Dark Capital explores the intersection between crime, wealth and business. It airs on Sundays.
Freddy Heineken, one of Europe’s most powerful men, had turned his family’s brewery into an international multi-billion-dollar powerhouse. Gunmen took him and his chauffeur from Heineken’s Amsterdam headquarters on November 9, 1983. This triggered a worldwide manhunt for Heineken, his kidnappers, and the $11,000,000 ransom.
Freddy Heineken’s voice crackled as Freddy Heineken pressed a tape recorder against a payphone’s mouthpiece: “This Owl.” … Is there a ransom?… And is the Mouse available for immediate departure?
Heineken’s words set off an unprecedented operation when his family’s nameake company was prepared to transfer the largest ransom payment ever made, equivalent to $30 million in four currencies and weighing more than 200 pounds. The kidnappers had made headlines all over the globe weeks before, and Dutch police were ready to arrest them.
Alfred “Freddy”, the grandson of the founder and marketer of Heineken brewery, left his central Amsterdam office on November 23, 1983. Ab Doderer, his long-serving chauffeur, was expected to greet him. Instead, they confronted him with men with guns and, after a brief struggle, forced him and his driver into a van.
Operation Rolls Royce
Heineken didn’t know that his office, mansion and daily life were being monitored for months by five men who planned with military precision a criminal act that would net him a ransom. The five men who were following Heineken–Cor van Haout, Frans Meijer Jan Boellaard, Frans Holleeder and Frans Holleeder–had been friends as teens and young adults in the hardscrabble Dutch capital.
The gritty Amsterdam of van Hout’s charismatic ringleader contrasts with modern Netherlands which has closed all its prisons due to falling crime rates to records. Van Hout’s account of the kidnapping is published by Peter R. de Vries. It depicts early success, based on a legitimate building business that scored property deals using strong-arm tactics against squatters. This was in addition to other illegal activities that led to brushes with the law. Van Hout says the men began to look for big scores after a downturn in economic conditions.
However, former Dutch police suspect van Hout’s business and property deals were just a cover for his gang’s involvement in unsolved armed burglaries.
The Netherlands was largely unaffected by the epidemic of kidnappings in Europe that had occurred during the decade prior to the kidnapping of Heineken. Van Hout and other men started to search the Dutch media’s finance and society pages for possible targets.
“We had established some principles. The entire job needed to be… grand slam. It had to prepare us for life, and that did not mean behind bars. Van Hout stated that the victim must be someone who can pay a high ransom quickly.
Heineken, a Dutch business champion, was already on men’s radar, van Hout said, for reasons other that being “filthy rich”. Van Hout spoke of sneaking a look at the Mercedes-Benz of the beer magnate as a child. Holleeder, his friend, was also a long-term employee (before he was fired for disruptive behavior).
“We were very picky. The victim must be extremely wealthy, but not a royal or politician. The candidate also needed to have a solid constitution. You won’t find anyone like him anywhere. A superman,” said van Hout.
Amsterdam is a small, largely unpopulated city. Van Hout told of bumping into the unguarded tycoon while he was running errands along the canal-lined streets in the Dutch capital. Another coincidence was that one of the witnesses to this kidnapping was a friend both of Holleeder and Heineken’s mother. Holleeder pulled her aside, hinting at the brutal path that the gang would take. One of the men also sprayed her with tear gas.
The Beer King was chosen as their target and the men toasted with Dom Perignon champagne at a New Years Eve party to set the stage for their plan to capture the billionaire. Van Hout would talk later about the meticulous preparations for the kidnapping. The gang built an arsenal of pistols, Uzis, six stolen cars and left a trail of red herrings to confuse detectives.
Doderer and Heineken were taken to a West Amsterdam warehouse, where a false wall was constructed to house two soundproofed cells. Although the kidnapping was supposed to last 48 hours, it ended up lasting 21 days.
The billionaire and driver were stripped of all their belongings and put in tiny rooms. They were then chained together. Heineken later stated that he feared that he would be kidnapped and taken to West Germany by the notorious Red Army Faction. He also worried about the possibility that his cell’s air pipe might fail.
The kidnappers were happy and resumed their regular lives to avoid any suspicion from family members or the police.
Heineken, who was a strong leader in his company, didn’t appear to be influenced by the kidnapping. His detention lasted from days to weeks. Van Hout said that Heineken’s humor and grit impressed the kidnappers. This man had a strong character. Van Hout said that he was almost like a psychologist.
The 60-year old was a thorn in the side of the gang over food and other conditions. He tried to bribe an officer into releasing him, but the kidnappers got confused by his requests for consomme and other delicious foods. Heineken was confined to a cold, dank cell wall and later described the grim conditions as follows: “I always kept one piece of bread to eat at evening or the morning because you never know if there will be bread tomorrow morning.”
Doderer, who was a Heineken employee for over 40 years, felt the weight of the ordeal. The kidnappers also expressed regret about the impact on their driver. Doderer said, “Don’t lose your wits. I must keep busy to remain alive. I created a schedule for myself to stay busy after a few days. I tried to do exercise despite everything. Doderer said that he had to be busy after being released.
Heineken, Doderer had to take several proof-of life photographs while in captivity. However, they never saw their captors’ faces and were forced only to communicate via notes.
Eagle. Hare. Mouse. Owl. Owl. The gang dropped an envelope containing Heineken’s watch and Doderer papers, along with a ransom note to small police stations. Police were instructed to notify the ransom with an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper’s personal section stating that the ransom was available.
