Follow Keith Scribner On Facebook

January 23, 2000, Sunday
New Jersey Weekly Desk


KEITH SCRIBNER had just finished a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Montana in Missoula eight years ago and was living about 25 miles out of town in a log cabin at the end of a dirt road. It was there, as he listened to a radio broadcast, that faraway reality intruded: the saga of Arthur and Irene Seale and the man they had kidnapped, an Exxon official in New Jersey named Sidney J. Reso.

For Mr. Scribner, now 38 and a lecturer in the writing program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., the intrusion became a writer’s obsession. The result is his first published novel, ”The GoodLife” (Riverhead Books), which came out this month, to favorable reviews.

It is a thoughtful caper-thriller of a crime gone wrong. But the outcome has been known for years. The real mystery is one of human understanding: what was it like to live through hell, who would create such a hell and why?

The initial mystery, of the Seales’ motivation and of Mr. Reso’s fate, persisted through May and June of 1992. The captive’s wife, Patricia, issued televised pleas for his return. The authorities said they had no leads. Then suddenly it was over.

After what the United States attorney called ”a merry chase through the night,” the F.B.I. seized the Seales in Hackettstown. They turned out to be ordinary people — not the eco-terrorists they had claimed to be. Both were 45 years old and jobless, the parents of two teen-agers. They had crushing debt and few prospects except the corrupted optimism — or desperation — that had led them to demand $18.5 million for Mr. Reso’s safe return. The ransom was never paid. Mr. Reso was found dead.

The Seales, for a brief time, had become two of the most wanted criminals in the country. Now, through Mr. Scribner’s imagination, they have been reincarnated as Theo and Colleen Wolkoviak, two feckless strivers, not so different from many others, perhaps. Except that they committed an unspeakable crime in a very public way.

”How could these people, who seemed to me so basically normal, middle-class American people do this? To feel this was their only choice.” Mr. Scribner said. ”When I first heard about it I thought, ‘How interesting. It’s a corporate executive who’s been kidnapped’ — a lot like what goes on in, I don’t know, Brazil. It didn’t happen so much in this country. Right away I thought of the social implications. Does this indicate something about class unrest?”

It was more complicated than that, of course, and in time it would become, in Mr. Scribner’s hands, a story with the trappings of classic tragedy: how the Wolkoviaks’s tortured dreams of the good life — their tragic flaw — had destroyed the lives of another couple.

Mr. Scribner stayed close to the basic plot of the real case, but compressed time, zeroing in on the implications of both couples’ pursuit of the American dream, which the Wolkoviaks believed their captive had achieved.

At the time of his disappearance, Sidney Reso, 57, was president of Exxon International, directing the oil company’s operations outside North America. He and his wife lived in an expensive housing development in Morris Township. In the book, the couple are named Stona and Nunny Brown.

Arthur Seale had been a police officer in Hillside, where his father had once served as deputy chief. He possessed a departmental record clouded by misconduct and left the force in 1977 with a disability pension after being hit by another officer’s car. Later, he became a security officer at Exxon — in Florham Park, where Mr. Reso worked — earning about $60,000 a year. He and his wife had a son in college and a daughter in high school. But the Seales, both blond and fit, wanted more. They left New Jersey in 1986, living far beyond their means in the resort towns of Vail, Colo., and Hilton Head, S.C. Their ski-and-sail businesses failed. They returned to New Jersey to live with Mr. Seale’s retired parents in Hunterdon County.

The Seales abducted Mr. Reso from his driveway in Morris Township on an ordinary Wednesday morning, April 29, as he was about to start the short drive to work. They shoved him into a crudely built coffin-like box in the back of a rented van and drove to a storage locker, where they held him for five days. Meanwhile, they tried to project the image of a normal home life while negotiating for ransom with Exxon.

Mr. Reso, who had suffered a gunshot wound in one arm during the abduction, remained bound and gagged with duct tape, lying in his own waste in 100-degree heat in the storage locker. During periodic visits, Mrs. Seale would dress the wound and give him water. When he died, five days after his abduction, the Seales buried his body in the Pine Barrens in South Jersey.

When the Seales were finally arrested, still angling for their windfall, Mr. Reso had been dead for seven weeks.

For Mr. Scribner, the tale proved hypnotic, but would not work as a standard narrative. ”I wanted to be able to explore the dreams and justifications and passions and ambitions of these people from inside their own heads,” Mr. Scribner said. ”The only way to do that was five points of view. There was no way, with a single narrator.”

Mr. Scribner’s account takes place over just three days, during which time he lets the reader see and hear the Browns, the Wolkoviaks and Theo’s father, Malcolm, who loves his son but is locked in a lifelong battle to understand the younger man’s impetuousness, his penchant for failure.

Mr. Scribner writes cinematically, with scenes alternating among the hapless but curiously sympathetic Wolkoviaks, Nunny Brown’s hopeless vigil and Stona Brown’s cruel captivity.

”Another thing, as it evolved, was the pronounced suffering of Reso in that box,” Mr. Scribner said. ”Is it possible to imagine that? It was a chance for me to reveal that particular man’s experience of being locked in this box and dying and also what his response would be, which mainly is this guilt about his past and his wish for redemption. You know we talk about character changing, or just revealing character. It gave me an opportunity to do both.”

The Seales’s transgressions are obvious, those of Stona Brown less so, initially. And here, Mr. Scribner, who, like Stona Brown, grew up Roman Catholic, decided to make Mr. Brown’s final days a dual struggle — the struggle to stay alive and the struggle to atone for both corporate sin and those of a more personal nature.

