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Monday, Jul 22, 2024

Finance A search for venture capital leads to two men’s kidnapping

Juergen R. Ahlmann spent nine days in chains in a barren Kenyan home.

Plywood covered the windows. He and his business partner, Jim Harrell, lived off slim rations of bread, rice and water. Ahlmann’s right hand and left foot swelled because the shackles were too tight. Nearly 24 hours a day, rap music blared in his ears.

The North County businessman spent Easter night sleeping on a wooden floor.

Ahlmann went to Nairobi, Kenya, thinking he had finally found an authentic investor after five years of searching for someone to fund his start-up catfish-export business.

Instead, Ahlmann was the prey of a complex scheme, lured to another continent by Nigerian kidnappers who held him for ransom.

On April 23, seven days after suspicious family members contacted the FBI, Ahlmann and Harrell , as well as another American who is believed to have been held captive since late January , were recovered. The two North County businessmen returned to San Diego on April 28.

Special Agent Erika Foxworth, a spokeswoman in the FBI’s San Diego division, said the FBI believes Ahlmann and Harrell’s ordeal is part of a larger organized kidnapping ring in which foreign businesspeople are enticed abroad by the hopes of seed money.

Warnings Ignored

The U.S. State Department warns that U.S. citizens are possibly targeted for kidnapping or other violent crimes while on Kenyan soil. Turmoil has been especially high since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi that killed 213 people.

Ahlmann had plenty of suspicions. But every story checked out and every negotiation was businesslike, he said. But in the end, his search for capital cost him dearly.

“You don’t miss freedom until you don’t have it anymore,” said Ahlmann, currently a self-employed computer consultant. “You have no idea what it feels like. I had heard about kidnapping stories before and thought I could feel for those people and I thought I could know what it would feel like. Well I don’t , or didn’t.”

While Ahlmann has been scarred by his time as a prisoner , he cannot stand any kind of background noise, not even a lawnmower being run outside , he is still searching as hard as ever to find a real investor to back The Catfish Co.

The company has been Ahlmann’s dream for the past five years, but still remains an infant as he, Harrell and Marketing Director John Lee seek capital to get it running.

Seeking Capital

On April 12, Ahlmann and Harrell left San Diego after more than four months of correspondence with the potential investors in Kenya.

Ahlmann first received an e-mail from a man who went by the name Mike Otieno and purported to be a consultant representing a wealthy financier interested in investing in the company.

“I didn’t pay much attention to it at the beginning,” Ahlmann said. “He wrote back saying that his client has $9.5 million to invest and he would be willing to invest $5 million, assuming that everything works out OK.”

For four months, the two sides negotiated terms of an investment agreement in detail.

As part of the deal, Ahlmann was told he would have to travel to Kenya to sign the agreement.

Still, Ahlmann was skeptical.

“At that point I turned around and said, ‘Look, it looks good, but I still don’t know if your investor is real and I’m not about to travel half way around the world to find out that your investor will change his mind when I get there,'” he said.

So the two sides came to a compromise: the investors would pay for the airline ticket and Ahlmann would pay for lodging.

“I thought, as a businessman, that sounded reasonable. He’s not taking all the risk, I’m not taking all the risk,” Ahlmann said. “In other words, everything was strictly business. There was nothing you could see that was a scam.”

He walked every avenue to search for holes in the investor’s story. But there were none to be found.

To be sure, Ahlmann and Harrell rehashed all the facts during their 12-hour layover in London.

Two Possibilities

They came up with two possibilities.

There is a real investor, they reasoned, because no crook would send prepaid airline tickets. The other possibility: they will be held for ransom.

But despite their inklings, the men discarded that thought, knowing that they had repeatedly told Otieno that The Catfish Co. is a start-up, with no revenue and no money.

When Ahlmann stepped off the plane April 14 in Kenya, he immediately had further suspicions.

Dark blue curtains covered the windows of the van they climbed into.

He wondered why, but everything was still going as planned. They met Otieno, his secretary and the van’s driver, just as they were supposed to.

En route to the hotel, the plan changed. Instead of going straight to the hotel, they would go to Otieno’s house first.

They pulled off the highway into a downtrodden neighborhood. Soon, they passed underneath two sets of large iron gates.

The last one closed behind them.


Ahlmann and Harrell were led into a barren house, where they met the man who was supposed to be the investor and his brother. He began asking questions about the business.

Ahlmann said the man realized they weren’t rich and grew upset.

“It appeared as if he recognized that we didn’t have anything and he flew off the handle,” Ahlmann said. “He walked to the back of the room and said to us ‘My men will now take care of you. Don’t talk, don’t move.'”

Ahlmann and Harrell were stripped of their rings, wallets, watches and shoes; and shackled around the wrists and ankles.

They were told: “You are now hostages of Ahmed and must pay for your release.”

Led upstairs to a small room filled by blasts of rap music, the men took one step at a time, as the chains weren’t long enough to allow two.

In the house, they met a third captive, the Rev. William Danny Marrow, an American living in Ecuador who was also being ransomed by the kidnappers. Ahlmann said Marrow had been held since Jan. 17. The man had burn marks, scars from torture inflicted by the kidnappers, Ahlmann added.

Hours later, Ahlmann was forced to write an e-mail to his wife, Sheila, saying that he had arrived, been to the bank and would be in contact soon.

Ahlmann told the men that his wife might be able to round up as much as $10,000 for his release, and Harrell said he could come up with $20,000.

Tortured By Rap Music

Meanwhile, the constant noise in the room was taking its toll on Ahlmann:

“Because of the volume, I was literally going out of my mind.”

On April 16, the kidnappers had Ahlmann write another e-mail to his wife, this time requesting $10,000 to pay for the transferring of the $5 million that was to be invested.

Ahlmann knew his wife would become suspicious because of the amount of money requested and two lines that he included in the e-mail: “We have to have the money,” and “God be with you two.”

Harrell’s wife, Juanita Harrell was also suspicious of her husband’s e-mails.

Ahlmann was instructed to give a cell phone number where he could be reached. John Lee then called the number from San Diego, asking Ahlmann if everything would be fine once the money was transferred.

When Ahlmann replied, “No, of course not,” Lee knew his business associate was being held for ransom.

Investigation Begins

The families contacted the FBI, who began working on the case with Kenyan authorities and an FBI agent stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

In the meantime, the men ate little and were threatened with being hung upside down if their wives did not come up with the money. Ahlmann still cannot talk about much of what happened at the house in Kenya because of the ongoing FBI investigation.

On April 23, lunch was served early.

Ahlmann and Harrell were rushed into a van, then to an apartment, back into a van and finally into a taxi before FBI agents and Kenyan authorities were able to grab them.

They had caught Otieno hours earlier when he went to pick up what he thought was ransom money sent from Ahlmann’s wife.

Ahlmann and Harrell were free, and eventually, so was Marrow.

Otieno, whose real name is Augustine Azubuike Nwangwa, was arrested.

FBI agent Foxworth said there are believed to be at least four other members of the kidnapping ring at large. She said the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego will request extradition of Nwangwa from Kenya to the United States because his crimes used Internet and telephone lines and caused the victims to cross international borders.

Twenty minutes after the plane touched down at Lindbergh Field, the 58-year-old Valley Center man was ready to start trolling again for capital.

“His first words to me were, ‘John, it’s good to be back in America. Come to my house tomorrow for a meeting,'” said Lee.

After it all, Ahlmann still believes in his business , the market for catfish in Europe is huge, he said.

Born and raised in Germany, Ahlmann wants to begin by importing catfish into Europe, then expand by marketing specialized catfish products he has pioneered and, finally, own his own catfish farms.


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