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How a postal strike delayed delivery of a severed ear and almost cost oil heir Paul Getty his life

How a postal strike delayed delivery of a severed ear and almost cost oil heir Paul Getty his life

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Back in 1973, Jean Paul Getty, 80, was one of the richest men in the world. He’d made billions in oil, but his money had not brought his family happiness. Married and divorced five times, his eldest son, George, had recently killed himself, and another son, Jean Paul Jr, had become a heroin-addicted recluse.

Jean Paul Sr’s 16-year-old grandson, Paul, lived a hedonistic life in Rome, where he was known as the ‘The Golden Hippie’.

In July 1973, although Paul had spotted men watching his apartment, he didn’t take any precautions. His girlfriend, Martine Zacher, later said: ‘Paul always thought that nothing could ever happen to him, that someone would always bail him out.’ That belief was about to be tested.

July 10, 1973 3am

Paul Getty is walking drunk and alone through the streets of Rome, where he earns a meagre living selling his paintings and working as a model. He said: ‘I didn’t have to introduce myself. Everybody knew who I was.’

Paul stops at a newsstand and buys a Mickey Mouse comic book when suddenly a white car pulls up and three men get out, hit him over the head with a pistol and cover him with a blanket. Paul calls out: ‘Oh please, what have I done?’

Victim: A traumatised Paul Getty just after his release

Suspected kidnapper: But Girolamo Piromalli was acquitted

As the car speeds through the city, the kidnappers need to confirm they’ve got the right man and ask who he is. ‘Paul Getty,’ he replies. When the car stops at a motorway toll booth, Paul thinks about calling for help but fears they’ll shoot him or throw him out of the vehicle.

7am

Paul is pushed down behind the front seats of the car. He asks for water but the kidnappers give him whisky instead.

He said later: ‘I must have drunk a bottle and a half on the trip’.

Paul thinks about a modelling assignment he has the following day and the fee he’s now going to lose. Meanwhile, in Rome, his 24-year-old girlfriend, Martine, is worried that Paul hasn’t returned home, and she starts to search the streets for him.

10am

The car finally stops and Paul is taken out with his head still covered by the blanket. He can tell by the heat that he’s in the south of Italy, and somewhere high, and he panics for a moment that he’s about to be thrown off a cliff.

His kidnappers seem unsure what to do with him. Paul said: ‘I could tell they were really scared, full-scale paranoia. Being blindfolded like that, your whole nervous system picks up things easier.’

In fact, Paul is 400 miles south of Rome in the region of Calabria and his kidnappers are members of the local Mafia.

11pm

The phone rings in the Rome apartment of Paul’s mother, Gail Harris Getty, who divorced Paul’s father in 1964. A man with a Southern Italian accent calling himself Cinquanta — ‘Fifty’ — tells her they are holding Paul.

‘He is safe but we will require much money to release him.’ Gail says she has none, so Fifty replies: ‘Then please prepare to ask for it from your father-in-law. He has all the money in the world.’

Gail isn’t convinced that the kidnapping is real, but nevertheless calls her ex-husband in London. Jean Paul Jr is unable to come to Italy to help with the search as he is wanted there for questioning after the fatal overdose of his second wife, Talitha, in 1971. He refuses to call his father for help, as they haven’t spoken in years.

July 13

The Italian police issue a nationwide alert about Paul — ‘Missing, thought abducted’ — but remain sceptical about the kidnapping. They tell the Press: ‘He is a child of the night. We are not ruling out anything.’

They then leak a false story that Paul once told his friends he would solve his financial problems by arranging his own kidnap. Rome’s daily newspaper, Il Messaggero, runs a story with the headline ‘Joke or Kidnap?’. Meanwhile, Gail repeatedly phones Jean Paul Sr at his Surrey mansion Sutton Place, but he never returns her calls.

