A masked man claims he’s put a bomb on a young girl’s neck.
AN INNOCENT SCHOOLGIRL, A MASKED INTRUDER, TERRIFYING THREAT… WHAT WENT BEHIND THE SCENES OF A SHOCKING COLLAR BOMB ATTACK IN AUSTRALIA AND THE ADROIT POLICE WORK USED TO SOLVE IT
Sitting in the bedroom of her spacious Sydney home, Maddie Pulver contemplated the task a head — studying. It was never fun, but on 3 August 2011 the Higher School Certificate exams were close. Like her classmates, the Year 12 student was hitting the books.
It was 2:30pm that Wednesday and the 18-year-old was alone in the house. Maddie’s mother was out shopping, and her father, the CEO of a global software company, was at work; her two younger brothers were at school and her older brother was away. From her bedroom desk Maddie could gaze out across Sydney Harbour, but this was a time for concentration, not daydreaming.
Suddenly, Maddie heard a noise behind her. When she turned, a man stood in the bedroom doorway wearing a rainbow-coloured balaclava. He was armed with an aluminium baseball bat and wore a small black backpack. The intruder had entered the multimillion-dollar house through the unlocked front door.
“I am not going to hurt you,” he declared.
Maddie leapt from her chair and backed away, towards her bed. “What do you want? What are you doing?” she demanded.
Placing his baseball bat and backpack on the bed, the man simply warned: “No one needs to get hurt.”
Next the man removed from the backpack a black metal box the size of a small laptop. Holding it against Maddie’s throat, he secured it around her neck with a bicycle lock. The teenager simply couldn’t comprehend what was happening.
Maddie again asked the intruder what he was doing. He said he would tell her in a minute and placed a purple string over her head. Attached to it were a USB flash drive and a plastic sleeve with a document inside. A label with a typed e-mail address, email@example.com, was stuck to the box around her neck.
Turning to leave, the man told Maddie to “count to 200.” “I’ll be back,” he threatened. “If you move, I can see you, I’ll be right here.”
Terrified, Maddie remained stockstill. After a few moments, she called out for help. Silence. She called out again. Nothing.
With t he device strapped to her neck, Maddie moved slowly towards her mobile phone. Without daring to jolt the contraption, she sent text messages to her mother and father, asking them to call the police.
It was only then that Maddie left her bedroom and removed the document from the plastic sleeve attached to the string. When she glimpsed the word “explosives,” the she burst into tears.
Maddie called out again. Silence. She punched in the number for her father. Bill Pulver, at 52, was head of a multimillion-dollar firm that produces speech software and other language technology products. Maddie asked her father to call the police from his city office. Returning to her room, she continued reading:
Powerful new technology plastic explosives are located inside the small black combination case delivered to you. The case is booby-trapped. It can ONLY be opened safely, if you follow the instructions and comply with its terms and conditions.
If you disclose these Instructions, future instructions, any correspondence, Remittance Instructions enclosures.... to any Federal or State agency, the Police or FBI, or to any non-family member, it will trigger an immediate BRIAN DOUGLAS WELLS event.
You will be provided with detailed Remittance Instructions to transfer a Defined Sum once you acknowledge and confirm receipt of this message.
If the Remittance Instructions are executed CORRECTLY... I will immediately provide you with:
The combination that can open the case WITHOUT triggering a BRIAN DOUGLAS WELLS event, and
An internal key to completely disable the explosive mechanisms embedded inside. CONFIRM receipt of these Instructions by CONTACTING:
Brian Douglas Wells was a pizza deliveryman seized by a gang in August 2003, in Pennsylvania, USA. They put a collar time bomb around his neck and ordered him to rob a bank. Wells did as he was told but, when he was leaving the bank, police turned up. The bomb went off with catastrophic consequences.
Maddie Pulver had no idea what a “Brian Douglas Wells event” was. She was also unaware that Dirk Struan— the name used for the e-mail address — was the main character in James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan. Struan was the “Tai-Pan” — the leader — a wealthy, violent and shrewd head of a trading company in China who was hell-bent on destroying his rivals.
Realizing the dangerr shee was in, Maddie rang her dad again and told him not to call the police. But he had already done so and was racing home. The police were also on their way to the Pulver’s.
