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Getty's ear and the Italian postal system

This year has seen a major film and a 10-part TV series on the 1973 kidnap of John Paul Getty III, grandson of the US oil billionaire. Both have brought back vivid memories of one of the biggest, but also most bizarre, stories of my early career at Reuters, when I was a correspondent in the Rome bureau.

Getty disappeared from the centre of Rome in July 1973, aged 16. But there was widespread scepticism about how genuine the kidnap was, with police and journalists suspecting it was an inside job organised by the victim himself, together with low-level hoodlums he knew through his Dolce Vita lifestyle. Getty was always short of money and police suspected he staged the abduction to wring cash out of his notoriously miserly grandfather, the richest man in the world. The news story remained relatively low profile for four months.

It was therefore a considerable shock one Saturday morning in November when I spotted the Rome daily Il Messaggero on a newsstand as I meandered down the street in the Trastevere district to pick up my car and drive into work as the lone weekend slot man. The front page was filled with a macabre photo of Getty’s severed ear in a plastic bag, waking me up rapidly from a post Friday-night fug and sending me racing to the office at record speed.  

It seemed that Getty had either been sold on or re-kidnapped from his original “captors” by a much more serious bunch, the brutal Calabrian mafia or ‘Ndrangheta. They took him to the mountains in southern Italy and chained him to a stake in a cave. But after four months, they became dangerously frustrated by the refusal of  everybody, including Getty senior, to take seriously their demands for a $17 million ransom. They sliced off the young Getty’s ear and sent it to il Messaggero to prove they meant very serious business.

The mafiosi included a letter with the ear, saying they would remove other parts of his body if they did not get agreement on a ransom within 10 days. Only trouble was, the ear got stuck in the notoriously inefficient postal system because of a strike in Naples and did not arrive for three weeks. We had visions, which fortunately proved to be unfounded, of various parts of the poor boy in envelopes all over the country.

Getty senior eventually paid up, after knocking the kidnappers down to a price of $3 million. Getty junior was released in December on a snow-swept mountain road, news we could only confirm during a media blackout by systematically ringing around small local police posts, playing Carabinieri off against the civilian police.  

The ransom, together with proceeds from other lucrative kidnappings in northern Italy, enabled the ‘Ndrangheta to establish a huge global cocaine trafficking empire. It is now Europe’s most powerful mafia, stronger even than Sicily’s Cosa Nostra.

John Paul Getty III, the so-called “Golden Hippy” never recovered from the trauma of his captivity. He suffered a crippling stroke from a massive drug overdose when he was 25 and died in 2011 aged 54. ■