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A Serial Kidnapper in 1970s Bay Ridge

Updated: Aug 1, 2019


Angela Woods was Christmas shopping on 86th Street on Friday, December 18, 1970. The twenty-three-year-old mother of two had the kids with her—Doreen, 4, and Gregory, three months old, the latter wrapped in a white blanket and nestled in a navy blue canvas carriage. Outside a greeting-card store near Fourth Avenue, a middle-aged woman stopped them and asked how old the baby was, pulling the blanket back and gazing at the sleeping Gregory. “How wonderful babies are at that age,” the strange woman said.


“She idolized the child,” Angela said later, when she’d had time to think in hindsight about how strange and suspicious it was. But at the time, she thought little of the encounter. She dropped some cards in a mailbox.


She’d forgotten to buy wrapping paper, so she ducked into the Woolworth on the southeast corner of 86th and Fifth, where the TJ Maxx is now. The old 64th Precinct stationhouse, across 86th Street, sat abandoned; active since 1904, it had closed on December 3, soon to be replaced by a multilevel parking garage.

Woolworth on 86th and Fifth in Bay Ridge
Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, ca. 1965. Woolworth at left

Angela brought Doreen into the store with her but left Gregory outside, in his carriage, which was right against the store window. Hundreds of people passed on the busy shopping corridor. At ten minutes to 3pm, the mother sent her daughter out to check on the baby.


Inside Woolworth, Angela could hear Doreen screaming. She ran out.


Gregory was gone.

 

Just before 4pm, Angela burst into the new police station, on 65th Street, near Third Avenue, with her husband, John, a local firefighter. “They brought snapshots,” the Home Reporter reported, “snapshots of their baby on joyous occasions, snapshots to be held in the hands of detectives who would work through the night to find their child.” The Woods family interrupted a celebration—the dedication for the new building, the new 68th Precinct headquarters. “Mayor John Lindsay was downstairs officiating at the dedication of the stationhouse,” the paper continued. “His joy at the occasion was shattered when he heard the news.”

The mayor went to the squad room, took the hand of fireman Woods, and pledged, “Don’t worry. We’ll find your baby even if we have to turn the whole town upside down.”

The old precinct on 86th Street was brought back to life, becoming a makeshift command post to coordinate the search for Gregory.

“While police filed out of the stationhouse,” wrote a Home Reporter columnist, “a baby sat in his stroller, swaddled in a blanket, all alone outside of Woolworth’s.


“I wondered, perhaps, if his mother hadn’t heard what happened just a few hours earlier?”


A thousand off-duty fellow firemen came to help search, and the United Firefighters Association put up a $1,000 reward. TV news spread the story throughout the city while police and firefighters patrolled Bay Ridge and Sunset Park all night, amplifying descriptions of the baby in English and Spanish, asking for help.


One witness described a 5-foot-7 redhead, in a green coat and hat, who carried a white bundle toward the subway station. Another woman, who got on the R at 95th Street, reported an old woman who sat down next to her—with a small baby.

 

As the search continued, Carolyne Coufos was concerned that she couldn’t reach her elderly father or uncle on the phone. So she and her husband traveled to the men’s apartment at 349 62nd Street, just a block from John Woods’s childhood home, at 472 62nd Street. “When [Carolyne] entered the apartment, she was confronted with the horrible tragedy which befell the old men,” the Home Reporter reported.

Her father, James Neckland, 82, was bound and gagged and lying face down in a mass of dried blood on the bed in the right rear bedroom of the two-family house.
In the left rear bedroom was the body of George Petropoulos, 75, her uncle, bound, gagged and stabbed and lying on the unmade bed in a similar fashion.
The two men had been dead of multiple stab wounds in the chest for about 12 hours.

The double murder had nothing to do with the Woods kidnapping. These were just violent times.

