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The Strange Story of Dagobert, the “DuckTales” Bandit

Arno Funke wanted to be a cartoonist, but it wasn’t working out. He grew up in a working-class family in Berlin, West Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, and spent his childhood tinkering with chemistry kits and sending gunpowder rockets whizzing into the sky. In school, he was mischievous. Because of his sense of humor, a kindergarten teacher called him “Micky Maus.” He left school at fifteen to become an apprentice sign-maker, spent time sketching, and tried his hand at caricatures of politicians and celebrities. “I was born with a talent for drawing,” he told me. When he was twenty-one, he mailed his sketches to a satirical magazine along with a letter asking for advice on how to become a cartoonist. “I never got a reply,” he said.

By 1988, he had become depressed. He was almost thirty-eight, with a bushy mustache and bleached blond hair. He had been married and divorced, and he was struggling for money. He found occasional work painting billboards, airbrushing illustrations onto motorcycles, and varnishing cars at a local garage. He feared that the fumes he inhaled from the solvents were giving him brain damage. “I had this feeling of not being clear in my head,” he told me. “Like when you’ve drunk a bottle of whiskey, but without the positive feelings.” He came to believe that, if he had enough money, he would be able to focus on his art. He decided to turn to a life of crime, but didn’t want to risk the violence of a stickup. “I didn’t want to harm anyone physically,” he later wrote, in a memoir. Then came an idea: he would become an Erpresser—an extortionist.

In the spring of 1988, Funke transformed his kitchen into a bomb factory. He had always had a knack for mechanics, often astonishing his friends by rebuilding car engines. Using chemistry books and supplies from electronics stores, he learned to make a pipe bomb, which was powered by a battery and connected to an electric timer. He targeted Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe, a luxury department store in Berlin that was frequented by Germany’s rich and famous. Funke planted a bomb and mailed the store a ransom letter demanding half a million Deutsche marks, the equivalent, today, of some six hundred thousand dollars, and promising to strike again if he didn’t get it. “The sum seemed very moderate to me,” he recalled. His first extortion attempt failed—the bomb didn’t explode, and the police couldn’t find his instructions for delivering the money—but he tried again. Using a briefcase with a false bottom, Funke dropped a bomb in the store’s sports department. On the night of May 25, 1988, it exploded, burning racks of sportswear to cinders and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Funke had set a timer to insure that no shoppers were injured, and, to his relief, there were no casualties.

He sent another letter to the store, setting a date for the money handoff; he later played messages over a two-way radio that he had prerecorded using a voice changer, instructing the store’s managers to bring the money onto the 8:43 P.M. train to Frohnau; when he gave the word, they were to throw the money out the window. (This, he reasoned, would make it difficult for the police to anticipate his location.) On June 2nd, Funke hid beside the train tracks near the car-repair shop where he worked. He had drunk most of a bottle of vodka by the time the train rumbled past. “This is the blackmailer speaking!” he slurred into his radio. “Throw the money out now!” A package crashed onto the tracks, and Funke staggered after it. He scrambled back to the garage, as police helicopters circled overhead, and opened the package to find the money inside.

To celebrate, Funke took vacations in the Mediterranean, South Korea, and the Philippines. In Manila, he met a woman in her early twenties named Edna, and married her soon after. In 1990, they moved to Germany, and had a baby boy. Funke bought a used Mercedes-Benz. “I even paid some taxes,” he told me, with a laugh. But after the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, rents spiked, and, by 1991, Funke had spent most of the money. He decided that, to pay for his son’s education, he had to launch another extortion.

Funke rented a small cabin in Bohnsdorf and filled it with electrical tools, a darkroom, explosives, a typewriter, and a Russian night-vision device that he had purchased at a flea market. Each morning he kissed his family goodbye and left, as if driving to work. “I guess I felt like a secret agent,” he later said. In June, 1992, he planted another bomb, in the porcelain section of Karstadt, an upmarket department-store chain, in Hamburg; it went off that night, smashing glass showcases of fancy vases and plates. He mailed a ransom note to the store demanding a million marks—the equivalent of more than a million dollars today. “I gave you a demonstration of my determination to achieve my goal, including with violence,” he warned. “The next time there will be a catastrophe.” Funke instructed the store to place a coded message in the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper if it was willing to comply: “Uncle Dagobert greets his nephews.” Dagobert Duck is the German name for Scrooge McDuck, the money-grabbing duck from Disney’s “Uncle Scrooge” comics and “DuckTales” TV show.