The gang had studied famous kidnappings like Lindbergh and Getty, and had an equally complex plan to hand over the ransom. Doderer and Heineken recorded messages, which were played back to police over a phone call. This would direct them to the first in a series of hidden messages that would take detectives across the country. The penultimate stage was a car equipped with a walkie talkie that would be used for radio instructions to pull over on a highway bridge to drop the ransom in a storm drain.
It was nearly perfect. It was foiled however by events beyond the control of either the police or the gang. The kidnappers wanted an unarmed police officer to carry the ransom in a van marked from Heineken’s Noordwijk home. But the scrum of reporters around the property made it impossible.
After days of silence, the gang and negotiators made contact again through coded newspaper ads. Police acting on an anonymous tip placed the gang under surveillance. They tracked the crew and eventually located the warehouse.
As concerns about hostages’ safety grew, plans for a second ransom swap were made. Police had planned to track loot using a night vision camera mounted on a helicopter, but it was stopped by technical difficulties.
The gang signaled to the Mouse, the police driver with the ransom, on walkie-talkie. They were instructed to stop at a highway bridge and drop the ransom in the storm drain marked by a cone. The plan was followed exactly. The five mailbags slipped through the drain, landing below in the flatbed of an unoccupied pickup truck. The crew managed to escape unscathed.
They drove to a wooded area south of Amsterdam, where they hidden the ransom in barrels. They made their escape on bicycles, in a typical Dutch fashion.
The gang noticed that they were being monitored by police and set up a meeting to discuss the plans. They had a split on whether they wanted to flee the Netherlands, or stay. Meijer opted to remain, while van Hout and Holleeder chose to flee to Paris. Van Hout, Holleeder, and others would continue to run or remain in legal limbo throughout France and the French Caribbean until they were finally extradited and convicted for the kidnapping.
The ransom was paid by the Dutch police and they did not hear from the kidnapper. They raided the warehouse, initially confused at the false wall, before finding the hidden cells. Heineken asked his rescuers, “Couldn’t you have come a little earlier?”
Before going underground, the gang had taken $2.5 million (about a quarter) from their hiding place. After walkers found the loot, the authorities recovered the rest of the ransom.
“Freddy Heineken is getting to me”
Van Hout, the plot’s mastermind, joked about his cursed fate after the Heineken kidnapping of his sister-in law Astrid Holleeder. These words could have served as a warning to the rest of the gang.
- Jan Boellaard was sentenced for his role in the kidnapping. He also served a decade in prison for the 1994 murder of a Dutch customs agent.
- Frans Meijer surrendered to police, claiming that he had burned his part of the ransom on a sandy beach. After feigning mental illness, he fled from a hospital and fled to Paraguay. He was finally extradited to the Netherlands after a long legal battle. Meijer was shot and killed by Dutch police in an attempt to rob cash transit vans in 2018. He was sentenced to three year imprisonment earlier in the year.
- Martin Erkamps was just 21 years old at the time. He was sentenced to nine-years imprisonment for his participation in the kidnapping. In 1996, he was charged with drug-smuggling in Spain. He disappeared from the public eye for the next ten years until a dispute over his Panama property development was brought to the attention of the local media.
Honor Among Thieves
In 2003, Van Hout was thrown out of a Amsterdam restaurant and into a hailstorm of bullets. Van Hout was already a minor celebrity at the time of his death for the kidnapping and his flashy lifestyle as a leader in the Dutch organized crime group, the Penose. He also survived two assassinations. Van Hout spoke of the “uniquely indestructible and all-encompassing, ever-lasting comradeship” that existed between him, the Heineken kidnappers, but he was eventually betrayed by a former friend.
Van Hout and Holleeder were childhood friends and brothers-in law. They had been on the run for years and shared France’s notorious Sante prison. Willem “Wim” Holleeder would plan the murder of his former ally. Astrid Holleeder wrote in her book Judas about how her brother terrorized her family over the years. He tried to force her and van Hout’s sister to reveal van Hout’s location after previous hits had failed.
In July 2019, Holleeder, also known as “The Nose,” was found guilty of van Hout’s murder. This extraordinary court case heard secret recordings by Astrid Wim confessing to dozens of crimes. Holleeder was also convicted in the murders Thomas van der Bijl, who was alleged had helped to launder ransom money into real property and brothels. He was also linked with Dutch organized crime. Holleeder denied all charges and his lawyers appealed against his conviction and life imprisonment.
Heineken’s reputation for being a raconteur survived his kidnapping. He once joked to a friend that “they tortured me.” They made me drink Carlsberg! Heineken’s business acumen was also evident. He served as chairman of the brewery until 1989, and then he headed the holding company for the beer brand until 2001, just before his death. Heineken’s image was not the same as that of the charismatic entrepreneur who once party with royalty and charmed media with lines such as “I don’t sell beer… Heineken said that he sells warmth in rare interviews after the kidnapping.
Barbara Smit, a journalist, describes encountering Heineken in Amsterdam under the watchful eyes of his bodyguards in Her book on the beer brand and its eponymous family. After the incident, Heineken established a personal security firm with ex-police to protect his family members and pursue the kidnappers. He built a fortress and used an armored vehicle to travel. To Smit, he quipped. “The great thing about being wealthy is that you can fly anywhere you like… but I can’t even get to an Amsterdam movie theater.”