Freddy Heineken was one of Europe’s richest men, who had built his family’s brewery into a multi-billion dollar powerhouse. On November 9, 1983, gunmen seized him and his chauffeur outside Heineken’s Amsterdam headquarters, sparking a global manhunt for the missing billionaire, his kidnappers and the $11 million ransom.
The voice of Freddy Heineken crackled as a tape recorder was pushed against the mouthpiece of a payphone: “This is the Owl. ... Is the ransom ready ... and is the Mouse present for immediate departure.”
Heineken’s words triggered an unprecedented operation as his family’s namesake company prepared to transfer one of the world’s largest ever known ransom payments, the equivalent today of $30 million in four different currencies, weighing over 200 pounds. Meanwhile, Dutch police readied themselves to arrest the kidnappers, who had seized headlines around the world along with one of Europe’s richest and most famous businessmen weeks earlier.
Alfred “Freddy” Heineken, grandson of the founder of the Heineken brewery and the marketing and deal-making genius who had turned the company’s beer a global brand, left his office in central Amsterdam on a cold evening in November 1983. He expected to be greeted by his long-serving chauffeur, Ab Doderer, but instead he was confronted by men carrying guns, who, after a brief scuffle, bundled him and his driver into a delivery van.
“Operation Rolls Royce”
What Heineken couldn’t have known at the time was that his mansion, office and daily routine had been under surveillance for months by a gang of five men who had planned with military precision a crime that was meant to net a king’s ransom. The men stalking the billionaire—Cor van Hout, Willem Holleeder, Frans Meijer, Jan Boellaard and Martin Erkamps—had met as teenagers and young adults in a hardscrabble district of the Dutch capital.
The gritty Amsterdam of charismatic ringleader van Hout’s youth contrasts with the modern Netherlands, which has shuttered prisons as crime rates have fallen to record lows. In his account of the kidnapping published by Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries, van Hout paints a picture of early success based on a legitimate construction business, scoring property deals by using strong-arm tactics on squatters, along with other shady activities that resulted in brushes with the law. Van Hout claims the men started to seek a big score after an economic downturn cramped their passions for luxury cars, race horses and partying.
Former Dutch police, however, suspect that van Hout’s property deals and business were just a cover for his gang’s involvement in a series of unsolved armed robberies.
Before the kidnapping of Heineken, the Netherlands had largely been untouched by an epidemic in Europe during the previous decade of high-profile kidnappings motivated by profit and politics. But van Hout and the other men began to scour the society and finance pages of the Dutch press for targets.
“We’d established a few principles. To start with, the entire job had to have … a grand slam. It needed to set us up for life—and that didn’t mean behind bars. The victim had to be someone for whom a high ransom could be paid quickly,” said van Hout.
Heineken, a champion of Dutch business, was already on the men’s radar for reasons other than being “filthy rich,” in van Hout’s words. Van Hout talked of sneaking looks at the beer magnate’s Mercedes-Benz as a child, and his friend Holleeder’s father was a long-term employee of the brewery (before he was dismissed for disruptive behavior).
“We were generally very picky. The victim had to be very rich but could neither be royal nor a politician. In addition the candidate needed a cast-iron constitution. Where do you find someone like that? A superman,” said van Hout.
“It needed to set us up for life—and that didn’t mean behind bars. The victim had to be someone for whom a high ransom could be paid quickly.”
Cor van Hout
Amsterdam is a small city, with its population barely topping 800,000 even now, and van Hout recounted bumping into the unguarded tycoon running errands on the canal-lined streets of the Dutch capital. In another coincidence, one of the witnesses to the kidnapping was a friend of both Heineken and Holleeder’s mother. In a hint of the violent path the gang would follow, Holleeder pushed her aside while one of the other men sprayed her face with tear gas.
Having settled on the Beer King as their target, the men toasted with Dom Pérignon champagne at a New Year’s Eve party and set in motion their plan to snare the billionaire. Van Hout would later talk about the painstaking preparation for the kidnapping, with the gang building an arsenal of pistols and Uzis, a fleet of six stolen cars, and a trail of red herrings meant to mislead detectives.
