Illustration by John RitterSitting in her bedroom in her parents’ spacious Sydney, Australia, home, Maddie Pulver contemplated the task ahead—studying. It was August 3, 2011, and high school exams were coming up. Like her classmates, she was hitting the books.
It was 2:30 p.m., a Wednesday, and the 18-year-old was alone in the house. Maddie’s mother was out shopping, and her father, the CEO of a global software company, was at work; her two younger brothers were at school, and her older brother was on vacation. From her bedroom desk, Maddie could gaze out across Sydney Harbor, but this was a time for concentration, not daydreaming.
Suddenly, Maddie heard a noise behind her. She turned to find a man standing in her bedroom doorway wearing a rainbow-colored balaclava. He was armed with an aluminum baseball bat and wore a small black backpack. The intruder had entered the multimillion-dollar home through the unlocked front door.
“I am not going to hurt you,” he declared.
Maddie leaped from her chair and backed away, toward her bed. “What do you want?” she demanded.
Placing his baseball bat and backpack on the bed, the man simply warned, “No one needs to get hurt.”
He opened the backpack and removed a black metal box the size of a small laptop. Holding it against Maddie’s throat, he secured it around her neck with a bicycle lock. He then placed a loop of purple string over her head. Attached to it were a USB flash drive and a plastic sleeve with a document inside. A label with a typed e-mail address, [email protected], was stuck to the box around her neck.
Turning to leave, the man told Maddie to “count to 200. I’ll be back. If you move, I can see you. I’ll be right here.”
Terrified, Maddie remained still. After a few moments, she called out for help. Silence. She called out again. Nothing.
With the device strapped to her neck, Maddie moved slowly toward her cell phone. Without daring to jolt the contraption, she texted her mother and father, asking them to call the police. Only then did Maddie remove the document from the plastic sleeve attached to the string. When she glimpsed the word explosives, she burst into tears.
“Powerful new technology plastic explosives are located inside the small black combination case delivered to you,” read the letter. “The case is booby-trapped. It can ONLY be opened safely if you follow the instructions. If you disclose these Instructions to any Federal or State agency, the Police or FBI, or to any non-family member, it will trigger an immediate BRIAN DOUGLAS WELLS event. You will be provided with detailed Remittance Instructions to transfer a Defined Sum once you acknowledge and confirm receipt of this message. If the Remittance Instructions are executed CORRECTLY, I will immediately provide you with the combination that can open the case WITHOUT triggering a BRIAN DOUGLAS WELLS event and an internal key to completely disable the explosive mechanisms embedded inside. CONFIRM receipt of these Instructions by CONTACTING: [email protected]”
Brian Douglas Wells was a pizza deliveryman duped by a gang in 2003 in Pennsylvania. They put a collar time bomb around his neck and ordered him to rob a bank. Wells did as he was told, but when he was leaving the bank, police turned up. The bomb went off with catastrophic consequences.
But Maddie Pulver had no idea what a “Brian Douglas Wells event” was. She was also unaware that Dirk Struan—the name used for the e-mail address—was the main character in James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan.
Struan was the “Tai-Pan”—the leader—a wealthy, violent, and shrewd head of a trading company in China who was hell-bent on destroying his rivals.
The Australian police had never seen a case like this before. Arriving soon after 2:45 p.m., officers immediately sealed off the street and set up roadblocks to divert traffic, curious neighbors, and the media.
Inside the house, they found Maddie sobbing. To take the weight off her neck, she was holding the box with her hands. Police had kept her parents at a mobile command post out on the street, so Constable Karen Lowden took on the task of trying to comfort the terrified teen. She asked about the upcoming exams, Maddie’s art studies, her hobbies … anything to keep their minds off the horrible predicament while bomb squad technicians determined what sort of explosive they were dealing with. Portable X-ray equipment showed that the box was filled with mechanical and electrical components. But police couldn’t be sure if there were explosives or not.
Meanwhile, the police decided to respond to the extortionist and carefully crafted a short, simple reply, which Maddie’s father would send. At around 6 p.m., he e-mailed the address attached to the black metal box: “Hi, my name is Bill. I am the father of the girl you strapped the device to. What do you want me to do next?”
As police and Maddie’s family waited for a reply that never came, the extortion note was sent through forensic examination for fingerprints, and detectives questioned neighbors and friends, trying to piece together what had happened.
Then at 11:00—a breakthrough. After analyzing X-rays and receiving advice from military experts, the bomb squad concluded that the device did not contain explosives and posed no threat. The collar bomb was cut off Maddie. Her nearly nine hours of hell were over.
But where was the would-be extortionist?
Illustration by John Ritter, Handout/Getty ImagesAlmost immediately after being handed the note, police contacted Google’s head office in the United States to determine if the Gmail account had been accessed. The Internet giant scanned its database records and told detectives that the account, [email protected], had been created on May 30 from an Internet server linked to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
That night, Google’s data revealed the e-mail account had been logged on to three times that afternoon—twice from a computer at a library a few hours north of Sydney and a third time from a nearby video store.
