The Kidnapping of Pericles Panagopoulos

I will begin this article and end it with this same sentence SECURITY IS PREVENTION!

Let me introduce myself, my name is George Sardelis and I am in the Personal security industry. I started my career back in 1999 blending in a security group, of a major Greek shipping company, doing multiple tasks.

Later that year I was offered a job as a security driver for the CEO of the shipping company I was already working for. The job was a very demanding, ultra-responsible everyday hard position. In 2003 I was called on to hop in the driver’s seat of the president of the shipping company late Mr. Pericles Panagopoulos. (Passed away at his house 05/02/2019). 

What a ride it would be!

As the company was in its best decade the working hours were unbelievable long. The responsibilities I had taken on were very demanding and dealing with security, with the lives of others, could be many times mind and body exhausting.

Until the kidnapping incident, we didn’t have any bodyguards neither an armored vehicle. The only security we had was static security guards all over the place.  Understanding the position and responsibilities I had been given, the fact that Mr. Panagopoulos had just sold his shipping company for over 400.000.000 euros my insistence on building an escort team was constant and justified. The irony here is that after examining our daily routes and having always in mind the potential threats, I had shown Mr. Panagopoulos the exact critical point that would be most likely for a kidnapping to take place.  What was that point? A bottleneck point just 300m from the residence.

I would always put myself into the minds of people how could or would harm us in anyway. You must think that way!  

Mr. Panagopoulos was a very brilliant businessman, a very good employer, and an old school gentleman I would say. As he used to say to me ‘’George, I have never hurt anyone in my life, why would someone want to hurt me?’’

See, businesspeople hire someone to take care of their security but many times when it comes down to costs and changing their lifestyle and habits for the needs of having security, they think about it so much they end up doing nothing. In Mr. Panagopoulos’s case, it was the lifestyle change that was difficult to manage. As he told me, ‘’I can’t imagine myself, going somewhere and having 3 or 4 people always behind me, it would be like a punishment for making money’’. 

The presidents’ house was secured, the company building also secured, the ships too… The only thing wrong was our transportation! That was our Achilles’ heel.

It was a typical cold January Monday morning (12/01/2009), the week before we had just come back from Gstaad having a great time and Monday was the first working day after the holidays. The mood, as always, was great. About 300 m after we had departed the president’s residence as I was slowly driving through a narrow road,(just two cars could narrowly pass), I suddenly saw a small van trying to make a U-turn a few meters away from me, as I stopped, looking at the rear mirror at the same time I saw another car, a Jeep, with two people inside wearing black hoods! There was a small road that I had passed, and they were waiting for us there behind a bush.

Simultaneously, plunging out from the van in front of us, three men dressed in black army clothing with A-K 47s in their hands were shouting at me telling me to open the doors.

I could not step on the gas because the van had closed the road, neither I could ram the back car as it had come so close I wouldn’t have any ram power, the thought of pulling my handgun was immediately rejected because in case of crossfire it could mean not only my life but Mr. Panagopoulos life as well!

Trying to calm down Mr. Panagopoulos at the same time, I had not opened the doors, as if that could matter, the sound of the bursting window came to me as we were being assassinated by some left-wing extremists. The kidnappers used a large sledgehammer to bust my door window. Two blows were enough! At this particular political time, Greece had numerous problems with terrorist groups. Not able to do anything to avoid this the only thing I could do is to calm Mr. Panagopoulos down and try to figure out what this was all about.

As I was leaning towards Mr. Panagopoulos trying to hold his hand, I felt a hand coming through my car doors smashed window and pulling the door handle. Soon I was pulled to the ground, stepped on the back smashed on the back of my head by a Kalashnikov, and told to give up my weapon.

I can still remember this kidnapper’s breath, full of anxiety and stress! I even told him to calm down telling him I would not resist in case he had his finger on the trigger.

After surrendering my weapon, I immediately got handcuffed and hooded. I got dragged to the van and thrown inside. Mr. Panagopoulos was already inside the van lying down, face towards the van’s roof. Two of the kidnappers came in the back with us and then the van drove off.