Heineken and Doderer were rushed to a West Amsterdam warehouse where a false wall had been built to contain two soundproofed cells. The kidnapping was meant to last only 48 hours, but it eventually stretched over 21 days.
The driver and the billionaire were stripped of their clothes and belongings and chained inside the tiny rooms, isolated from the outside world and each other. Heineken later said he’d feared that he’d been kidnapped by West Germany’s notorious Red Army Faction and worried that the cell’s air pipe would fail.
His kidnappers celebrated and then returned to their normal routines in order to avoid raising the suspicion of friends, family or police before making their ransom demand.
Heineken, who ruled his company with an iron will, did not appear bowed by the kidnapping, even as his detention stretched from days into weeks. Van Hout recounted that the kidnappers were impressed by Heineken’s grit and humor. “He really had a strong character, this man. He was almost a kind of psychologist,” said van Hout.
The then 60-year-old butted heads with the gang over food and conditions. The kidnappers were confused by his demands for consommé and other delicacies, and he tried to bribe one of the captors into releasing him. Heineken, shackled to a wall of the cold, dank cell, later painted a bleak picture of the conditions: “I always kept one slice of bread to eat at night or the following morning, because you’re never sure that there will be bread the next morning.”
The ordeal weighed heavily on Doderer, who had worked for Heineken for 40 years, and the kidnappers themselves voiced remorse about the toll on the driver. “Don't lose my wits; I must keep busy to stay alive. After a few days I made a program for myself to keep busy. I tried to do exercises despite everything. I had to keep busy,” Doderer told reporters after his release.
Heineken and Doderer were forced to pose for several proof-of-life photographs during their captivity but never saw the faces of theirs captors and were forced to communicate only via notes.
Eagle. Hare. Mouse. Owl. The kidnappers had put exacting attention into their plan to communicate the ransom demand and exchange via coded messages and cutouts to baffle detectives. The gang made contact by dropping an envelope with Heineken’s watch, Doderer’s papers and a ransom note to a small police station. Police were ordered to signal that the ransom was ready with an advertisement in the personal section of a Dutch newspaper reading: “The meadow is green for the Hare.”
The gang had closely studied famous kidnappings, like those of Getty and Lindbergh, and they had an equally elaborate plan for the handover of the ransom. A recorded message from Heineken and Doderer played back over a call from a payphone would direct police to the first of a series of buried messages that would lead detectives on a trail across the small country. The penultimate step was a car with a walkie-talkie that would be used to radio instructions to stop on a highway bridge and drop the ransom into a storm drain.
“I always kept one slice of bread to eat at night or the following morning, because you're never sure that there will be bread the next morning.”
The plan was almost perfect. But it was foiled by events outside the control of the gang or the police. The kidnappers demanded that an unarmed police officer carry the ransom in a marked van from Heineken’s home in Noordwijk, but the scrum of reporters surrounding the property made this impossible.
Days of silence followed before the gang and negotiators re-established contact through coded newspaper advertisements. In the meantime, police acting on an anonymous tip had put the gang under surveillance and tracked the crew, eventually zeroing in on the warehouse after watching the kidnappers order Chinese takeout for two.
Plans for a second ransom exchange went ahead as concerns about the safety of the hostages grew. The police planned to track the loot with a night vision camera on a helicopter but this was foiled by a technical hitch.
With helicopters buzzing overhead, the gang signaled on walkie-talkie to the Mouse—the police driver carrying the ransom—to stop on a highway overpass and drop the money into the storm drain marked with a traffic cone. Exactly according to plan, the five mailbags then slid through the drain and landed below in the flatbed of a waiting pickup truck, and the crew escaped unobserved.
The crew drove to a wooded area southeast of Amsterdam where they hid the ransom in barrels that were buried. In a characteristically Dutch twist, they made their getaway on bicycles.
