"We have Robert" warns $750,000 ransom note
Robert Wiles (Wiles family)
Produced by Allen Alter and Paul LaRosa
"I can't imagine anything worse... Somebody has taken one of your children, and is threatening to kill him," Tom Wiles said. "When I opened the email, it scared the hell out of me...I found the ransom demand from the people who had taken Robert:
We have Robert, if you hope to see him alive again, you must follow our instructions without deviation! Do not speak about this to anyone, including family...
When Tom first learned that his son, Robert, had been kidnapped, he had only one objective: Get Robert back alive, no matter what the cost.
"We've got to find a way to find him and rescue him," he told "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Peter Van Sant.
Immediately, Tom called in the FBI and showed them the $750,000 ransom note mysteriously signed by a person or persons going by the name "Group X."
"What do you decide to do?" Van Sant asked Wiles.
"We got the money," he replied.
"I understand the FBI said, 'don't pay it.' Is that true?"
"Yes," Audra Wiles, Tom's daughter, replies.
"And what does your family decide to do?"
"We want to pay it," said Audra. "It's almost like you go from not believing it to...'what do we need to do to get him back right now.'"
Audra and her mother, Pamela, helped wire the money from a bank in Toledo, Ohio to Tom, who had flown to Florida. Robert, 26, was the sales manager in the Lakeland office of National Flight Services, a private aircraft repair company.
"Rob wanted to dive right in there and be just like his dad. So he's always had an interest in the aviation business," said Audra. She says Robert enjoyed working in Florida because, aside from being an avid pilot, he loved the water.
Ever since he was young, Robert had an intense interest in boating and fishing.
"He loved being near the water and the closer he was to his boat, the happier he was," said David Palmisano, one of Robert's closest friends.
"I remember one day when we hooked a tuna and no sooner did we land that tuna on the deck, Robert cuts it open and he grabs a piece of fresh tuna meat out and eats it. And he said, 'Oh, there's nothing like fresh sushi,'" Palmisano recalled. "And that was Rob and he had a big smile on his face, he's laughing about it."
Robert, who spent years in military academies and was a star athlete, was in great physical condition. "He had shoulders like King Kong...he was strong, physically very strong," Tom said of his son.
Not an easy mark for a kidnapper, which only deepened the mystery. But at that point, all Tom Wiles cared about was getting back his only son. "I wanted to be ready and I didn't want to delay," he said.
Robert had vanished on April 1, 2008, and the kidnappers had set a deadline of April 8. The clock was ticking as Tom picked up the $750,000 that had been wired to a bank in Florida.
"And where do you go with this money?" Van Sant asked Tom.
"Go back to the hotel," he replied.
From that point on, an FBI agent was clued to Tom's side and the family's personal life was being examined closely. Tom and Pamela had separated years earlier but only recently had completed a rather unique financial arrangement.
"Pam had disassociated herself from the business...and she said what she would like to have is for me to give her...a significant amount of money...that she knew would not be invested in the business," he told Van Sant.
"And was that $750,000?"
"And that was $750,000," Tom replied.
"The $750,000 demanded by the kidnapper or kidnappers, this Group X, did that strike you as odd?" Van Sant asked FBI Special Agent Jim Bucenell.
"Yes," he replied.
"This is kind of intriguing. So what does that suggest to you?"
"That the author of the ransom note was very close to this business," said Bucenell.
"Did you ever for even a moment wonder if Tom was involved?" Van Sant asked Pamela Wiles.
"Oh, no. I knew Tom wouldn't be, no," she replied.
The FBI wasn't so sure. Agents zeroed in on Tom. After all, he was the one who had to part with $750,000 and it just so happened that his company had kidnapping insurance.
"We had people travel in South America quite often [and] want to make sure that we could come up with the ransom to get 'em back," Tom explained.
But the FBI could not ignore the possibility that family members, including Robert, were involved in a conspiracy. Agents went at Tom hard.
"Did they tell you you were a suspect?" Van Sant asked.
"They treated me like one ... I was grilled a number of times. ...I was very angry," Wiles replied. "You know, 'How could you possibly be looking at me?'"
Pamela too came under scrutiny at what she says was the worst moment of her life.
"It's agonizing...it's hard to believe," she said. "I just needed the find my son."
Agents combed through Robert's life as well. He was dating but did not have a steady girlfriend and so the spotlight shifted to the family business.
"Do you believe your brother felt some pressure to stay in the family business? In any way, was he in a place where he didn't really want to be?" Van Sant asked Audra.
"I think the pressure didn't come from my dad, I think it came from more of himself... [because] he loved, loved, loved, loved his father... my father. Great man and no child wants to disappoint their parents," she said. "Even though my dad would never, ever, ever be disappointed if he decided not to stay."
Tierney, the youngest of the Wiles' three children, last saw her brother just days before he disappeared.
"Where do you think he was in his life at that moment?" Van Sant asked Tierney.
"If I remember correctly, he seemed a little stressed but he was still in good spirits," she replied.
In fact, Robert had told his friend that he'd recently become frustrated at work.
"He voluntarily opened up to me [about] what was happening at work, something he'd never done before and he mentioned he was having some personnel conflicts," Palmisano explained.
The FBI began looking at every current employee and some former ones, like Steve Lindsey.
"He was a Georgia boy. Had the gift of gab, was a good ole boy. He was a good mechanic. Had a drinking problem but if you met Steve Lindsey, you'd like him," Tom explained.
But when Lindsey's drinking got out of hand, Tom fired him.
"We can't have that," he told Van Sant. "This business is intolerant of alcohol and drug use."
Just a month before the disappearance, Lindsey had begged Tom to give him his job back to no avail.
"He was pretty desperate," Van Sant noted.
"He was," Tom agreed. "There was no doubt about it. He needed a job."
Agents were being pulled in every direction, but there was one immediate concern - the ransom deadline. The time had come to make the payoff.
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