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Germany's Kidnapping Trial: Revenge of the Pensioners

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Accountant James A, the alleged victim of a kidnap by four pensioners

The story is like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels meets The Golden Girls, with a slightly odd, Germanic twist. Angry about losing $3.5 million in investments last year in the recession, a wily gang of German pensioners were bent on revenge, prosecutors say. So they allegedly did what some who've lost fortunes in the downturn have probably thought about at one point or another: they allegedly abducted their financial adviser and locked him in a cellar for days, demanding he help them get their money back. Now the retirees — all over the age of 60 — are on trial for kidnapping, and they seem as feisty and unrepentant as ever.

The alleged ringleader of the group, who has been identified as Roland K, a 74-year-old former developer, testified in a Bavarian court this week that they didn't intend to kidnap the victim, identified as James A. He said he and his friend and fellow investor, 60-year-old Wilhelm D, met with the investment specialist in the town of Speyer in June 2009 for a "final chat" about getting their money back. But when they realized that their savings were gone for good, he said they became enraged.

The dispute at the heart of the case is about what happened next. According to prosecutors, Roland and Wilhelm tied James up with Scotch tape, locked him in a box and bundled him into the trunk of their car, before driving 300 miles (about 485 km) to Roland's house near the lakeside resort of Chiemsee in southern Germany. At one point during the trip, James tried to escape at a rest stop, but Roland and Wilhelm forced him back into the car, breaking two of his ribs. When they arrived at the house, the defendants' wives, Sieglinde K, 79, and Iris F, 64, and another man, Gerhard F, 67, were waiting for them. James was thrown into a cramped room in the cellar and kept prisoner for days.

According to prosecutors, the retirees — dubbed the Pensioner Gang by the German media — interrogated James and even threatened at one point to kill him if he didn't find a way to return their money. (There was allegedly a gun in the house.) After four days, the pensioners forced James to send a fax to his bank in Switzerland to transfer funds to their accounts. And that was their undoing. The frightened consultant wrote, "Sell 100 Call.pol.ICE" on the fax, and a bank employee alerted authorities in Germany. An armed police squad stormed the house and freed James, and the defendants gave themselves up peacefully.

Roland and the rest of the Pensioner Gang tell a slightly different story. In court on Feb. 8, Roland said he simply wanted to "invite" the financial adviser for "a few days' holiday in Upper Bavaria." He said he told his wife Sieglinde that "we're going to invite him round for several days — he's our guest." He added that James went into the house of his own accord and stayed in an "emergency guest room" (which presumably means it was hastily made up). [poster's note: The German "Not-Gästezimmer" word means something like using a room that normally isn't a guest room as such, resulting in not entirely optimal accomodation. Our compound words tend to puzzle people, but they usually don't show that puzzlement in TIME articles.]

Roland didn't deny being angry at James, calling him a "liar and a crook" in court. He said that the retirees met James while on vacation years ago in Florida and that he persuaded them to invest their money in the U.S. housing market, promising the group a profit margin of 18%. Following the subprime-market collapse in the U.S., Roland now claims that James "tricked us and took us for a ride."

James told reporters on Feb. 8 that he's still traumatized by the alleged abduction, seeing a psychologist twice a week. He also has other worries: he's being investigated by German officials for suspected fraud in a separate case. As for the pensioners, if they're convicted when the trial concludes in late March, they face jail sentences of at least five years apiece. There's a chance that they could be spending their golden retirement days not on a Florida beach but behind bars.

  • I'm not sure what the writer means by "odd, Germanic twist", and I probably don't want to know.

  • As this will likely turn into a thing on vigilante justice, let me say for the record that I think what they did was wrong, partly because it should have been clear to them that it would never work, but mostly because you just don't do this kind of thing. Still, it's just such an odd, movie-like story (I'm sure I've seen something like this once) that I thought I should post this.

  • Reading about pensioners being targeted by people who fraud them out of their savings always makes me sad.


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Tags: crime, germany
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