July 14

Jean Paul Sr tells his solicitor, Robina Lund, to issue a statement: ‘Although I see my grandson infrequently and I am not particularly close to him, I love him nonetheless. However, I don’t believe in paying kidnappers. I have 14 other grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, then I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.’

But Robina knows this is just a ruse designed to convince the kidnappers he wouldn’t pay — and so release Paul. She said later: ‘The public fell for it and so did the kidnappers.’ That night Getty writes in his diary: ‘I hope that he is not kidnapped and that he is OK.’

Getty is famous for being frugal with his fortune. In the 1950s, the billionaire took friends to Crufts dog show, which had an admission fee of just five shillings. But when he spotted a sign that said it was half price after 5pm and they’d got there a few minutes before, he said: ‘Let’s take a walk round the block for a while.’

Tycoon grandad: Jean Paul Getty

Desperate mother: Gail Getty mother of the kidnapped John Paul Getty III meets the Italian press after announcing his kidnap by the Calabrian Mafia

July 17

For six days, Paul has been sleeping blindfolded on a blanket in the open air. The kidnappers take him to a nearby spring for a drink, and his blindfold is suddenly removed.

For the first time Paul sees his captors — five short men all wearing balaclavas.

One says to him in Italian: ‘Listen, kid, you’re going to be here for a long time. Don’t do anything stupid. Ask for whatever you want, we’ll try and get it for you. Don’t blame us, we’re paid men.’

But Paul is worried that if one of them forgets to wear his balaclava or it slips down and he sees their face, they will kill him.

In Rome, Gail tells a TV interviewer that her son’s kidnappers have been in touch: ‘We are ready to negotiate his release. We have asked police not to interfere and we are now asking the Press to help us. We want them to carry the message that the contact has been made and the family is ready to negotiate.’

July 18, 6pm

The kidnappers are furious at Jean Paul Sr’s refusal to pay and the newspaper stories that the kidnap may be a hoax. They give Paul paper and a pen to write letters to his grandfather and parents.

‘When they asked for my grandfather’s address I knew what the plot was. The thing is, I never thought my grandfather would pay any kind of ransom.’

Paul has only met his grandfather a few times. ‘Every time I saw him it was very formal, always for dinner. The butler was always there and you had to be very quiet. I’d get gifts from him for my birthday and Christmas. Not from him, of course, but from some aide.’

The kidnappers dictate the letter to Paul’s mother, which he thinks sounds ‘incredibly corny’: ‘The telephone call that you received was real. I beg you, do not put my life in danger, have me killed. Please stay away from the police. My kidnappers will certainly kill me so I wait with trepidation for your interest for my freedom, by paying the money that my kidnappers will ask.

‘If you love me, mother, what I have said should be enough. Lots of kisses to everybody.

‘P.S. If you delay, my kidnappers will cut off a finger and they will send it to you by registered post.’

John Paul Getty III (1956 - 2011), the grandson of American oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty, with a police officer after his kidnapping, Italy, December 1973

July 26

Gail is in torment waiting for more news of her son. She said: ‘In a kidnap situation, every hour is twice as long as an ordinary hour.’

Her lawyer, Giovanni Jacavoni, finally receives another letter from the kidnappers asking for a ransom of 10 billion lire, or $17 million. The kidnappers follow up the letter with a phone call to Jacavoni. ‘We want to be paid in very small notes,’ they say. You will be told later where the exchange will be done. Either we’re paid or Paul is dead.’

Jacavoni later tells the Press that paying a ransom of 10 billion lire is ‘unreasonable’.

July 30

The kidnappers call Giovanni Jacavoni with their response: ‘What do you mean you can’t pay that much? You want to find the boy dead somewhere?’

Jacavoni replies: ‘There isn’t that much money in the whole world. The most kidnappers in Italy ever got was 300 million lire.’

The kidnapper replies: ‘That is a joke. We have spent that much on expenses. Tell her [Gail] to get it from London.’

August 12

Jean Paul Sr sends Fletcher Chace, a former CIA agent who is now employed by Getty Oil, to Rome to make contact with the kidnappers in person.