 

John Woods remained at the new 68th Precinct, answering questions, talking to reporters. “If you know where the baby is,” he said, speaking through a reporter to the kidnapper, his voice breaking, “PLEASE return the baby.” Woods had graduated from Fort Hamilton High School, and he’d worked on the Verrazano Bridge, then just a few years old, as an employee of a steel company. He’d met his wife on a blind date at Hartman’s, a popular local spot, on 100th Street; she’d been born at Victory Memorial and attended St. Patrick’s. They married in 1965, at St. Ephrem’s. The paper described her as a “pretty young wife,” him as a handsome man, with dark hair and deep-set eyes. At the police station, he wore a plaid shirt and frequently mopped his brow, trying to remain calm.

His wife was kept in a different room, on another side of the building, until she was brought to a cousin’s home and sedated. The next morning, she got a phone call. She listened, and then she screamed.

“He’s found!”

 

Leandro Padilla and Theodore Cobb got off the R train at 53rd Street around 7:20am on Saturday, the morning after the kidnapping. The men worked as machinists at a paper factory on 52nd Street and were friends, though they didn’t run into each other until they exited from separate cars. They walked together to the 52nd Street exit. “At the first landing on the right side of the stairs, Padilla and Cobb saw a bundle wrapped in a white and yellow blanket,” the Home Reporter reported. “‘Leo, this is a baby!’ Cobb exclaimed.”

The men, who had eleven children of their own between them, brought the bundle to Sister Elizabeth’s Hospital, a maternity ward at 362 51st Street, where Gregory had been born. A piece of cardboard was stuck into the bundle; it was six inches long, and had a message scrawled in blue ink—WOODS BABY.

The hospital called the police, who told John Woods, who found his son healthy and fine. “In fact,” the Home Reporter reported, “the child had been fed, and probably slept through the whole thing.” He had been gone less than twenty-four hours. “Every hour was like eternity,” Angela later said.


Detectives signed the backs of snapshots of the baby, a reminder for the parents of their work on the case. One showed the baby next to a cake bigger than him, with God Bless Gregory written in frosting. “He certainly did,” a police lieutenant told the paper.


“I’m ten-feet tall and five-feet off the ground,” John Woods said.


Police drove the family back to their home, 535 84th Street, a stone rowhouse where later copious cards and letters would arrive, as well as gifts—a four-foot teddy bear from Woolworth, a sweater and hat from the 86th Board of Trade.

“Detectives are searching for a suspect,” the paper added. They “believe the suspect is a woman because the child was well taken care of.”


“Did she find the infant irresistible?” Marian Leifsen wondered in the Home Reporter. “Did the loneliness of the holidays pending prove too much? Perhaps she wanted to love someone, someone like a baby who could respond and only appreciate that love. Did she perhaps want to hold the softness of that small person next to her and hear the tiny heartbeat next to hers?”


Police would get to ask her when she struck again.

 

During the first week of 1971, Padilla and Cobb received the $1,000 reward at a formal event at the United Firefighters Association headquarters. Earlier, on Saturday, January 2, a woman had been arrested on Fourth Avenue between 81st and 82nd streets. She was in her early fifties, 5-foot-3, blonde and bespectacled—fitting the description of the kidnapper, of whom police now had a sketch. But a witness told cops they had the wrong person—the culprit was older, and fairer-haired. The suspect was released.

It would take a few more months to find the right one.

 

Monday, March 22, 1971, was a sunny and windy spring day. Mayor Lindsay was in Bay Ridge again, this time not for the dedication of a new police station but a new firehouse, on Third Avenue and Wakeman Place. Florence Wood, who had turned 26 the day before, was shopping a mile away, on Fifth Avenue, in what we now call Sunset Park. From their home at 439 41st Street, she led Robert, Jr., 3, by the hand while she pushed two-and-a-half-month-old Douglas in his stroller. It was blue, like Gregory Woods’s.


Like Angela Woods, Florence Wood (no relation) stopped in a store, a drugstore on Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, taking the older child inside with her while the younger slept outside, parked in his carriage. When Florence came out minutes later, the carriage was gone—and so was Douglas.


