Obituary: John Paul Getty III, grandson of oil tycoon, who had ear cut off in kidnapping

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John Paul Getty III, grandson of oil tycoon, who had ear cut off in kidnapping. Born: 4 November, 1956, in Minneapolis. Died: 5 February, 2011, in Buckinghamshire, aged 54.

JOHN Paul Getty III, who was a grandson of the oil baron once believed to be the richest man in the world and who achieved tragic notoriety in 1973 when he was kidnapped by Italian gangsters, died on Saturday at his home near London. He was 54.

Getty had been wheelchair-bound since 1981, when a drug overdose caused him to have a stroke that left him severely paralysed, unable to speak and partially blind.

At the time of his abduction, Getty was just 16 and living on his own in Rome, where his father, John Paul Getty II, had, for a time, helped oversee the family's Italian business interests.

Expelled from a private school, the young Getty was living a bohemian life, frequenting nightclubs, taking part in left-wing demonstrations and reportedly earning a living making jewelry, selling paintings and acting as an extra in movies. He disappeared on 10 July, 1973, and two days later his mother, Gail Harris, received a ransom request. No longer married, she said she had little money.

"Get it from London," she was reportedly told over the phone, a reference either to her former father-in-law, John Paul Getty, the billionaire founder of the Getty Oil Company, or her former husband, who lived in England.

The amount demanded was about $17 million, but the police were initially sceptical of the kidnapping claim, even after Ms Harris received a plaintive letter from her son, and a phone call in which a man saying he was a kidnapper offered to send her a severed finger as proof he was still alive. Investigators suspected a hoax or an attempt by the young Getty to squeeze money from tightfisted relatives.

"Dear Mummy," his note began, "Since Monday I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don't let me be killed."

The eldest Getty refused to pay the kidnappers anything, declaring that he had 14 grandchildren and "If I pay one penny now, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren." His son said he could not afford to pay.

Three months after the abduction, the kidnappers, who turned out to be Calabrian bandits with a possible connection to organised crime, cut off Getty's right ear and mailed it, with a lock of his hair, to a Roman newspaper.

Photographs of the maimed Getty, along with a letter in which he pleaded with his family to pay his captors, subsequently appeared in another newspaper. Eventually the kidnappers reduced their demands to around $3m. According to the 1995 book, Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J Paul Getty by John Pearson, the eldest Getty paid $2.2m, the maximum that his accountants said would be tax deductible.The boy's father paid the rest, though he had borrow it from his father - at 4 per cent interest.

The teenager, malnourished, bruised and missing an ear, was released on 15 December; he was found at an abandoned service station, shivering in heavy rain. Nine men eventually were arrested. Two were convicted and sent to prison; the others, including the man prosecutors said was the head of the Calabrian Mafia and the mastermind behind the abduction, were acquitted for lack of evidence.

The aftermath of the ordeal left Getty as a reckless personality; the year after his release he married a German photographer whose name has been variously reported as Gisela Zacher and Martine Zacher (pictured). They lived for a time in New York, where they ran with the art crowd of Andy Warhol. Getty became a drug user and a heavy drinker. His grandfather had died in 1976, and after his overdose, he sued his father for $28,000 a month to pay for his medical needs.

Getty's marriage ended in divorce. Beside his son, survivors include his mother, who cared for him after his stroke; a brother, Mark; two sisters, Aileen and Ariadne; a stepdaughter, Anna Getty, and six grandchildren and stepgrandchildren.

Some time after Getty's release, his mother suggested he call his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, which he did. The eldest Getty declined to come to the phone.