As I was getting my breath back, I asked the kidnappers what it was they wanted, and not to be violent with Mr. Panagopoulos dew to his numerous health issues, just to define what to except and categorize the danger.

The answer was … ‘’we want 30.000.000 euros! Don’t be a hero and you will live. When we leave you, you will return to the family telling them exactly what we told you’’.

 After asking me what kind of a health issue Mr. Panagopoulos had, they asked me if I had any GPS device on me. I realized later that they didn’t care about that anyway because the trip was only a 30 minutes’ drive, away from the spot they first wanted to go, and they didn’t bother to frisk me but only took my word for it. Thinking of this detail, later, I’m not sure if having a GPS could help dew to the fact the trip was short.  They had already smashed both of our mobiles and threw them away on the spot of the kidnapping. 

I immediately took off my face hood so I can see where Mr. Panagopoulos was exactly and then taking his head into my arms as if he was a baby. I then got smacked again by the one kidnapper that was more closed to me telling me to put on my face hood again and shutting up. I put the hood on again as I was telling them that he had serious health issues and that from the shock he could die at any moment. They let me hold him throughout the whole trip to hell! My hood was a knitted snow hat or something like that, so when they stretched it down so I wouldn’t be able to see I could see enough through the stretched holes to understand the surroundings. I had stretched the hood down to my mouth. 

I started talking to Mr. Panagopoulos, trying to make him speak so I can determine his situation and if he would be able to come out of this situation alive.

I was telling him how brave he was and that they wouldn’t hurt or kill him and that they just wanted money… As I wasn’t getting any response due to the shock, I kissed him first on his cheek and then on his lips, just to get a single sign of life.

Suddenly I got the first response, he lifted his right arm and patted me on the head, without saying anything, he then nodded his head a bit as to answer me that he was ok.

As we had a strong relationship, I knew that if he was to survive the first shock his intelligence and business thinking brain would help him survive and mastermind the situation.  

After, as I mentioned, a 30-minute drive I could understand that we had gone on to a dirt road as the bumps were so many that I could barely keep my balance being on my knees. The van slowly stops, they open the side sliding door as the cold wind rushes in, and they slowly pick up Mr. Panagopoulos taking him away from me. I shouted to them to protect him from the cold wind as he had fragile health.

He would not let go of my hand and they had to pull it off! I tried telling them that I’m like a son to him and that he would give the same amount if I would to take his place! I begged them to take me instead… no answer at all.

As we were separated, I could see one of the gang members pointing the AK 47 at me as he was standing outside by the sliding door. I thought that that was the last thing I would ever see.

As I was gun pointed, handcuffed and under a lot of stress, the only thing I could do was to try to talk my way out of this situation! I then was dragged out of the van and two of the kidnappers pushed me towards somewhere as they told me where there was a tree so they could tie me up. I couldn’t see any trees in any distance, I then thought they will execute me in some hole. As I was being transported on the highway to hell, I got kicked in the back falling into a rocky ditch. One of them came then behind me and put his handgun on the back of my head telling me to shut up and not to turn my head! I tried to stay alive even for some seconds more and I asked them that if I was to be executed that I wanted it standing up… If you want to know what a dead man’s last thoughts are, I can tell you that you will see your most-loved ones… I could see my 2 young boys and how much they will miss me …

Later, I understood that not turning my head, as I was instructed, was not to see the third car they had put Mr. Panagopoulos in. They had put him in the trunk.

Suddenly they pulled me up, dragged me back to the spot where the van and the jeep was (the jeep was escorting the van), and took my handcuffs off telling me to be a ‘’good boy’’ so they can handcuff me again to a pine tree. As I was still wearing the hood, I realized a third car taking off. Then silence… After taking a deep breath and calling out for Mr. Panagopoulos and getting no answer I decided to take off my hood. I could see no one around! I could not believe I was still alive!

The same second, I heard a big blast as the cars had been put on fire. I had to get out! I had to do something to get away from the blasting cars and get to a phone or a nearby police station to tell what had happened! I was thinking that I survived the kidnapping and I will die from an explosion.