She screamed.


An officer on foot patrol was among those who responded, and he sent word to headquarters, which spread the news by police radio. A witness described a woman with a child who got into a cab a few blocks from the scene of the crime, at 51st Street and Fourth Avenue (very close to where Gregory Woods had been found), which was also shared. Cops stopped taxis and questioned the drivers.

Sgt. Raymond Palma and Patrolman Robert Ganley stopped the first cab they saw, at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. The driver, Andrew Seubert, lived in Bay Ridge, at 7920 Fourth Avenue, and he said he had just come back from dropping off a woman and a baby whom he’d picked up at 51st and Fourth—where Douglas’s abandoned stroller had been found. They'd talked in the cab about babies; the woman had told her driver he couldn’t be married, because he didn’t know a lot about babies.


Seubert dropped the two off on 14th Street, near Sixth Avenue. “It was a million to one shot,” Ganley later told the Home Reporter. “The first cab we found was it!”

The cabbie and the cops hurried to 14th Street, and the driver confirmed he’d left them at No. 338, the second in a series of rowhouse-looking apartment buildings across the street from a New York Telephone building. Palma and Ganley started banging on doors; more police flooded the area.


On the third floor, the two officers heard a baby crying. They kicked in the door and found Frances Andrews—“gray, short, and bespectacled, dressing the crying baby in a red snowsuit.” It was her birthday; she was 51.


She had no children of her own and was separated from her second husband. She told police she intended to return the child—she just wanted “to teach the mother a lesson.”

Cops brought Douglas to the 68th Precinct, which was filled with many of the same officers and detectives who had worked the Gregory Woods case just months ago. Florence Wood, accompanied by her mother and a neighbor, fed her baby, then finally called her husband, who was at work with the New York Telephone Company in Manhattan, ignorant of what had transpired in Brooklyn.


“‘Bob,’ she said, ‘don’t get excited. I got the baby. The baby was kidnapped.’” She told him the story, starting to break down as she did. “‘Unbelievable,’ exclaimed Mr. Wood. Mrs. Wood cried, ‘Please come home, please!’


“‘Fantastic,’ he said, and rushed right over.”

 

As the stationhouse celebrated the child’s safe return, Mrs. Andrews sat “just a few feet away inside the squad’s interrogation room,” the Home Reporter reported. She was a “sad figure.”

Seen through a two-way glass in the room, the woman, dressed in a black leather jacket, brown pants, and hair in tight-rolled curlers, sat dejectedly on a bench. She just kept her head in her hands most of the time in a silent tableau of sadness.
…A long night of questioning was ahead.

Andrews denied involvement in the Woods kidnapping from the 86th Street Woolworth, but the detective on the case found several witnesses who said they saw her with Gregory in the subway station at 86th Street. “An artists’ conception of the suspect in the Woods kidnapping also appeared remarkably similar to the bespectacled, grey-haired Mrs. Andrews,” the Home Reporter reported. She was held on $1,500 bail [$9,500, adjusted for inflation].

After a hearing a week later about the Wood kidnapping, Andrews was “paroled in [the detective’s] custody and rearrested on charges of the Woods kidnapping,” the paper added.


And then—the newspaper record goes dry. There were no more mentions in The Home Reporter, the New York Times or the Daily News. Kidnapped children are exciting, as are arrests, but by the mid to late twentieth century, news organizations had lost interest in following cases through to their ends. In the 1930s, reporters would attend trials, visit the convicted at Sing Sing and follow them all the way to the electric chair.


In 1971, they left Frances Andrews in police custody. It’s unlikely she beat a kidnapping rap when she was caught red-handed by police, though a pathetic older woman might have elicited some sympathy and avoided serious jail time. For now, though, her fate remains unknown.


Read more Bay Ridge crime stories in the book True Crime Bay Ridge and more about the history of the neighborhood in How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.


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