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Vanished without a trace // Lawyer's kidnap trial begins with a question: Where's the body?

Published Jan. 29, 1990|Updated Oct. 16, 2005

JACKSON, Miss. - They thought they had a hair sample, a fingerprint, a 1920s Royal typewriter. With this hard evidence, federal prosecutors figured they could nail down a conviction of N. Alfred Winn, the St. Petersburg lawyer accused of plotting to kidnap Mississippian Annie Laurie Hearin. But as the case goes to trial today, these pieces of would-be evidence turn out to have no link to the 65-year-old Winn. And that is not the only thing missing from this high-profile case that has shaken the serenity of this otherwise quiet Southern city.

The kidnapped woman is still gone.

Annie Hearin, 72 when abducted from her Jackson home July 26, 1988, has never been found. No one has heard from her since Aug. 15, 1988, when her multimillionaire husband, Robert Hearin, received a pleading note in her handwriting. There is one persistent question draping all other talk about the case, and it's a question that can't go away.

Where's the body?

"I think a lot of people would like to know that, in all sincerity," said Will Booth, a Mississippi-based FBI agent.

"It's just a blank wall," said a neighbor and friend on affluent Woodland Drive, Annie Hearin's tree-shaded street.

Body or no, the government is proceeding with its case against Winn. Legally speaking, a body is not even needed.

"There'd be a problem if it was conspiracy to murder, to kill," said Judith Johnson, a criminal law professor at the Mississippi College School of Law. Murder, however, has not entered into the government's case. Winn is charged with conspiring to kidnap, plus mailing a threatening letter and lying to a grand jury, charges that if proven could get him life in prison.

"You've got enough evidence," said Ms. Johnson, "that she has disappeared."

Most people in Jackson figure Mrs. Hearin is dead. Even if well-treated by her captor, she suffered an intestinal condition that can be deadly without daily medication. "Nobody's expecting to find her," said Kevin Butts, a merchant in the Woodland Hills Shopping Center near the Hearin house.

Indeed, even U.S. Magistrate John R. Countiss III said at a hearing after Winn's arrest in March that "I don't know what happened to Mrs. Hearin. I don't know whether she's alive or not. ... I would assume not."

Whatever Robert Hearin's thoughts are on the matter, he is not saying. He has declined all requests for interviews. Last week, he moved out of the family's red brick house and into a nearby condominium.

Neighbors say the house is going up for sale.

Pleading for help

To the credible, the spoils will go. That's why Marilyn Taylor Phillips, a government witness, is so crucial.

According to a Mississippi newspaper, Ms. Phillips is the woman who helped Winn mail the August 1988 letter to Robert Hearin, the letter in which Annie Laurie Hearin pleaded: "Bob, if you don't do what these people want you to do, they are going to seal me up in the cellar of this house with only a few jugs of water. Please save me, Annie Laurie."

Ms. Phillips could link that letter to Winn, authorities say. But there is this one problem. She apparently has other tales about other plots concerning Winn, and her credibility could come under fire.

According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, federal authorities say that Winn in 1987 had a failed plot to kill Mark Phillips, the ex-husband of Ms. Phillips. It is not known what role, if any, Ms. Phillips played in the plot. But Winn's Mississippi attorney, John Colette, acknowledged Friday that the government could risk its case in relying too heavily on Ms. Phillips' testimony.

Actually, Winn was a suspect in the Hearin kidnapping long before Ms. Phillips surfaced. Winn had a possible motive, authorities suggested. Just about everything he owned - stocks, cars, real estate, jewelry - had been taken by School Pictures of Mississippi, a company that until recently was controlled by Robert Hearin.

As a former franchise holder, Winn was sued by School Pictures over debts the photography company said he owed. He lost a $153,000 judgment, and fines began accruing when he did not pay. Ultimately the bill rose to more than $500,000, and School Pictures began to take Winn's possessions. When there was little else to take, School Pictures took the only thing left: Winn's law office on First Avenue N in St. Petersburg.

Winn tried to stop School Pictures by saying he was living in a room in the back. It didn't work. Eviction hearings were imminent in the summer of 1988, and Winn said he faced losing the roof over his head.

Then, on July 26, after a bridge game at her house broke up and friends had gone home, the wife of the School Pictures' owner disappeared.