At first, Mr. Scribner had envisioned the Reso case as part of a longer novel; ultimately it became the novel itself. Although to anyone who followed the case closely, it appears that Mr. Scribner could be simply fleshing out details, his account came solely from his imagination.

”The original title for this was ‘American Ethic’,” Mr. Scribner said. ”It was a line right out of Arthur Seale’s mouth.” The full quote, made in a jailhouse interview with Barbara Walters, was: ”My whole life I’ve been a hard-working, moral, decent individual. And we really epitomized the American ethic.”

But ”The GoodLife” won out, being as it is a bit of wordplay on the Wolkoviaks’s aspirations. In the universe Mr. Scribner has constructed, Colleen dreams of becoming the enormously well-compensated captain of a highly motivated sales squad for GoodLife products, a home-sales program.

The idea, he said, came from a man he met in Turkey, where he lived for a time.

”This Turkish guy that I knew was trying to get me to sell Amway,” Mr. Scribner said. ”And as soon as he made his presentation to me — he was just so loaded with this stuff that I’d been making up about Colleen, all of the aphorisms, that business self-help speak — this just fell into my lap.”

Mr. Scribner, who graduated from Vassar College in 1984, grew up in Troy, N.Y. He majored in economics, intent on a business career — ”it was the ’80’s, I was ready to jump on.” But a writing course in his senior year turned his head.

He went to Japan to teach English, came back and worked as a carpenter and as a teacher, but continued to write. He even taught, briefly, in New Jersey, at Saddle River Day School. At Stanford, he met his wife, a poet, Jennifer Richter. They have a 5-month-old son, Luke.

So far, he said, his plan to skip the business world has worked out.

”O.K.,” Mr. Scribner said he told himself. ”I’m going to give this 10 years. And basically, that’s how long it took.”

The New York Times Dec. 1, 1992

MORRISTON, N.J., Nov. 30 — In appearances before Federal and state judges today, Arthur D. Seale was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping, extortion and murder of Sidney J. Reso, a senior Exxon official.

”What you have done is thoroughly evil,” said Judge Garret E. Brown Jr. of United States District Court in Trenton. ”Your actions were not for any cause. They were not rash or impulsive. They were cold-blooded and calculated. To the extent you seek mercy you will be given the same you gave your innocent victim — none.”

Then, totaling the seven conspiracy and extortion counts in the indictment, Judge Brown imposed the maximum sentence, requested by the United States Attorney, Michael Chertoff: 95 years with no parole and a fine of $1.75 million.

”You will spend the rest of your life in custody,” Judge Brown told Mr. Seale, who pleaded guilty to both sets of charges in September, after his wife, Irene, confessed to their roles and led investigators to Mr. Reso’s body. Referring in part to the Seales’ treatment of Mr. Reso, Judge Brown added, ”You will be fed, medical treatment will be provided, but you will not be bound, gagged, shot or placed in a coffin.”

Moments before Judge Brown passed sentence, Mr. Reso’s son, Christopher, was permitted to address the court. Speaking of the family’s anguish, he said: ”When Arthur and Irene Seale were arrested and the answers finally came, they seemed more cruel and perverted than even our tormented dreams could conjure.

”After all,” he said, ”these are people with their own family. Couldn’t they realize the depth of the wound that this would inflict on our family? Shouldn’t they have known in the core of their beings that what they contemplated was a violation of all that family and decency stood for?”

”The GoodLife”

”Isn’t it unique to think we could make loads of money for the reason being that we’re better people?” In Vail, in their living room, Colleen had arrayed before Theo the products she’d bought at the GoodLife informational meeting that afternoon at the Sheraton in Denver. ”But this is the Goodlife philosophy.”

Theo examined the hefty bottle of car wash, the glossy picture on the label and the bright red cap, weighing it in his hand. ”What makes you think this stuff’s any good?”

”They’re excellent products. Everyone knows that. But the point being most of your money comes from the plan, from the system you set up below you, and not from your own sales.” On the coffee table — made from a huge old blacksmith’s bellows they’d found antiquing down toward Durango — she’s placed the various products: the car wash and wax, complexion soap made from honey (a quarter the price of department stores), dish detergent, metal polish, toothpaste, mouthwash, and the classic GoodLife product, LiquidGold, the all-purpose cleanser that had made millions.

”Twenty wide and twenty deep is my initial plan. I comes out to four hundred people below me at a maximum take of twenty-one percent. Plus bonuses. Think about it. I’ve started the calculations, it’s very complex. Let’s just say, for a ballpark figure, easily six digits within twelve months.”

Theo smirked, looking to the side the way he did. Ready to suck the wind out of her sails. To shoot her down. But she wouldn’t let him, not this time. She understood that her new income might emasculate him. The freedom it would afford her. The entree into certain social circles. She would be patient with her husband. ”GoodLife is about understanding your goals,” she said. ”then setting out to fulfill them. It’s about helping you get in touch with your own desires, what’s inside you. Otherwise, you spend your life striving for some dream that might not even be your own. Do I want to achieve Distinction Status in six months, or do I want to take more time building a wider front line so I reach Laurel a little farther down the road, but I roll through Prestige and Majesty Status like a tank? I honestly don’t know. So part of the system is that through my upline and my sponsor, I’ll get to know myself better as part of the business-building process. In that sense, it’s very gestalt.”