Nightmare of kidnapping returns to Italy as millionaire's wife is held

The nightmare of kidnap and ransom has returned to Italy. On Sunday morning, the wife of a construction millionaire was grabbed outside the family villa, bundled into a car and driven away.

The nightmare of kidnap and ransom has returned to Italy. On Sunday morning, the wife of a construction millionaire was grabbed outside the family villa, bundled into a car and driven away.

Anna Maria Valdata, 74, was on her way to church when four "foreign-looking" men, unknown to the village of Silvano Pietra, seized her. The village is close to the junction of two motorways and by the time Franco Valdata discovered his wife was missing and raised the alarm she could have been more than 90 miles away.

Mr Valdata found a crumpled note inside the villa's grounds, demanding in erratic Italian the payment of €1.25m (£825m) "or else we will kill her". The note was composed with Letraset-type transferable print. Police refuse to confirm any details, including the rumour that Mrs Valdata was seized by the Russian mafia.

Italy suffered an epidemic of kidnappings during the 1970s, which spread from Sardinia to the mainland. Typically, wealthy children from the north were seized by anonymous desperadoes from poor parts such as Sardinia or Calabria in the far south. Many of the victims were never again seen alive. The acclaimed new Italian film Lo non ho Paura ( I'm Not Scared), which recently opened in London, centres on kidnapping.

In the peak year of 1975, more than 80 men, women and children were held to ransom. But the authorities adopted a tough new policy of blocking the bank accounts of targeted families to prevent them paying, and this ended the epidemic. The annual rate of abductions dropped from 30 in the 1970s to five or six. But now the crime is again on the rise.

The Valdata family has lived in the village of 700 people for at least half a century. They were tempting targets, conspicuously rich, thanks to the business founded by Mr Valdata after the war, manufacturing bricks and other materials for construction. When building began to boom in the 1950s, the Valdatas boomed with it.

Today the elderly couple live in a handsome, modern villa set in sprawling grounds on the outskirts of the village, behind high stucco walls. One of their three children, married and with children, lives in a house bordering the property. The Valdatas were conscious of the need to be careful: closed-circuit TV cameras snap on when the front doorbell is rung, and they have a german shepherd guard dog. But despite their wealth they live in the typical Italian way, without obvious security.

Mrs Valdata, who is said to be in good health except for a slight limp, left home to go to Mass in the village church as she did every Sunday, even during the hot holiday weeks of August. Mr Valdata followed his equally rigid Sunday morning custom of buying a newspaper and dropping into the local bar, the Euro, for a coffee and a chat before heading home.

It was some time after returning that he became puzzled by his wife's absence. Then he found the ransom note and called the police.

But the low level of the ransom demanded, given the family's enormous wealth, has led some to believe that the kidnappers may be novices, meaning Mrs Valdata's life could be in even more peril. The next move is up to the kidnappers.

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