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The Bizarre True Kidnapping Story Behind FX's New Drama Trust

FX's latest tells the story of the infamous Getty kidnapping

Kaitlin Thomas

Following the success of its American Crime Story anthology series, FX is once again turning to true crime for inspiration. On Sunday, March 25, the network will debut the new drama Trust, which chronicles the highs and lows of one of the wealthiest families in American history: the Gettys.

The first season, written by Simon Beaufoy and starring Donald Sutherland as billionaire J. Paul Getty Sr., follows the 1973 kidnapping of Getty's teenage grandson and the heir to the Getty Oil fortune, John Paul Getty III (the kidnapping was also the subject of the recent Ridley Scott film All the Money in the World). FX intends to tell the complicated story of the Getty family and the corrupting influences of money and power across multiple seasons and decades, but here's everything you need to know about the infamous kidnapping -- and the ransom no one wanted to pay -- covered in Trust's first season.

How did the kidnapping happen?

In the summer of 1973, Paul Getty (played by Harris Dickinson in the series), the long-haired teenage heir to the massive Getty Oil fortune, was living a bohemian lifestyle in Italy, where his father had, at one time, managed the Italian branch of the family business. He'd become something of a fringe celebrity thanks to his family name, and in the early morning hours of July 10, he was kidnapped by Italian gangsters in Rome.

The Official Trust Trailer Is Here!

Two days after Paul's kidnapping, his mother, Gail Harris (portrayed by Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the show), received a letter from his abductors, threatening to send along Paul's severed finger if the Getty family didn't pay a $17 million ransom. Police initially suspected Paul's kidnapping and the subsequent ransom demand to be a hoax or a ploy by Paul to con his grandfather out of his money; he'd reportedly previously joked about the idea of staging a kidnapping with his friends.

Why did no one want to pay the ransom?

The frugality of Paul's grandfather, who was believed to be the richest man in the world at the time of the kidnapping thanks to his booming oil business, has been well documented. A Time article from the 1950s described Getty Sr.'s thriftiness:

His penny pinching has become a legend. He eats simply, dresses well but inexpensively, spends about $280 a week for personal needs. He once took a party of friends to a dog show in London. The admission fee was 5 shillings (70¢), but a sign over the entrance said: "Half price after 5 p.m." It was then twelve minutes to 5. Said Billionaire Getty: "Let's take a walk around the block for a few minutes."

Knowing this it should perhaps come as little surprise that Getty Sr. initially famously refused to pay the ransom. He said it likely would only encourage additional kidnappings. "I have 14 other grandchildren," he'd said, "and if I pay one penny now, then I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."

Paul's father, John Paul Getty Jr., living in London by that time, claimed he could not afford to pay his son's ransom after a life of drug addiction and excessive spending left him without the means, and Paul's mother did not have access to that kind of cash as she was no longer married to Paul's father.


Harris Dickinson as John Paul Getty III, Trust

Oliver Upton/FX

What happened when no one paid?

Three months after Paul was abducted -- he was held in the mountains of Calabria -- his captors sent to a local Italian newspaper a lock of his red hair and his severed right ear. A threatening note accompanied both items. "This is Paul's first ear," the note read. "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."

How did it finally end?

In the end, Paul's grandfather agreed to pay the ransom, which was negotiated down from $17 million to approximately $2.8 million -- but not without one final, painful twist. According to the book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, Getty Sr. handed over $2.2 million of his own money, which was the maximum amount said to be tax-deductible. But Paul's father, Getty Jr., had to pay the rest after borrowing it from Getty Sr., who said it was a loan to be repaid with 4 percent interest.

The ransom, paid in Italian lira, was delivered to the kidnappers by Getty Sr.'s security specialist, former C.I.A. operative James Fletcher Chace (played by Brendan Fraser). Paul was released in December 1973, five months after his abduction. He was found near an abandoned service station approximately 100 miles south of Naples. Most of the ransom money was never recovered, but nine men were arrested for the kidnapping. However, only two were convicted and sent to prison; the others were acquitted for lack of evidence.

What happened after Paul was freed?

When Paul, who underwent reconstructive surgery on his ear, attempted to call his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, Getty Sr. famously declined to come to the phone. In the years that followed, Paul engaged in a reckless lifestyle, marrying a German photographer, with whom he had a son, actor Balthazar Getty, before divorcing. He eventually spiraled into a life of addiction, suffering a stroke in 1981 that left him confined to a wheelchair. He was cared for by his mother, and required around-the-clock nursing care, for which his father refused to help pay. Paul died in 2011 at the age of 54.

Trust premieres Sunday, March 25 at 10/9c on FX.