Bellevue couple pays ‘ransom’ in Christmas hoax

Al and Barbara Courty can look forward to something more than the traditional gift giving this Christmas. They’re expecting the Pope to arrive.

Practical joke has lasted a year, but ends today

Al and Barbara Courty can look forward to something more than the traditional gift giving this Christmas. They’re expecting the Pope to arrive.

Not the Pope himself, but a bust of the late John Paul II, kidnapped from their Bellevue home last January and held for a ransom of $960.

This is no ordinary case of extortion. The Coutys and their three children each had to pay $20 per month for one year and donate the final sum to Children’s Hospital.

They’ve met the demand, and the statue is due to return home today - Christmas Eve.

The Pope bust is a Courty family heirloom that’s passed from one person to the next as a sort of prize for various triumphs. It went once to son, Michael, after a tough divorce, and then back to Al after he quit smoking.

Now the figure is traveling the world as a captive, or so it appears. The statue shows up in photoshopped postcards from places like Barcelona, Africa, Hawaii, and the Gulf of Mexico, along with letters from a group that calls itself PICOP for People In Charge of the Pope.

The family can only speculate about who might have taken the bust.

“When we got the first ransom note, it was hysterical,” said daughter Louann Bauman. “Then the suspicion just started flying.”

The Courtys and their children are consummate pranksters, and the group is admittedly fond of starting shenanigans.

“We’re incredible with practical jokes,” Bauman said. “We have a good sense of humor and a lot of fun with it. You don’t turn your back in our family, because someone will get you.”

One of the Courty’s jokes lasted over 20 years and involved sending orange-colored gifts to an Irish friend on St. Patty’s Day. There was a bouquet of orange carnations, a mouse dyed orange with food coloring, and an escort hired to knock on the front door wearing an orange jacket and then unveil her birthday suit when it opened.

None of the Courty children are letting on that they had anything to do with the kidnapping hoax.

“You can talk to any one of them and all you get is a blank stare,” Al said.

Bauman makes for a prime suspect. Her granddaughter was treated at Children’s Hospital earlier this year with help from the organization’s uncompensated care fund, which survives on charitable donations.

“It’s definitely not me,” Bauman said. ““It’s probably something I would do if I had thought of it, but I didn’t.”

Perhaps it was her daughter, then.

“I don’t think she and her husband are capable of that kind of humor,” Bauman said.

Everyone in the family is a suspect as far as Al and Barbara are concerned.

Several leads point to their son Michael. His ex-wife’s name is Suzie, and the Pope has showed up one time on postcard alongside a fishing boat called Suzie Q.

Another letter shows the bust superimposed on water skis, and Michael is an avid fan of that sport.

Michael’s one defense is that all the ransom letters were postmarked in Puget Sound locations, and he lives in Mesa, Ariz.

Regardless of who’s responsible for the hoax, the family isn’t complaining.

“It was a great, worthy cause, and I’m glad we did it,” Bauman said.

That doesn’t mean the Courtys aren’t plotting some payback.

“If we can find out who did this, there will be a retaliation,” Al said. “Trust me.”

Joshua Adam Hicks can be reached at jhicks@bellevuenews.us or 425-453-4290.