A manhunt was under way yesterday for an extortionist who attached what turned out to be a fake bomb to a terrified teenager in a drama described as “like something out of a Hollywood movie.”
Madeleine Pulver, 18, a member of one of Sydney’s wealthiest families, endured a horrifying 10-hour ordeal after a masked man strapped a device around her neck at her home in the exclusive suburb of Mosman.
A note was left at the scene and police were treating it as an extortion attempt.
“Certainly the instructions were precise, they were such that led us to believe that we were dealing with a very serious and legitimate threat,” New South Wales state Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch said.
Nearby properties in the street of million-dollar homes were evacuated and roads were closed off in an drawn-out operation involving the bomb squad, rescue officers, fire crews and paramedics.
The device, attached to the teenager by a chain, was eventually removed before midnight on Wednesday and she was reunited with her parents.
“She has woken up this morning in pretty good spirits,” said her father William, chief executive of Appen Butler Hill, a languages consulting and software company. “She is a little tired, a little sore from holding this damned device in place for about 10 hours.”
Police described the incident as “a very, very elaborate hoax.”
“But it was made and certainly gave the appearance of a legitimate improvised explosive device,” Murdoch said. “We had to treat it seriously until we could prove otherwise and that’s exactly what we did and that’s why it took so long.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the incident was like the plot of a film.
“When I looked at it this morning, the first thing I said was: ‘It’s like a Hollywood script, the kind of thing you would see at the cinema or on TV,’” she said. “You would never expect it to happen in real-life in Australia.”
Two police negotiators stayed with the teenager throughout the tense ordeal, keeping her calm while bomb disposal technicians worked on the device.
Her father William thanked the officers who stayed with her “with little regard to their own personal safety.”
“They were an incredible comfort during a horrific ordeal,” he said. “From our family’s perspective we are clearly extremely eager for our lives to return to normal.”
Murdoch said it was too soon to speculate on what the motive might have been.
“Certainly the family are at a loss to explain this, but you wouldn’t expect someone would go to this much trouble if there wasn’t a motive behind it,” he said. “The family have endured something no one needs to endure ... but, they have held up remarkably well.”
The investigation was being led by the state’s robbery and serious crime squad, which deals with extortion. Several other agencies, including the British military, were asked for advice on the device.
Police said they had a number of leads to follow and the teenager and several other people would be interviewed in the next few days.
New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell praised police for their handling of the crisis.
“I again commend police for all their efforts, for the sensitivity with which they handled this matter and the fact we had a successful outcome,” he said.