A simple act of kindness led to what is believed to have been the first executive kidnapping in the country, and it happened in Buckhead.
Prominent Atlanta banker John K. Ottley was the victim, and a man who helped out at a fruit stand on his property was the main perpetrator. The manhunt leading to his capture would stretch from Atlanta to Miami to San Antonio and make international headlines.
The property that is today Lenox Square mall was Ottley’s sprawling estate, Joyeuse. He was the president of First National Bank.
On the morning of July 6, 1933, as he pulled out of his driveway onto Peachtree Road, he stopped to pick up a man seeking a ride into town. Ottley recognized him but didn’t know him. He worked at a fruit stand, which Ottley allowed a man struggling through the Great Depression to operate on his property. He had given this man a ride into Atlanta to pick up fruit for his boss before.
On that morning, though, this man thrust a gun into Ottley’s side and forced him into the back seat. A younger man who had been hiding behind the gate to Ottley’s home also jumped in the car.
They drove north on Peachtree Road to Suwanee, where they turned off the road and headed toward the Chattahoochee River. When they stopped, they bound the banker, covering his eyes and mouth with tape.
The first kidnapper took the car back to Ottley’s home to deliver a ransom note asking for $40,000, and writing Ottley would be killed if the police or press were notified.
While he was away, Ottley convinced the second kidnapper to free him. The two walked to Suwanee, where Ottley called the police and his family to relate what had happened.
Learning Ottley was free, the first kidnapper disappeared. He had given a false name to the second kidnapper, a 17-year-old named Pryor Bowen.
As the manhunt escalated, police came by Joyeuse at all hours, asking Ottley to identify possible suspects.
The break came when a landlady went through an absentee renter’s belongings. She discovered her missing tenant, William R. Delinski, could be the man they were looking for and notified the police.
It turned out she was right.
Police discovered the suspect’s parents lived in Miami and began observing them. One night, they followed his mother to Fort Lauderdale, where she mailed some cash and clothes to her son in San Antonio, to be picked up at the post office there.
Apparently Delinski’s plan was to use the money to get to Mexico and then disappear for good.
The Atlanta Police had to move quickly. They didn’t want to alert anyone, as they were afraid their suspect would get away.
Ottley’s son, an advertising executive and former newspaper reporter whose name was John Ottley as well, went with the police on the journey, which meant driving through the night to Nashville to catch a flight to San Antonio. The FBI in San Antonio were alerted to the pickup.
Delinski was arrested and tried along with Bowen in Fulton County Superior Court. He received a sentence of 28 years, while Bowen was sentenced to a year of hard labor.
Appropriately spooked, Ottley started carrying a small gun for protection, which is now in the Millennium Gate Museum at Atlantic Station.
The thrilling retelling of the kidnapping is in James Ottley’s book, “Atlanta History for Cocktail Parties II,” which is indebted to an unpublished autobiography written by his grandfather, the same man who accompanied the Atlanta police to San Antonio.