True crime:

Bernie Ec­cle­stone

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - AWW

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.

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