DECATUR, GA — Just before Christmas 1968, a wicked outbreak of Hong Kong flu tore through the student body of Emory University. Among the afflicted was 20-year-old real estate heiress and Emory senior Barbara Mackle.
Jane Mackle, Barbara’s mother, drove up from the family’s Florida estate to care for her daughter and then bring her home for the holiday break.
On the evening of December 17, as Jane and Barbara Mackle eased in for the night at a Rodeway Inn in Decatur, a knock came on the their door. On the other side, a male figure in a policeman’s cap said that Barbara’s boyfriend (and future husband) Stewart Hunt Woodward had been a traffic accident. Naturally, Jane opened the door for the supposed officer. Big mistake.
Miami-based Sea World employee Gary Steven Krist, 23, and his 26-year-old partner, Ruth Eisemann-Schier (who was disguised as a man) rushed inside.
In a flash, the invaders knocked out Jane with chloroform and tied her up. Krist pulled a pistol on Barbara and ordered her to walk quietly outside to a waiting car. Krist and Eisemann-Schier then drove Barbara to a rural pine forest about 20 miles away. One there, the kidnappers ordered Mackle to climb down into a fiberglass box at the bottom of a trench they’d already dug.
The strategically engineered box contained an air pump, food, a battery-powered lamp, and water heavily dosed with sedatives.
After getting Barbara to lie down in the chamber where she’d be trapped for the next three days, Krist snapped a photo of her holding up a handwritten sign that read, “KIDNAPPED.”
Krist and Eisemann-Schier buried Barbara in the box under two feet of mud and then contacted her father, Miami developer Robert F. Mackle. In exchange for Barbara’s safe return, Krist demanded $500,000 ($3.5 million in 2018 dollars).Later, Barbara recalled those initial moments as shovelfuls of earth hit the lid of the container, stating:
“I screamed and screamed. The sound of the dirt got farther and farther away. Finally, I couldn’t hear anything above. I screamed for a long time after that.”
The FBI swooped immediately into action. Beyond the do-or-die nature of any such kidnapping, the Mackle family stood as a financial powerhouse whose political connections ran so deep that then-president Richard Nixon considered Robert a personal friend.
Krist had really picked quite a fight with this scheme. He also did a remarkably poor job of covering his tracks.
In the course of delivering the ransom, agents discovered Krist’s abandoned blue Volvo. It contained paperwork identifying both him and Eisemann-Schier, nude Polaroids of the two kidnappers, and the Barbara Mackle “KIDNAPPED” photo.
Meanwhile, underground, Barbara went from her initial terror to a state of acceptance and calm. Reportedly, Krist had searched for a victim he believed would possess the mental and physical fortitude to withstand such an ordeal. Of course, she also had to have a rich family. Barbara fit every bill.
On the morning of December 20, searchers located the burial site and frantically dug up the box using their bare hands. After 83 hours underground, Barbara Markle emerged unhurt and assured everyone she was okay.
After getting their loot, Krist and Eisemann-Schier split up. He got caught within 24 hours, piloting a new speedboat around a Florida swamp, seemingly on the run to nowhere. He had $480,000 of the ransom cash onboard.Shortly thereafter, authorities caught Eisemann-Schier in Oklahoma and eventually deported back to her native Honduras.
Two months after the crime, Krist got sentenced to life in prison. He served 10 years, got paroled to attend medical school, and worked as a physician in Indiana until 2003. Krist the lost his license over failure to disclose a disciplinary action he accrued during his internship. Rest assured, he’d come up with other ways to make money.
In 2006, Krist chartered a boat to South America and got busted upon returning to Alabama with 14 kilos of cocaine and four undocumented immigrants who had paid him $6,000 cash apiece for the ride. He got five years and served three.
On August 12, 2007, a judge ruled that Krist violated his probation not just for leaving the state, but for sailing a boat down to Cuba and South America. Krist went back to jail for 40 months.
In the end, minus the cost of the speedboat, Krist’s net income from kidnapping Barbara Mackle, the crime that made him forever infamous, was $761.
Still, if the past is any indication, he may yet still have some more grand plans up his prison-issued uniform sleeve.
To learn more about the Barbara Mackle case, watch the “Coffin for Christmas” episode of Investigation Discovery’s A Crime To Remember on ID GO now!
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Main photos: Gary Steven Krist [FBI]/”83 Hours Till Dawn” [detail of front cover image]