Every kidnapping is a tragedy, but most involve people unfamiliar to the public. Occasionally, though, there are celebrity kidnappings on par with the Lindbergh baby and Patricia Hearst. Here are a few such crimes.
Famous people haven’t been the only targets of high-profile kidnappings; well-known animals aren’t safe, either. Shergar was a dominant racehorse that won European Horse of the Year in 1981, the same year in which he won the prestigious Epsom Derby by a jaw-dropping 10 lengths. After he retired from racing and went out to stud, though, things got a little weird.
One morning in February 1983, a car rolled up outside the stallion’s stable in County Kildare, Ireland. Six masked men jumped out and stuck guns in Shergar’s handlers’ faces. The group of men, some toting submachine guns, forced Shergar into a horse trailer and drove off. Cleverly, the kidnappers carried out the horse heist on the biggest livestock-trading day in Ireland, so it didn’t look at all unusual for them to be hauling a horse trailer around.
The kidnappers called in hefty ransom demands, which only made sense given Shergar’s 80,000-pound stud fee. The horse’s ownership group didn’t want to pay, though, since they felt forking over a ransom would only encourage future horse-nappings. After four days, the kidnappers quit calling, and despite a massive door-to-door hunt throughout Ireland no one ever saw Shergar again. The kidnappers have also eluded the police, although most observers agree that the IRA likely stole the horse and hoped to spend a five-million-pound ransom on guns.
Professional athletes and their families are particularly high-profile kidnapping targets in poorer areas of the world. Ruben Omar Romano found out the hard way. Romano, a gifted midfielder who later became an embattled journeyman coach, was coaching Cruz Azul in Mexico when kidnappers dragged him into a car outside of the team’s practice facility in July 2005.
Romano remained hostage in a dingy house in a low-rent district of Mexico City until September, when Mexico’s Federal Investigative Agency rescued him and captured the kidnappers. Romano, for his part, took the whole ordeal in stride, saying, “The treatment was not bad. I’m not complaining. I was not mistreated.”
His team wasn’t quite as humane as the kidnappers, though. When Cruz Azul struggled upon Romano’s return, the team gave him a pink slip in December after just 11 matches.
Getty, the grandson of American oil tycoon John Paul Getty, spent a lot of time in Italy, where his father looked after the Italian parts of the family’s oil interests. In 1973, the 17-year-old Getty was kidnapped and held for ransom. The elder Getty balked at paying the kidnappers, so they borrowed a tactic from Calabrian bandits of days gone by: they cut off Getty III’s ear and mailed it to a newspaper in Rome, then sent photos of the boy missing his ear.
At this point, even the tight-fisted Getty squad decided they would pay the ransom lest the kidnappers follow through on their promise to send the boy back in pieces. John Paul III’s dad secured the ransom money from the boy’s grandfather, but only as a loan that he would have to pay back at 4% interest. (This was a typically classy move by Grandpa; the patriarch also remarked, “I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”) Once the kidnappers received the ransom, they released Getty, who was in fairly good shape with the exception of his missing ear. His son, actor Balthazar Getty, plays Tommy Walker on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, though it’s been rumored that he may be dropped from the cast.
Coors was the 45-year-old chairman of his family’s brewing company when he disappeared on his way to his office in 1960. His hat and glasses were found near his abandoned still-running car outside of Denver, but there was no trace of Coors himself. The Coors family knew what it was like to be the focus of a kidnapping scheme; Adolph Coors II himself had been the intended target of kidnappers 27 years earlier. The family sat back and waited for the ransom demand to come in, as Coors II said, “They have something I want to buy – my son. The price is secondary.”
Although the Coors family managed to stay calm, their story didn’t have a happy ending. Seven months later Coors’ body was discovered in the Rocky Mountain foothills, and police eventually caught his murderer, Joseph Corbett, Jr. Corbett, a former Fulbright scholar and escaped murderer from California, had spent two years planning to kidnap Coors and ransom him for $500,000. He ended up murdering Coors in the process, though, and when his typewriter and car were linked to the kidnapping and ransom notes, Corbett became one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives. He was finally apprehended in October 1960 in Vancouver.
In 1963, Sinatra, Jr. was working on following in his dad’s footsteps, and he was actually having some success as a 19-year-old. He was traveling and playing shows with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra until kidnappers feigned a package delivery and abducted the young singer from his room at a Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe.
The three-man gang of kidnappers wasn’t going to win any awards for their brilliance, and the whole kidnapping was fairly farcical. The gang didn’t have enough money for gas as they were ferreting Sinatra to their hideout in Burbank, California, so they had to borrow some cash from their hostage. Sinatra’s father called a press conference and offered a million dollars for his son’s return, but apparently the gang missed the message. When they called the elder Sinatra, they only asked for $240,000 in ransom.
Sinatra, Sr. paid them, and they released Sinatra, Jr. on the side of the road after two days of captivity. Once the boy got home, he was able to help investigators track the kidnappers by remembering what restaurants the food he’d been given came from and how many planes had flown over the safe house where he’d been held. Of course, the bumbling kidnappers didn’t need any help getting caught. One of them, John Irwin, got so flustered that he confessed the whole thing to his brother, who talked Irwin into calling the police. Irwin then gave the police the scoop on his two accomplices, and all three spent time in jail.
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