Eccentric blackmailer confounds German police The strange case of Herbert the Saw

April 05, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

BERLIN -- A man called Herbert the Saw, three derailed trains, a bombed-out luggage locker and a million dollars scattered in the air like confetti make up what police say is a bizarre but real threat to Germany's 2.8 million daily rail passengers.

As police only now have made public, Herbert the Saw has been trying to blackmail the German railway for 18 months. But due to a series of odd developments, he hasn't received his money. He is still at large, holding the railway hostage and becoming the talk of the nation.

The events began in 1990, when Herbert cut out a 14-inch section of rail on a German freight line. A letter followed: Pay $1.2 million or the next cut will be large enough to derail a train. Signed, Herbert. The railway called the police.

Five days later, he hit the railway's pride and joy: its new bullet train. He cut out a 6-foot section of rail in a tunnel, then cut a signal cable. Workers in a repair train went to investigate the signal and derailed, causing injuries and $65,000 in damage.

Faced with a train full of 750 passengers careening into an embankment or tunnel wall at 200 mph, railway officials capitulated, announcing the decision in a small advertisement in a national newspaper.

Police figured they could capture Herbert when he showed up to take the money, but he confounded them in a series of slapstick train chases through northern Germany.

Herbert demanded that a railway official carry a suitcase with the $1.2 million on a train. He would signal the locomotive engineer by radio when the official should toss the suitcase out the window. If no signal came, the official should get off at a prearranged station and wait for a telephone call in the station office. The next train to take would be signaled according to the number of telephone rings at the station office.

Police were impressed. His system didn't allow police time to trace the calls or to record his voice -- a trick that has been used before to identify railway extortionists.

"It was very, very clever. Almost the perfect crime," said Dankmar Lund of the Hamburg police department.

At first, the system worked perfectly. The official was sent on a grueling, six-hour trip. Herbert displayed such an impressive knowledge of timetables and connections that the breathless envoy with the weighty suitcase was constantly hopping off one train and onto another, denying police a chance to follow in a special SWAT train.

The official finally got the signal to pitch out the money. He walked to the door and opened it as the train raced through the countryside. But two passengers jumped up, thinking that the official wanted to commit suicide. They ripped him and the suitcase from the door.

The official fought back, crawled to the door, and finally was able to kick the case out -- too late and right into an oncoming freight train, which smashed the suitcase and sent 2,000 bills, worth about $600 each, fluttering in the air.

Police spent hours trying to recover the 1,000-mark notes. They won't say how many they found.

Herbert got angry.

He cut a section out of a passenger line between Hamburg and Hanover, with his express letter arriving just before a train was due to hit the missing stretch. The railway signaled its capitulation again and the official set off, but this time said he got no signal from Herbert.

Strangely, nothing happened for months. Then in April 1991 he cut a chunk out of another line, causing a repair train to derail. The railway said it was still willing to pay but received no instructions.

Six months later, in October, he cut another section and a freight train derailed. This time, instructions followed; the railway sent out an official but again said he received no signal to throw the money out.

The game stopped four weeks ago when a bomb blew out a luggage locker in Hamburg. A letter arrived with a key to the destroyed locker. "I don't just saw any more," Herbert wrote.

Once again the railway is ready to pay, but now police say they won't agree to the changing-trains method.

The police have gone public with Herbert's threat because they worry that by refusing to throw the money out a train window, they may open themselves to his wrath.

Late last week, Herbert answered with a series of letters to the media. "If anyone dies, you can blame it on the cops," he wrote, adding that he now wants $2.5 million. "For every week's delay a train will blow up." The first deadline is Wednesday.

Inspector Lund said the police's tactics now are to stay cool and hope that Herbert loses his nerve. In the meantime, he conceded, riding a train in Germany could be an increasing risk. "It's his move next," the inspector said.

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