Meanwhile, Paul has been moved to a makeshift hut and is shackled by a 10 ft chain.

He has been given a transistor radio and he’s shocked by how much his disappearance dominates the news: ‘Until I had the radio, I didn’t realise how serious the situation was.’

In Rome, his mother’s lawyer, Giovanni Jacavoni, is beginning to have doubts about the kidnap, as the men he’s negotiating with keep changing their demands — at one point wanting three million lire, then weeks later three billion lire.

Jacavoni tells a press conference: ‘It cannot be excluded that Paul planned the kidnapping either as a joke, or to get money or to get publicity.’

September 15

Two months after being kidnapped, Paul is still being held in the hut. The highlight of his day is keeping track of time by scratching a line on a rock.

‘That scratch on that ugly bare rock was my whole routine. My only record that a person named Paul Getty was alive,’ he later says.

The kidnappers ply him with whisky and cognac to keep him docile. Paul feels he is losing his mind. He is obsessively collecting his fingernails in a matchbox and he stares at his reflection in a spoon for hours.

The fact that he can’t see the faces of his captors torments him. ‘I’d keep staring at Italian magazines they brought me just to see faces — smiles, expressions.’

Paul thinks ‘what bastards they were’ for allowing him to disintegrate before their eyes.

John Paul Getty III with his mother at Rome's Police Headquarters

October 5

The Italian newspaper Il Messaggero publishes a letter from the kidnappers: ‘The Getty family has 15 days to find the money for Paul’s release. At the end of this period maybe it will be you yourself who will open the letter containing an ear with a lock of hair from Paul.

‘His family has offered a sum which is unacceptable, as though they were one of the poorest families in the world. Therefore, we are now decided to end it in one way or another.’

The kidnappers also tell Paul they will mutilate him. He is moved to a room in a remote house where there is a bed and a chopping block used to kill pigs.

October 21, 7am

The kidnappers cut Paul’s hair, blindfold him and tell him to sit on the chopping block, then pin him down by his arms, legs and head.

Paul knows what is about to happen and tells them to ‘do it quickly’ and asks for a handkerchief to bite down on.

He says later: ‘He rested the razor on my right ear. He played around and held it there. There was a sound like ripping paper. It was done in two strokes. The noise was the worst thing.’

The kidnappers quickly bandage Paul’s head, give him anti-tetanus and penicillin shots and tell him he’s been ‘so brave’. Paul has bitten right through the handkerchief.

Within a few hours he is bleeding profusely and being violently sick. The bleeding lasts for three days, and rats eat the dried blood on the floor.

The kidnappers post the ear and a lock of bloodstained hair to Il Messaggero in Rome.

October 27

The kidnappers have been constantly calling Gail to ask if the ear has arrived. Fifty said: ‘I know you have it, I put it in the post box.’ She says: ‘When I heard that, I just went wild. “You horrible beasts . . . animals . . . you put an ear in a post box?” ’

What the kidnappers have not realised is that there is a postal strike in southern Italy and the package containing the ear is stuck in a sorting office.

Gail Getty, mother of the missing grandson of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, is pursued by photographers as she leaves her Rome apartment

November 10

It’s four months after the kidnap and Paul is now 17. A journalist from Il Messaggero calls Gail to tell her that a package has arrived from the kidnappers. The editor’s secretary fainted when she opened it.

Gail is driven by Fletcher Chace to police headquarters. She said later: ‘There were a lot of policemen all standing around this desk with a big bright light over it. They were shaking and nervous.’

The envelope contains the severed ear, the hair and a typewritten note: ‘This is Paul’s first ear. If within ten days the family still believes that this is a joke mounted by him, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.’

Gail holds the ear up to the light, notes its distinctive freckles and confirms it is her son’s. That night, Paul’s grandfather, Jean Paul Sr, writes in his diary: ‘I shudder at the boy’s peril.’

