John Paul Getty III: Oil heir whose life was overshadowed by his 1973 kidnapping

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The Independent Online

The sad and relatively short life of John Paul Getty III, whose severed ear became a grisly symbol of the wave of kidnappings that swept Italy in the 1970s, was proof that being a grandson of the richest man in the world was no guarantee of happiness.

He was just 16 and living with his mother in Rome when he was abducted on 10 July 1973, and the arguments that followed over paying a ransom turned a spotlight on his dysfunctional family and his notoriously miserly grandfather, J Paul Getty, the founder of the Getty oil empire.

After five months in captivity, the teenager was released. But he thereafter descended into a self-destructive spiral of drugs and alcohol. After a stroke in 1981, caused by a drug overdose, he spent the last 30 years of his life in a wheelchair, paralysed and partly blind.

Even before his disappearance, Getty led an unruly and bohemian existence in the Italian capital, where his father had once been manager of the Getty oil interests in the country. Expelled from several schools, he kept company with artists and left-wingers, did odd jobs as a film extra and spent much of his time in nightclubs.

Getty was last seen in Piazza Navona, and at first, police suspected his kidnapping was a hoax, despite an initial $17m ransom demand and a letter to his mother in which he wrote, "Dear Mummy, I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don't let me be killed."

Eventually they were convinced that the abduction was for real. But his father and grandfather refused to pay – the former because he had moved to England, where he was fighting drug problems of his own, the latter because he never liked parting with a cent of his own money (he was a lifelong Anglophile, who none the less kept a payphone for the use of guests in his English mansion). The oil magnate explained that he had 14 grandchildren. "If I pay one penny now, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."

Finally proof came, in the shape of one of Getty's ears and a lock of his reddish-blond hair, sent to a Roman newspaper in October 1973 (though delivery was reportedly delayed three weeks by an Italian postal strike). Separately, a photo of the mutilated youth was published, along with a note from his captors saying that if the money was not forthcoming, the boy would be returned to his family "piece by piece".

Eventually a ransom equivalent to $2.8m was agreed. The sum was made over in bundles of Italian banknotes, left in a bag by the side of a road near Rome. Some was put up by the father, but the bulk – some $2.2m – apparently came from the grandfather, who ascertained that that was the maximum sum eligible for a tax write-off.

The boy was finally set free, and found shivering at an abandoned petrol station south of Naples on 15 December 1973. That date happened to be his grandfather's 81st birthday, but when his grandson phoned to thank him, the old man refused to accept the call.

In the subsequent months some of the kidnappers were caught and two were jailed. They proved to be members of the Calabrian mafia, and most of the ransom money was never recovered. Getty's ear was surgically reconstructed, but the ordeal made his wild ways even wilder.

He broke relations with his father and grandfather and in 1974, aged 18, he married Gisela Zacher, a German photographer six years his senior – an act which led his grandfather to disinherit him. The couple lived for a while in California and then New York, and produced a son, Balthazar Getty, who is now a Hollywood actor.

By then, however, Getty had become a heavy user of heroin and cocaine, and in 1981 suffered his crippling stroke. As usual, the family fought over money: he and his mother would sue his father to pay for his medical treatment, costing some $25,000 a month at the time. His father died in 2003, having taken up British citizenship and having received a knighthood for philanthropy.

Rupert Cornwell

John Paul Getty III, oil heir: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 4 November 1956; married Gisela Zacher (divorced, one son); died Buckinghamshire 5 February 2011.