“The most distinguished thing about him was there was nothing you would remember him by.” That’s the way a neighbor described Joseph Corbett Jr., but history does remember him, and for one tragic act—a bungled kidnapping that resulted in the death of Adolph Coors III. This infamous crime is the subject of The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder that Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty, a new nonfiction book by Nashville author Philip Jett.
On the morning of February 9, 1960, “Ad” Coors left his ranch southwest of Denver to drive the twelve miles to his office. When he arrived at nearby Turkey Creek Bridge, he was flagged down by a man whose yellow Mercury appeared to have broken down on the one-lane span. In the trunk of the Mercury were leg irons and handcuffs; the driver carried a pistol and a ransom note demanding $500,000. He had been developing this plan for years.
None of these details is a spoiler—Jett reveals them all in the book’s prologue—and The Death of an Heir is not a whodunnit. It’s a step-by-step review of the actions taken by law enforcement, and especially by the FBI, during what Jett calls “the largest U.S. manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping.” Both Adolph Coors Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover, two of the most powerful men in the country, brought their full resources to bear on the investigation. The famously taciturn Coors told reporters, “I am dealing with crooks who are in business. They have something I want to buy—my son. The price is secondary.” As evidence mounted, however, it became clear that Ad was unlikely to be found alive. The search was for his killer.
“Understand this: Adolph’s life is in your hands. We have no desire to commit murder. All we want is that money,” read Joseph Corbett’s ransom note. Corbett had been a gifted student—a Fulbright Scholar with an IQ of 148—at the University of California-Berkeley when his mother fell to her death at the family home. He dropped out of college, stole a car, and killed a hitchhiker during a robbery attempt the following year. Convicted of second-degree murder, he served four years before escaping and fleeing to Colorado, where he continued to elude authorities. A quiet man, meticulous in his habits, Corbett had no friends and few acquaintances. While living in Denver, “the most wanted man since John Dillinger,” as Hoover would soon describe him, he began to dream of a big job that would change his luck for good.
In contrast, Ad Coors was a down-to-earth family man—he adored his wife, Mary, and their four children, who ranged in age from ten to eighteen. He served as CEO and Chairman of the Board of his family’s brewery, working side-by-side with his brothers, Bill and Joe, under the tutelage of their demanding father. The elder Coors maintained complete control of the multimillion-dollar business—he allowed his sons to own no stock and insisted that they avoid any outward show of wealth. The three brothers and their families lived quietly, Jett writes, “without limousines, private schools, or bodyguards.” Ad, one employee remembered, was often “mistaken by new employees and suppliers as a run-of-the-mill employee. None of them would ever dream he’s Adolph III, chairman of the company.” His brother Bill would say, “I don’t think Ad had an enemy in the world.”
Jett uses literary license in The Death of an Heir to imagine the interactions between Ad’s distraught friends and family members during the manhunt, but he draws extensively from case and court records for eyewitness statements and detailed testimony about the facts of the case. The result is a gripping page-turner that showcases the art of detection in the mid-twentieth century and that serves as a cautionary tale in which wealth and privilege fail to shield a family from suffering—and in fact target them for it. It’s also a reminder that no matter the hundreds of highly trained agents, increasingly sophisticated technology, and thousands of man hours brought to bear on a case such as this one, sometimes the smallest, most unlikely detail—a single fingerprint or a partial license plate number—can bring down even the savviest criminal.
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.