Man kidnapped in St. Louis drug ring conspiracy talks to KPLR

ST. LOUIS - St. Louis entrepreneur Todd Beckman is now serving 20 years for kidnapping. A federal judge sentenced him in February, along with three other men who got less time.

The men said they were trying to recover $15,000 and 24 pounds of marijuana. No one’s heard from the young man they kidnapped - until now. “It ran though my head 100 times. ‘What do I do?’ ‘How do I get out of this?’ ‘They’re going to kill me,’” said Ellis Athanas III.

Athanas admits he was a lower level drug dealer and owed money. On November 21, 2016, Blake and Caleb Laubinger beat and kidnapped Athanas from his home on a quiet Maplewood street. They drove him down I-44 towards Pacific when Athanas said he tried to escape.

“I jumped into the front seat and started kicking Blake to try and crash the car. There was a semi right next to us and I heard it just lay on its horn,” he said.

Athanas said they came feet from a guardrail. Ellis thought he’d more likely survive a 70 mile-an-hour crash then he would his kidnappers.

“I had to do something. I remember going over a bridge and I was like - should I do it here?” he said. “Like I said, it played over and over in my mind I’ve got to do something. They’re going to kill me.”

Athanas said they pulled up to Blake Laubinger’s house in Pacific and dragged him into the basement.

“There was plastic already laid down on the floor waiting,” he said.

Athanas said they zip-tied his hands over his head and around a pole, where he stayed nearly two days.

“I could see my hands turning purple, almost black…the circulation had cut out completely. They were numb,” he said. “I couldn’t feel them anymore and I kept pleading and just begging them to loosen the restraints and every time I did they would come over with a Taser and he’d hit me.”

Court records indicate Todd Beckman repeatedly pistol-whipped Athanas and pressed the barrel of the gun to his forehead - pulling the trigger.

“I could hear it click – yes. The gun being pressed into the top of my head…just multiple times over and over again, the tensing up is like, ‘I’m going to die - right now.’”

Meanwhile, a thousand miles away in Ocala, Florida, Athanas’ mother received a phone call she will never forget.

Lynn Gellerman said she remembers the conversation.

“My baby screaming and in pain. They said you’ll never spend another Thanksgiving with your son.”

She gathered as much cash as she could.

“My daughter and I took off driving at 5 o’clock that afternoon to go to St. Louis with the money. It’s the day before Thanksgiving and they’ve had him now for almost three days.”

The kidnappers moved him again, this time tying him inside a storage container on Beckman’s Fenton property.

“There were times when I thought that was the last time I would hear my mom’s voice,” Athanas said. “It was like the door in my life shutting. There’s just a little peephole in the top of the container that I could see out and it was pouring down rain that night - lightning, thunder.”

When his parents delivered the money, the kidnappers drove him behind the Fenton Target and dumped him.

“I was sitting in my car and somebody knocked on the window and I didn’t recognize it was my son,” Gellerman said.

They'd shaved his head.

“My hair was 26 inches long,” Athanas said.

He testified at Beckman’s sentencing. He’d worked for Beckman as a drug dealer.

“I’ve certainly made my own mistakes. I’m no shiny penny. I’ve got my own history and my own past and it got me mixed up with the wrong crowd,” Athanas said. “Today I feel like I have a second chance to get away from that and I’ve had a lot of young guys I’ve met along this journey and in my past that I feel like I can let them know this isn’t the right place to be. Sure you can make a bunch of money. You can live fast, buy nice cars and have this freedom, but at what cost? Your life?”