The ten hours of terror that Australian teenager Madeleine Pulver faced as police grappled with what appeared to be a bomb strapped to her neck are over. The 18-year-old high school student is safe, though shaken, after a man reportedly broke into her family's upscale Sydney-area home and locked the device to her neck on Wednesday afternoon. Police still haven't confirmed the device was a a bomb, but they called the bomb squad and evacuated houses nearby, so media reports are leading with the phrase "collar bomb."
But if the incident is anything like an apparently similar case from Pennsylvania in 2003, the end of Pulver's ordeal could be the beginning of a long and mysterious investigation for police. First, here are the details of today's incident, cobbled together from local news reports.
- The motive for the crime is still unclear, but the Sydney Morning Herald reported that "the teenager's father, Bill Pulver, 53, a wealthy businessman who runs an international software company, is believed to have been the target of the apparent extortion bid." The suspect reportedly left a ransom note.
- The incident started when a masked man got into the Pulver house in Mosman, a well-to-do Sydney suburb just after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, the Daily Telegraph reported. He ordered Madeleine to a room in the house, where he attached the device to her neck.
While he was rigging up the explosive, the man ordered a terrified Madeleine to be limited in what she told police, or else he would remotely detonate the bomb.
It is understood the girl was told she could ring police to alert them to her predicament, but she must not give too much detail about him or their conversation. The man told Madeleine he would be able to hear her and what she told police, indicating he had planted listening devices within the house. With the bomb secured, he then left.
- Madeleine was apparently at home alone, as the Daily Telegraph noted, "Police were called to the Mosman mansion by Mr Pulver after a frantic phone call from his daughter just before 2.30pm."
- Madeleine wasn't hurt, but "she's been kept in a very uncomfortable position," New South Wales state Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch told the Associated Press. “She has been and will be uncomfortable for a little while to come.”
- Police said the device was "very elaborate and sophisticated," and though bomb technicians had x-rayed it, they couldn't determine exactly what it was. Before Madeleine was freed, Murdoch told the Syndey Morning Herald, "There is a device which we are examining, and it is proving a tough nut to crack… Until such time as we can be satisfied exactly what it is we will continue to treat it very, very seriously."
- Over the course of the ordeal Madeleine "disclosed a lot of information to police," reports said. The Australian quoted Murdoch saying she did "a great job keeping her emotions in check." Now that she's free, "We want to get our hands on who's done this and pretty smartly." But police still haven't found the suspect.
The Australian reported that a collar bomb had never been used in Australia before. For most people, the first reference that likely comes up (if one does at all) is the 2003 case of Brian Wells, who was killed when a bomb attached to his neck went off after he robbed a bank. A great Wired feature from last December describes the case, and the device, in depth. Wells famously told police he "had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank." He was apparently following a complex trail of clues to gain his freedom after robbing the bank when police stopped him, and the bomb went off, "blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest" just three minutes before the bomb squad arrived. But the case turned out to be more complicated than that, with Wells implicated as a co-conspirator in the bank robbery who was killed to keep him quiet.
That bomb, apparently like the one in Australia, was complicated and ingeniously made.
The device consisted of two parts: a triple-banded metal collar with four keyholes and a three-digit combination lock, and an iron box containing two 6-inch pipe bombs loaded with double-base smokeless powder. The hinged collar locked around Wells’ neck like a giant handcuff. Investigators could tell that it had been built using professional tools. The device also contained two Sunbeam kitchen timers and one electronic countdown timer. It had wires running through it that connected to nothing—decoys to throw off would-be disablers—and stickers bearing deceptive warnings. The contraption was a puzzle in and of itself.
Following Wells's death, a complicated series of conspiracies unraveled, pointing to a botched robbery attempt by some of Wells' acquaintances in an effort to get money to hire a hit man to kill a relative and get an inheritance. But the caper unraveled and the main suspect, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, was sent to prison this year. There's no evidence that the Pulver case is anywhere as complex and multi-layered as that of Wells, but anything that starts with a high-tech collar bomb and a 10-hour standoff can't possibly be boring.