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The crime that shocked the Netherlands: When the Heineken boss was kidnapped

Forty years ago one of the Netherlands’ wealthiest men was snatched by the future godfathers of the Dutch underworld

Freddy Heinken (right) with chauffeur Ab Doderer, December 2, 1983 (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The 1970s and ‘80s were prime times for headline-grabbing crime. No DNA tests or CCTV meant the hunts for murderers, and serial killers, stretched over months and years rather than days or weeks. Corruption, and the absence of joined-up, digitally enabled policing, allowed terror groups to make their mark. With airport security in its infancy, hijacking briefly flourished. All still remained very rare occurrences, but the spread of TV and radio news and the prurient excitement of the tabloid press did not make it feel that way.

And then there was another sick and depressing trend – the celebrity kidnap. An attempt to snatch Princess Anne failed, but former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro was captured and killed by the Red Brigades. John Paul Getty III, grandson of the man who was then the world’s richest, was released, but only after losing an ear. Heiress Patty Hearst was taken by a left wing guerilla group and later joined them in a bank robbery, for which she was briefly jailed.

The kidnapping of billionaire beer magnate Freddy Heineken 40 years ago is less well-known in the UK than those cases, but in the Netherlands it is a crime that is the equivalent of the Great Train Robbery – so audacious that it has inspired books, films and TV dramas. Some two years in the planning, a scheme laid out by future brothers-in-law Willem ‘Wim’ Holleeder and Cor van Hout was so ambitious that they had to pull off a string of bank robberies in order to finance it.

If the duo had help in putting the kidnapping together – Jan Boellaard, Frans Meijer and Martin Erkamps each finished up with their faces on ‘wanted’ posters – the leaders had extra motivation for going after the beer king of the Low Countries.

For Alfred Henry ‘Freddy’ Heineken wasn’t just the CEO of the company that bore his name. He was also the former employer of Wim Holleeder Snr, Willem’s abusive father. An alcoholic convinced that the sun shone out of Mr Heineken’s backside, the elder Holleeder’s admiration for his former employer was dampened by the fact that Freddy Heineken himself had been involved in Wim’s dismissal from the firm. And the abuse? It was both verbal and physical and it was inflicted upon not only Willem but also his sisters Astrid and Sonja, the latter of whom was soon to start a family with Cor van Hout. Targeting the Heineken empire was then both a means of acquiring an astronomical sum of money while simultaneously saying ‘fuck you’ to their deadbeat father.

As for their plan, Holleeder, van Hout and Co. set out to secrete Heineken in a Quonset hut – a war-time prefabricated structure – towards the back of which they’d built a sound-proofed cell behind a false wall. There they would hold Freddy until his family coughed up the 35 million guilders they would demand. Now if only they could get their hands on the old bugger..
See, the first big problem with kidnapping Freddy Heineken was that the gang couldn’t locate him. Night after night they waited outside the Heineken residence only for the big man to be elsewhere or already ensconced in his Noordviljk fortress. In the end, the kidnappers had no other choice than to snatch Heineken and his chauffeur Ab Doderer from the one place they could be sure he would be, the company’s Amsterdam head office.

With their daylight robbery successful and Heineken and Doderer ensconced in their cell, the gang might have thought the worst was behind them. But they had reckoned without the reluctance of Heineken the company to pay the equivalent of a $17.1m ransom, not to mention the ego of Heineken the man.

Though the kidnappee insisted his company would pay the ransom in its entirety, it would take fully three weeks for the money – 35 million guilders in five sacks and in four currencies, in accordance with the gang’s wishes – to show up in the designated location, a storm drain near Utrecht. And in the meantime, Freddy Heineken ran rings around his captors, insisting the muzak they favoured be replaced with the works of the great composers and demanding that they feed him something more interesting than the cheese and ham sandwiches. Such was his love of food from the Far East that Martin Erkamps, the youngest of the kidnappers, was regularly sent out to pick up Chinese takeaways. Years later, Erkamps would wonder whether Heineken’s preference for ‘bang-bang chicken’ wasn’t some kind of code, a means of alerting the police to his whereabouts.

