Hanna and Sanford Marcus, flanked by Dominican nuns, leave St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stockton with baby Robert in tow. (Courtesy photo)

Baby Marcus and the largest manhunt in SF history


A child’s kidnapping is every parent’s worst nightmare. But this gut-wrenching case in 1955 was so extraordinary that it knocked the news of President Eisenhower’s heart attack off the front page and led to the largest search in San Francisco history …

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 19, 1955, a woman described as “heavy, untidy, and blonde,” entered the maternity ward at Mount Zion Hospital carrying baby blankets and a baby bonnet. She told a student nurse that she was visiting a new mother. When the nurse went into the adjoining nursery, the woman stole a baby out of the nursery and carried him out of the building.  

The baby was 3-day-old Robert Marcus. The baby’s mother, Hanna Marcus, was a young woman with more than her share of tragedy. Born Jewish in Germany, Hanna was smuggled out of the country when she was 13. Her mother, father and brother all died in the gas chambers. At the news of her son’s kidnapping, Hanna had a complete mental and physical collapse. The baby’s father, Dr. Sanford Marcus, pleaded with the kidnapper to return the baby to a church and promised not to press charges.

The heartbreaking story hit San Francisco like an emotional sledgehammer, and The City went all-out to find the baby. Five hundred uniformed police officers went door to door throughout The City. Fifteen additional clerks were hired at the state motor vehicle registry to search through the records for all 1941 Plymouths — the car that the kidnapper was described as driving. Doctors printed the baby’s formula in the papers to make sure the kidnapper could feed the baby properly. A police sketch of the kidnapper was distributed nationally, and tips poured in from around the country. A reward of $7,000 was offered for the safe return of Robert Marcus.

By Thursday, the focus had shifted to San Jose, where a woman who resembled the sketch was seen stealing diapers in the Willow Glen district. More than 1,000 people joined the search. San Jose Police Chief Ray Blackmore said, “As far as I am concerned, they are here. This is it. We will find the child.”

By Saturday, no progress had been made, and the baby wasn’t the only one in danger. Hanna Marcus had not eaten since the kidnapping and had to be fed intravenously. Her obstetrician, Dr. Goldstein, said her condition was very poor. “She just sits and looks at the wall,” he said. “Every now and then, she says, ‘All I want is my baby.’”

Dr. Marcus said, “If I can only convince her to snap out of it for the sake of the other two kids. But I can’t seem to get to her.”

The next day, Hanna’s other children, 2-year-old Susan and 3-year-old Richard, were brought into the hospital to see her, and her condition immediately improved. Hanna went home two days later.

By Sept. 26, one week after the kidnapping, the San Jose search had petered out. Police continued to check out all leads with no progress.

The following night, the case broke in an unlikely place: a prizefight in Stockton. Stockton Deputy Sheriff Oswaldo Vanucci was at the boxing matches when he noticed a woman in the crowd. “She was at the ringside, was a little drunk and she just wasn’t handling the baby like a mother would,” Vanucci recalled. He remained suspicious after talking to her and her husband and followed them home. The woman’s husband, who had not seen the child until she brought him home, was also suspicious. When Deputy Vanucci left to check out her story, the woman, Betty Jean, realized that the game was up. She called Dr. Marcus at his Daly City home, tearfully confessed to the kidnapping and said she would turn in the baby. San Francisco police put the Marcuses in a souped-up Cadillac and drove at top speed to Stockton, and the parents immediately identified the baby as their own.

Betty Jean was arrested for kidnapping. She said she desperately wanted a baby and said she picked Robert Marcus because her husband’s first name was Marcus.

Betty Jean had led a troubled life. She had previously been arrested for disorderly conduct and other charges. After her arrest, her mother, Ruth Berg, disowned her. “I have no sympathy for her,” Berg said. “I think she took the baby hoping to please that new husband of hers.”

Marcus Benedicto, Betty Jean’s husband, had her committed briefly to Stockton State Hospital after she tried to stab him the year prior.

After her arrest, Betty Jean collapsed and was taken for observation to a mental hospital. In November, three psychiatrists declared her as insane, and she was returned to the hospital. In March 1956, Betty Jean returned to the court, 40 pounds lighter with her sanity in tact. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year in prison. She was released in December of that year. In 1961, Betty Jean was arrested for stabbing her common-law husband in Seattle and was brought back to San Francisco for parole violation.

I recently talked to Robert Marcus, now 62, a financial executive at Butler University. He recalls being confused as a small child when people asked him if he was the kidnapped baby. When he was 10, his parents told him the story and gave him two boxes filled with newspaper clippings and letters from all over the world. They never talked about it again.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.

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