GREENWICH, Conn. - Near-billionaire hedge fund manager Edward S. Lampert reportedly promised the four men who kidnapped him $5 million if they would let him go free.
The kidnappers apparently agreed. They dropped Mr. Lampert off unharmed at an Interstate 95 exit ramp in the cold early morning hours of Jan. 12, 30 hours after grabbing him from the parking garage outside his Greenwich office and holding him handcuffed and blindfolded in the bathtub of a room at a Days Inn about 50 miles away.
Although Mr. Lampert never paid his kidnappers a dime, law enforcement officials, including local police and the FBI, say his offer to pay probably saved his life.
However, the case isn't exactly closed. Only the three henchmen have been caught. The alleged mastermind is on the lam.
Mr. Lampert's bizarre experience raises questions about how multimillionaire money managers can protect themselves from similar fates at home and abroad.
"We're seeing more and more of these types of abductions - it's not uncommon," said Doug Kane, managing director and practice leader for New York-based Citigate Global Intelligence & Security LLC's crisis management practice.
And yet, odds are that news of Mr. Lampert's kidnapping by itself will not spur any of the 399 others named with Mr. Lampert to Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans to take any extra security precautions. Mr. Kane, a 27-year FBI veteran, said more often than not, wealthy or high-profile people won't seriously consider personal security until something happens to them.
Said Gregory Boles, global director of threat management for Kroll Inc., New York, and a 25-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department: "People need to get away from the mindset of `it won't happen to me'."
Mr. Boles, who helped the start the LAPD's threat management unit 11 years ago, said executives need to take "precautionary measures," but not live a life of paranoia. "What we're looking for is a healthy awareness."
Mr. Lampert, 40, is about as high profile as they come, at least in Connecticut. He is the chairman of ESL Investments Inc., a hedge fund that manages $5 billion in assets. Worth an estimated $800 million, Mr. Lampert is No. 288 on Forbes' 2002 list of the richest Americans. He ranks as the state's second-richest person, behind 73-year-old Mary Anselmo, who is worth $900 million thanks to her late husband's television and satellite communications businesses, according to Forbes.
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Lampert's kidnapping started dribbling out of Connecticut law enforcement sources and into local papers shortly after Mr. Lampert reappeared. By Jan. 16, a plausible but incomplete sketch of what happened had emerged.
According to reports published in New York and Connecticut newspapers that cited "unnamed law enforcement" sources, Mr. Lampert left his office about 7: 30 p.m. Jan. 10 and walked to his car, which was parked in one of several spots marked for ESL employees in a security-patrolled parking garage.
The four slapped a pair of mail-order handcuffs on his wrists and forced him at gunpoint into a rented Ford Expedition. While driving to the motel, the kidnappers tossed Mr. Lampert's personal digital assistant out the window. Police found it later because it has a built-in global positioning device.
At some point, Mr. Lampert's shoes were taken and he was blindfolded. At the hotel, he was placed, still handcuffed, in the bathtub.
Around 10: 30 p.m., someone reported Mr. Lampert as "missing." Greenwich police and the FBI quickly launched a search.
The details then get fuzzy. Some reports say the kidnappers demanded a ransom in a phone call to a member of Mr. Lampert's family. Others say they didn't ask for money. One report talked of a plot to kill Mr. Lampert over some kind of business deal or deals. Mr. Lampert owns, through ESL and other partner groups, significant stakes in companies like AutoZone Inc., Liz Claiborne Inc., Office Depot and PayLess Shoe Source. He also serves on the board of AutoNation Inc.; ESL is that company's largest single shareholder.
Wrong, then right
Pretty much everything in this saga - what's known publicly at least - jives with past cases Mr. Kane has investigated. And while it sounds like Mr. Lampert unknowingly did just about everything wrong from a personal security standpoint before being forced into the waiting SUV - parking in the same spot every day, following a routine, not being aware someone was watching him - he did just about everything right afterward, Messrs. Kane and Boles said.
The personality and business skills that have made Mr. Lampert a millionaire 800 times over worked for him in this case. He apparently kept his captors talking. He figured out what they wanted and managed to promise them he would get it for them. Then he managed to convince them to let him go. Most importantly, Mr. Boles said, Mr. Lampert made it home alive.
"(Mr. Lampert) has no idea how lucky he is," Mr. Kane said.