true crime

In 2011, Madeleine Pulver had a collar-bomb strapped to her neck. Last year her attacker walked free.

It was about 2pm on a chilly winter's day in August 2011, and 18-year-old Madeleine Pulver was taking a break from studying for her HSC trial exams. 

She was home alone in her family's three-story waterfront mansion, which had spectacular views over Sydney Harbour from its perch in the affluent north-shore suburb of Mosman. 

The silence was broken by a man, wearing a rainbow ski mask, who burst into the room she was in wielding a baseball bat. 

"Sit down and no one needs to get hurt," he told her.

The man pulled out a black box being held up by what looked like a bike chain, which he fastened around her throat. After locking it, he placed a lanyard holding a USB stick and two pages of demands around her neck. 

He told her to count to 200, before exiting the house. But not before he told her: "I’ll be back. If you move, I can see you... I’ll be right here."

What followed was a 10-hour ordeal which included members of the bomb disposal unit, counter-terrorism command, police negotiators, profilers and international experts who worked tirelessly to understand the device strapped to the teenager's neck. 

Listen to two seasoned Sydney reporters unpack the crime with me on True Crime Conversations this week. Post continues. 

Terrified, Madeleine called her parents - Bill Pulver, who was in his city office where he worked at the time as the head of a multi-million-dollar global software company, and her mum Belinda - who was out consulting with her landscape gardening business.  

She told them she was being held hostage in their $15 million home. 

As former 2GB court reporter Gil Taylor told me on True Crime Conversations this week, "The note [around her neck] told her not to contact authorities or anyone, [but] by that point she'd already texted her parents, rung her father Bill, and told him to call the police. She'd had no idea what was going to be in the note when she started reading it, and her first impulse was to call people... so that would have only amplified the fear."

The masked man was demanding money, or he'd detonate the bomb via a remote control. 

"The police operation was all-encompassing," crime editor of The Daily Telegraph Mark Morri said, reflecting back on that day. "It'd been going on for hours and hours, and there wasn't a lot of information coming out, but around 7pm I do remember I rang a very senior police officer I'd known for a long time and he said, 'We've never dealt with a collar bomb.' I said 'What?' and he said, 'We've never dealt with a collar bomb... there is a device around her neck.'"

It was those two-words - 'collar-bomb' - that would catapult the unfolding crime into the international headlines. 

"It went viral. It went around the world, and topped internet hits overseas in America. No Australian news story had ever done that," said Morri.

Back in Mosman, there was one officer in particular - Senior Constable Karen Lowden - who spent hours sitting with Madeleine, calming her nerves. She would later receive the Star of Courage for her bravery.

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Madeleine also went on to be awarded a bravery award for the courage she showed that day and night, her father later describing her "poise" and "dignity."

After several hours of x-rays and intricate tests, the 'bomb' was deemed a hoax and an exhausted Madeleine was released from its clutches. 

Two weeks later, police arrested investment banker Paul Douglas Peters in Kentucky, where he’d fled to a few days after the incident. Police found him largely because of an email address he’d used on the ransom note that they managed to track back to him.

He had been hiding out in his ex-wife’s home and had absolutely no connection to the Pulver family. He plead guilty to the charges against him – aggravated break and enter and detaining for advantage, telling the court he had "difficulty coming to terms with what he did".

His psychiatrist told the court Peters remembered walking up the steps of the Pulver property at 2pm on that 2011 afternoon, but his next memory jumped to 2.5 hours later, when he was back at his home. It was revealed the then 52-year-old was likely suffering from bipolar disorder.

But the prosecutor argued that Peters simply got the wrong victim and made up "not remembering" to save face, instead of admitting to his bungled plan. They said his intended victim was the Pulver's neighbour, a man Peters had previously done business with in Hong Kong and who he knew was very wealthy.

The judge called the attack "precise and premeditated" sentencing him on November 20, 2012, to 13 years and six months in prison, with a non-parole period of ten years. 

"The offender placed the victim in fear that she was going to die in order to extort money from her family.

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"The victim was vulnerable, being entitled to the sanctuary of her own home… the terror she experienced can only be described as unimaginable," Judge Peter Zahra said during sentencing.

In 2013, Peters tried and failed to appeal his sentence, but in 2021 he was released from prison on parole after serving his minimum 10-year sentence. 

At his parole hearing, he'd tried to apologise to his victim telling the court, "If I may just say one thing?" 

He was cut off, but did manage to say: "It was merely a deep-founded apology to [the victim], that’s all."

While the Pulvers haven't reacted publicly to the attempted apology, Bill Pulver had submitted to the parole board a few months prior that his daughter held grave fears of running into Peters in Sydney upon his release, describing her "extreme post-traumatic stress syndrome" after the incident.

On September 1, 2021, Peters walked free from Cooma Correctional Centre, but his parole conditions included a number of 'no-go' zones to reduce the likelihood of him crossing paths with his victim.  

Madeleine went on to complete her HSC and attend university in the years after the crime. The now 29-year-old got married earlier this year, and has a successful career in interior design. 

She has rarely talked about what happened on August 3, 2011 in the media, but she did give a brief statement after Peters was sentenced, telling reporters she hoped for a future "where Paul Peters' name is not linked with mine". 

Watch: Madeleine's post-court interview.


Video via Ten

But as Gil Taylor told True Crime Conversations, "This case has been such a fascination... people are interested in the outcomes."

For everyone - the police, the media and the public - the Mosman collar-bomb crime has remained uniquely unusual. 

Detective Superintendent Luke Moore, who headed the police investigation, said the case was "one of the strangest cases I will ever work on".

Mark Morri - who has been covering the Australian crime-beat for 40 years told True Crime Conversations, "It’s still one of the most peculiar crimes I’ve ever covered."

This article was first published in 2021, and updated in May 2022. 

Feature Image: AAP.

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