In 1973 John Paul Getty III Was Kidnapped in Rome by "Italian Gangsters"

John Paul Getty III
John Paul Getty III in Lagonegro, Italy, in Dec. 1973, after kidnappers freed him.

Part 1
J. Paul Getty III, a grandson of the oil baron once considered the richest man in the world, gained tragic infamy when he was kidnapped in Rome in 1973 by Italian gangsters.

"Italian gangsters" means little to anyone who knows about Italy and gangsters. ("Calabrian bandits," as per initial news reports, is more revealing, as only one crime ring hails from that region in southern Italy. Still, it's important to remember that the kidnapping was initially and widely believed to be a prank pulled by the grandson to get fast cash from granddad. That's partly why the kidnappers had to slice off an ear and put it in the mail.)

After all, Italy is the birthplace of several major organized crime groups with "global footprints" today, all of which are known generally as the Mafia. Mafia is an overarching term and includes the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, an offshoot of which is the American Mafia. There's the Calabrian-based 'Ndrangheta, and the Camorra, near Naples, among others. (There are actually two Mafias in Sicily, Cosa Nostra and La Stidda (Sicilian for "the star" -- all members reportedly wear the same star-shaped tattoo). La Stidda was created by "Men of Honor" (members of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra) who broke apart following the murder of Mafia-boss Giuseppe Di Cristina during a major Mafia war of the early 1980s.)

There's reason to believe the "Calabrian bandits" mentioned in early news stories were indeed directly responsible. There's also reason to believe the Sicilian Cosa Nostra was involved, perhaps working with the Ndrangheta. Perhaps not.

The Getty family was renowned for its great wealth; the kidnappers had reason to believe there would be enough cash to go around. And the Cosa Nostra and Ndrangheta, which share a common culture in the poverty-stricken environs of southern Italy and Sicily, are known to have had close ties historically.

Getty survived the kidnapping. He lived for decades but died relatively young, at age 54, in February 2011.

Getty had been wheelchair-bound since 1981. That was due to paralysis from a stroke that resulted from a drug overdose. He was also unable to speak and was partially blind.

Getty was 16 and living in Rome on his own, according to his New York Times obituary.

After he was expelled from private school, he was living a "bohemian life, frequenting nightclubs, taking part in left-wing demonstrations and reportedly earning a living making jewelry, selling paintings and acting as an extra in movies."

He disappeared on July 10, 1973. Two days later, his mother, Gail Harris, received a ransom request. The kidnappers wanted $17 million.

When she told them she didn't have money they reportedly told her: "Get it from London," which would have referred to her former father-in-law, J. Paul Getty, the billionaire founder of the Getty Oil Company, or her former husband, who lived in England.

Police were initially skeptical of the kidnapping claim. "Even after Ms. Harris received a plaintive letter from her son and a phone call in which a man saying he was a kidnapper offered to send her a severed finger as proof he was still alive. Investigators suspected a possible hoax or an attempt by the young Mr. Getty to squeeze some money from his notoriously penurious relatives."

The eldest Getty, the billionaire oil tycoon refused to pay the kidnappers a dime. He declared that he had 14 grandchildren, and: "If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."

His son, the father of the kidnap victim, said he didn't have enough money to pay the ransom.

Three months after the kidnapping, "Calabrian bandits with a possible connection to organized crime," cut off Mr. Getty’s ear and mailed it, along with a lock of his hair, to a Roman newspaper.

Photographs of Getty, along with a letter in which he pleaded with his family to pay his captors, subsequently appeared in another newspaper. Eventually, the kidnappers reduced their demands to around $3 million.

According to Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, the eldest Getty paid $2.2 million, the maximum that his accountants said would be tax-deductible.

The boy’s father paid the rest, though he had borrowed it from his father — at 4 percent interest.

From New York Times obit:

The teenager, malnourished, bruised and missing an ear, was released on Dec. 15; he was found at an abandoned service station, shivering in a driving rainstorm. Nine men eventually were arrested. Two were convicted and sent to prison; the others, including the man prosecutors said was the head of the Calabrian Mafia and the mastermind behind the abduction, were acquitted for lack of evidence.

The aftermath of the ordeal left Mr. Getty as a reckless personality; the year after his release he married a German photographer whose name has been variously reported as Gisela Zacher and Martine Zacher. They lived for a time in New York, where they consorted with the art crowd of Andy Warhol. Mr. Getty became a drug user and a heavy drinker. His grandfather had died in 1976, and after his overdose, he sued his father for $28,000 a month to pay for his medical needs.

Mr. Getty’s marriage ended in divorce. Beside his son, survivors include his mother, who cared for him after his stroke; a brother, Mark; two sisters, Aileen and Ariadne; a stepdaughter, Anna Getty; and six grandchildren and stepgrandchildren.

Some time after Mr. Getty’s release, his mother suggested that he call his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, which he did. The eldest Mr. Getty declined to come to the phone.