July 10, 1973 – John Paul Getty III, heir to vast oil fortune, is kidnapped in Rome, Italy.
John Paul, born in November 1956, spent his childhood in Rome, where his father oversaw the Getty family's oil interests in Europe. His parents divorced in 1964 and his father married a Dutch supermodel. John Paul rarely saw his father again; John Paul Getty II and his new wife became drug and sex addicts who spent most of their time in England and North Africa. John Paul didn't handle the divorce or abandonment well. He went to boarding school in Rome, and increasingly lost control of his life. Handsome, athletic, and artistic, he was called the "Golden Hippie" by the press. He crashed numerous cars and motorcycles, took drugs, slept around, modelled nude for art clases, and blew through cash. He was expelled from school for the last time in 1971 at the age of 15, but remained in Rome -- painting, making jewelry, and acting. A talented artist, he made a good deal of money from his artworks.
At 3 AM on July 10, 1973, the 16-year-old John Paul was kidnapped from his Rome apartment by the Mafia. He was imprisoned in a cabin in the mountains near Lauria, in the province of Potenza in southern Italy. His kidnappers demanded £17 million ($41.65 million) for his release.
His father didn't have the money. His grandfather, John Paul Getty, refused to pay the ransom. The miserly old man declared that he had 14 grandchildren; if he paid the ransom, they'd all be kidnapped and he'd be bled dry. (Grandpa had about $4 billion in the bank.) Many in the Getty family believed John Paul had staged his own kidnapping to extort money from his grandfather. Grandpa may have felt that if this was a trick, better to keep John Paul in poverty until he 'fessed up. If it was real, better to punish the wayward, sinful boy by letting him sweat a while.
The kidnappers issued a second ransom demand, but it was delayed for three weeks by an Italian postal strike.
Believing that the Gettys had again refused to pay the ransom, the kidnappers sent a new message......................
John Paul turned 17 on November 4. A few days later, the kidnappers cut off John Paul's right ear and a lock of his hair and sent it to Il Messagero, a daily newspaper in Italy. Included was a handwritten note from the teenager, pleading for his family to pay the ransom. A photo of young John Paul, showing his face and missing ear, was also in the message. The kidnappers now lowered their demands to £3.2 million ($7.85 million), and threatened to send John Paul back to his parents in pieces.
John Paul Getty II issued a public plea to the kidnappers, claiming he could not raise more than £1 million.
Finally, the grandfather finally agreed to pay a ransom of £2.2 million (about $5.4 million), because that was the maximum amount that was tax deductible. He loaned John Paul Getty II (John Paul's dad) another £1 million, but required him to pay it back at 4 percent interest.
On December 15, 1973, a near-naked John Paul Getty III was found alive at a remote gas station on a highway near Lauria. He was emaciated, malnourished, filthy, and bloodstained. He had a massive infection from the ear amputation, which his kidnappers had tried to stop by pumping him full of penicillin. (The doses were so enormous that John Paul became allergic to the drug.) To numb the pain, the kidnappers had plied him with huge amounts of alcohol every day.
When John Paul telephoned his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, the old man refused to take the call.
John Paul's father was allegedly furious that he had had to seek a loan and spend money to ransom his son, and barely spoke to him. John Paul's mother, the former Gail Harris, sank into a deep depression. Severely traumatized by his ordeal, John Paul turned to sex, drugs, alcohol, and his girlfriend -- small-time 25-year-old German actress Martine Zacher -- for solace. They married in 1974 when she was five months pregnant. Since grandfather Getty had long ago made John Paul's inheritance conditional on not marrying before he was 22, the teenager was now disqualified him from receiving an income from the family trust.
Seven men were arrested for the kidnapping. All were thought to be part of the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia. Only two were convicted, and they received prison sentences of four to 10 years. All the others were found innocent due to lack of evidence. Except for a few thousand lire, none of the ransom money was ever recovered.
John Paul underwent surgery to reconstruct his ear in early 1977.
In April 1977, John Paul suffered catastrophic liver failure due to the excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol he was taking. For a few critical minutes, his brain was starved of oxygen. He emerged from a coma after six weeks, paralyzed from the neck down, his vision impaired, and unable to speak or hear.
John Paul Getty II, worth at least $1.3 billion and now knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his charitable giving in Britain, refused to pay his son's medical bills. John Paul and his mother sued. A judge ruled in John Paul's favor, citing a prior agreement by Gett II to provide essential living funds to his children. John Paul moved into a high-tech clinic on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Disguised as a house, large amounts of emergency medical equipment, therapeutic devices, an X-ray machine, a blood bank, and even a small surgical suite were hidden behind the walls. Rigorous and painful physical therapy followed, and by 1987 John Paul had regained partial sight and speech as well as very limited mobility.
Although father and son eventually reconciled before Sir John's death in 2003, that didn't mean an inheritance. Sir John Paul Getty II left his £200 million fortune to his second son, Mark (who founded Getty Images and made another billion dollars). John Paul received just £50,000.
In a dramatic turn of events, John Paul discovered that his great-grandmother's estate, the Sarah C. Getty Trust, had left him an unalienable portion of the $4 billion Getty inheritance. He now had a substantial independent income, which allowed him to live well. John Paul and his mother took up residence at Gurthalougha House in County Tipperary, Ireland. He divorced his wife, Martine, in 1993. He also became an Irish citizen in 1999 (under an "investments for passports" scheme, now abolished). He later moved into a cottage on the grounds of Wormsley, his father's vast estate in Buckinghamshire, England, with his younger brother Mark had inherited.
John Paul Getty III died on February 5, 2011, at the age of 54 due to complications from the 1977 stroke. He was survived by his mother and his actor-son, Balthazar Getty.
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Grandpa Getty's refusal to pay his grandson's ransom was a huge scandal. Grandpa had a reputation for miserliness (he had installed a pay-phone in his own home for visitors to use), and he had broken with most of his children over what he considered their libertinous, sinful ways and great expenditures of "my money".
But as time went on, it was clear Grandpa had no intention of saving John Paul. The only person who pleaded for the ransom was Gail, John Paul's mother. Gail was near-frantic with worry, convinced that her son would be killed by his kidnappers.
John Paul's older sister Aileen is HIV-positive and an AIDS activist. (She was formerly married to Elizabeth Taylor's son, Christopher Wilding.) His younger sister, Ariadne, is married with two children. His younger half-brother, Tara (born to his dad's second wife, the model Talitha Pol), is an ecologist who lives in South Africa.
Gail cared for John Paul for the rest of his life. Here they are in 2011, just before John Paul's death.