high-society kidnap plot
Formula One’s belligerent racing billionaire Bernie Ecclestone and his beautiful young Brazilian-born wife Fabiana found themselves embroiled in a nightmare when kidnappers seized Fabiana’s 67-year-old mother before delivering a ransom note demanding an astounding $50 million – or else, writes William Langley.
Before Bernie Ecclestone, motor racing was a rorty-snorty carnival run by raffish-looking chaps in silk cravats. Chivalry wasn’t Bernie’s thing and his ruthless refashioning of Formula One into the world’s most profitable and glamorous sports franchise made him a lot of enemies. Few of them got the better of Bernie. He may have been short of stature, but he played for high stakes and around him hung a faint air of menace. “Show me a good loser,” he liked to say, “and I’ll show you a loser.”
At 85, with billions in the bank, Bernie thought the big challenges were behind him. At the behest of his beautiful, much younger third wife Fabiana Flosi, 39, he had even begun taking breaks from the circuit. It was during a quiet night at home in his magnificent London penthouse, overlooking Hyde Park, that the phone rang and the greatest test of his celebrated nerve began.
On the line from Brazil was Fabiana’s younger sister, Fernanda. The news was shocking. Hours earlier, their 67-year-old mother had been kidnapped from the family home in Sao Paulo. Two men had burst through the front door, tied up the domestic staff, dragged retired civil servant Aparecida Schunck into a waiting car and vanished into the city’s chaotic traffic.
Both Bernie and Fabiana knew what was coming. A few days later, the ransom demand arrived. “Send us $50 million within 48 hours,” it said, “or we will deliver your mother’s head in a shopping bag.” With it came a video attachment showing a woman being decapitated.
Rather like Bernie himself,
Brazilian kidnappers have a tendency not to bluff. Abductions are so common and brutal that an entire plastic surgery industry has grown up, specialising in the replacement of victims’ hacked-off body parts.
“Your family may get a week to raise the money,” says London-based Brazilian journalist Hugo Pinto. “Then they might get an ear or a finger through the post. The police have been trying to crack down, but it’s still easy money for criminals.”
In an average month, there are 200 kidnappings in Sao Paulo alone. Even low-paid office workers have their cars bullet-proofed, while the city’s rich, whose hilltop mansions look down upon sprawling slums, employ round-the-clock security teams.
Veteran detective Hélio Luz, a former head of the DAS, the specialist antikidnapping squad, says, “I came to think of it not so much as crime as psychological warfare. Everyone here lives with the fear that they or their families will be next.”
The size of the ransom demand received by Bernie – by far the largest ever known in Brazil – showed that the kidnappers knew who they were dealing with. A one-time gas-plant worker, who started out in business selling spare parts for
“Send us $50 million or we will deliver your mother’s head in a bag.”
motorcycles, Bernie can today boast a fortune estimated at $5 billion, even after being ordered to hand a $1.5 billion divorce settlement to his ex-wife Slavica, and putting $1 billion in trust for his two high-living daughters, Tamara and Petra.
Not that he is given to spending recklessly. “Let me tell you something,” he said a few years ago. “When my youngest daughter [Petra] was getting married, I thought, as father of the bride, I should pay for the wedding. When it was suggested how much they intended spending on drinks, I thought it was absurd. So I managed to upset both my wife and my daughter. Only later did I find out that its cost was in excess of $20 million.”
At the three-day wedding bash, held in a 15th-century Italian castle, more than 300 guests drank Louis Roederer vintage Champagne and Château Petrus at $6000 a bottle, while being entertained by Eric Clapton, opera star Andrea Bocelli and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Slavica, a former Armani model, later insisted that “it was worth every penny” and pointed out that at her own wedding to Bernie, held in a London register office, there was only one guest, no meal and, afterwards, Bernie went back to his office, leaving her to take a bus home.
Not long after their divorce in 2009, however, things began looking up for Bernie. He had met Fabiana Flosi on the F1 circuit, where she worked as a legal counsel for the Brazilian Motor Sports Federation, but it wasn’t love at first sight and the 46-year age gap – compounded by the even more obvious wealth gap – exposed them both to the risk of ridicule.
Yet according to Bernie’s biographer, Tom Bower, Fabiana is no gold digger. “She’s attractive, intelligent, modest and diplomatic,” he says. “And just the kind of peaceful company Bernie has always lacked.” The couple began to grow close during a yacht cruise for F1 luminaries around the Mediterranean and, 18 months later, were secretly married at Bernie’s fabulous mountain chalet near Gstaad in the Swiss Alps.
Fabiana had worked her way through law school and had an early, unsuccessful marriage before landing a job with one of Bernie’s favoured business associates, Tamas Rohonyi, who introduced her to F1. Tamas praises her as “gorgeous, nice, very smart, and just not the type to go after a man for money”. Not that everyone was thrilled for them. Fabiana’s former boyfriend, Fernando Nascimento, a Brazilian doctor, claimed she had dumped him without warning a few weeks after starting her affair with Bernie. “This just doesn’t happen,” fumed Fernando. “We had talked about marriage. We were still sharing a bed. It’s unbelievable. It’s not even a joke.”
Aparecida’s predicament was dire. Most kidnap victims are taken to a safe house in one of the lawless favelas, or shanty neighbourhoods, which surround the vast city. Almost as many people live in Sao Paulo as in the whole of Australia – the majority of them poor – and the overstretched, underpaid police can barely cope. Survivors of kidnappings speak in harrowing terms of being starved, beaten, terrorised and forced to plead over the phone for their families to pay up.
