It was the early morning on the 9th of September 1987. A 45-year-old unemployed engineer drives a stolen Fiat from his home to Bloemendaal, a town 35 minutes away known for its villas. After all, Bloemendaal is the wealthiest place in the Netherlands. He wears a fake moustache, glasses and a beret. His coat is draped over a sawed-off gun that rests on his lap. When he reaches his destination, one of the villas in Bloemendaal, he parks his car on a nearby parking lot and takes up a position near the entrance of the estate. His target, Gerrit Jan Heijn own this villa. Nobody realises it yet, but one of the longest, most shocking and sensational abductions and murders in the history of the Netherlands is about to commence.
Gerrit Jan Heijn was a Dutch businessman. Together with his brother Albert, he was the executive of Ahold, a Dutch international retailer. The company started in 1887, as the grandfather of Albert and Gerrit opened the first Albert Heijn grocery store. During the 1970s the company expanded internationally and under the management of Albert and Gerrit the company became a Dutch household name as the largest grocery chain in the Netherlands. It’s safe to say that the unparalleled success of the Heijn brothers led to them becoming some of the wealthiest individuals of the entire country.
Back to that fateful early morning on the 9th of September. Gerrit Jan Heijn leaves his villa and wants to take his Audi to his dentist appointment. As he enters his car, the man runs from his hideout, opens the other car door and takes place on the passengers’ seat. He targets his rifle at Heijn, threatening him and telling him to start the car and drive. When Heijn passes the stolen Fiat the duo leave the Audi, take place in the smaller car and drive off. The man now orders Heijn to drive to woods in another Dutch province, nearly 2 hours away. When they arrive, they spend quite some time walking through the secluded Dutch nature, and Heijn is forced to record several tapes asking for ransom. At a certain point, Heijn attempts and fails to escape his captor when he tries to flag down a large truck that passes by a road. The truck doesn’t stop, and Heijn is again at the mercy of his captor.
At around 9:30 pm his captor orders him to drive towards Renkum, a municipality even further in the eastern Netherlands. He tells Heijn that in the woods nearby an accomplice will stand at the ready to take him over and guard him. The unsuspecting Heijn follows his captor into the woods. When they are at a secluded spot the captor brandishes his gun, quickly slips on the silencer and executes Heijn without warning. Heijn dies from a gunshot to the head. Following the execution, the captor callously secures Heijn’s glasses and cuts off his pinky finger. He deposes the finger in a thermos filled with ice and buries the body in a shallow grave he had dug prior to the abduction. Following the execution, the captor takes the small Fiat and drives back to Amsterdam, where he dumps it in the river IJ.
Now, when the captor returns home the next morning, he has quite some explaining to do. He isn’t a solitary bachelor living a secluded life, but the unemployed engineer Ferdi Elsas, a married man with three children. He hadn’t told his wife about any of his plans or actions. Because he didn’t come home that night, his wife filed a missing person’s report. She subsequently withdraws the report upon his arrival. From that day onward he carries on with his life as if nothing odd happened.
Meanwhile, over at the Heijn family and the Ahold corporation, the situation is much more dramatic and chaotic. Nobody knows where Gerrit Jan Heijn is. His abandoned car was discovered near his villa and when he didn’t show up to his dentist appointment alarm bells started to go off. A massive police investigation and search mission was set up, with helicopters and sniffer dogs searching for Heijn.
When news leaks to the Dutch press that Heijn is missing, police receives multiple letters from people claiming they abducted Heijn and are demanding ransom. Many of these letters turn out to be fake, but one message stands out because a tape is attached to it. The recording is of Heijn. In it, he is forced to request diamonds, other gems and cash of a total of 7.7 million guilders as ransom. Behavioural analysts and detectives agree that a sophisticated criminal organisation must be behind the abduction. Following the first letter, the police receive 13 more messages in the following weeks. In it, the “abductors” warn that the publicity the case receives will not benefit the health and safety of Heijn. The family Heijn and the police agree to answer the letters to the “abductors” via advertisements in public newspapers. Meanwhile, the police and justice department set up an information blockade: no information about the ongoing investigation and abduction will be shared outside a taskforce and the family.
