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?