On the evening of November 12, 1974, 34-year-old New York businessman Jack Teich was abducted at gunpoint from the driveway of his suburban home in Kings Point, Nassau County.
“You’re a Jew, right?” Teich remembers his kidnappers asking.
“They knew I was a Jew,” he tells The Times of Israel in a Zoom interview. “They knew more than they let on.”
Dubbed “Operation Jacknap” by the FBI, Teich’s case was one of America’s largest kidnapping and ransom cases at the time with a demand for $750,000 — the equivalent of $4 million today.
In his new book “Operation Jacknap: A True Story of Kidnapping, Extortion, Ransom, and Rescue” Teich, now 80, breaks more than 45 years of silence, sharing painful details of the week he spent laying in the closet of a Bronx apartment with his wrists handcuffed, legs chained, and eyes covered with medical bandages.
Teich’s written account of his captivity sounds like a crime drama from the era — police gathered in the living room waiting for the ransom call, pressing the record button on a reel-to-reel tape when the phone rings, and coaxing family members to stay on the line long enough to trace the call. Indeed, the kidnapping was included in the James Patterson novel “Along Came a Spider,” which was later made into a movie starring Morgan Freeman.
But Teich’s memoir is also a disturbing reminder of enduring anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories about Israel, some of which are again being propagated by extremists in the United States.
The mastermind of the home ambush, Richard Warren Williams, confronted Teich about being a member of the Jewish Defense League and said that Teich’s “arrest” was in return for crimes against poor people. Mumbling slurs such as “Jew slumlords,” Williams accused the Jewish people and the State of Israel of everything from planning Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat’s assassination (Arafat died of a stroke in 2004), to dropping bombs on African villages.
Calling his ransom a “fine” for these and other transgressions, Williams told Teich that the money was going to “help Palestinians and poor people.”
“They were blatantly anti-Semitic and radicalized by the Black power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s,” Teich says of Williams and one of his accomplices, Williams’s childhood friend Charles Berkley.
Berkley, an ex-employee of Teich’s Brooklyn-based Acme Architectural Products, had inside information about the company’s finances which became the impetus for the kidnapping. Remarking that these weren’t mere street criminals, Teich points out that “Richard Williams was a bright, successful real estate broker. He taught college, he was a pilot. Berkley was a paratrooper, a family man with a wife and four kids.”
The book was two years in the making after Teich decided he was finally ready to provide his three grown children and close friends with answers.
Along with vivid recollections that even impressed the FBI during his post-release interrogation, Teich relied on five cabinet drawers full of material that unleashed dormant memories to recount the kidnapping, capture, trial, and unexpected release of Williams. This included ransom recordings; transcripts from the 17-week trial (including 342 pages of testimony from just one witness); 34 hours of hypnosis session notes; and various newspaper clippings of his story that dominated New York City headlines for months.
Teich said he never discussed the kidnapping with Janet, his wife of 55 years, and the unexpected hero of her husband’s story.
It was like survivors who have gone through the Holocaust
“During those early years, it was too painful for her to talk and for me to listen, and for me to talk and for her to listen,” he says. “It was like survivors who have gone through the Holocaust.”
Only 30 years old at the time, Janet, along with Jack’s older brother Buddy, met the kidnappers’ demands to drop the ransom — 8,200 separate bills in specified denominations — in a locker in Penn Station, home to New York’s intercity railroad station.
Describing her younger self as “not very confident,” Janet recalls how she refused a female FBI agent’s offer to make the payoff and insisted she do it with Buddy as meticulously instructed.
“If I don’t make the payoff and he doesn’t come back, how do I live with myself, how do you live with that blame?” she asks. “I grew up overnight.”
Unbeknownst to Teich until after his ordeal, Buddy, who passed away in January at age 91, was the original target, with documented incidences of the kidnappers contacting him by telephone, using fake identities to lure him into a trap.
“Buddy was more of the salesman of the company,” Teich explains of their 50-50 partnership in the family enterprise. “I was more about the day-to-day running of the business. Buddy was in the city a lot having dinners and lunches or attending charity events. I would come home about 7:00 p.m. each day to say good night to my kids. My life was straightforward.”
At the time, Teich had two sons, aged 6 and 2; a daughter was born after the kidnapping.
When Berkley and Richards were unable to con Buddy, they counted on Jack’s predictability to capture him.
“There is no question, he fingered us,” Teich says of Williams. “Simply put, we were the haves and they were the have nots.”
Convinced he would never get out alive and that his abductors would “throw a match into the room and all fingerprints would be gone,” Teich prayed and thought about his children and Janet, whom he met walking home from synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1964 and married in 1965.
He had no idea that 200 FBI agents and Nassau County police officers combined forces to find him, some even moving into the Teich home with Janet while the manhunt was underway. Several of them became lifelong family friends after the nightmare ended.
Despite nail biting glitches, such as Buddy putting the money in the wrong locker and police-issued ear pieces not working in the underground railway station, the payoff was made and Jack was eventually released.
Even as he was pushed from the getaway car, a few blocks from the Jade East Motel near Kennedy Airport in Queens, thoughts of being shot in the back flashed before his still-blindfolded eyes.
“I saw the neon sign in the distance and when I reached the hotel, I knew I was free, I was alive,” says Teich, now a grandfather of five.
It seems unfair to Teich that an afternoon read can sum up the seven days he spent in fear, anticipating death, as well as the dramatic, suspense-filled aspects of a case that lasted more than 20 years — from a cross-county manhunt to Williams’s arrest, trial, conviction, and sentencing of 25 years to life. The trial is still one of the longest-running on record in Nassau County with more than 350 requests for a mistrial by the defense.
In a jaw-dropping twist, Williams’s verdict was overturned after 21 years and he was released in 1997 on the grounds that the jury selection was racially biased. Williams also filed a lawsuit against Nassau County while still incarcerated and was subsequently awarded $35,501 in 1984 for alleged injustices that included not receiving his reading glasses in a timely fashion and being handcuffed to other prisoners for hours at a time. He was awarded $1 for the late delivery of his Newsweek magazine.
Only a small portion of the $750,000 ransom was recovered in a trailer in California, and Teich is offering a reward to anyone who can help track down the remainder of the money, as well as the two other presumed co-conspirators. He knows both Williams and Berkley are dead.
“Early on in the case, a reward helped find Richard Warren Williams,” Teich says. “It was his brother, Rudy Williams, who came forward. Somebody knows something. It could be other individuals who were involved, it could be an unhappy wife. This [reward] may trigger something. It worked before, so maybe it will work again.”
Whether it does or not, Teich always rejected the kidnappers’ anti-Semitic allegations, stating, “We’ve lived a good, honest life. We’ve never cheated anyone out of anything.”
Adds Janet, “Rather than being known as ‘Jacknap,’ I want Jack to be known for being a good father, a good grandfather, and a good person.”