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What is the true story behind Getty kidnapping drama Trust?

Danny Boyle's ten-part drama is based on a headline-grabbing kidnapping case from 1973, with Donald Sutherland playing J Paul Getty

Donald Sutherland plays J Paul Getty Senior in Trust
Published: Monday, 22nd October 2018 at 9:00 am

"The following is inspired by actual events," proclaims Danny Boyle's new BBC2 drama Trust.


That's definitely worth pointing out – because if you didn't know this was based on a true story, the plot and characters would seem far too outlandish to be believed.

Based on the 1973 kidnapping of oil heir John Paul Getty III, the series involves Italian mobsters, a rumoured hoax, a severed human ear arriving in the mail, and an extremely tight-fisted billionaire grandfather with his own harem. It's pretty wild.

Of course, we've recently seen this story told in Ridley Scott movie All the Money in the World, which featured Christopher Plummer as the oil baron (in place of original star Kevin Spacey), but this ten-part TV drama explores a slightly different view on the fiasco, with Donald Sutherland at the helm as the Getty patriarch.

So what are the "actual events" we're talking about? Here's the rundown:

Who was oil baron Jean Paul Getty – and who was his grandson?

Oil baron J Paul Getty circa 1960
Oil baron J Paul Getty circa 1960 (Getty)

The kidnapping victim in question was J Paul Getty III, whose grandfather was the oil baron J Paul Getty Sr.

By the 1970s the elderly billionaire presided over a global business empire and was estimated to be the richest man in the world – but he lived a secluded life in a mansion England.

Getty Sr was five times married, five times divorced and had five sons – only three surviving by the end of 1973. He surrounded himself with women and reportedly had an insatiable appetite for sex, maintaining his potency into his old age with the help of an experimental drug called H3.

He also had a reputation for being extremely frugal, to the point of installing a payphone in his house for visitors to use – at their own expense). He also hand-washed his own underwear every night.

Despite his hopes of establishing a family dynasty, Getty was not personally close to any of his sons or grandchildren. His eldest son George was meant to be his successor, but in 1973 he died after taking a cocktail of drugs and then stabbing himself with a barbecue fork. Getty instead promoted his son Gordon Getty – despite the latter being far more interested in a career in classical music.

One son he did not promote within the family business was J Paul Getty II (or "John Paul Getty Jr"), father of soon-to-be kidnapping victim J Paul Getty III. In fact they were not even on speaking terms.

This third son had been tasked with overseeing Getty Oil Italia in Rome, had married and had four kids, but things had not gone to plan. In 1964 he and his wife Gail divorced and he remarried, but his new wife died of a heroin overdose in 1971. He moved to the UK and became mired in addiction.

And so Gail Harris and her children, including eldest son J Paul Getty III or "Paul", remained in Rome.

Kidnapping victim J Paul Getty III.jpg
Kidnapping victim J Paul Getty III (Getty)

As detailed in the New York Times, at the time of the kidnapping the teenager was 16 and living alone. He had been expelled from school the year before, and now enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle, taking part in left-wing demonstrations and scraping a living making jewellery and selling paintings. The Italian magazine Playmen even paid him $1,000 for a naked spread in its August 1973 issue, which wasn't published until a month after the kidnapping.

What happened when J Paul Getty was kidnapped?

J Paul Getty III was kidnapped on 10th July 1973 at 3am in the Palazzo Farnese in RomeTwo days later, his mother Gail Harris received a ransom request for $17 million, along with a note.

Ten days later she received a phone call with instructions: "Get it from London," the kidnappers reportedly told her. But this was easier said than done. Gail was divorced from her son's father and had little sway with her stingy former father-in-law, Getty Sr. 

Was the kidnapping a hoax?

Harris Dickinson plays J Paul Getty III in Trust
Harris Dickinson plays J Paul Getty III in Trust (BBC)

The police and Paul's own family members were initially sceptical, suspecting a possible hoax set up by the "victim" himself for his own financial gain.

This wasn't a completely outlandish theory. Paul had apparently mentioned the idea before, saying he would arrange his own "perfect kidnapping" to extract a large sum from his grandfather.

The police remained suspicious even after Gail received a phone call in which the "kidnapper" offered to send her a severed finger as proof he wasn't messing around, and a plaintive letter saying: "Dear Mother: I have fallen into the hands of kidnapers[sic]. Don’t let me be killed! Make sure that the police do not interfere. You must absolutely not take this as a joke… Don’t give publicity to my kidnaping.”

This is a theory explored in Trust, though it's never been proven either way. It is possible that Paul was, at first, held willingly: after all, he was given access to a radio and allowed to keep a pet bird. But when his grandfather refused to pay, his captors' treatment of him became rougher and more brutal. Were they fed up that things had not turned out as Paul promised?

Did Getty refuse to pay the ransom?

Donald Sutherland in Trust
Donald Sutherland in Trust (BBC)

Yes, although there was some logic behind his decision. Pointing out that he had other grandchildren who could become potential future victims if the kidnapping business turned out to be lucrative, he said: "If I pay one penny now, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."

Three months after the abduction, the kidnappers cut off Paul's ear and mailed it, along with a lock of his hair, to a newspaper in Rome. They also distributed photographs of the one-eared boy and a letter, which sad: "This is Paul's first ear. If within ten days the family still believes that this is a joke mounted by him, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits."

However, they still only succeeded in securing their ransom when they dropped their demands down to around $3 million. After an intervention from Gail's father, billionaire J Paul Getty only agreed to pay a reported $2.2 million of that (the maximum that his accountants said would be tax-deductible) and his son paid the rest – he had to borrow it from his billionaire father at 4% interest.

The teenager was released from captivity on 15th December. Malnourished, bruised and without his ear, he was found at an abandoned service station.

J Paul Getty III, six days after his release
J Paul Getty III, six days after his release (Getty)

What happened after J Paul Getty III was released?

At his mother's suggestion, Paul Getty called his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, but J Paul Getty famously refused to come to the phone.

Nine men were eventually arrested for the kidnapping, which was linked to the head of the Calabrian Mafia. Two were convicted and sent to prison while the rest were acquitted for lack of evidence.

J Paul Getty Sr died in 1976, three years after the kidnapping, at the age of 83. As The New York Times wrote, his final days were spent with "a collection of desperately hopeful women, all living together in his Tudor mansion in England, none of them aware that his favourite pastime was rewriting his will, changing his insultingly small bequests: $209 a month to one, $1,167 to another." The only one of his women to receive a proper inheritance was Penelope Kitson, played in this adaptation by Anna Chancellor. He left no inheritance for his grandson.

J Paul Getty III married a German photographer the year after his release, and had a son at the age of 18.

He also had surgery to reconstruct his missing ear, but the injuries went deeper than this. Paul became a heavy drug user and a drinker, and died in 2011 in London at the age of 54. He had been wheelchair-bound for two decades following a stroke caused by a drug overdose, which left him severely paralysed and unable to speak.

J Paul Getty III at his father's funeral in 2003

He was survived by his son, the actor Balthazar Getty.

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