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Blog: The Kidnapping of Marc de Tristan

A brazen kidnapping in broad daylight.
Poett Road sign

The kidnapping of toddler Marc de Tristan by German-born Wilhelm Muhlenbroich on September 20, 1940, became the talk of San Mateo County, if not the whole state.

Young Marc was out on a walk with his governess on Poett Road in Hillsborough when Wilhelm drove up and asked if Marc was the de Tristan child. When the governess said that he was, Wilhelm grabbed Marc and dashed into his car and sped away. A witness to the abduction told The Times: "He was a big, stocky guy and he shoved her aside. He had the baby in his arms and shoved the baby in the car ahead of him as he jumped through the door on the driver's seat…it happened as quick as you could snap your fingers." Dropped at the scene was a typed ransom demand for $100,000 (more than $2,137,000 in today's money). The only other sign of Wilhelm left at the scene was his hat, which the governess had torn off.

The ransom note directed Marc's parents, who were members of the French nobility, to get the money and then place a fake ad in the San Francisco Examiner advertising the sale of a 1938 Lincoln Zephyr car. The note was signed "Unconventional Eccentric," a phrase with possible meaning for Wilhelm alone.

Law enforcement's reaction was swift, although the family soon made a formal statement that said: "We have requested all law enforcement agencies to withhold any action in this case until we have complied with any and all requests of the man who has our child."

Law enforcement may have complied, but the news media surreptitiously identified Wilhelm as a suspect and printed his photo on their front pages. This led to Wilhelm's capture by two deer hunters in El Dorado County two days after the kidnapping.

Back in San Mateo County, and under interrogation by law enforcement, Wilhelm admitted to the kidnapping. He gave some insight into his choice of the victim: "The first thing you want to know is if they have got the money and if they have a child of the proper age."

His trial was swift - as all evidence, especially being found with Marc in his possession, pointed towards his obvious guilt. On the advice of his lawyers, Wilhelm pled guilty. He was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole on October 4, 1940.

He would not fade quietly into the prison system. In December of 1940, he slashed his wrists with a contraband razor. In the years following his sentencing, he would repeatedly apply for parole, once complaining that he had only agreed to plead guilty because his court-appointed lawyers had stated he would only be in prison for a "short duration."

He was finally successful in being paroled in December 1964. As he left prison, he vowed that he would: "live quietly from now on and mind my own business." He stated he planned to work at a bowling alley in Shasta County. He did indeed move to that area, as on a snowy day in 1967, he went for a hike up Mount Shasta and vanished until his skeleton was found in September 1968 - a concrete identification being made based on papers found on the body.

Marc went on to live a relatively normal life, graduating from Harvard University, establishing a career in New York City, and passing away on March 10, 2016.

At the time of this infamous crime, obvious parallels were drawn between Marc's kidnapping and the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby: wealthy parents, puzzling ransom notes and a German-born perpetrator. Fortunately, the San Mateo County snatching ended more happily.

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