Extortionist baffles and enthralls Germany

April 02, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- On an October evening 17 months ago, the criminal who calls himself Dagobert was nothing but a failed extortionist on the run. Once again he had been duped with a bag full of paper instead of money, and the police were closing in. An officer reached out in mid-stride to grab him by the scruff of the neck.

Then fate played its hand.

The policeman slipped on a clump of dog poop. Away into the darkness went Dagobert, pedaling furiously on his bicycle.

A legend was born.

Now, 21 months after he began, the self-named Dagobert -- the German name for Donald Duck's filthy-rich uncle, Scrooge McDuck -- has become a cult hero. He has eluded police 30 times in a land in which people almost automatically defer to uniformed authority.

Confounding lawmen from Berlin to Hamburg, he has attempted to collect payoffs with high-tech schemes drawn straight from the pages of comic books. He has donned wigs, hidden beneath fake manhole covers, peered through East German army night-vision binoculars, eavesdropped with electronic bugging equipment, and used a tiny, self-propelled train to lead policemen on a chase down a railroad track.

When the going has gotten tough he has fled on subway cars, pedaled out of dragnets, run for the woods, or vanished into the dark labyrinth of sewer systems.

In the meantime, to show he means business, he has set off bombs in empty department stores in five cities, without harming a soul.

As an admiring German public waits for Dagobert to strike again, he has inspired film scripts, a rap song, T-shirts, a novel and a radio contest.

Yet, for all his fame and cleverness, virtually every contraption in Dagobert's vaunted arsenal of homemade gizmos has failed at some key moment and he has yet to collect a pfennig. He's been failing for so long that he's increased his payoff demand from 1 million Deutsche Marks to 1.4 million (about $830,000), partly to help cover mounting expenses, police say.

Police are frustrated

They should know. They've spent 20 times that amount trying to catch him, getting little more than laughter for their efforts.

"People do not want him to be caught yet," says Gerd Stuebing, one of two prominent Berlin attorneys who claim to have been hired -- but not yet paid -- by the mysterious Dagobert. "They would rather see him organize two or three more actions first. He is a man with a sense of humor. That's why people love him."

After sorting through more than 3,000 leads and tips from about 1,300 people, police have assembled only the vaguest of descriptions. They believe he is about 6 feet tall, of muscular build, between 35 and 55 years old, and has light to dark blond hair.

Two months ago the police thought they had their man, and they surrounded the home of Hans-Joachim Thiemen. He had drawn the attention of a tipster by building a very Dagobert-like device -- a 2-foot-long toy truck, remote-controlled, that Mr. Thiemen uses to clear snow from his driveway and cut the grass in his

garden.

It also piqued police attention that Mr. Thiemen once worked for the water department. Wouldn't he know about the sewer system? He also looked a little like an early police sketch of Dagobert.

Never mind that Mr. Thiemen is 67 years old, or that the sketch had already been discarded as inaccurate. Or that he was only a meter reader for the water department.

The police searched his house anyway, then questioned him. Two weeks later, they concluded he was the wrong guy and Mr. Thiemen concluded: "The Berlin police are obviously stupid."

Dagobert first struck on June 13, 1992, when a pipe bomb blew up at 1 a.m. in the china department of a Karstadt department store in Hamburg. The next day, a letter to Karstadt asked for 1 million marks.

Two days later, on the appointed delivery date, police encountered their first Dagobert device -- a metal box with a remote-controlled magnetic hook. Following Dagobert's instructions, police placed the money in the box and attached the magnet to the back of a Rostock-to-Berlin train.

Dagobert was waiting along the route, remote control in hand. But when he pushed the button as the train rolled by, nothing happened.

Since then he has set off more bombs in Karstadt stores in Bremen, Hamburg, Berlin, Hanover and Bielefeld.

Often a no-show

He has arranged at least 30 pickups, but police say he has showed up only nine times, as far as they know. After almost every attempt, some Donald Duck fan finds what seems to be an allusion to his latest tactics in a "Duck Tales" episode featuring the crotchety old Disney Dagobert.

Such was the case in his most recent attempt, on Jan. 22, his most dazzling failure to date. In a detailed set of instructions, Dagobert directed police to an unused section of railroad tracks in west Berlin.

Awaiting them on the tracks was a glorified, oversized, battery-powered skateboard set on a single rail, with a small box on top. They placed the money inside the box, then pushed a button to activate the train.

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