This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Two masked men with a knife ambushed James Huntsman as he left his family's house around dinnertime Dec. 8, 1987.
The men handcuffed and blindfolded the 16-year-old before driving him across Salt Lake City to Budget Bob's Motel, where they chained him to a bathroom sink.
One of the men pressed a blade to James' throat, telling him to be quiet or die.
Looking back, Jon Huntsman Jr. believes the dangerous and bloody kidnapping of his younger brother became a major turning point for family members, a moment when they understood that wealth and renown had their drawbacks. But more than that, he believes this crime is what turned the Huntsman name into one of the most widely known in Utah.
Earlier that year, Jon Huntsman Sr. made his first headline-grabbing donation, giving the University of Utah $5 million and telling administrators that they could spend it as they pleased. While he would go on to make far larger contributions, at that time this gift was the biggest any Utah college had ever received. As a show of gratitude, the U. named the basketball arena in his honor, the first of many buildings, programs and events to carry the Huntsman name.
The kidnappers, who turned out to be two of James' classmates from Highland High, had seen the headlines and they wanted some of the family's largesse. But when they nabbed James, one panicked and took off. The other one went forward with the plan, placing a call to the Huntsman home that was answered by James' brother Paul. The kidnapper demanded $1 million and warned that if the family called police, he'd cut his victim into little pieces.
Paul called his father, who was away in Ohio with his mom and some of his siblings for a company Christmas party. Huntsman Sr. immediately sought help from a pair of neighbors, M. Russell Ballard, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Cal Clegg, an FBI special agent who was active in the local Mormon ward, or congregation.
Clegg was also attending a Christmas party when he received Huntsman's frantic call. Huntsman told him that he wanted the FBI on the case, but worried about bringing in Salt Lake City police for fear that broad knowledge of the kidnapping could endanger his son. Clegg agreed, and in a matter of minutes, the phones of FBI agents throughout Utah were ringing.
Agent Al Jacobsen was getting ready to turn in for the night when he got the call. He threw on a sweatshirt and corduroy pants and rushed to Ballard's house, where Huntsman family members were gathered. Jacobsen was stunned to see that such a wealthy man was listed in the phone book, which told him everything he needed to know about Huntsman's lax home security.
Tracking the abductor • The kidnapper had said he'd call again, so agents set a "trap and trace" on the family phone and coached Huntsman Sr., who by now had arrived back in Salt Lake City, to stay calm and keep the kidnapper on the line as long as possible.
"I have never been as nervous in my life as when I was awaiting that call," he said, "rehearsing over and over what I would say."
While waiting for the phone call, a relative tried to reach Jon Huntsman Jr., who at the time was living in Taiwan and working for the family business. The telephone lines were spotty, but someone reached Huntsman Jr.'s secretary and delivered the message. She bungled the translation, telling Huntsman Jr. that his brother had been killed. It took hours before he could secure a phone line and get the real story. Jon Jr. and his family waited in their home in Taipei, helpless and distraught.
The kidnapper finally phoned at 7:42 a.m., and Huntsman Sr. performed his role perfectly, stretching the conversation by negotiating the amount and denominations of the cash ransom: $1 million, with $100,000 of it in $100 bills. The FBI traced the call to a pay phone at a Farmer Jack supermarket on Salt Lake City's west side. At the FBI's suggestion, Huntsman told the kidnapper he'd gather the money, but only after the abductor called back and put James on the line, so he could confirm that his son was alive.
Agents rushed to the grocery store and tracked two suspects hurrying to a truck with a gun rack. They tailed the truck as it sped north on the interstate. It turned out they were following two innocent shoppers.
Clegg and Jacobsen replaced those agents, staking out the pay phone in an unmarked car across the street. Within 40 minutes, Huntsman's phone rang again. The kidnapper put James on the line to let Huntsman hear his son's scared voice.
"I'm OK, Dad," he said. "Do whatever he says."
The FBI radioed to Clegg and Jacobsen, and they spotted two men next to the pay phones. They were wearing sunglasses, and one of them had his arms around the other's neck. Clegg thought he recognized James, whom he knew from church, but Jacobsen wanted to make sure. He got out of the car and walked through the parking lot, making a point not to look directly at the suspect and his victim.
Finally, about 75 feet away, he turned his head and saw they hadn't noticed him. Jacobsen, a burly 6-foot-4, decided to go for it. He made straight for the kidnapper and just as he was about to grab him, the boy turned and plunged his 4-inch butterfly knife into his chest.
