telling administrators that they could spend it as they pleased. While he would go on to make far larger contributions, at that time this gift was the biggest any Utah college had ever received. As a show of gratitude, the U. named the basketball arena in his honor, the first of many buildings, programs and events to carry the Huntsman name.

The kidnappers, who turned out to be two of James' classmates from Highland High, had seen the headlines and they wanted some of the family's largesse. But when they nabbed James, one panicked and took off. The other one went forward with the plan, placing a call to the Huntsman home that was answered by James' brother Paul. The kidnapper demanded $1 million and warned that if the family called police, he'd cut his victim into little pieces.

Paul called his father, who was away in Ohio with his mom and some of his siblings for a company Christmas party. Huntsman Sr. immediately sought help from a pair of neighbors, M. Russell Ballard, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Cal Clegg, an FBI special agent who was active in the local Mormon ward, or congregation.

Clegg was also attending a Christmas party when he received Huntsman's frantic call. Huntsman told him that he wanted the FBI on the case, but worried about bringing in Salt Lake City police for fear that broad knowledge of the kidnapping could endanger his son. Clegg agreed, and in a matter of minutes, the phones of FBI agents throughout Utah were ringing.

Agent Al Jacobsen was getting ready to turn in for the night when he got the call. He threw on a sweatshirt and corduroy pants and rushed to Ballard's house, where Huntsman family members were gathered. Jacobsen was stunned to see that such a wealthy man was listed in the phone book, which told him everything he needed to know about Huntsman's lax home security.

Tracking the abductor • The kidnapper had said he'd call again, so agents set a "trap and trace" on the family phone and coached Huntsman Sr., who by now had arrived back in Salt Lake City, to stay calm and keep the kidnapper on the line as long as possible.

"I have never been as nervous in my life as when I was awaiting that call," he said, "rehearsing over and over what I would say."

While waiting for the phone call, a relative tried to reach Jon Huntsman Jr., who at the time was living in Taiwan and working for the family business. The telephone lines were spotty, but someone reached Huntsman Jr.'s secretary and delivered the message. She bungled the translation, telling Huntsman Jr. that his brother had been killed. It took hours before he could secure a phone line and get the real story. Jon Jr. and his family waited in their home in Taipei, helpless and distraught.

The kidnapper finally phoned at 7:42 a.m., and Huntsman Sr. performed his role perfectly, stretching the conversation by negotiating the amount and denominations of the cash ransom: $1 million, with $100,000 of it in $100 bills. The FBI traced the call to a pay phone at a Farmer Jack supermarket on Salt Lake City's west side. At the FBI's suggestion, Huntsman told the kidnapper he'd gather the money, but only after the abductor called back and put James on the line, so he could confirm that his son was alive.

Agents rushed to the grocery store and tracked two suspects hurrying to a truck with a gun rack. They tailed the truck as it sped north on the interstate. It turned out they were following two innocent shoppers.

Clegg and Jacobsen replaced those agents, staking out the pay phone in an unmarked car across the street. Within 40 minutes, Huntsman's phone rang again. The kidnapper put James on the line to let Huntsman hear his son's scared voice.

"I'm OK, Dad," he said. "Do whatever he says."

The FBI radioed to Clegg and Jacobsen, and they spotted two men next to the pay phones. They were wearing sunglasses, and one of them had his arms around the other's neck. Clegg thought he recognized James, whom he knew from church, but Jacobsen wanted to make sure. He got out of the car and walked through the parking lot, making a point not to look directly at the suspect and his victim.

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