And while Erkamps went for a Chinese, Holleeder and van Hout went home. In Rogues: True Stories Of Grifters, Rebels And Crooks, the American journalist Patrick Radden Keefe recalls an evening at the van Houts when the Heineken kidnapping came up on the news. “‘It’s extremely stupid,’ [Holleeder’s younger sister] Astrid remembers saying. “Who would kidnap Heineken? They’ll be hunted the rest of their lives.’ ‘You think so?’ Wim asked. ‘I’m pretty damn sure of it,’ she replied.”

She was wise beyond her years, Astrid Holleeder. For with the money now in the gang’s possession and Heineken and Doderer returned to their loved ones, the hunt was on for the men who’d abducted the real king of beers. This wasn’t too tricky in the cases of Jan Boellaard and Martin Erkamps who were picked up by the Dutch police shortly after Heineken’s freeing. Frans Meijer, however, made like a villain in a crime movie and jetted off to South America, only returning to face the music after being tracked down by the Netherlands’ leading investigative journalist Peter R de Vries.

And Wim and Cor? They made for Paris and laid low in an apartment near the Champs-Élysées At least they did until the police tapped Sonja Holleeder’s phone and worked out that Cor van Hout was phoning here from the City of Light. Brought to book some six weeks after freeing Freddy Heineken, three long years would pass before Holleeder and van Hout could be extradited to the Netherlands. To add insult to injury, the duo spent much of this time under house arrest at a top Parisian hotel.

Not only that but once their sentences were served (sentences that were reduced from 11 years to five thanks to good behaviour) Holleeder and van Hout found themselves elevated to a level of criminal celebrity on a par with that of the Kray twins – the big difference being that while Ronnie and Reggie would see out their days inside, Willem and Cor were once again at large.

They were also now incredibly rich. Though some of the Heineken money had been recovered, most of it remained unaccounted for. Precisely where it went is hard to say but the sizable investment Wim and Cor made in the Dutch sex trade would appear to be one possible solution.

As Astrid Holleeder told Patrick Radden Keefe, “Legally there was no Heineken money. When people asked Wim what had happened to the missing millions, he recounted a vague story about the money having been burnt on a beach. There’s whatever everybody knows and then there’s everything one can prove.”

Among those companies convinced the brothers-in-law’s purchases had been made with ransom money was Heineken, who forbade their beverages from being sold in such recent acquisitions as Amsterdam’s Casa Rosso. For those fearful that this sanction was the sum of the kidnappers’ suffering, rest assured that time would eventually wound both of these heals.

In January 2003, Cor van Hout was shot outside a Chinese restaurant. He’d survived previous attempts on his life but today his luck would desert him. But who could’ve called in the hit? It was an answer Astrid Holleeder – who, irony of ironies, swapped her brother’s lawlessness for the law – took an age to nail down. Her – correct – conclusion that her brother Wim was to blame might have appalled her but this couldn’t deter her from giving evidence against him. While Wim Holleeder seems destined to spend the rest of his life in jail, Astrid has gone into hiding. As she explained to Patrick Radden Keefe, “Wim will only rest when I am dead. And I will only rest when Wim is gone.”

A story with all the elements of great drama, it’s only to be expected that the kidnapping of Freddiy Heineken should provide the basis for books, documentaries, even feature films. Of the last of these, the Dutch language take on the tale – 2011’s The Heineken Kidnapping – stars Reinout Scholten van Aschat and Gijs Naber as thinly disguised versions of Wim and Cor, while the title role is taken by arguably the biggest star ever to emerge from the Netherlands, Rutger Hauer.

As for 2015’s Kidnapping Freddy Heineken, Avatar‘s Sam Worthington and The Way Back‘s Jim Sturgess essay the lead kidnappers while their kidnappee is played by none other than Sir Anthony Hopkins. It’s a big name for what is ultimately a small but effective thriller. But when you’re talking about a figure as big as the king of Dutch brewing, you need a knight of the realm. Or failing that, Roy Batty from Blade Runner.

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