"I thought he had hit me with his fist," said Jacobsen, who felt no pain. "I think what surprised him was if you did that in the movies, the guy falls down, but I kept standing, and I had a gun in my hand."
Knife vs. gun • When the kidnapper saw the .357 Magnum revolver Jacobsen had drawn, he dropped the blade and ran. It wasn't until the knife hit the concrete that Jacobsen realized he had been stabbed. Clegg bolted after the assailant, and Jacobsen grabbed the dangling pay-phone receiver, giving a rapid update to Huntsman and agents listening in as James stood frozen next to him.
"This is Al Jacobsen of the FBI. James is all right. I've got to go."
Clegg tackled the kidnapper and held him down until backup arrived. Jacobsen rushed over to them, but he knew he was seriously hurt. He got on the ground to slow his heartbeat, while Clegg returned to James, who had thrown off his sunglasses and was frantically trying to remove the cotton balls taped over his eyes.
"James was just beside himself," said Clegg, who approached just as James was able to see again. "He said, 'Oh, Brother Clegg, Brother Clegg,' and he was crying."
While Clegg took care of James, other agents and an off-duty paramedic tended to Jacobsen, who had turned a ghastly gray and was bleeding internally. They rushed him to Salt Lake City's LDS Hospital, where doctors determined the knife sliced an artery and his chest was filling with blood, so much so that his left lung collapsed. Doctors siphoned the blood out of his chest and put it back into his leg. He was awake through it all and he remembers thinking that bleeding to death was relatively painless.
While Jacobsen was in surgery, James told Clegg he recognized the voice of his kidnapper. It was Nicholas Byrd, a fellow Highland student who had visited the Huntsmans' home and swam in their pool with a group of boys. Byrd was 17 years old.
Salt Lake City police weren't informed about the kidnapping until shortly before Byrd was in handcuffs.
Later that day, Jon and Karen Huntsman, visibly shaken, appeared before TV cameras. With his voice breaking and tears clouding his vision, Jon Huntsman said: "Our family is deeply grateful to the FBI and the Salt Lake City Police Department who acted in a swift and professional manner to save the life of one of our children. Our family extends its deepest sympathy and heartfelt gratitude to Special Agent Jacobsen and his family. He truly placed others' lives before his own."
Jacobsen had never been wounded in his 27 years in the FBI, where he investigated hundreds of cases from white-collar crime to kidnappings to murders. Byrd stabbed him just three weeks before his planned retirement.
When Jon and Karen visited Jacobsen in the hospital, they didn't come empty-handed. They told him they would be honored if he would become the first director of security for Huntsman Corp. He accepted. When he started, his first act was removing the Huntsmans from the White Pages and installing a home-security system. Huntsman then hired bodyguards, erected a big fence around his house and got some dogs.
"It changes your lifestyle," Huntsman said, "and, unfortunately, is a negative side of wealth and philanthropy."
Jacobsen also helped beef up security protocols at company plants in Ohio, Texas and countries around the globe. And he kept Huntsman up to speed on the criminal case against Byrd, who was tried as an adult.
Prison time • Nearly three years later, Byrd, then 19, pleaded guilty to first-degree felony aggravated kidnapping and third-degree felony aggravated assault. In accepting his 5-years-to-life prison sentence, Byrd apologized to the Huntsmans.
"I'm willing to deal with the consequences," he said, as his relatives sobbed in the courtroom. "I wish there was a better and more constructive way to deal with this. But I know by law I will go to prison."
The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole released Byrd from prison in January 1995. He hasn't had any run-ins with Utah authorities since.
When Jacobsen left his job at Huntsman Corp. to go on a Mormon mission, Huntsman immediately called Cal Clegg, who retired from the FBI to become his second director of security. Clegg offered Huntsman a recording of the FBI tapes of Byrd's calls during the kidnapping, but Huntsman declined. He said his loved ones just wanted to put the episode behind them.
Through the years, Clegg has heard rumors in police circles that James was somehow implicated in the kidnapping, and he denies them adamantly.
"I know that James wasn't involved in this," he said. "I'm absolutely sure he wasn't involved in this."
In the days after his son's dramatic rescue, Jon Huntsman Sr. promised to keep a lower public profile. That didn't last long, as he has become one of Utah's most prominent residents.