Steve Crawshaw on Dagobert, Germany's criminal superstar
He was sentenced in February, on his 45th birthday, to seven years and nine months. But in court in Berlin there was little trace of the notoriety which had made him a national figure in Germany. Here was a little man with a foxy moustache, nervous and soft-spoken, wearing a double- breasted suit, and seeming almost keen to be portrayed as a born loser.

But most Germans do not see him as a loser. They still shake their heads admiringly when recalling the vivid exploits of "Dagobert", the world's most impudent and inventive blackmailer. This was the man who repeatedly made fantastic fools of Berlin's police force. Dagobert was not exactly a winner - the lucrative jackpot eluded him to the last - but the people's hearts were with him.

At the height of his popularity, there were T-shirts declaring i am dagobert, i love dagobert stickers and pop songs with lyrics which proclaimed "Da- Da-Dagobert" and "This is the blackmailer speaking". Even after his arrest, "Dagomania" scarcely receded. Graffiti-writers demanded: "Free Dagobert". Dozens of marriage offers arrived at his prison cell. One woman, her letter decorated with little red hearts, wrote: "I am a widow, and the bed beside me has been empty for four years. I will put fresh sheets on every week until you come." Opinion polls suggested that more than 60 per cent of all Germans found Dagobert "likeable" because of his ingenuity.

In short, said the newspaper Bild, this was "the superstar of German criminal history".

Dagobert - the German name for the Donald Duck character, Uncle Scrooge McDuck - is actually Arno Funke, a commercial sign-writer of irregular employment. He began his blackmailing career in 1988, when he persuaded a Berlin department store, the Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe), to part with £200,000. Escaping with this windfall, he began travelling around the world, and, eventually, in the Philippines, married a 24-year-old girl named Edna.

But globetrotting soon lost its attraction. And it cost a great deal of money. When he got into arrears on his modest, two-room apartment in west Berlin, he decided to try his luck once more. In June 1992, he demanded £500,000 from Karstadt, another major department store - this time in Hamburg. To speed up demands, he detonated a bomb in Karstadt's china department, causing £40,000 of damage.

It was in the wake of this bomb that Dagobert's media career took off. In search of what he later called a "halfway sensible text" for a classified ad to be placed by his intended blackmail victim, Funke took inspiration from a bag he owned labelled "Duck Tales" which depicted the ineffable Uncle Scrooge and proposed the message: dagobert greets his nephews.

The ad was intended to indicate Karstadt's willingness to pay up, and on 27 June, 1992, Karstadt duly placed it.

The first hand-over came a fortnight later. Dagobert supplied Karstadt with a radio-controlled gadget, which was to be attached to the back of a train with magnets. He could then, at any point on the journey, release the bag of money on to the track.

At the first attempt, there was a technical hitch. But the second try, a month later, was successful, even though police pulled the train's emergency brake and chased Dagobert by motorcycle and helicopter. He got away - on a mountain bike - only to discover that the bag contained bundles of worthless paper wrapped up in four 1,000-Mark notes. Funke's response was to detonate two more explosions in Karstadt stores.

True media notoriety came on 29 October, just four months after his campaign had begun. There was a third radio-controlled drop, and again Dagobert escaped on his mountain bike. It emerged that an officer had slipped at the crucial moment on a Hundehaufen: a "dog-pile". Germany hooted with delight. Dagobert, the daring inventor, saved from arrest by a heap of dogshit, was on his way to becoming a national hero of sorts.

From then on, his documented adventures became increasingly surreal. Six months after the Hundehaufen episode, Dagobert asked for £500,000 [from who?] to be dropped in a Berlin park into a chest of sand, such as is sprinkled on icy paths in winter. Police waited nearby. But Dagobert had hidden beneath the specially-prepared chest. He seized the bundle through the bottom and escaped, like the Third Man, through the sewers. But when he opened up the parcel, it, too, was full of scrap paper.

Dagobert expressed his growing displeasure by exploding two more home- made bombs [in the department store?], before attempting something really spectacular, in a disused railway siding in Berlin. He demanded that police load the money on to a radio-controlled miniature truck he had specially constructed. He was only foiled when the skateboard-sized vehicle, driven by a video-recorder motor, was derailed at 30mph, just before reaching his hiding-place.

By last spring, there had been 20 planned attempts [at what?]. The police work had now cost many times more than Dagobert's original blackmail demand and had been compared with the huge anti-terrorist actions of the Seventie. Finally, however, in April 1994, the police struck lucky. In an area under surveillance near Funke's home, a policeman spotted a folding mountain bike in the back of a car rented by Funke.

When Funke telephoned the police to arrange the next drop, he was promptly nicked. One of the officers involved in the swoop was the same man who had slipped on the infamous dog-poo [?] 18 months earlier.

Psychological portraits had variously suggested that Dagobert might be a computer specialist, a Stasi officer, a frustrated policeman, a bored pensioner, or even a surgeon living beyond his means. Disney "experts" had kept stepping forward with advice based on interpretation of the comic strips. There was even speculation that Dagobert might be Ulrich Tille, the police officer in charge of the case - the identikit picture bore a striking resemblance to Tille.

But after his arrest, Arno Funke's neighbours were amazed at the real identity of Dagobert the master criminal. "He never managed to get his old Mercedes started," one of them remembered. "Can he be the same one who put all these explosives together?" Edna, Funke's wife, told police that he always said he was off on a painting job whenever he disappeared from home.

Who was Funke? He has an IQ of 145, and is almost entirely self-taught, mostly from technical magazines. A policeman, Peter Glaser, who happened to have known him from the days when they painted cars together, remembers him as very likeable, "a crazy noodle (sic), always playing the fool". Edna, too, describes him as "cheerful and optimistic", and it is true that in family photographs he is constantly fooling around. But, during the trial, it quickly became clear from his own paintings that he was more than a joker. One self-portrait shows him with his face pressed up anxiously against the wall of a glass cage. Funke himself spoke in court of having felt tempted by suicide.

He and his lawyers were keen to emphasise that he was a sick man. Fumes from his painting work were said to have left him with bad headaches and loss of memory. "I rented videos which I had already seen - that's how forgetful I was," Funke claimed. But his steady stream of one-liners did not suggest a broken man, nor did reports of the money he might be making. His wife is alleged to have received £35,000 for allowing German newspapers to publish family photographs, and there has been talk of optioning the rights to his life story - a film of his exploits has already been shown on German TV. But the judge has insisted that Funke will not be allowed to keep a pfennig.

Even those who ought to be his sworn enemies still seem to have a soft spot for him. Michael Daleki, who led the police enquiry, remarked after the arrest last year: "It's almost a pity that it's all over. It may sound funny, but it was fun."

One odd aspect of the whole affair is the matter-of-fact manner in which Funke seems to have gone about his blackmailing business. He would produce his do-it-yourself gadgets in a workshop in the woods on the edge of Berlin. In court, he used to refer to this, and not just the occasional sign-painting, as his "work".

When police searched this workshop, they found two pistols, a wig, the typewriter on which he wrote Dagobert's letters and various half-completed gadgets. Among the bits and pieces was a home-made miniature submarine.