Michigan family divided over whether relative collected ransom for kidnapping
By Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Richmond — Waiting for a haircut in the 1960s, Gene Zorn read a magazine story about the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping that stirred a childhood memory. Had Zorn grown up with someone involved in the abduction?
The thought nagged him for the rest of his life so, before his death in 2006, his son vowed to look into it.
The result is “Cemetery John,” a new book that accuses a former Mount Clemens resident of being the never-caught mastermind of one of the most sensational crimes in history.
Robert Zorn builds a circumstantial case against John Knoll through old photos, handwriting samples, 250,000 criminal case files and interviews with FBI profilers, forensic psychiatrists and Knoll relatives in Michigan and around the world.
“I’m not an investigator,” said Zorn, 55, who owned a Dallas software firm. “I’m just a regular guy whose father saw a conspiracy. It fell to me to tell this story.”
One of the most damning pieces of evidence was unwittingly furnished by a Knoll family member in Michigan.
It’s a photo of Knoll that is strikingly similar to a police sketch of the man who collected the kidnapping ransom.
Several Michigan relatives scoffed at the book’s claims.
They remember the late Knoll from his frequent visits to his sister’s home in Mount Clemens. He spent most of his life in the Bronx but briefly lived with his sister shortly after the kidnapping.
Relatives described Knoll as an affable soul who favored bow ties and made friends easily, frequently giving people food, rides and helping cut their grass. He died in 1980.
But the wife of a nephew believes Knoll was involved in the kidnapping.
“Let me put it this way,” said Sharon Breiling of Macomb Township. “If I was on a jury, and I knew my decision would take his life, I wouldn’t hesitate to say he’s guilty.”
Asked why she was so certain, Breiling said the book had mounted so much evidence that she couldn’t reach any other conclusion.
Zorn has ingratiated himself with Knoll’s relatives to the point that he has twice attended their annual family reunion in this rural town 40 miles northeast of Detroit.
It may be a first in the annals of publishing: An author who accused someone of one of the most notorious crimes in history socializing with 60 of the alleged culprit’s family members.
A second person involved
In 1932, the 20-month-old son of Charles Lindbergh was plucked from the second-story nursery of his home in New Jersey. His body was discovered two months later, dead from a fractured skull.
Given the Detroit-born Lindbergh’s fame — he was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic — the case received attention around the world.
Bruno Hauptmann, a carpenter from the Bronx, N.Y., was eventually arrested, convicted of kidnapping and murder, and executed. But there had always been speculation that others were involved.
Two sets of footprints were found at the base of a ladder used to reach the Lindbergh nursery. During the ransom meetings, someone acted as a lookout for the kidnapper.
A Lindbergh emissary who met the ransom collector originally said he didn’t look or sound like Hauptmann. He changed his mind when public pressure mounted for Hauptmann’s conviction.
Before Hauptmann’s arrest, the ransom collector was dubbed “Cemetery John” because the meetings occurred in cemeteries and the man identified himself as “John.”
Reading a magazine article in 1963, Gene Zorn believed he may have known Cemetery John.
Growing up in the Bronx, he was befriended by an older neighbor, John Knoll.
A year before the kidnapping, Knoll brought Zorn to an amusement park in New Jersey where Knoll met his brother and a man Zorn didn’t recognize.
The older men talked in German so Zorn only understood two words — “Bruno,” the name of the third man, and “Englewood,” the upscale town where Lindbergh lived.
Zorn would later wonder whether he had brushed up against history. Was the third man Bruno Hauptmann? Were they talking about the kidnapping?
A somber bank economist in Dallas, Zorn wasn’t given to idle speculation.
He sporadically looked into the kidnapping and shared his suspicions with his son, who resolved to find the answer.
Delving into the research
Robert Zorn dove into the task.
During three years of research, Knoll’s striking resemblance to the police sketch wasn’t the only tantalizing discovery.
Cemetery John had a fleshy lump on his left thumb, said the Lindbergh emissary who had met him. Family photos of Knoll show a similar deformity.
The handwriting on a ransom envelope sent to the emissary was a 95 percent match to the writing of a letter by Knoll to a relative, according to a handwriting expert.
Also, after the payment of the $50,000 ransom, Knoll paid $700 for first-class passage to Germany in a luxury liner. It was an exorbitant expense for an uneducated deli clerk living in a $10-a-month flat.
“There are too many coincidences for it not to be him,” said Zorn. “One thing after another kept pointing at this guy.”
Several criminal justice experts with knowledge of the kidnapping said Zorn’s book makes a compelling argument that Knoll is Cemetery John.
“He was meticulous, thorough,” John Douglas, a former FBI agent and a pioneer of criminal profiling, said about Zorn’s work. “He connected more dots than we had ever seen connected in this (case).”
The 317-page book, which costs $27, was published by The Overlook Press in New York.
Knoll was never considered a suspect in the massive FBI investigation or in the many subsequent books about the kidnapping.
His Michigan relatives, including three nephews, have a hard time believing Zorn’s book.
“I can’t say Uncle John was a kidnapper,” said Hal Breiling, 66, a nephew who hosts the annual reunion at his farm in Richmond. “It’s all circumstantial, certainly nothing conclusive.”
Breiling was miffed that Zorn had been cagey while interviewing relatives.
Instead of telling them he was working on a book, Zorn said he wanted to learn about Knoll because Knoll had been such a good friend to Zorn’s father.
Despite that, some relatives said they still like the author and will continue to invite him to family reunions.
The book is another matter. Sharon Breiling is the only relative who has read it. The others aren’t interested.