To mark Freedom Press’s fundraising campaign to publish A Normal Life, the autobiography of “Greek Robin Hood” Vassilis Palaiokostas, this piece recounts the events of when Vassilis and his brother, Nikos, kidnapped and ransomed a Greek industrialist in 1995. The brothers, whose nicknames range from “The Phantom” to “The Greek Robin Hood”, were known throughout the 1990s and 2000s as the country’s most successful bankrobbers and prison escape artists — and among the working classes for their habit of robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
On a bracingly cold day in the winter of 1995, Vassilis Palaiokostas and his big brother Nikos sat down for breakfast at their latest hideout, on a snow-covered mountain plateau in central Greece. With them was the scion of a large food processing company, Alexander Haitoglou of Haitoglou Bros. If you’re a fan of halva you may have come across their shiny copper-toned tins with the cheerful primary coloured labels. He was technically their prisoner, but chattered quite happily about the nature of his business, giving them a crash course in retail economics.
Haitoglou was a man of considerable confidence and means, a charming fellow who, once he knew the identity of the men who’d kidnapped him, put on a sunny face and treated the thing as a bit of a lark, a story for the grandkids. That time he was kidnapped for four days by the most notorious criminals in Greece, a pair of professionals who treated him with kindness. Years later, he would remark: “My kidnappers’ behaviour was not bad at all. I was not scared for myself. Actually, I enjoyed some wide-ranging discussions with them.”
And if anything illustrates the sheer mind-boggling difference in wealth and power which characterises modern life, it is that this man, whose release had initially been priced at 3 million Deutsche Marks (approx £5.3 million in today’s money), was supremely relaxed about the situation. After all, what’s a few million quid here or there in the life of a successful capitalist such as he? People of his class have paid a great deal more, for far less interesting anecdotes.
Vassilis is often somewhat vague when writing about his motivations in living a life outside the law. He doesn’t talk about anarchism a lot in public, and is careful not to link his activities to a direct political motive. There’s a very good reason for this, as crime for a stated cause is sentenced far more harshly than merely doing it for the money. “Exemplary sentencing” in Greece isn’t restricted to discouraging the act of riot, as is usually the case in Britain, but is used to war on and silence the State’s enemies.
And it’s no wonder that this is the case. The Greek State has been trying and failing to put down Europe’s spikiest anarchist movement, which has squatted and rioted and confronted its forces from the shoreline of Lesbos to the top of the Pindus mountains, since the fall of the military Junta in the 1970s. A parade of reactionary governments have responded by dropping all pretense that everyone is equal before the law. Justice may be famously blind and a fan of balanced scales, but she certainly wasn’t deaf, or lacking in biases, particularly in Greece, in 1995.
In his memoir however Vassilis is forthright about this particular kidnap, explaining his research priorities prior to the snatch. He was after a real bastard of Greek capitalism, a ruling class hawk. He notes: “My future target was financially aiding the conservative Political Spring party and its leader — subsequently Prime Minister – Antonis Samaras. They were friends. Every time Samaras travelled to Thessaloniki for some political rally he would stay over at his house. Haitoglou himself told us.”
To put this in context, Political Spring was a largely single-issue party formed to push the government rightwards during a nationalist moral panic over whether Macedonia should be allowed to call itself “Macedonia” (after a two-decade argument it’s now called North Macedonia). Think Ukip, except the Farage character was smarter, more pragmatic, and leveraged his popularity with the hard right to take over over New Democracy (their Tories), eventually running the country from 2012-15.
That the 41-year-old Haitoglou was a lynchpin in the operation, providing deep pockets for a project aimed at replacing an already reactionary status quo with something much worse, puts a very different spin on his matey approach when travelling with Vassilis and Nikos. As did his reaction after regaining his freedom. This was a man who would smile to your face while planning a vicious revenge. Act the benign father figure while playing the system for his benefit. Following his death in 2016, aged 62, from a heart attack, obituaries would note the presence of Samaras at his funeral — Greece’s most successful hard-right politician paying tribute to an old and powerful ally.
The official writeup of the kidnap of Alexander Haitoglou, repeated in almost every article written after the business magnate’s death, was that on December 15th 1995 he was taken while on his way to pick the kids up from school on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, in the north of the country. The Palaiokostas brothers then drove him around the mountains for the next 80 hours, demanding and eventually receiving 260m drachma (worth around £1.25m in today’s money). He was finally released unharmed at Karditsa bus station, a 200km drive or so from the city. Some versions of the story involve a grenade launcher, others a high-powered vehicle. Yet others focused on the subsequent bounty on the brothers’ heads.
Many of these lurid exaggerations are punctured by Vassilis’ own testimony in his memoir. Rather than a grenade launcher, it was a Browning rifle. The vehicle was a Toyota RAV4, newish for the time and a good motor, but no supercar. Haitoglou had actually already dropped his kids off and was headed to his factory. Other “facts” are an undersell — they actually asked for three times’ as much money before being negotiated down (and shortchanged) by Alexander’s brother Karlos.
