John Paul Getty III was the grandson of American oil tycoon, Jean Paul Getty, who was the richest person in the world at one point. Getty III was infamously kidnapped for a ransom of $17 million during his teenage years. While growing up in Rome, Italy, he went through a five-month-long ordeal during which his kidnappers tortured him and sent his hair and mutilated ear to an Italian newspaper to threaten his family into paying up the demanded amount of money. Despite showing reluctance to pay the ransom initially, his grandfather, who had earned a reputation due to his frugality, eventually arranged for a negotiation in exchange for his grandson’s release. However, Getty III continued to suffer in the following years due to drug abuse during his captivity, and became partially disabled till his death at the age of 54. The kidnapping incident has been used in popular culture many times over the years, the most recent ones being the Ridley Scott movie, 'All the Money in the World', and the FX television series, 'Trust'.
Childhood & Early Life
John Paul Getty III was born on November 4, 1956 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Sir John Paul Getty Jr. and Abigail Harris. He was the grandson of Getty Oil Company founder Jean Paul Getty who was named the world's richest person by 'Fortune' magazine in 1957.
He was the first of four sons of his parents who had relocated to Rome after his father was offered the position of the president of Getty Oil's Italian subsidiary, Getty Oil Italiana. His parents divorced in 1964, following which his father married model and actress Talitha Pol in 1966.
Getty III stayed with his mother and attended St. George's British International School in Rome, from which he was expelled in early 1972 for painting offensive words against the headmaster on the school’s walls. Later that year, his drug-addict father fled to England when his wife Talitha was found dead following a heroin overdose.
In the following years, he lived in a squat and led a bohemian lifestyle, spending time at nightclubs and taking part in left-wing demonstrations. He was artistically gifted; and was able to earn money by selling painting, cartoons, jewelry, and by appearing as an extra in films.
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At 3 a.m. on July 10, 1973, 16-year-old John Paul Getty III was kidnapped from the Piazza Farnese in Rome. He was then taken to a cave where he was blindfolded and imprisoned. The kidnappers demanded $17 million in ransom from his family in exchange for his safe return. However, some of his family members discredited the event, suspecting his own involvement.
Interestingly, according to Gisela Martine Schmidt, who was his girlfriend at the time, he had actually contemplated his own abduction with help of petty criminals during hard times, but ditched the idea later. However, the kidnappers kept following him and eventually made their own plan to extort money from his family.
When Getty III’s father asked his grandfather to pay the ransom, the frugal patriarch refused, saying that it would encourage the kidnappers to abduct his other 13 grandchildren. Following this, the kidnappers began torturing him directly and indirectly in various ways, such as taking away his radio, killing his pet bird and playing Russian roulette against his head.
In November 1973, his captors sent an envelope containing a lock of hair and a human ear to a daily newspaper. They also threatened to send more mutilated parts unless the ransom is paid. While they stressed that it was not a joke set up by Getty III, they also revised the ransom amount to $3.2 million.
In the following months, his health condition deteriorated rapidly due to his wounds becoming infectious as well as pneumonia caused by the increasingly cold weather. Panicked, his kidnappers administered high doses of penicillin to treat his infection, which caused an allergic reaction. They also gave him large amounts of brandy to keep him warm and reduce his pain, but it later caused alcoholism.
His grandfather eventually began negotiating with the kidnappers, and while they settled for $2.9 million, he himself offered to pay $2.2 million, the maximum amount that was tax deductible. He lent the rest of the money to his son at 4% interest. Once the ransom was finally paid, Paul was found alive at a petrol station in Lauria on December 15, 1973.
A total of nine people were apprehended in connection to his kidnapping, including high-ranking 'Ndrangheta members Girolamo Piromalli and Saverio Mammoliti, but most of the ransom money could not be recovered. The Mafia bosses and five others were released due to lack of evidence, while two of them served prison sentence.
In Popular Culture
A few years after John Paul Getty III's ordeal, English thriller novelist Philip Nicholson, a.k.a. A. J. Quinnell, used the incident as an inspirations for his 1980 novel, 'Man on Fire'.
John Pearson, in his 1995 book, 'Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty', described the incident in great detail. In 2017, renowned director and producer Sir Ridley Scott adapted his book into the film, 'All the Money in the World'.
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Recently, a more dramatized version of the incident was depicted in the 2018 drama series, 'Trust', produced by Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, in which Harris Dickinson played John Paul Getty III.
Family & Personal Life
In early 1973, 16-year-old John Paul Getty III got involved in a relationship with 23-year-old German photographer, director and writer, Gisela Martine Schmidt, the twin sister of Jutta Winkelmann. The couple got married in 1974, nine months after he was released from captivity.
Gisela was pregnant with their child when they got married, and she gave birth to son Balthazar in 1975. John Paul later adopted Anna Zacher, Gisela's daughter from her previous marriage to Rolf Zacher.
In 1977, he underwent an operation to rebuild his right ear. During the early 1980s, he appeared in supporting roles in a few European films, including Raúl Ruiz's 'The Territory' and Wim Wenders's 'The State of Things'.
Even after his release, he could not escape the torments of his gruesome captivity as he had developed a drug and alcohol addiction in the following years. In 1981, after drinking a cocktail of Valium, methadone and alcohol, he suffered liver failure and a stroke which left him quadriplegic, partially blind and unable to speak.His mother took care of him in his later years, and he sued his father for $28,000-a-month to be able to continue his treatment. While he recovered his autonomy to some extent, he remained severely handicapped for the rest of his life.
After nearly two decades of marriage, John Paul and Gisela divorced in 1993.
Suffering from various illnesses throughout his life, he died at his father's Wormsley Park estate in Buckinghamshire on February 5, 2011.
John Paul Getty III had received $1,000 from Italian adult magazine 'Playmen' to appear naked in a spread. However, he was kidnapped soon after, and when the photograph appeared on the cover of the magazine’s August 1973 issue, he was in the headlines for his kidnapping.
After he returned home following his kidnap, his mother convinced him to call and thank his grandfather for paying the ransom, however, his grandfather refused to take his call.