A note in the foyer

Jackson police found a note in the foyer of the home, typed on a 1920s Royal typewriter and with a distinctly - and purposely - uneducated tone.

"Put these people back in the shape they was in before they got mixed up with School Pictures," the note read. It did not list specific sums of money but listed 12 people, including Winn, who had disputes with School Pictures.

No further communication was received until Aug. 15, when the letter from Annie Laurie Hearin, pleading that she would be locked in the cellar, arrived at the Hearin home. Robert Hearin responded by mailing money to the franchises named in the July 26 letter. Of the nearly $1-million Hearin sent, Winn got a check for $100,000. He sent it back.

Seven months went by without new leads. Then abruptly, in March 1989, the FBI arrested Winn in DeLand.

Details of the investigation are expected to spill out this week, but apparently the FBI's biggest break came from Ms. Phillips. She said Winn paid her $500 to mail the August 1988 letter, according to government affidavits.

Meeting behind the Quality Inn in DeLand, Winn handed her a manilla envelope, with a gray linen napkin wrapped around it. Inside was the letter from Mrs. Hearin, the FBI said. Winn was wearing a glove on his hand, the FBI said.

Ms. Phillips, apparently under the impression that the letter pertained to a former romance of Winn's, mailed the envelope as requested. She flew from Daytona Beach to Atlanta, using an assumed name on her ticket. She changed her clothes and dyed her hair with quick-drying mousse at the Atlanta airport. She hailed a taxi to take her to a post office and then returned to the airport, using another false name and a different airline to get back to Florida.

The FBI says Ms. Phillips can link Winn with the despairing note from Annie Laurie Hearin. Authorities also say they have a map, found in Winn's office, of the Hearins' neighborhood, with the Hearins' street circled in red. And the government says it has witnesses who saw Winn in the neighborhood before the abduction.

But Winn insists he was in St. Petersburg, not Jackson, and it will be up to a jury to decide just how circumstantial that evidence is.

Winn was not the only franchise holder to have a beef with School Pictures, and even if he was in the neighborhood, that alone does not prove he is a kidnapper.

After his arrest, the government suggested it had proof to link Winn to the abduction. Now, some of that proof does not exist. Hair samples found in the Hearin home were not linked to Winn, according to Colette, the lawyer. And although the note found in the foyer was typed on a 1920s Royal, and Winn also owned an old Royal, there was no match, Colette said.

And then there's the body.

To suggest that Mrs. Hearin is dead could evoke the passions of jurors, a move that Winn and his defense team assuredly would fight.

Already, Colette and U.S. Attorney George Russell are concerned about finding 12 jurors who have not heard of the case, let alone engaged in their own where's-the-body speculation. U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee has moved the trial about 85 miles south of Jackson to the college town of Hattiesburg in hopes of finding an impartial jury.

Russell, the U.S. attorney, has seen all the evidence, heard all the speculation. What does he tell people who wonder where the body is?

"I don't," he said.

Who's who in the Winn trial

St. Petersburg lawyer N. Alfred Winn goes on trial today in Hattiesburg, Miss., on charges stemming from the kidnapping of Annie Laurie Hearin from her Jackson, Miss., home in July 1988. Mrs. Hearin, 72 when abducted, has not been found. Here are the key figures in the case.

N. Alfred Winn, 65, had a small law practice in downtown St. Petersburg and once owned a franchise of School Pictures of Mississippi, a yearbook-photo company. A legal dispute with School Pictures cost him "everything that I have," he said last year. The FBI says he conspired to kidnap Annie Laurie Hearin, the wife of School Pictures' owner.

Marilyn Taylor Phillips told the FBI she met with Winn in DeLand in August 1988 and agreed for $500 to mail a letter, which she thought concerned a former romance of Winn's. Using assumed names and dying her hair, she flew from Daytona Beach to Atlanta to mail the letter to former School Pictures' owner Robert Hearin. The FBI said the letter was from Annie Laurie Hearin, pleading for her husband to "do what these people want you to do."

Robert Hearin, 93, is one of Mississippi's wealthiest men - worth a reported $100-million. He has holdings in manufacturing, insurance and natural gas. Last October, he and other stockholders sold School Pictures.

Annie Laurie Hearin suffers from an intestinal condition that can be fatal without medication. She was abducted July 26, 1988. She has not been heard from since August 1988.


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