Funke sent directions to a forested area, where police officers found a box attached to a telephone pole, with a linen bag inside bearing the “DuckTales” logo and an image of Scrooge McDuck. They also found a strange contraption designed to connect the money bag to the back of a train using electromagnets. Funke instructed them to attach the money bag to a train from Rostock to Berlin. When the train roared past, he pushed a button on a transmitter to deactivate the magnets, but the package didn’t drop; the police had tied it to the train. He sent another letter, changing the pickup location. On August 14th, he again waited near the train tracks, wearing gloves, black glasses, and a gray wig. This time, the package eventually detached and crashed against the tracks. As Funke ran to pick it up, the train stopped and police officers jumped out. “Stand still or I’ll shoot!” an officer cried, firing his weapon into the air.

Funke grabbed the package and scampered to safety. When he opened it, he saw that only four thousand marks were real; the rest was Mickey Mouse money. He had threatened the store with another bomb if it didn’t pay up. Meanwhile, it didn’t take the police long to connect the two bombings: both involved voice changers, a treasure hunt, ingenious gadgets, and money thrown from a train. They were dealing with a serial bomber who appeared to take inspiration from the capers in comic books featuring Scrooge McDuck. From that moment on, they called him Dagobert.

In Germany, Donald Duck comics are extremely popular, outselling even superheroes like Superman. In the books, Scrooge McDuck is “the richest duck in the world,” an oil tycoon and industrialist, among other lucrative pursuits, who stashes his fortune in a giant “money bin,” safe from the clutches of his canine enemies the Beagle Boys, and a vampish duck sorceress named Magica De Spell. He is single-minded in his quest for riches, fighting pirates for sunken Spanish treasure or swindling a candy-striped ruby from Bazookistan bandits. Uncle Scrooge first appeared in a 1947 Donald Duck story by the American comic-book writer and illustrator Carl Barks. The German translator of the comics made the Disney characters more complex: Dagobert speaks in grandiose language; his nephew Donald Duck often quotes the poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. Max Horkheimer, one of the foremost philosophers of the Frankfurt School, reportedly enjoyed reading Donald Duck comics before bed. For many West Germans, Scrooge McDuck became a humorous embodiment of capitalist greed.

As Funke continued his extortions, and the press caught wind, a Dagobert mania gripped Germany. André Zand-Vakili, a journalist who covered the case for the Hamburger Morgenpost, told me, “Dagobert is one of the cases of the century. To the public he didn’t seem like a coarse criminal. . . . He was very inventive.” Dagobert was unpredictable, intellectual, and remarkably polite. When he did not show up to money handovers he mailed apologetic notes, signing off as “Dagobert.” Soon, there were television news programs, radio quizzes, and popular songs about him. “I didn’t know if I should cry or laugh at all the media interest,” Funke later wrote, in his memoir. Shops sold Dagobert garden gnomes and T-shirts that read “I am Dagobert.” A radio station reportedly found that nearly two-thirds of its listeners felt more sympathy for the extortionist than for the police. Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper later crowned Dagobert the “gangster of the year,” writing that he had raised the cops-and-robber game “to an intellectual level never before seen in German police history.”

The police were left puzzled. Michael Daleki, the chief investigator of Germany’s state criminal police in Hamburg, assembled a team to catch Dagobert. They eventually offered a hundred-thousand-mark reward for information that led to his capture. Astrologers and fortune tellers chimed in, and bored citizens called the phone lines with thousands of tips. Citizens speculated that, because of his apparent knowledge of police procedures, Dagobert might be a former lawman himself, or a former East German secret agent. At first, Daleki, who had been trained by the F.B.I. in Quantico, Virginia, thought that Dagobert might be several men. “My first guess was that they were activists against consumerism,” he told Bild.

One of the officers on the team was Claudia Brockmann, a thirty-two-year-old psychologist with blond hair and a steely demeanor. Brockmann had spent her late twenties supporting hostage negotiators, stepping over police tape during standoffs, using her training in criminal psychology. She started building a psychological profile of Dagobert, reasoning that, if they could learn what was driving him, they might be able to catch him. She noted to investigators, for example, that it was strange that Dagobert typically detonated an explosive before his blackmail letter had arrived: “It’s unusual that a perpetrator begins with a bomb.” She speculated that his targeting of posh stores marked him as a downtrodden everyman who felt that he deserved a higher standard of living.

Brockmann believed that, if the police didn’t take Dagobert’s demands seriously, disaster would follow. Using fake money would likely anger him. “And the consequences were that he set off a bomb,” she told me. At the time, however, police psychology was a relatively young field; Germany did not begin formally analyzing the behavior of criminals until 1987, the year before Dagobert’s first attack. Officers tended to see criminal psychology as hocus-pocus, Brockmann told me, because it “contradicted the police mentality.” Her office was tucked away in the police academy. Early on, the police tended not to heed Brockmann’s advice. Karstadt hired a private security consultant who had dealt with international terrorists to handle the extortions. “He and I didn’t have the same professional opinion on how to deal with Dagobert,” Brockmann told me. The security consultant tried to lure Dagobert into collecting the cash in person from a middleman, but the bomber recognized this as a trap and refused.

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