Because Google could tell the detectives the precise times someone had used the account, police were able to view the library’s parking lot security video and pinpoint the arrival of a possible suspect and the car he was driving, a metallic gold Range Rover. Although the license plates were illegible, detectives had an image of the man who’d gotten out of the SUV and entered the library.
Maddie had told police her attacker wasn’t young. She had noticed gray chest hair as he reached around her to attach the collar box. Through the eyeholes in his balaclava, she’d seen wrinkles. She’d guessed he was between 55 and 60. The man in the video fit the description and wore a collared shirt and trousers similar to what Maddie remembered.
Then, by checking motor vehicle records, they systematically checked the registration details of each possible Range Rover with driver’s license
photos of their owners. Within 48 hours of getting hold of the library footage, they had a name—Paul Douglas Peters.
With that name, detectives were able to follow a money trail, providing more links to the crime. Peters’s bank records showed that he’d made purchases at a clothing and sporting goods store in the weeks before Maddie was attacked. Footage from the shopping center showed him buying a baseball bat and a rainbow-colored balaclava.
Police also learned that Peters had degrees in economics and law; he was a businessman, father of three, and self-proclaimed author. He’d planned the elaborate extortion piece by piece, like writing a novel.
They had enough to bring him in for questioning, except for one thing—Peters had already fled the country. Security footage and immigration records showed the 52-year-old Australian passing through Sydney Airport en route to Los Angeles on August 8. Flight records showed Peters then caught a connecting flight to Chicago, before flying to Louisville, Kentucky.
Twelve days after the attack on Maddie, on August 15, an FBI team stormed the Kentucky home of Peters’s ex-wife, where they found Peters. There on a table was a James Clavell novel—Tai-Pan.
Detective Sergeant Andrew Marks flew from Australia to Louisville to question Peters. In a room at FBI headquarters, he chipped away at the suspect.
Marks: “Is there anything you want to tell me about the extortion, the kidnapping, and the bomb placed around young Madeleine Pulver’s neck on the third of August?”
Marks: “Are you responsible?”
Marks: “Do you know anything about an e-mail address with that name, Dirk Struan?”
Marks: “What can you tell me about that?”
Peters: “I had a … or had set up an e-mail address with … Dirk Struan.”
Marks then asked about the USB flash drive that had been attached to the collar bomb. Forensic examination had unearthed three deleted files. One was a Word file that was a letter of demand in the same terms as the saved file and the hard-copy document in the plastic sleeve placed around Maddie’s neck. The analysis of the Word file revealed that it had been created on a computer identified as “Paul P.”
Peters was unable to explain why or how the document had been on a “Paul P” computer. He claimed it was “a horrible, horrible coincidence.”
During questioning, Peters talked about a James M. Cox Trust, claiming he had $12 million tied up in it. Another of the three deleted files on the USB drive contained a letter of demand addressed specifically to the trustee of the trust. It indicated that perhaps Maddie wasn’t the intended target of the extortion plan, that the masked intruder had meant to target a neighbor who was a beneficiary of the trust. Marks handed Peters a copy of the deleted document.
Marks: “Have you seen that note before?”
Peters: “I have no comment.”Illustration by John Ritter, Ross Schultz/Newspix
Paul Douglas Peters was soon on a plane back to Australia to face charges of aggravated breaking and entry and kidnapping. Despite his initial denials, Peters pleaded guilty to the crime, although he never did explain why he targeted Maddie.
During the sentencing, the prosecutor described the extortion attempt as “urban terrorism, which would strike fear into the heart of every parent.” But Peters’s legal team tried to build a case suggesting that he was suffering a psychotic episode at the time he attacked Maddie. They insisted Peters had become obsessed with a novel he’d been writing and was “living” the role of a main character.
Forensic psychiatrists agreed that Peters did suffer depression and overused alcohol after the collapse of his business and his divorce. One said he had a bipolar disorder.
But the judge wasn’t convinced.
“The weight of evidence establishes beyond reasonable doubt that the offender set into action a plan to extort money,” Judge Peter Zahra said. “There are limitations to which the extent of the terror experienced by the victim can be humanly understood.”
A year after his arrest, Peters was sentenced to 13 years and six months in prison.
Outside the court, Maddie faced the media.
“I am pleased with today’s outcome and that I can now look to a future without Paul Peters’s name being linked to mine,” Maddie said. “For me, it was never about the sentencing but to know he will not reoffend, and it was good to hear the judge acknowledge the trauma he’s put my family and me through.”
It’s a saga her mother, Belinda, sums up best: “We’ve realized what’s important in life. We don’t worry about the small things now.”