Money & Power

The Tragic True Story of John Paul Getty III's Kidnapping

The saga is the subject of Ridley Scott's new film 'All the Money in the World.'
IMAGE CROLLALANZA/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
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It has all the elements of a taut psychological thriller: A wealthy family, a wayward son, and a frightening, gruesome crime. The tragic 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III is the subject of a film by Ridley Scott called All the Money in the World, which was nominated for three Golden Globes. The kidnapping, which involved cold-blooded ransom negotiations and a severed ear, also inspired an upcoming 10-part television show for FX produced by Trainspotting director Danny Boyle.


Anna Getty, Gisela Zacher, Balthazar Getty, and John Paul Getty III.

THE BACKSTORY

The story of John Paul Getty III, whose relatives founded Getty Oil, and, later, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Getty Images, really begins with his grandfather, family patriarch J. Paul Getty. During his heyday in the 1940s through '60s, J. Paul racked up millions in oil money and, along the way, married five women with whom he had five sons. (In All the Money in the World, the Getty patriarch was originally played by Kevin Spacey, but the role was abruptly recast with Christopher Plummer just months before the scheduled premiere date, following sexual assault accusations against Spacey.)

Despite being crowned the richest man in the country by Forbes in 1957, J. Paul developed a reputation for being a terrible cheapskate, famously going so far as to temporarily install a payphone for guests to use at his house in London. It's no surprise that his family relationships were fraught.


John Paul Getty refused to pay a ransom for his grandson at first, declaring, 'I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay one penny, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.

His son John Paul Getty Jr. had four sons of his own with his wife Gail Harris; John Paul Getty III was born in 1956. John Paul Jr. and Harris divorced in 1964, and John Paul Jr. moved to Rome, where he married Talitha Pol and reportedly became a heroin addict. John Paul III also lived in Italy as a young teenager, first at boarding school. He was expelled, however, and even though his father left Rome for England shortly afterward (following Talitha Getty's heroin overdose) the teenaged Getty III continued living on his own in the Italian city.

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On July 10, 1973, when he was 16 years old, John Paul Getty III disappeared. Two days later, his mother received a ransom note asking for around $17 million dollars. Harris didn’t have the money, and the police—and even some members of the Getty family—expressed doubt that the boy really had been abducted. Getty III had often joked that he would stage his own kidnapping to squeeze money out of his miserly grandfather.

The ransom remained unpaid, even after the kidnappers sent Harris a letter from her son that read, “Dear Mummy, Since Monday I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don’t let me be killed.” The Getty family member who did have the money—patriarch J. Paul senior—refused to pay, saying, “I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay one penny, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” Getty III was held by the kidnappers in the mountains of Calabria for months.

Getty III’s kidnappers eventually cut off his ear and mailed it with a lock of his hair to a newspaper in Rome. Pictures of Getty with his ear severed, and more pleas to his family to pay the ransom, soon appeared in another paper. Eventually, his grandfather agreed to pay the captors, but only a much-reduced ransom. The final amount, $3 million, was the most his accountants said would be tax-deductible, according to a 1995 book about the family by John Pearson. John Paul II paid the rest with a loan from the Getty patriarch—to be repaid with four percent interest.


John Paul Getty III being interviewed by the press following the arrest of the men responsible for kidnapping him.

In December of that year, John Paul III was released, and found at an abandoned gas station.

John Paul III’s life was, understandably, forever changed by the kidnapping. A year after being released, at age 18, he married Gisela Zacher, who was six years his senior. They had two children, a daughter Anna and Brothers & Sisters actor Balthazar Getty. John Paul III eventually attended Pepperdine University for one semester, but he struggled with addiction, and in 1981, he had a narcotics-induced stroke—he was left paralyzed and required care for the rest of his life. His mother Gail cared for him until his death at age 54 in 2011.

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*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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Jillian Mackenzie
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