Business in Brazil: Olivetto recounts kidnapping ordeal

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[sao paulo, brazil] Always a spellbinding storyteller, W/Brasil founder Washington Olivetto recounted last week how his kidnappers left him to die in an airtight chamber after the gang's leader was arrested 53 days after snatching Brazil's best-known adman from his armored car in Sao Paulo.

At a packed, high-security press conference in Sao Paulo Feb. 7, Mr. Olivetto described the ordeal that began when he was stopped at a fake police roadblock on his way home from his agency Dec. 11 that finally ended the evening of Feb. 2. Brazil's highly creative, $7 billion ad industry is based in one of the world's most dangerous cities, where more than 300 people were kidnapped last year in a rising crime wave.

few security precautions

Irreverent but still shaken from his ordeal, Mr. Olivetto, 50, said he had taken few security precautions prior to his kidnapping. "I only got an armored car because my driver didn't want to be robbed of his watch," he joked.

Mr. Olivetto, a gregarious man usually surrounded by friends, told how he was locked in a tiny bedroom where a single light bulb was always on and music blared. He saved his sanity, and likely his life, by drawing on the innate creativity that led to many of Brazil's most popular ad campaigns and first put Brazil on the map at international ad shows. He used the little knives and forks from his meals to scratch names on the wall to help him visualize his wife, Patricia Viotti, a filmmaker and head of a production company; his filmmaker son, Homero, and family friends. He recited poetry and made lists of paintings by artists he liked.

And, like the gifted copywriter he is, he wrote. Letters to his family that were never sent. Letters to his kidnappers who, amazingly, wrote back.

"Once I wrote that they were cowards, and they wrote back saying I was a very refined person and shouldn't say such things," he recalled. "[But] when they gave me a very nice magazine to read, I [wrote and] thanked them."

Every four days, he was given a bucket of water to wash with. That helped him count the days. "The CDs they played helped me calculate the hours," he said. "The food would come at different times, so I couldn't keep track of time [that way]. But I knew exactly the days I was there. In the beginning, I was very aggressive. I kept screaming and banging on the walls, but then they came in and chained me with handcuffs."

On Feb. 2, the light bulb suddenly went off and the music stopped. A while later, as the tiny room became hot and stuffy, Mr. Olivetto realized that the flow of fresh air pumped in through a tube had been cut off. "It was the first time that I actually felt that I could die," he said. "I realized that something went wrong and maybe they intended me to die for some reason."

In fact, Brazilian police had just arrested half a dozen of the alleged kidnappers, including Mauricio Hernandez Norambuena, a Chilean extremist who escaped in 1996 from a Chilean prison where he was serving a life sentence for killing a senator and trying to assassinate former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Mr. Olivetto's other captors fled to avoid capture, leaving him sealed in his prison.

Mr. Olivetto, whose lack of handyman skills is well-known, at first struggled in the dark to pry the door off its hinges to let in some air. Hearing a dog bark, he suddenly realized he could hear the outside world. He yelled and pounded on the wall. A neighbor from a nearby house-he was held prisoner in Sao Paulo's Brooklin neighborhood, only a few miles from his own home-eventually shouted back.

a stethoscope

The next thing he knew, the neighbor's daughter had pressed a stethoscope against the wall and told Mr. Olivetto she could hear him. He identified himself. "I asked her to call radio stations and the police, because I knew either way I would be found," he said.

Contrary to press reports, Mr. Olivetto said he didn't have kidnap insurance. His kidnappers are believed to have demanded a $10 million ransom, which apparently hadn't been paid before his release. It's still unclear why the kidnappers chose him.

For now, Mr. Olivetto says he will take the vacation planned for the Christmas holidays he didn't have, then go back to work. "I've been a lucky person so far and there's nothing in my life that I would like to forget until now," he said. "I was a victim. I'm not a victim any more. I'm still recovering, but I'm sure I'll grow stronger after this."

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