Out & About Kentucky Style: Wilkinson kidnapping

Wallace Wilkinson

It was a Tuesday afternoon, April 10, 1984, when one of the craziest stories ever involving a future Kentucky governor began to take shape.

Jerome Jernigan stopped by Wallace Wilkinson’s Lexington office to discuss a little business. The two had been business partners in a wood veneer business since 1977, but by 1980, the company had fallen on hard ties and was forced to close.

According to Wilkinson that was the beginning of regular visits from Jernigan demanding money. Jernigan argued that it was money owed him from several business dealings.

But this particular day was different. Instead of arguing, he handed the future governor a four page suicide note, pulled a pistol from his jacket and told Wilkinson, “I’m going to kill you first.”

From Wilkinson’s office in Lexington, at gunpoint, he was forced to drive the two of them to the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Frankfort, a property owned by the multi-millionaire. There they spent the night.

It was during the night that Wilkinson was forced to phone James Aldridge, president of New Farmers National Bank in Glasgow. Wilkinson was part owner of the bank.

Wilkinson, who made much of his fortune selling used college books throughout the country with his wife Martha, told the bank president he was in a jam and for him to withdraw $500,000 from the bank and meet them early the next morning at the Glasgow Airport.

The following morning Wilkinson and Jernigan drove to Wilkinson Flying Service, another Wilkinson owned business. Jernigan threatened to kill the employees if Wilkinson alerted any of them to what was going on, other than a pilot flying two men to Glasgow.

As requested, Aldridge was at the airport when the plane touched down. He handed Jernigan a bag with $500,000 cash along with the keys to his 1983 Lincoln. Wilkinson was released unharmed, but mentally was a mess. Jernigan was on his way back to Lexington.

And now for the rest of the story:

The FBI was contacted, and before the day was over, Jernigan was arrested in Lexington. In his possession was $400,000, two pistols, and six pairs of handcuffs.

Jernigan, however, told a different story than that of Wilkinson.

He told authorities that the two of them, indeed spent the night in Frankfort trying to reach a business agreement on their financial differences. He said they settled on a $400,000 cash payment to be used to finance another wood veneer business. Wilkinson would also provide him with a furnished apartment in Lexington, a car, and $5,000 a month.

Jernigan said after he received the money in Glasgow, Wilkinson changed his story, and instead of a business deal, it became a crime.

In the meantime all of the $500,000 was recovered, and several weeks later Jernigan filed suit against Wilkinson for $50 million in punitive damages and to determine the profits made by his and Wilkinson’s wood veneer business.

The craziness just kept growing.

State charges against Jernigan, which consisted of kidnapping and carrying a concealed deadly weapon were dismissed in order that federal extortion charges would take precedent.

The court ordered Jernigan to undergo a mental evaluation, of which he was found competent to stand trial. In late May 1984, he was released on a $25,000 bond.

At one time Jernigan lived in a fashionable section of Lexington, but since his business setback, he began living in various motels around the city. One of those was the Continental Inn.

And that’s where on July 18, 1984, he was found dead in room 418. Initially suicide was suspected. However, an autopsy revealed Jernigan died from heart disease. He was 54.

Amid lots of conversation about foul play, Lexington police ruled it out, and U.S. Attorney Ron Meredith, after receiving the death certificate dismissed all of the charges against Jernigan.

Although Jerome Jernigan had died, his ex-wife continued in court to go after Wilkinson for what she felt here ex-husband was owed. Two years later, Wilkinson was awarded a summary judgement to dismiss the case.

With all of the central characters deceased in this made-for-TV saga, I located the one person who was close to what happened 35 years ago.

Verna Aldridge, says she will never forget the events that involved her husband, Jim.

Now living in Jeffersonville, Indiana, she at first told me her vivid memory of those two days in 1984.

“A friend and I drove to Louisville to shop for some Derby outfits and when I got home that night around 8 p.m. Jim said, ‘Sit down, I have something to tell you.’ He told me about the Jernigan man holding a gun on Wallace and wanted Jim to bring a million dollars to the airport the next morning. He told him not to call anyone.”

Verna Aldridge went on to tell me other details and we hung up.

It gets better.

Fifteen minutes later my phone rang. It was Verna Aldridge. “I don’t know why I told you what I did. I thought about what I said, and it wasn’t right.”

“I did go to Louisville with my friend like I said on April 10, but when I got home that night, my husband asked me if I had heard the news on the radio what had happened that day?”

Her husband had actually gotten the desperate call from Wilkinson the night before while she was still there at home, she said.

“Wallace told him not to tell anyone, and he didn’t, not even me,” she recalled. “I went to Louisville and he went and met one of the employees, Nancy Day, to get the money. It took two people back then to open the bank’s vault.

“It was really bizarre. My husband said Wallace really looked haggard and tired,” she offered. “After all these years I’m still not sure about that man’s (Jernigan) death in his hotel room. I still think it was suspicious.”

Get up, get out and get going! Gary P. West can be reached at west1488@twc.com.