The Australian police had never seen a case such as this before. When the f irst responders arrived soon after 2: 45pm they found Maddie crying uncontrollably. Immediately they sealed off the street, setting up roadblocks to divert traffic and curious neighbours. Paramedics and fire rescue officers were brought in just as the media began gathering at the roadblock, eager for information.
As carefully as they could, bomb squad technicians tried to determine what sort of explosive they were dealing with. Portable X-ray equipment showed that the box was filled with mechanical and electrical components. But police couldn’t be sure if there were explosives or not.
To take the weight off her neck, Maddie had to physically hold the box with her hands. Scared for her life and in tears, she needed someone to talk to. Police had kept her parents at a mobile command post out on the street. Constable Karen Lowden was one of the first police officers on the scene and took on the task of trying to comfort the terrified teen. She knew she was placing her own life at risk by sitting with Maddie, but she asked about the upcoming exams, Maddie’s art studies,
SHE TO TAKE THE WEIGHT OFF HER NECK, HAD TO HOLD THE BOX WITH HER HANDS.
her hobbies … anything to keep their minds off the horrible predicament Maddie was in.
As the bomb squad figured out if the bomb was real or not, a team of detectives led by Detective Superintendent Luke Moore from the Robbery and Serious Crime Squad got to work formulating a plan.
The police decided to respond to the extortionist and carefully constructed a short and simple reply, which Bill Pulver would send.
Just after 6pm, Pulver wrote an e-mail from his cellphone to the address attached to the black metal box.
“Hi, my name is Bill. I am the father of the girl you strapped the device to. What do you want me to do next?”
While police and Maddie’s family waited in the command post for a reply to the e-mail, the extortion note was sent for forensic examination for fingerprints. Detectives questioned neighbours and friends, trying to piece together what had happened. Meanwhile, the bomb squad continued with their analysis.
Just after 11pm the bomb squad were confident the box posed no immediate threat and cut the collar bomb away. Maddie was free.
The ordeal had been almost nine agonizing hours of hell for Maddie and her family. And t he would-be extortionist seemed to have gone to ground.
Almost immediately after being handed the note, Moore’s team had contacted Google’s head off ice in the US to determine if the Gmail account had been accessed. The internet giant was able to look up its database records and told detectives that the account, firstname.lastname@example.org, had been created on May 30 from an internet server linked to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
That night Google data revealed the account had been accessed three times late that afternoon—twice from a computer at the Kincumber Library on the New South Wales ( NSW) Central Coast, which is a few hours drive north from Sydney, and a third time from the nearby Avoca Beach Video Shop. Moore sent detectives to check it out.
Google could tell the detectives the precise times the account had been accessed. Then, by viewing the Kincumber Library’s car park CCTV footage, they were able to pinpoint the arrival of a car and its driver. A camera scanning the car park showed a metallic gold SUV, a Range Rover, but detectives couldn’t read t he vehicle registration plates. They did, however, have an image of the man who got out of the Range Rover and entered the library.
Maddie had told police her attacker wasn’t young. She had noticed grey chest hair as he reached round her
to attach the collar box. Through the eyeholes in his balaclava she’d seen wrinkles. She’d guessed he was aged between 55 and 60. The man in the CCTV footage wore a collared shirt and trousers similar to what Maddie remembered.
Detectives checked car maker specifications against the footage to establish the Range Rover was a 2001 to 2006 model. Then, by checking Roads and Traffic Authority records, they narrowed their search to vehicles registered in the state. Next, they systematically checked the registration details of each possible Range Rover with photos of their owners—from their driver’s licences.
Within 48 hours of getting hold of the library footage, they had a name—Paul Douglas Peters. It was seven days since the would-be extortionist had walked into the Pulver’s home. But despite the speed of the breakthrough, Peters had slipped the net. CCTV footage and immigration records showed the 52year-old Australian passing through Sydney Airport before boarding a flight to Los Angeles on 8 August. Police were then able to request US flight records showing Peters then caught a connecting flight to Chicago and on to Louisville, Kentucky.
Further enquiries revealed Peters had arrived in Sydney two months previously on 1 June, having been on a connecting flight that departed O’Hare Airport, Chicago, USA, on 30 May 2011—the day and location that the Gmail account was set up.
