On November 30, 1487, the Germany Purity Law decreed that beer be made with only three ingredients—water, malt and hops. In 1523 on this day, Amsterdam banned an assembly of heretics, who then regrouped in a local pub to drink some pure beer and discuss freedom of speech. In 1753, a group of Stonemasons met to hold secret rituals involving mutual help, fellowship and beer, but on this day Holland made it all illegal.
Over to hundred years later, 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 into 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, but instead he was confronted by men carrying guns, who, after a brief scuffle, bundled him and his driver into a delivery van. Five men had been planning the kidnapping for months. They had been involved in low-level shady dealings and developed a passion for luxury cars, race horses and partying. They settled in on the beer billionaire and in a plot involving six stolen cars, pistols and Uzi’s and a trail of red herrings meant to mislead the detectives.
Heineken and his chauffeur, Ab 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, the gang’s leader, 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.”
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.” 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.
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 of $11 million 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.
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 date of his release? November 30th.
Now November 30th is also the birthday of Jonathan Swift, who prophecised the events centuries earlier, depicting Heineken as a Giant Gulliver tied down by a gang of Lilliputians, but eventually escaping. It’s also the birthday of Mark Twain, who described the kidnappers failed attempt to escape on a raft and Brownie McGhee, who sang Which Side Are You On, Born for Bad Luck, Key to My Door and other blues describing the events. Two other Nov. 30th birthday folks chimed in— Abbie Hoffman distracted the police with some Civil Disobedience and Shirley Chisholm critiqued the FBI for refusing to go after white collar criminals. Michael Jackson provided the soundtrack for the escape when he released Thriller on that day, Ben Kingsley reminded the world that such behavior was not the change we wanted to be in the world with the release of the film Gandhi. James Baldwin was working on his book “If Amsterdam Freemasons Could Talk” when he died on that day, as did Tiny Tim, tiptoeing through the tulips (in Holland) for the last time.
And now the thrilling climax: When captured and asked why they targeted, Heineken, the kidnappers replied: “It’s simple. He broke the sacred law of 1487 by using more than three ingredients in his Heineken beer. We rest our case.”