CLOSE

5 Celebrity Kidnapping Plots

Every kidnapping is a tragedy, but most involve people unfamiliar to the public. Occasionally, though, there are celebrity kidnappings on par with the Lindbergh baby and Patricia Hearst. Here are a few such crimes.

1. Shergar

Famous people haven't been the only targets of high-profile kidnappings; well-known animals aren't safe, either. Shergar was a dominant racehorse that won European Horse of the Year in 1981, the same year in which he won the prestigious Epsom Derby by a jaw-dropping 10 lengths. After he retired from racing and went out to stud, though, things got a little weird.

One morning in February 1983, a car rolled up outside the stallion's stable in County Kildare, Ireland. Six masked men jumped out and stuck guns in Shergar's handlers' faces. The group of men, some toting submachine guns, forced Shergar into a horse trailer and drove off. Cleverly, the kidnappers carried out the horse heist on the biggest livestock-trading day in Ireland, so it didn't look at all unusual for them to be hauling a horse trailer around.

The kidnappers called in hefty ransom demands, which only made sense given Shergar's 80,000-pound stud fee. The horse's ownership group didn't want to pay, though, since they felt forking over a ransom would only encourage future horse-nappings. After four days, the kidnappers quit calling, and despite a massive door-to-door hunt throughout Ireland no one ever saw Shergar again. The kidnappers have also eluded the police, although most observers agree that the IRA likely stole the horse and hoped to spend a five-million-pound ransom on guns.

2. Ruben Omar Romano

Professional athletes and their families are particularly high-profile kidnapping targets in poorer areas of the world. Ruben Omar Romano found out the hard way. Romano, a gifted midfielder who later became an embattled journeyman coach, was coaching Cruz Azul in Mexico when kidnappers dragged him into a car outside of the team's practice facility in July 2005.

Romano remained hostage in a dingy house in a low-rent district of Mexico City until September, when Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency rescued him and captured the kidnappers. Romano, for his part, took the whole ordeal in stride, saying, "The treatment was not bad. I'm not complaining. I was not mistreated."

His team wasn't quite as humane as the kidnappers, though. When Cruz Azul struggled upon Romano's return, the team gave him a pink slip in December after just 11 matches.

3. John Paul Getty III

getty.jpgGetty, the grandson of American oil tycoon John Paul Getty, spent a lot of time in Italy, where his father looked after the Italian parts of the family's oil interests. In 1973, the 17-year-old Getty was kidnapped and held for ransom. The elder Getty balked at paying the kidnappers, so they borrowed a tactic from Calabrian bandits of days gone by: they cut off Getty III's ear and mailed it to a newspaper in Rome, then sent photos of the boy missing his ear.

At this point, even the tight-fisted Getty squad decided they would pay the ransom lest the kidnappers follow through on their promise to send the boy back in pieces. John Paul III's dad secured the ransom money from the boy's grandfather, but only as a loan that he would have to pay back at 4% interest. (This was a typically classy move by Grandpa; the patriarch also remarked, "I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay a penny of ransom, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.") Once the kidnappers received the ransom, they released Getty, who was in fairly good shape with the exception of his missing ear. His son, actor Balthazar Getty, plays Tommy Walker on ABC's Brothers & Sisters, though it's been rumored that he may be dropped from the cast.

4. Adolph Coors III

Coors was the 45-year-old chairman of his family's brewing company when he disappeared on his way to his office in 1960. His hat and glasses were found near his abandoned still-running car outside of Denver, but there was no trace of Coors himself. The Coors family knew what it was like to be the focus of a kidnapping scheme; Adolph Coors II himself had been the intended target of kidnappers 27 years earlier. The family sat back and waited for the ransom demand to come in, as Coors II said, "They have something I want to buy "“ my son. The price is secondary."

Although the Coors family managed to stay calm, their story didn't have a happy ending. Seven months later Coors' body was discovered in the Rocky Mountain foothills, and police eventually caught his murderer, Joseph Corbett, Jr. Corbett, a former Fulbright scholar and escaped murderer from California, had spent two years planning to kidnap Coors and ransom him for $500,000. He ended up murdering Coors in the process, though, and when his typewriter and car were linked to the kidnapping and ransom notes, Corbett became one of the FBI's Most Wanted fugitives. He was finally apprehended in October 1960 in Vancouver.

5. Frank Sinatra, Jr.

sinatra-junior.jpgIn 1963, Sinatra, Jr. was working on following in his dad's footsteps, and he was actually having some success as a 19-year-old. He was traveling and playing shows with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra until kidnappers feigned a package delivery and abducted the young singer from his room at a Harrah's in Lake Tahoe.

The three-man gang of kidnappers wasn't going to win any awards for their brilliance, and the whole kidnapping was fairly farcical. The gang didn't have enough money for gas as they were ferreting Sinatra to their hideout in Burbank, California, so they had to borrow some cash from their hostage. Sinatra's father called a press conference and offered a million dollars for his son's return, but apparently the gang missed the message. When they called the elder Sinatra, they only asked for $240,000 in ransom.

Sinatra, Sr. paid them, and they released Sinatra, Jr. on the side of the road after two days of captivity. Once the boy got home, he was able to help investigators track the kidnappers by remembering what restaurants the food he'd been given came from and how many planes had flown over the safe house where he'd been held. Of course, the bumbling kidnappers didn't need any help getting caught. One of them, John Irwin, got so flustered that he confessed the whole thing to his brother, who talked Irwin into calling the police. Irwin then gave the police the scoop on his two accomplices, and all three spent time in jail.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
The Secret Underground Life of Newborn Meerkat Pups
iStock
iStock

The Secret Underground Life of Newborn Meerkat Pups. Nature photographers fitted a meerkat with a camera to get a look inside.

*

America’s Secret Ice Base Won’t Stay Frozen Forever. When the glacier hiding it is gone, environmental hazards will be exposed.

*

All 11 Versions of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Ranked. With each described in excruciating detail.

*

How Tennessee Became the Final Battleground in the Fight for Suffrage. The process was much dirtier than we ever learned in school.

*

A Remix in Tribute to Han Solo. He had a lot of great lines over four films, so Eclectic Method gave them rhythm and rhyme.

*

Ishmael Beah tells what it was like to go from child soldier in Sierra Leone to high school student in New York. His classmates couldn't figure out why he was so good at paintball.

*

A Brief History of Credit Cards. They aren't as old as you might have thought.

*

10 Allegedly Cursed Objects. Just keep telling yourself that all the bad things that happened around them could be coincidence.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
arrow
science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios