He was abducted by an IRA gang, pistol-whipped and buried face down, so that he could only dig himself in deeper
In 1973, German industrialist Thomas Niedermayer was kidnapped and never seen alive again. In his new book, top detective, Alan Simpson, tells of the grim search for the body
At around 11pm on December 27, 1973, the peace of the sleeping Niedermayer family was broken by the sudden ringing of the doorbell.
With her mother in hospital and her exhausted father asleep, it was 15-year-old Renate who pulled on a dressing gown to answer it.
Two men were on the doorstep, saying they had crashed into the family car parked outside. ‘Is your father or somebody in?’ Renate went to fetch him.
Thomas Niedermayer quickly pulled on some casual clothes and, still wearing his slippers, went outside to inspect the damage.
What happened next was witnessed by a neighbour, Herbert Hoech, who also worked at the giant Grundig electronics plant in Belfast, where Niedermayer was general manager. The three men knelt down to inspect the damage to Niedermayer’s Ford Granada, but Hoech also saw there was someone still in the driver’s seat of the car that had collided with it: its brake lights were on.
Niedermayer straightened up, walked back towards his driveway and waved, as if to acknowledge that no significant damage had been done. It was then that the two men grabbed him from behind and, after a brief struggle, pushed him into the waiting car.
Hoech grabbed a coat and raced outside, but it was too late. The car sped off. Thomas Niedermayer was never seen alive again.
I was a young trainee detective at the time and had no involvement in the original investigation. But I was well aware of the cause celebre and embarrassment it became, both for the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British government, as the investigation drew blank after blank after blank.
The police couldn’t find his kidnappers, they couldn’t find Niedermayer and, as the months passed and it became increasingly likely he was dead, they couldn’t find his body. The fact that Niedermayer was also the West German consul in Northern Ireland only heightened the pressure on the investigation team.
It was assumed he had been kidnapped by the Provisional IRA, and it was also assumed he had been taken hostage to increase the pressure on the British government to allow a group of IRA terrorists convicted for carrying out three car-bombings in London — including sisters Marion and Dolores Price — to be returned from their prisons in England to the North, where they would be granted special category status.
But, if Niedermayer was to be involved in a hostage swap, why, at least as far as the police were concerned, had there been no contact from the kidnappers? In July 1974, seven months after the abduction and after following up 440 separate leads, the detective in charge of the case conceded his team were no further forward than the night Niedermayer had disappeared.
It would be a full five years before any significant breakthrough in the case was made and this time I was definitely involved.
By 1979, I was a detective inspector with the Belfast Regional Crime Squad and had recently been transferred to the Springfield Road station in West Belfast. One IRA suspect began to show a degree of trust in me and it was from him that I first learned of the shadowy figure who would become known as ‘Disciple’.
This man wasn’t an active terrorist, but moved unobtrusively around the city, co-ordinating operations and passing on messages from one IRA battalion to another. In fact, I soon realised that Disciple would know an awful lot of secrets: the challenge would be persuading him to share them.
We arrested him at 6am, with the house being given a thorough search by our military patrol. Back at the station, he was nervous, his left leg bouncing up and down uncontrollably. He accepted a cigarette and asked when the beatings would begin? I assured him no physical harm would come to him on my watch.
Gradually, he began to settle down, but it was clear he was a man living life on the edge. He admitted he existed largely on a diet of beer and cigarettes, so I kept him well supplied with the latter. It was time to start the delicate process of making a deal.
He faced three years in jail simply for being a member of the IRA; we both knew that. But if he would tell us everything he knew, I said, he would go free.
Eventually he agreed, but drove a hard bargain, saying he would supply us with a lot of information, but only at a later meeting after he’d been released. That way, we couldn’t go back on our side of the bargain.
But it meant we had to trust him, too. It was a big step, but my instincts were that we should and having consulted with my superiors and military intelligence, we shook hands and released him through the front gate. Disciple, however, never made the agreed follow-up meeting: indeed he disappeared from the streets of Belfast altogether.
I was disappointed, but not surprised; my greatest fear was that he had fallen victim to one of the IRA’s dreaded internal security teams.
Then I remembered his wife, who had always been amiable and sensible. But how to get to her, without alerting the suspicions of the ever-watchful IRA? Having consulted with my CID boss, DCI James Cunningham, and with Captain Smythe from Military Intelligence, we decided that military patrols would raid five houses in her street, apparently chosen at random. Dressed as a soldier, I would be part of the team that would raid her house.
The subterfuge worked and, although it took Disciple’s wife a little while to recognise me in British Army uniform and for her to admit that she knew all about the agreement I’d struck with her husband, she gradually regained her confidence in me.
It turned out that, terrified by the thought of a visit from an IRA security team, Disciple had fled to England almost as soon as we’d released him.
His flight had got him out of immediate danger. But I quickly realised it meant he couldn’t return to the province and that his wife and children could be in danger.
Disciple still needed our help.
I scribbled down my telephone number and urged her to get her husband to ring me.
Three days later, on a Sunday evening, the phone rang. It was Disciple and he was still interested in a deal. We were back on. As luck would have it, the job he’d found was as a ship’s cook, which resulted in our three-man team flying to the island of Jersey and then to Portsmouth on the southern coast of England.
It was real cloak-and-dagger stuff. In Jersey, for instance, I had to flash the headlights on my hire car as Disciple came down the gangplank at 3am. Further debriefings were held in assorted car parks in the New Forest.
By day two in Jersey, I was anxious to ask him about the Niedermayer case. He confirmed that the original idea had been to swap the German businessman for the Price sisters and that the kidnapping had been the brainchild of Brian Keenan, chief of staff of the Provisional IRA.
He also revealed that there had been a degree of personal vindictiveness involved. Keenan had once worked in the Grundig factory and, in his capacity as trade union shop steward, had had a number of confrontations with the German. This was to be his revenge.
Disciple knew a top IRA team would have carried out the kidnapping, but he also knew something had gone wrong early on, although he didn’t know what. Over the years, he had picked up further fragments, including one drunken but chilling confession that ‘Niedermayer was in a hole and had been buried face down so he could dig himself in deeper’.
That hole, Disciple said, was in Colin Glen, a beautiful wooded valley to the south-west of Belfast city centre, a large part of which had since been disfigured by several years of illegal fly- tipping.
Indeed, according to Disciple, a local IRA commander was even encouraging builders to dump their rubbish there. Niedermayer’s body was being buried deeper every day.
This was the breakthrough we had been waiting for. Not only could Disciple name some of those involved and the address where Niedermayer had been held, but, six long years after the German had disappeared, we finally knew where his body was buried. Finding it, however, was going to be another matter.
In the years since the businessman had disappeared, thousands of tonnes of rubbish had been dumped there.
If we wanted to find Niedermayer’s body, it would all have to be moved. But how? Over a long, whiskey-fuelled evening with my mentor and boss, Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Mooney, we came up with a rather ingenious idea.
We would set up a fictitious environmental organisation that had a contract to restore the area to its pre-1972 beauty. We’d need an excavator, some tipping trucks and an official dump where we could properly dispose of the removed rubbish. We would also need, as I quickly saw, rather a lot of money.
A charming and distinguished gentleman at the Northern Ireland Office in Stormont couldn’t have been more helpful. The Niedermayer kidnapping, he agreed, had done a great disservice to Northern Ireland.
The £55,000 we needed would be forthcoming. The ‘West Belfast Environmental Action Group’ was set up. Within days, it had its own bank account. It took four weeks and hundreds of truck-loads of rubbish to get Colin Glen back to its 1972 condition.
For my four-man undercover police team, it was horrible work and, of course, there was always the danger that the IRA would discover what we were up to. For that reason, each of us carried 9mm Walther PPK pistols under our waterproof jackets, with one man in every two-man team also having a concealed Sterling submachine-gun.
We brought in a specialist digger-driver from the Royal Engineers, divided the area into sections and asked the driver to dig them in turn. By lunchtime we had made good progress, but we’d found nothing.
Although I didn’t show it to my colleagues, I began to feel downcast. What if the Disciple was wrong?
Suddenly there was a shout of ‘stop, stop’ to the excavator from my colleague. There, among the contents of the excavator’s bucket, was a pair of heavily mud-stained cavalry twill trousers. More than six years after he was kidnapped, we had found poor Thomas Niedermayer.
Dental tests would later confirm the body was his and that the Disciple’s information had been correct — Niedermayer, bound and gagged, had been buried face down. Arrests followed and gradually something resembling the truth emerged.
After being kidnapped, the German had been taken to a safe-house a mile away. There he was kept in a small and closely guarded room until he had clearly had enough.
Asking to be taken to the lavatory, he made an attempt to escape, shouting and struggling so hard that his captors hit him twice with the butt of a revolver behind his left ear. His skull still bore the indentations.
Those injuries probably weren’t enough to kill him, but nevertheless by the time his IRA guards had finished binding and gagging him (one of those involved later confessed that there were four men lying across him at one point in the struggle), Niedermayer was dead.
Whether from a heart attack, suffocation or brain injury we will never know.
Finding his body at least gave his family the chance to have a proper Christian funeral and Thomas Niedermayer was finally laid to rest in a quiet churchyard at Dunmurry, near Belfast.
Along with colleagues, I sat and watched as the body was lowered into the ground for the last time.
But the story, tragically, doesn’t end there. Ten years after her husband’s funeral, Niedermayer’s wife Ingeborg, who had suffered from depression since his death, booked into the seaside resort of Greystones in Co. Wicklow and went for a stroll along its deserted beach.
Suddenly she turned and walked steadily into the sea. Her body was found a few hours later. The IRA had claimed another victim.
Duplicity and Deception, Alan Simpson, Brandon, £20