Detectives also followed a money trail, which provided more links to the crime. Peters’ bank records showed that he made purchases at a clothing and sports store in the weeks before Maddie was attacked. CCTV footage from the shopping centre showed
him buying a baseball bat. He paid for a rainbow-coloured balaclava with his debit card.
Peters had degrees in economics and law; he was a businessman, father of three and self-proclaimed author. He’d planned the elaborate extortion piece by piece, like writing a novel.
Twelve days after the attack on Maddie, on 15 August, an FBI team stormed Peters’ ex-wife’s home in Kentucky. There on a table as they rushed in was a James Clavell novel— Tai-Pan.
A few weeks later, NSW Police Detective Sergeant Andrew Marks had the job of questioning Paul Peters. In a room at FBI headquarters in Louisville, he chipped away at the suspect.
Marks: “Is there anything you want to tell me about the extortion, kidnapping, and the bomb placed around young Madeleine Pulver’s neck on the third of August?” Peters: “No.” Marks: “Are you responsible?” Peters: “No.” Slowly, deliberately, the detective led Peters through the electronically recorded interview.
Marks: “Do you know anything about an e-mail address with that name, Dirk Struan?” Peters: “Yes.” Marks: “What can you tell me about that?”
Peters: “I had a … or had set up an e-mail address with ... Dirk Struan.”
And then there was the USB flash drive that had been attached to the collar bomb. Forensic examination unearthed three deleted files. One was a Word file that was a letter of demand in the same terms as the saved file and the hardcopy document in the plastic sleeve placed around Maddie’s neck.
That “deleted” f ile directed the recipient to contact the Dirk Struan Gmail address. The analysis of the Word f ile also revealed that it had been created on a computer identified as “Paul P.”
Marks pushed the point but Peters was unable to explain why or how the document had been on a “Paul P” computer. He claimed it was “a horrible, horrible coincidence.”
During questioning, Peters talked about a James M. Cox Trust, claiming he had US$12 million tied up in it. What he didn’t realize but police did, was that another of the three deleted files on the USB contained a letter of demand addressed specifically to the trustee of the trust. It indicated that perhaps Maddie Pulver wasn’t the intended target of the extortion plan, that the masked intruder had meant to target a beneficiary of the trust. Detective Sergeant Andrew Marks produced the trump card, handing Peters a copy of the deleted document referring to the trust.
Marks: “Have you seen that note before?”
Peters coughed: “I have no comment.”
Paul Douglas Peters was soon on a plane being extradited back to Australia to face the charges of aggravated break and entry, and
detaining for advantage. Despite his initial denials, Peters pleaded guilty to the crime.
During his sentencing in the New South Wales District Court, just over 12 months after Peters’ arrest, Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen described the extortion attempt as “urban terrorism, which would strike fear into the heart of every parent.” But Peters’ legal team tried to build a case suggesting that he was suffering a psychotic episode at the time he attacked Maddie.
Forensic psychiatrists agreed that Peters did suffer depression and overused alcohol after the collapse of his business and his divorce. One said he had a bipolar disorder.
According to his legal team, Peters had become obsessed with a novel he’d been writing and was “living” the role of a main character.
But Judge Peter Zahra wasn’t convinced.
“The weight of evidence establishes beyond reasonable doubt that the offender set in train a plan to extort money,” Judge Zahra said. “There are limitations to which the extent of the terror experienced by the victim can be humanly understood.”
He sentenced Peters to 13 years and six months in prison and to a nonparole period of ten years.
Outside the court Maddie bravely faced the media.
“I am pleased with today’s outcome and that I can now look to a future without Paul Peters’ name being linked to mine,” Maddie said. “For me it was never about the sentencing but to know he will not reoffend and it was good to hear the judge acknowledge the trauma he’s put my family and me through.”
It’s a saga her mother, Belinda, sums up best. “We’ve realized what’s important in life. We don’t worry about the small things now.”
CCTV shows Peters buying a baseball bat; (inset) Paul Peters’ booking photo at Oldham County Jail, August 2011.
Bomb disposal squad officers and other emergency services on the night of Maddie Pulver’s ordeal.
Maddie and her parents expressed relief at knowing her attacker “ will not reoffend” and arenow looking to the future.