Through advertisements in Dutch newspapers, the family lets the abductors know they have the cash, but diamonds aren’t easy to acquire. The response they receive is a letter that says the ransom amount increases and to try harder. Furthermore, the glasses of Heijn are sent to the home address of his family, with an accompanying note saying as punishment Heijn won’t be able to read in captivity anymore. Little do the family know he has been dead for weeks by this point. The family reiterates that they cannot acquire diamonds this quickly. This time, in response, the cut-off pinky finger of Heijn is sent to their home address. In the accompanying letter, it reads “He won’t be able to play the piano for now, but the wound heals well.”
Several requests by the family for a sign of life are ignored. Nevertheless, an appointment is made to deliver the ransom money. On the 12th of November, an Ahold employee will transport the funds and wait for a call by the abductors in the Okura Hotel in Amsterdam. The captor, Elsas, misses the calling deadline, however. He stays silent for 12 days before he calls the phone again. Elsas gives the location of where he wants the ransom dropped: under an overpass near the A12 highway. Three days later, on the 27th of November, the diamonds and cash are dropped at the location by the employee. On the site, he finds a note attached to a stone which directs him to an Albert Heijn grocery store. Further instructions will be given by phone over there. But when the employee reaches the store it is already closed, thus missing the deadline.
Now, as for the ransom cash and diamonds, the bills were marked, and a large police force was present monitoring all cars on the highway and nearby roads that could potentially pass by the dropping point to pick up the ransom. They use modern technology to try and identify the car the captors use so they can identify them and free Heijn. The thing is, the police were focused on the highway and the cars passing by, each one potentially containing the abductors. Meanwhile, Elsas came by bike. He used a small road to pass the tunnel, picked up the ransom bag, and cycled off. Yeah, very Dutch. Because nobody considered the abductors would come by bike Elsas managed to snatch the cash and diamonds and leave without the police noticing him.
After the ransom cash and diamonds had been taken, the family and police didn’t hear anything for days. On the 30th of November and the 3rd of December, the wife of Heijn in a public TV broadcast asked, in an emotional speech, for her husband to be returned safely. The ‘abductors’ send her a message saying that her husband will be home by Christmas. But following that message the communication channels go dead silent. The police weren’t making any progress with the case either and were still looking for clues and mistakes to track down the well-oiled criminal organisation they’re sure was behind this.
In the end, Elsas got caught by a pretty amateurish mistake. In February 1988, during his daily grocery shopping, he paid with 250 euro bills, from the ransom. The police have marked these bills and when the bills reach the local bank, a bank clerk notifies the police. The location the bills were exchanged is traced to the local grocery store and the staff identify Elsas as the man that spent the bills. Because the police are confident he is, at most, a small player in a large criminal conspiracy they observe him for quite some time. It is not until the 6th of April 1988, when Elsas doesn’t lead the police to the suspected criminal organisation, that they decide to arrest him. During the early hours of that day, a police team raid his home and arrest Elsas, his wife and two guests that happened to stay over. That same afternoon Elsas confesses to the kidnapping of Heijn.
The evidence linking him to the crime isn’t too difficult to discover. The murder weapon is found in the creek behind Elsas’ house and most of the cash is stored in the basement and under the carpet of his car. And, if that wasn’t enough, Elsas’ notes reveal that he planned the abduction in detail, and he never bothered to destroy his writings.
That same week Elsas led police to the grave of Heijn, in the woods in the east of the country. It turned out that while the entire abduction and uncertainty about Heijn’s fate had lasted for over 7 months, Heijn had been killed on the same day he was abducted. It took another couple of weeks before police actually believed Elsas wasn’t part of a larger criminal organisation. After a speedy trial, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and forced psychiatrical treatment in December 1988.
Thirteen years later, in 2001, he was released. He changed his name to Paul and moved to the eastern part of the country together with his wife. Over there, in August 2009, he was killed when he was run over by an excavator whilst taking a bike ride. And as for Ahold – well, Albert Heijn is still the largest grocery store chain in the Netherlands. But this abduction certainly is the blackest page in the history of both the family and the business.