The pine tree was about 4 m tall, I had to break a branch with my teeth so I can climb up as I was still handcuffed. Someone gets enormous power when there is a life-threatening situation, and the least, I would think about is some broken teeth. When I finally jumped off the tree, I started running in a direction I didn’t know, trying to find something or someone. I realized I was on a small rocky hillside and I could see an asphalt road about 500 m from where I was. I didn’t want to go back on the dirt road the cars came from… After attempting 5 times to stop passing cars waving my handcuffed hands a lady driver stopped because I shouted out Police Police!! I don’t blame the other drivers for not stopping as my appearance on a very cold January morning, with my clothes torn and handcuffed, would put anyone thinking twice to stop and help.  

She took me to the nearby police station and after a minute there, it came to my understanding that my journey will never stop… What has happened to Mr. Panagopoulos?

The kidnapping was all over the radio and the tv news bulletins were one after the other!

The police station captain asked me if I was the driver he has been hearing in the news. As some policemen were trying to take off my handcuffs, I answered him yes, ‘’I’m the driver of Mr. Panagopoulos’’. He held his head with both hands and tried to get in control of the situation.

I asked him if I could make some phone calls and after getting permission, I immediately called Mr. Panagopoulos’s residence to tell them what had happened. I spoke to his wife and told her that her husband had been kidnapped…

I then called my wife Helen to calm her down and my two sons as they were worried to death. Very emotional call phones they were.

Soon enough and after talking on the phone with some Police captains, two black police jeeps loaded with special division policemen came and took me. They drove me back to the kidnapping scene so I can describe with all the details the incident. It is crucial for the police to have on the spot details, and so soon from the incident. 

After I explained with every single detail, I could remember, I headed to the residence. The whole house was waiting for me, people from the office had come as well. Everybody was waiting for details as I was hugged by everyone.

After telling the whole incident over 20 times and trying to answer everybody’s questions I calmed down having my mind, heart, and soul to the condition and the whereabouts of Mr. Panagopoulos.

I was to stay there until the whole thing was over until Mr. Panagopoulos was back at his house and beloved ones again. Never the option of Mr. Panagopoulos dying crossed my mind, the only thing I was worried about was his health issues and not being there for him.

I don’t know if having a professional bodyguard team would have helped dealing with a kidnapping incident, but I am certain that the kidnappers would have to think twice before making that choice!  Nobody wants loses, not even scumbags!

After not receiving any phone calls at all from anyone of the kidnappers the first day ended, finding me exhausted and very sad. I had fallen asleep with picture of Mr. Panagopoulos’s hand not letting me go…

The next day was extremely frustrating as well. It wasn’t until late that day Mr. Panagopoulos’s wife got a call from the kidnappers demanding the 30.000.000 euros ransom again. They were angry at first knowing that police officers were everywhere in the house, next to the telephones, advising us etc.

All the waiting time I spent it on what went wrong and how I could have avoided this terrible incident. I was blaming myself for not being persuasive enough to have a team escorting us! If I had done this and if I had done the other and so on. I left those thoughts after a while because the only thing that mattered to me now was getting Mr. Panagopoulos back to his home safe and in one piece.

On the third day, the kidnappers called again telling us to follow their instructions. Someone would have to go and get a dvd from a highway point with Mr. Panagopoulos recorded video speaking to prove that he was ok. He also said on that dvd that I was to deliver the ransom money.

The fourth day was without any news at all and thoughts of things going south were in everyone’s mind.

The fifth day came along, and the negotiations were coming and going. The Police were trying to lower the ransom money, the family wanted Mr. Panagopoulos back with any cost!

The sixth day was the day the family managed to get the money from the bank. Indeed, a lot of money! No one had ever seen so much money ever. Stuffed in 6 huge duffle bags dew to the fact the ransom money had to be delivered in small notes. The money bags were closed in a small office guarded all night. The smell of the money was something that I can still remember!

The seventh day came, and we had already instructions from the night before to wait on an early phone call from them (the kidnappers). The phone call was made and after Mr. Panagopoulos’s wife got the instructions and directions for the drop off, she asked the kidnappers if she could come along with me. Very bravely indeed she hopped in the car!

