The arrest in Kentucky this week of an Australian banker suspected of a fake bomb threat against a Australian teenager has been hailed as a breakthrough. But criminologists remain mystified by the case, which they describe as highly unusual in Australia.
Paul Peters is a middle-aged Australian businessman suspected of being the masked intruder who broke into Madeleine Pulver’s family home two weeks ago and strapped what he claimed was a bomb to her neck.
Ms. Pulver endured a 10-hour ordeal, which made headlines around the world, before police were able to establish that the "collar bomb" device was a hoax.
An e-mail address on a note hung around Pulver’s neck led Australian police to Mr. Peters, who has lived in the United States and still travels there frequently. He was arrested by an FBI SWAT team at his former wife’s house outside Louisville, Ky., and now faces extradition to Australia.
Links to Pulver's father
According to documents filed in the US District Court in Louisville, where he appeared yesterday, Peters once worked for a company with links to Pulver’s father, Bill, a prosperous businessman. Australian police are still investigating those links, but allege that his motive was to extort money. The note said that details for delivering “a defined sum” would be sent once it had been read and acknowledged.
Australia has a history of extortion attempts, and the number of extortion or blackmail cases has doubled over the past eight years in the province of New South Wales, according to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. But those that come to public attention most frequently concern threats to contaminate the products of food or pharmaceutical companies.
In 2005, for instance, stocks of Mars and Snickers chocolate bars were withdrawn from retailers’ shelves following a series of threatening letters to the manufacturers, Masterfoods.
Kidnapping and extortion rare in Australia
Extortion attempts against wealthy individuals or their families – a common occurrence in countries such as the Philippines – are relatively rare in Australia, according to Paul Wilson, a forensic psychologist and criminology professor at Bond University, on Queensland’s Gold Coast. And the use of a “collar bomb,” even as a hoax, is “extremely rare, or even unique” in this country, he says.
The case most similar to the current one dates from 1960, when Stephen Bradley, an electroplater, demanded a ransom from the parents of an 8-year-old boy, Graeme Thorne, whom he had abducted from a residential Sydney street. Graeme’s parents had recently won the lottery. Graeme’s body was found five weeks later, and Bradley was convicted of murdering him.
Australia’s best known extortion case also ended in tragedy: a leading Sydney heart surgeon, Victor Chang, was shot dead in 1991 after a failed extortion attempt.
Unlike in the Philippines and Colombia, most extortion cases in Australia do not involve kidnap. And, Prof. Wilson says, the threat is usually a hoax. However, he adds that the majority of such cases are not reported in the media, or even to the police.
Where companies are involved, “the companies often settle them privately, otherwise they have to withdraw their products.”
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