The additional hype many Greek papers came up with hardly seems necessary, given the story itself is such a one-off. Kidnaps had happened before, but bankrobbers switching from their specialism to ransom a politically-charged tycoon wasn’t in that oeuvre. Indeed when Vassilis first started asking around for people to get involved he recalls “they’d eye me suspiciously, as if wanting to say: ‘You’re crazy. You’re trying to get us into something impossible’.” Even his brother was jittery, with the prospects of a score that could fund a life outside Greece offset against the worries of trying out an untested, and therefore risky, idea.
Vassilis and Nikos planned well ahead for the snatch, scoping out Haitoglou’s movements and making sure they were reliable. They knew when he’d be alone, on an empty stretch of road, and Nikos pulled out in front of the car to make sure it stopped at an intersection where Vassilis was waiting. Pulling him into their car they initially hooded him, but soon took it off when he complained that he couldn’t breathe. This speaks to a very specific philosophy on the part of the pair, explained by Vassilis:
“I never showed disdain for the value of human life; yet I found the act of taking a life perfectly legitimate and acceptable, under certain circumstances and with good reason, as when “wider” freedom was concerned. Because death is the inescapable consequence of life. On the contrary, causing pain by torturing is something horrible, something heinous.”
It’s this view, of treating even the worst of people with humanity, which gave Haitoglou his sense of security. It didn’t take long for the magnate to assess the situation and realise he would be treated with a respect that, frankly, he did not afford others in his role as financier and friend to the reactionaries of Political Spring.
The trio’s time in the mountains was, by all accounts, thus a comradely one with the brothers and the boss exchanging jokes and discussing each others’ lives. Haitoglou was more than happy to talk about the corruption inherent in his world of deals and big money, with Vassilis noting: “What I remember most vividly from that free lesson is the blunt blackmail attempted by the owners of large supermarket chains. For a pre-packed product with a new label Alexander wished to circulate through a large supermarket chain, he’d have to give its boss large sums of black money just for the product to reach the shelves. The specific amount required depended on the place (display) inside the shops.
“If the new product wasn’t well-received by consumers within a reasonable period – depending on the deal – he’d take it down as uneconomic, because the new products waiting in line to try their luck on the supermarket displays were numerous, as were the underhand black money deals. Half his company’s expenses were for the promotion of the products through such means or through similar deals, with TV stations to advertise the product etc. And who pays for all this? Those who usually do …”
After three days of this life, driving their 4×4 through the icy back routes of central Greece, the negotiations were concluded and, somewhat to the younger brother’s chagrin, Nikos unilaterally accepted on their behalf the lower sum of 270m drachma. In the event, not even that was handed over by the Haitoglou family, which true to its roots, instead brought 150m drachma and less than a million in Deutsche Marks, (worth about 260m drachma in total — hence the oft-quoted figure) to a site in the valley of Lamia to buy his freedom.
When they dropped him off, Vassilis remembers, Haitoglou left them with a joke: “Guys, if only it didn’t cost that much, I’d very much like to have another adventure with you!”
Vassilis doesn’t dwell overly on the aftermath of the kidnapping in his memoir, but it is worth looking at.
It is hard to understate how furious the Greek State was at this latest incident from the infamous brothers. Both of them had been free since the absconding of Vassilis from prison in 1991 (in which he literally escaped by tying bedsheets into a rope to get over the walls) and, three years prior they had been linked to the utterly humiliating Kalambaka heist, where they’d robbed the town bank for record sums of money just 500 yards away from the local cop shop. And now, while still on the run from a very angry police force, they’d pulled off the kidnap of a wealthy, powerful industrialist.
On top of that, the State was in for a nasty shock when the Haitoglou family, in true capitalist style, sought to offset their losses by rinsing taxpayers. A white-collar robbery to pay for the blue collar one. Alexander sued the government for failing to capture the two brothers — and nearly won. The Administrative Court of Appeal of Piraeus initially obliged the Greek State to pay the equivalent of 229,000 euros in compensation for “damages suffered” before it was finally overruled by the Department of the Council of State in 2010.
For all that he presented a sanguine face to the world about his experience, Alexander Haitoglou had clearly been reminded that people do notice the misdeeds of the rich and powerful. He and his family determined never to be so unprepared again, and obituaries for Alexander note that their houses in Oreokastro became fortresses, monuments of a powerful man’s dislike of control lost.
It is perhaps unsurprising, given all the fuss, that following the kidnap an absolutely apoplectic ministry placed an absurd bounty on the Palaiokostas brothers of 250 million drachma — almost as much as the robbery itself had taken.
As for the brothers themselves, according to Vassilis they went their separate ways. He would remain free until 1999 when he was finally (temporarily) caught following a car crash. But there is one more story to be told about the aftermath of those four days on the road. Over the next while, money began to mysteriously appear among the region’s farmers and homeless people. His father Leonidas, who will sometimes talk about his son’s event-filled life to those who ask, tells proudly of the occasion when “he gave 100,000 drachmas to some orphan girls who needed to marry.” A traditional dowry paid in full — and then some.
~ Due out in November, A Normal Life is 1/3 off until June 8th