The day after the ransom exchange, the gang spotted that they were under police surveillance and arranged a meeting to discuss their plans. They were divided on whether to flee the Netherlands or stay. Meijer decided to stay put, and van Hout and and Holleeder opted to flee to Paris. Van Hout and Holleeder would remain on the run, or in legal limbo in France and the French Caribbean, until they were extradited and finally convicted of the kidnapping in 1987.
Dutch police, with the ransom paid and no word from the kidnapper, raided the warehouse and were initially confused by the false wall before discovering the concealed cells. “Could you not have come a bit earlier?” Heineken asked his rescuers.
The gang had taken the equivalent of $2.5 million—about a quarter of the haul—from their hiding place before going underground. The rest of the ransom was recovered by the authorities after walkers stumbled across the buried loot.
“Freddy Heineken has gotten to me”
In the years after his release, the plot’s mastermind van Hout joked about being cursed by the Heineken kidnapping to his sister-in-law Astrid Holleeder. His words could have been a warning to all the members of the gang.
- Jan Boellaard was sentenced to 12 years for his part in the kidnapping and served a further decade in prison for the 1994 killing of a Dutch customs agent.
- Frans Meijer handed himself over to police after claiming to have burned his share of the ransom on a beach. He escaped from a medical facility after feigning mental illness and fled to Paraguay. After a lengthy legal legal battle he was extradited to the Netherlands in 2002. Meijer was shot by Dutch police while trying to rob a cash transit van in 2018 and was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison earlier this year.
- The youngest member of the gang, Martin Erkamps, just 21 at the time of the kidnapping, was sentenced to nine years for his involvement. He was arrested in 1996 on drug-smuggling charges in Spain and disappeared from public view for the next decade, until a dispute with investors in his Panama property development spilled over into the local press.
Honor Among Thieves
Van Hout stepped out of an Amsterdam restaurant in 2003 into a hail of bullets. At the time of his death he was already a minor celebrity for the kidnapping, for his flashy lifestyle as a leader of the Penose, or Dutch organized crime, and for surviving two previous assassination attempts. While Van Hout wrote of the “unique, indestructible, all-encompassing, eternal comradeship” between him and the other Heineken kidnappers—he was ultimately betrayed by someone who was once the closest of these friends.
Holleeder and van Hout were brothers-in-law and childhood friends, had spent years on the run, and endured France’s notorious Sante prison together. But Willem “Wim” Holleeder would plot the murder of his former ally. Astrid Holleeder described in her book Judas how her brother terrorized the family for years and tried to force her and their sister, van Hout’s wife, to reveal van Hout’s location after previous hits failed.
Holleeder, nicknamed “The Nose,” was convicted of organizing van Hout’s murder in July 2019 in an extraordinary court case that heard secret recordings made by Astrid of Wim confessing to scores of crimes. At the same trial Holleeder was also convicted of the murders of Thomas van der Bijl—who was alleged to have helped launder the remaining ransom money into real estate and brothels—and three other men linked with Dutch organized crime. Holleeder has consistently denied the charges, and his lawyers launched an appeal in August against his conviction and sentence of life imprisonment.
Heineken’s reputation as a raconteur survived the kidnapping, as he once joked to a friend: “They tortured me. … They made me drink Carlsberg!" His business acumen also appeared undented, and he continued to run the brewery as chairman until 1989 and chaired the beer brand’s holding company until 2001, shortly before his death in 2002. But a picture emerged of Heineken that was different from that of the fast-living entrepreneur who once partied with royalty and charmed the media with lines like “I don't sell beer ... I sell warmth” in the rare interviews he gave to journalists after the kidnapping.
Journalist Barbara Smit describes meeting a “twitchy” Heineken at an Amsterdam cafe under the watchful eye of his bodyguards in her book about the beer brand and the eponymous family. Heineken set up a personal security company after the incident, staffed with former police to protect his family and hunt the fugitive kidnappers. He fortified his home and traveled by armored car. To Smit, he quipped. “The nice thing about being rich is that you can fly to the Caribbean whenever you want … but I can't even go to an Amsterdam cinema.”
Iain Martin, Forbes Staff