We left immediately, taking a non-suspicious car dew to the fact the media was all over the place, loaded with 30.000.000 hopes to get our loved one back.

We had instructions to stop every one-hour drive in various places to justify we were not being followed by any Police. The instructions were to drive all the way from Athens to Thessalonica, a distance of 500klm. After driving for about 9 hours dew to the multiple stops they had to put us through, we arrived at Thessalonica. The communication was of course done by a mobile telephone and each call we received was from a different number.

 Minutes after arriving at Thessalonica the final call from the kidnapper’s phone was made. They wanted me on the telephone… They were very angry and swearing at me dew to the fact of policemen in various cars were tagging along and I forgot to mention many times I myself had seen the police helicopter over us. Once again, I was instructed to leave Thessalonica and to return to the residence.

After a five-hour drive we were back at the house. Such a breathtaking day and with a lot of disappointment because that meant another day in captivity for Mr. Panagopoulos.

The eighth day came, and another early morning telephone was made. We had instructions again to follow the same route as the day before. About 150klm from Athens we got a call to get off the highway, go under a bridge and on to a dirt road. The dirt road was a dead-end.

I was then told to throw the money bags and the mobile we had under another small bridge at the end of the dead end-road. So, I did, and we left the drop-off point immediately.

Later that night we received a call instructing us to go at a place to pick up Mr. Panagopoulos. Of course, the Police beat us there and after arriving at a nearby police station we finally got Mr. Panagopoulos back!! He was dressed in a track suit and had not shaved for all these days, very tired but happy to see us again! They had given him my handgun without the magazine. After a couple of days at the forensics I got my gun back.

We hugged and left for his house…

After 3 or 4 months the kidnappers were caught. They were a team of around 18 people, nearly all known to the Police with many convictions in murders robberies and all sort of violence behavior.

 I then realized that not doing anything was probably the right choice under these circumstances.

If you cannot avoid a kidnapping or any kind of life -threatening situation the only thing to do is manage to stay alive, collect as much evidence you can and try to speak your way out of it.

As till today (October 2020) the ransom money has never been recovered.

Mr. Panagopoulos has passed away from his long health issues (05/02/2019).

All the members of the kidnapping team have finished their sentences… And are out of prison living a normal life thanks to the Greek democratic law.

I myself have created a security company ‘ DEFENSOR CIVITATIS security ‘ Latin for Defender of the City, www.defensor.gr and truly trying to fight criminal behavior and acts. My company is in collaboration with the HELLENIC BODYGUARD ASSOCIATION (HBA), which I am a member, the first Greek association with a government license. The first 20 founder members are team leaders and security managers from the biggest companies in Greece. The purpose of the (HBA) association is to clear the grounds, to update and train new members, and change the Greek Law which is under the umbrella of security and to separate bodyguarding from security guarding. I also have a variety of security business activities and am still a security advisor for the Panagopoulos Family.

Despite the numerous training I had before the incident and the truly passion in my profession, being in a real life-threatening situation like a kidnapping is untrainable.

Surviving this incident made me create my security company, putting my brick on the wall and truly having deep knowledge and passion in my profession I want to pass on this knowledge and experience to the young and new people in the business.

I will for the moment, come down to one true and only fact…    

SECURITY IS PREVENTION   

‘’I’m honored and very grateful being, living, working side by side till the very end with a great businessman, a brilliant mind, an honest person who got pleasure in helping others and most of all a gentleman… I will always honor our conversations, respect your name and teach your knowledge. Until we meet again … Thank you Pericles Panagopoulos’’

I would also like to pass on my best regards to Mr. Tony Scotti for persuading me and helping me tell my story.   

References  

https://www.reuters.com/article/greece-kidnapping-idUSLK19692420090120

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/greece/4294578/Kidnapped-Greek-shipping-magnate-Pericles-Panagopoulos-released-after-family-pay-ransom.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7823866.stm

https://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2009/07/04/greek_police_hold_10_in_kidnapping_case?rss_id=Boston.com+–+World+news

https://greekshippinghalloffame.org/?inductee=pericles-panagopulos

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