by Robert A. Waters
On July 14, 1927, a young boy ran down a mountainside. Falling, sobbing, begging for help, thirteen-year-old Ellis Richins stumbled into the Union Construction Company work-site near Silver Creek, Utah. Amazed workers watched as the dirty, wild-faced youngster with chains on his legs ran toward them. Gathering him up, the workers quickly called the Summit County sheriff.
Thirty-five years after being abducted, Ellis Richins recounted his harrowing tale to Salt Lake Tribune reporter Stan Taggart. Richins, small for his age, had been playing with a nephew outside his father’s sheep camp when a stranger lunged from the woods and grabbed him. As his playmate ran to get help, the assailant forced Ellis up into the mountains above Coalville.
“The ransom-seeking bad-man,” Taggart wrote, “kept Ellis walking that night by prodding him with a rifle barrel, and by threatening to shoot if the boy made a sound. Keeping to the ridges, they pushed toward Snyderville Valley. Ellis was told that his father, Jared Richins, had left some money there. Just before daylight they reached a saddle above the Devil Creek fork of Tollgate Canyon. There the kidnaper chained Ellis to a tree, and they both went to sleep.”
Leonidas “Bally” Dean, 51, was a gaunt, bald-pated ex-con who eschewed hard work. Because he’d attempted two unsuccessful kidnappings, Dean had spent much of his adult life in prison. In Idaho, he abducted businessman Ernest Empey, tied him to a tree, and attempted to collect $5,000 in gold coins as a ransom. Like Richins, Empey escaped. After being caught, Dean told reporters that he planned to use the money to “live in a right and proper way, perchance to have a family and fulfill a man’s proper sphere, which is impossible to the wage earner under present conditions.”
Dean was sentenced to ten years in prison for that offense, but got out in six. Not one to learn from his mistakes, Dean kidnapped two children in Oregon and made off with a $500 ransom before being caught and sent to prison again.
He’d just been released when he abducted Ellis Richins.
Dean placed a six-page ransom letter on a stone near the sheep camp. It began: “If you want to save the life of this fellow Richins, take ten thousand dollars, two thousand in gold coin; eight thousand in federal reserve notes, in five, ten and twenty dollar denominations, equal amounts of each, and do with them exactly as we tell you. The prisoner has just two days to live, if our orders are not strictly obeyed. We are as determined as war and ill treatment can make us.”
The letter instructed Ellis’s father not to contact authorities, and directed him to drive down Lincoln Highway at 9:30 the following night. Somewhere between Coalville and Wanship, Jared would hear two gunshots. At that point, he was to stop and leave the money alongside the road. If the instructions were followed, the letter read, Ellis would be released within six hours.
Upon receiving the letter, Jared Richins immediately contacted Summit County Sheriff Joseph C. Clark.
Within an hour, armed searchers began combing the mountains. Sheriff Clark contacted the National Guard which loaned guns to those who needed them. Four hundred men, armed to the gills, began combing the mountains above Coalville.
In the meantime, Dean had stopped to make camp. He chained Ellis to a tree, started a fire, and cooked breakfast. Sometime early that morning, Dean heard someone walking through the woods. Holding a gun to Ellis’s head, Dean ordered the youngster to remain quiet while he went to investigate.
There Dean got the drop on Jay Healy, a businessman from Salt Lake City who was searching for Ellis. Disarming Healy, Dean stuck a gun against his victim’s back and forced him to walk seven miles through the mountains. Unknown to Healy, they were going farther and farther away from Ellis.
Dean seemed to have forgotten about the kidnapped boy.
As soon as Dean left, Ellis picked up a sharp rock and began chopping at his chains. Eventually, he broke one of the links and fled down the mountain. Taggart wrote: “A short time later [Ellis] arrived breathlessly at a highway construction camp in Silver Creek. Ellis telephoned his mother, assured her that he was okay, and then asked his dad to drive up and get him. After making the call he sat down—surrounded by nearly a hundred admirers—and ate a hearty meal. Within fifteen minutes his overjoyed parents drove into the camp.”
As they wandered through the mountains, Healy informed the kidnapper that hundreds of armed men were searching for Ellis, and there was no way Dean could escape. After walking for about five hours, Dean seemed defeated. He asked Healy what he should do. “Give yourself up,” Healy said.
Dean said he couldn’t do that, but informed Healy that he was free to leave. “Go back to where the boy is,” the kidnapper told Healy. “Let him loose. I’ll take a chance on getting away.” Healy, unable to locate the boy, followed a trail down the mountain and ended up at the same construction site that Ellis had fled to.
Using the mountains to his advantage, Dean eluded the posse. A week later, he made it to Salem, Utah. There, acting on a tip, sheriff’s deputies and railroad detectives captured the kidnapper. Dean told Sheriff Clark that he planned to go to California, then on to Mexico.
Sentenced to five years in prison, Dean didn’t live out his time. He was killed by another inmate during a fight in the Utah State Penitentiary.
Like his father, Ellis Richins raised sheep for a living.
In his later years, he often spoke about his experience. Speaking of Bally Dean, he complimented his kidnapper for being a good woodsman. “That old rascal was clever as a coyote,” Ellis said.
Maybe so, but he could never carry out a successful kidnapping.