On a winding road in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley where horses and buggies are as familiar a sight as pickup trucks and dairy barns, a woman crouched in a cornfield and frantically dialed the police.
Armed strangers had forced their way into her house, holding her husband at gunpoint. The violent break-in was already unusual for the rural farming community around Dayton, Virginia, where many residents are Old Order Mennonites. But when a deputy pulled up at around 10:45 p.m. on July 29, 2018, he soon realized the crime was even stranger than it initially seemed. Frank Jesse Amnott, the bearded intruder in the homestead’s basement, was a registered nurse from Pensacola, Florida, nearly a 13-hour drive away. What was he doing there?
The answer involved a botched plot to abduct five Mennonite children and execute their parents, federal prosecutors from the Western District of Virginia revealed for the first time on Wednesday, when Amnott pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. Amnott, 31, the first of four defendants to go before a judge, faces up to life in prison for his role in a bizarre, sprawling scheme inspired by a phony tale of kidnapping and a woman who claimed to be a covert operator for U.S. intelligence agencies.
“Although the facts of this case read like the script of a bad horror movie, the defendants’ murderous plot was real and it posed a grave risk to their intended victims,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said in a Wednesday statement.
Before their legal troubles began, Amnott and his wife, Jennifer, desperately wanted to have children. But multiple pregnancies ended in miscarriages, and their attempts to adopt were also unsuccessful, prosecutors said Wednesday, according to WHSV and the Daily News-Record.
In an emotional 2017 blog post, Jennifer Amnott recalled the grief she felt when she lost the baby girl she was expecting. “Instead of holding and nurturing this little person, we have a crib that hasn’t been used, clothes that have not been worn, and arms that remain empty,” she wrote.
A woman who befriended the couple claimed she could help. According to prosecutors, Valerie Perfect Hayes met the Amnotts in 2014, after she moved to Florida. The three grew close, and even lived together at times. Hayes told the Amnotts that she worked for the U.S. government, and talked about doing clandestine work for the “intelligence community.” She said she could facilitate an adoption for them.
It’s unclear if the couple were aware that Hayes had a warrant out for her arrest. According to the Free Lance-Star, she went to authorities in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in April 2014, saying that her husband raped her and then later broke into her home and assaulted her. But police found evidence that conflicted with her account. When confronted, Hayes reportedly admitted fabricating the story.
Facing charges for filing a false police report, Hayes vanished. Though it’s unclear when she moved to Florida and left the state, the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office told the Free Lance-Star in September 2015 that they were actively seeking tips about the 35-year-old’s whereabouts. Some of the information authorities received led them to believe that she could have left the country.
But by July 2018, when Hayes called the Amnotts, she was living with a boyfriend in Maryland. Her promises to assist with an adoption hadn’t amounted to anything, but she said she needed the couple’s help. According to prosecutors, she claimed that three of her children had been kidnapped and were living with two Mennonite families in the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley. She wanted the Amnotts to help her get them back, and assist with “recovering” two other children while they were at it.
If the plan succeeded, she told the Amnotts, they could keep one of the kids.
Just like Hayes’ purported government connections, the story was entirely fictitious, prosecutors say. There had been no kidnapping, and though Hayes did have children, she had no relationship to the five who the Amnotts were supposed to help her retrieve. It’s unclear how she picked two specific Mennonite families to target, and why she did so in the first place.
It’s also unclear why the Amnotts agreed to take part in the half-baked scheme. But according to prosecutors, they soon started making reconnaissance trips to the Shenandoah Valley with Hayes and her boyfriend, Gary Blake Reburn. Their son, they decided, would be named Caleb.
As they surveilled the Mennonite families, the two couples hatched a plan, prosecutors say. Jennifer Amnott would stay behind in Maryland and watch Hayes’s children, while the other three conspirators made their way down the snaking back roads near the West Virginia border. Forcing their way into each home, they would hold the parents at gunpoint and take the kids, all of whom were under 8 years old. Then, they would kill the parents to ensure that there were no witnesses to the abduction.
On the night of July 29, 2018, Reburn hid in a cornfield and waited until the lights at the first house went off, prosecutors say. The Mennonite couple inside, who are not named in court documents, had put their two youngest children to bed and were about to go to sleep.
Just then, Hayes and Frank Amnott pulled up in a silver Mercedes-Benz SUV. So that she wouldn’t draw suspicion, Hayes was dressed in the modest clothing favored by Mennonites, which she had stolen, authorities say. When the father opened up the door, the armed trio stormed in.
Amnott and Reburn forced the father down to the basement, binding his hands with zip ties and forcing him to lie on his stomach while Hayes went to look for the kids. Unbeknown to them, the children’s mother had grabbed the cordless phone and ran outside to call 911 from the cornfield.
It took only a few minutes for a deputy from the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office to show up. Hayes, still dressed in her Mennonite outfit, convinced him that she was a neighbor, and just happened to be passing by when she saw an armed man enter the family’s home.
The mother who placed the 911 call was suspicious, prosecutors say, since Hayes was clearly the same person who had been at her front door. Still, she obeyed the deputy when he told her that he was going inside the house, and she should get inside the car with Hayes and Reburn, who had also come outside. The scheming couple sped off into the night, leaving the woman they had intended to kill at a nearby convenience store.
Frank Amnott, who dropped his gun and surrendered when the deputy found him in the basement, was the only one arrested that night. Hayes and Reburn made their way back to Maryland, where they met up with Jennifer Amnott. In early August 2018, authorities say, the three fled to the United Kingdom.
All three were arrested in Scotland in November 2018, according to the Scottish Sun, and are awaiting extradition. The paper reported last March that Hayes was fighting to stay in the U.K., claiming that she had been working for “security services” in Northern Ireland at the time of the thwarted kidnapping attempt.
Hayes reportedly told Scottish authorities that she previously sought asylum in the U.K. in 2014, and, told that she would almost certainly be rejected because she was American, was recruited as a government agent instead. She insisted that the failed murder plot was a setup orchestrated by her ex-husband, a high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer, and that she feared being killed if she returned to America.
On Wednesday, Frank Amnott pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit the offense of kidnapping, one count of conspiracy to kill witnesses, and one count of brandishing, carrying, and using a firearm in commission of a federal crime of violence. His sentencing is set for May but likely will be postponed until his co-defendants go on trial, the Daily News-Record reported. He is expected to testify against the other three as part of a plea agreement.