J. Paul Getty III, kidnapping victim and heir to oil fortune, dies at 54

J. Paul Getty III answers newsmen's questions while his mother, Gail Harris, right, listens at a police station in Rome in 1972.
J. Paul Getty III answers newsmen's questions while his mother, Gail Harris, right, listens at a police station in Rome in 1972. (AP)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 10:55 PM

J. Paul Getty III, an oil-fortune heir known as the "golden hippie" whose kidnapping in Italy at 16 made international headlines and whose captors severed his ear when his family didn't initially pay his ransom, has died. He was 54.

Mr. Getty had required intensive medical care since 1981, when he suffered a narcotics-induced stroke that left him paralyzed and nearly blind. He died Feb. 5 at his home in Buckinghamshire, England, according to British news reports.

He was a grandson of billionaire J. Paul Getty Sr., who founded the renowned California museum that bears his name and was once the world's wealthiest man. Young Getty spent much of his childhood in Rome, where he gravitated to the world of artists and left-wing bohemians and where, in July 1973, he disappeared.

His family at first thought it was a hoax. Mr. Getty, who had been expelled from several schools, had been known to joke with friends about staging his own kidnapping to squeeze money from his tightfisted grandfather. In fact, he was being held chained and blindfolded in a series of mountain hideouts.

The media deemed Mr. Getty the "golden hippie" as much for his long reddish-blond locks as his family fortune.

His kidnappers sent word that they wanted $17 million, an amount J. Paul Getty Sr. refused to pay.

"I have 14 other grandchildren," he said, "and if I pay one penny now, then I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."

Mr. Getty's father, J. Paul Getty Jr., was in no position to pay the ransom. After years of lavish living and drug addiction, he had holed up in London, where he was undergoing rehabilitation.

The stalemate broke only after an Italian newspaper received a package containing a lock of red hair, a severed ear and a typewritten warning. "This is Paul's first ear," the note read. "If within ten days the family still believes that this is a joke mounted by him, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits."

The captors agreed to release Mr. Getty in exchange for $2.8 million in cash. Getty Sr. arranged for stacks of Italian lira to be bagged and left by the side of a highway near Rome. He told his son, the teenager's father, that the money was a loan that he expected to be repaid at 4 percent interest.

Soon after, a truck driver noticed young Mr. Getty standing by the side of a road about 100 miles south of Naples. Shivering and frail, he had been held captive for five months. When he phoned to thank his grandfather for his help, the elder Getty reportedly refused to take the call.

"He will need time to learn to believe in love and affection once again," said his mother, actress Gail Harris, who was divorced from Mr. Getty's father by that time.

John Paul Getty III was born in 1956 and was the first of J. Paul Getty Jr.'s five children. He spent most of his childhood in Rome, where his father ran the Italian branch of the family company, Getty Oil.

After his parents' divorce, Mr. Getty grew up largely with his mother. The younger Getty had a wild streak and was said, according to a news report at the time of kidnapping, "to frequent hippie hangouts in Rome."

After the kidnapping, two of Mr. Getty's captors were convicted in an Italian court and sentenced to prison, according to news accounts. Several other defendants were acquitted in the kidnapping but convicted on narcotics charges. The bulk of the ransom money was never recovered.

Mr. Getty was left with his hearing mostly intact, and he underwent reconstructive surgery on his ear. He married his girlfriend, the German-born photographer Gisela Martine Zacher. They had a son, actor Balthazar Getty, before divorcing.

A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

In the 1970s, Mr. Getty briefly joined the family business as a field worker in Bakersfield, Calif., but he continued to struggle with the aftereffects of his terrifying experience.

He was troubled by nightmares and was, according to Newsweek, arrested for public indecency in London's Hyde Park after he was "found in a compromising position with a female companion." He descended into the cocaine and heroin addiction that led to his 1981 stroke.

If Mr. Getty's kidnapping had revealed intergenerational tensions among the Gettys, his new medical needs exposed gaping rifts. He needed $25,000 a month for around-the-clock nursing care. His father, who had become extraordinarily wealthy after the 1976 death of Getty Sr., and who was known in his adopted Britain as a generous philanthropist, refused to help pay.

A California judge forced Getty Jr. to assist his son. "I think Mr. Getty should be ashamed of himself," the judge said at the time. "He is spending far more on these legal details than it would cost him to measure up to his moral and legal obligations."

Getty Jr., who was knighted in Britain for his charitable work, died in 2003.

John Paul Getty III lived with his mother in California and Ireland before settling outside London at Wormsley Lodge, a 2,500-acre estate previously owned by his father.

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