Police cage Germany's bird-brained blackmailer

IT MIGHT have been the perfect crime, had the pigeon not been fitted with a homing device. Instead of winging the loot to its master, it brought the police to his doorstep. Thus was the career of another promising extortionist cut short.

The pigeon-fancier, a German of Romanian descent named Alexandru Nemeth, is the latest in a long line of criminals to pit their wits against one of the big corporations. Like his illustrious predecessors, he had a seemingly infallible scheme. Extortion is all the rage in Germany, but those who enter this sport must play by certain rules. First: no one should get hurt. Second: the target should be a well-known company. Third: each new entrant must devise a convoluted plan for collecting the reward.

Nemeth's target was the Swiss food and beverages concern Nestle, which for some inexplicable reason is hugely popular with the extortionist fraternity. He poisoned mustard and mayonnaise manufactured by the company, delivered tainted chocolate to homes randomly chosen, and left cyanide- laced drinks at a Cologne playground.

The company was asked to hand over a large wad of cash to make him stop. Supermarket shelves had to be emptied at ruinous cost to Nestle, but fortunately no one was injured. This went on for two years as Nemeth travelled around the country poisoning food and drinks in at least 20 cities, without recouping any of his outlay.

Then came the clever part. On his allotment near Frankfurt, Nemeth had been training his couriers for pay-day. When the pigeons were ready, he spread his poison afresh and gave Nestle new instructions.

Into little satchels he had sewn himself, the company was to place uncut diamonds worth DM25m (pounds 9.22m). The tiny bags were to be attached to the breasts of 12 of his birds, which were to be found in a car parked at a given location near Dusseldorf. Just to make things a little more difficult for inquisitive police, the car bore untraceable number plates.

A brilliant plan, but with one flaw. The diamonds never reached the sky. Instead of gems, the police loaded the bags with miniature radio transmitters and in a helicopter followed the pigeons from a discreet distance. When one of them arrived home a day later, nearly 200 miles south, the police had their man.

End of the machinations of the bird-brained extortionist, but not of Nestle's troubles. Last week, as police were bragging about how they had bagged the dirty dozen, news came of another sting. Someone in southern Germany was going around pouring weed-killer into more of the company's products, in supermarkets belonging to a particular chain. This perpetrator is hedging his or her bets. If the Swiss do not pay up, the retailers might.

The strangest aspect of this extortionist phenomenon is that however hard they try, no criminal has been known to profit from it. Just as Nemeth's pigeons were swatting up on their route plan, the notorious "Maggi extortionist" was being put away for three years. He had threatened to infect the Maggi company's soup cubes with BSE unless he was paid $500,000 (pounds 310,500).

The judges ruled that was a preposterous threat, since Germany was deemed safe from BSE after the ban on British and Swiss beef. But the person who has been holding Daimler to ransom by hurling rocks at Mercedes cars travelling on the motorway might not get off so lightly. The punishment for undermining German capitalism in this manner can be severe.

Take the great Dagobert, the role model of German extortionists, who is serving a seven-year jail sentence. During his career in the early Nineties, Dagobert bombed six department stores in Berlin and used a range of electronic gadgets, including a miniature submarine, to collect his fee.

Dagobert, real name Arno Funke, had many narrow escapes. In one famous episode, he evaded capture when the policeman pursuing him slipped on dog excrement.

From the comfort of his cell, Funke, who has detailed his exploits in a book, is happy to dispense advice to his followers. As the current crop of extortionists will readily admit, Dagobert's genius has yet to be surpassed. But they are trying hard.