Bernie’s natural inclination was to offer nothing, partly because his belligerent business career had taught him that the easy option was rarely the best one and partly because he had previous experience of being blackmailed. Four years ago, a man claiming to be a Middle-Eastern security consultant contacted him saying he had uncovered a plot to abduct Tamara and requested $350,000 in “necessary costs” to thwart the conspirators. Bernie played along until the police tracked down and arrested Martin Peckham, a 41-year-old British dental technician who had never been to the Middle East in his life. Bernie’s uncompromising stance was backed up by the Sao Paulo antikidnap squad, which told the Ecclestones, “Don’t leave London and under no circumstances are you to consider paying any money.”
Unbeknown to the kidnappers, their seizure of Aparecida was something less than the perfect crime. A CCTV security camera had recorded them arriving at the house and a passer-by had seen a woman being bundled into a car, and noted the registration number. When the vehicle was
found abandoned, it contained several fingerprints, which police were able to match to those of a pair of local petty criminals.
Equally unbeknown to her family, Aparecida was proving to be an unusually difficult captive. Most kidnap victims plead desperately for their lives, but, according to Tom Bower, Bernie’s redoubtable mother-in-law was giving her abductors hell. “We’re a hard-working family,” she fumed. “You should be working, too. Why don’t you save yourselves by letting me go and find yourselves a job?” Refusing the meagre rations of cold beans, bread and rice, she demanded – and got – fresh fruit and yoghurt, and insisted on being allowed to take showers.
While Fabiana and Bernie sweated out the days in London, the police were making progress. The two suspects were identified as Davi Azevedo, 23, and Vitor Amorim, 19, neither of whom was considered likely to be the brains behind such a highprofile crime. Someone else, concluded the officers, must have put them up to it. The trail led – almost certainly through the suspects’ phone records – to the dashing figure of Jorge Eurico da Silva Faria, a private pilot and racehorse owner who had worked for the Ecclestones before being sacked earlier this year. Faria, 43, had also been dismissed as president of Brazil’s Helicopter Pilots Association and was struggling to finance his glamorous lifestyle.
According to police sources, he paid Azevedo and Amorim just $9000 each to carry out the kidnapping, intending to keep the entire ransom for himself. Police traced him to a hospital where he was being treated after a road accident and followed him back to a shabby flat in the suburb of Cotia, where Aparecida was being held.
“The police kept saying, ‘We’re close to them, don’t worry,’” said Fabiana, later. “But it wasn’t easy.” One email from Sao Paulo included a voice recording of Aparecida, assuring her daughter she was fine, before breaking down and screaming, “Please pay them or they will kill me.” On July 31, nine days into her ordeal, she was freed by a police snatch squad.
Bernie took the news calmly, insisting there was never any question of his handing over money “All my friends know I wouldn’t pay a penny for a mother-in-law,” he said, adding as a diplomatic afterthought, “although she’s a good mother-in-law.”
The F1 supremo doesn’t approve of celebrations. He ignores Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries, and takes a dim view of the Champagnes praying antics of his teams. He claims he has never read a book, only likes hardcore action films and feels “a permanent truculence towards society”. Born during the Great Depression, the son of a trawlerman, he worked his way up, “among spivs and hustlers”, into the realms of the high-achieving super-rich without ever receiving a favour or asking for one.
His enemies portray him as a man without feelings or obvious pleasures beyond crushing those who get in his way. Yet there are faint signs that marriage to Fabiana may be softening him, and his biographer, Tim Bower, who saw him shortly after his motherin-law’s release, says he was “unusually emotional” and full of praise for his young wife’s strength under pressure. The marriage has produced some awkward fall-out for Bernie. Tamara, 32, and Petra, 27, were scandalised and refused to attend the ceremony. The rift was widened by Bernie’s portrayal in his characteristically caustic biography of his ex-wife as a volatile, scheming prima donna who threw saucepans around and had fits if she failed to get her way.
Fabiana, according to friends, such as Tamas Rohonyi, is a more calming presence. She cooks for Bernie, fusses over his health and even acts as his chauffeur, shuttling him between business meetings in a black Lexus. While no one seriously expects Bernie to retire – earlier this year, he cut a lucrative deal to add the oil-rich but repressive former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan to the F1 circuit – he appears slightly less consumed with work than the figure of old.
As soon as Aparecida’s release was confirmed, Bernie and Fabiana flew to Sao Paulo in their private jet. “Mr Ecclestone personally thanked us and was very keen to help the inquiry in any way he could,” says police spokeswoman, Elisabete Sato. The kidnappers are looking at 30 years’ jail, while Bernie’s fortune remains intact. Mellower he may be, but it still doesn’t do to cross him.
“Why don’t you save yourselves by letting me go and getting a job?”
ABOVE: Fabiana with her mother and (top, left and right) with her husband, Bernie Ecclestone.
ABOVE: Bernie’s second wife Slavica Ecclestone (right) received a $1.5 billion settlement after their divorce, and $1 billion went into a trust for their daughters Petra (left) and Tamara.
ABOVE: Aparecida hugs a family member after her release. BELOW: The two young kidnappers were captured on CCTV cameras outside her house.