He later writes in his autobiography: ‘It became apparent there was no hope of out-waiting or out-bluffing the kidnappers — criminals who would savagely mutilate a victim would not hesitate to kill him.’

Jean Paul Getty decides to pay the kidnappers a ransom of $3.2 million but he wants it to be seen to be paid by his son, Jean Paul Jr, and so arranges to lend him the money at 4 per cent interest.

November 16

The kidnappers telephone Il Messaggero and tell a reporter ‘something interesting’ has been left at a location outside Rome. The police find an envelope containing Polaroids of Paul, staring at the camera and with his right ear missing.

By now, Paul is malnourished and weak and a bad cold is turning into pneumonia. His kidnappers have not responded to the family’s offer.

Gail writes an open letter to them: ‘I beg of you, accept the money that has been offered to you. I feel only pity. Pity for my little Paul, so alone, his adorable face mutilated. Pity for you, who do not know what is good in life.’

December 12

The kidnappers have finally agreed to accept the money. Getty Oil troubleshooter Fletcher Chace is driving towards the town of Lagonegro with three large bags full of millions of used lire notes. Following instructions from Fifty, Chace spots a man standing by the road with a balaclava and a gun. Chace pulls over, gets the three bags out of the boot and without a word drives away.

December 14, 10.30pm

Fifty calls Gail and says they are about to release Paul close to the spot where Chace left the money. He says: ‘You’d better hurry — get in the car right away. Don’t come with the police and don’t talk. No matter where you are in the world, if you turn us in, we’ll get you, all of you. Please hurry. It’s cold.’

Gail says: ‘Please keep him warm.’ Fifty promises: ‘I’ll make sure he has a blanket.’

Gail Getty, mother of missing J. Paul Getty III, stands outside her apartment door with her lawyer Giovanni Jacovoni

11.30pm

The kidnappers drive Paul to a main road, give him a blanket, say ‘Ciao’ and disappear. When he’s sure the men have gone, Paul takes off the blindfold and starts to walk down the road, but no one stops to help the scruffy young man with the bandaged head.

In desperation, Paul decides to lie on the ground and play dead, but still no one stops. Eventually, he reaches a petrol station and asks to use the telephone. The attendant takes one look at Paul and snaps: ‘No phone. Go away!’

December 15 5am

Paul Getty’s long torment is almost over. A truck driver who passes him on the main road realises he might be the boy who was kidnapped and alerts the police. A police car screeches up to Paul and the local police chief jumps out with a cheery: ‘Hello!’

Paul shakes his hand and says: ‘I’m Paul Getty. Can I have a cigarette please?’

The news reaches Paul’s grandfather on his 81st birthday. Jean Paul wrote in his diary: ‘It was the finest and most wonderful birthday present of my life.’

Aftermath

Gail checks Paul into a private clinic to help his recovery and to avoid the media frenzy. Paul says: ‘Girls were screaming whenever they saw me. I was being treated like a rock star.’

After recording phone calls and photographing the gang as they collected the ransom, police caught nine of the kidnappers. But at the trial, where Paul appears as a heavily guarded witness, only two are convicted and only some of the ransom money is ever recovered. Paul joked: ‘I made some people a lot of money. It was a high-priced ear.’

In September 1974, Paul and Martine marry, but as he is only 18, four years below the age at which he is allowed to marry according to the trust fund set up by his parents, Paul is disinherited. However, his grandfather agrees to give him a small allowance.

Jean Paul Sr died in his study in Sutton Place a few days before the trial verdict. Eight years after the kidnapping, Paul suffered a drug-induced seizure, leaving him paralysed and almost totally blind.

He died in 2011, aged 54, with Gail and Martine by his side, after years battling addiction and health issues.

His son, Balthazar, said: ‘He taught us how to live our lives and overcome obstacles and extreme adversity and we shall miss him dearly.’

Jonathan Mayo is the author of Titanic: Minute By Minute, is published by Short Books.

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