04/04/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
AMID THE DRAB, STANDARDissue clutter of Police Chief Inspector Michael Daleki's office in Hamburg, Germany, is a Scrooge McDuck pillow his daughter gave him as well as a trophy bearing a small McDuck likeness. Daleki also admits to poring over Walt Disney comic books featuring Scrooge, Donald Duck's miserly millionaire uncle. But Daleki, 45, hasn't gone daffy; his Scrooge obsession merely reflects the case that is haunting him—that of the dastardly Dagobert.
Dagobert, it turns out, is the German name for the wildly popular Uncle Scrooge character—and the nom de guerre of a cunning, high-tech crook who is tormenting police. His standard gambit is to demand a huge sum of money and threaten to blow up a department store unless the demand is met, and he has detonated five blasts over the past 22 months. So far, Dagobert hasn't managed to get away with any money, but he has succeeded in eluding police no fewer than 29 times with an ingenious array of disguises, electronic gadgetry and complicated escape routes.
In part because no one has yet been seriously injured in these well-choreographed capers, Dagobert has become something of a folk hero. The newsmagazine Der Spiegel recently crowned him Gangster of the Year; shopkeepers hawk Dagobert T-shirts, hats and postcards, a TV movie is in the works, and possibly a feature film by Wolfgang Petersen, director of In the Line of Fire. "We have dealt with a lot of blackmailers in the past," says Daleki, "but I must say, in the history of the Hamburg police this is quite remarkable."
Dagobert first made headlines on June 13, 1992, when a blast ripped through the china section of the Karstadt department store in Hamburg. The day after, the store manager received a note from an extortionist demanding that he signal his willingness to pay a ransom by running a newspaper ad with the phrase "Uncle Dagobert greets his nephews." Detlef Giesler, 32, a member of the 600-strong, Berlin-based D.O.N.A.L.D. fan club, says the scheme was definitely inspired by the Beagle Boys, a gang of ex-cons in the Disney comic books who are constantly trying to steal Uncle Scrooge's millions. The use of treasure chests and escape tunnels are all to be found in the comics, says Giesler, adding that "for Dagobert, unlike most people, the 13th is a lucky day."
Daleki doesn't think Disney's duck tales can offer much insight. "The media has created a lot of the hype," he says. But Daleki can't deny that Dagobert has ducked—and duped—his forces many times. Trying to outsmart him last April, Berlin authorities planted a motion detector in a sack filled not with money but with shredded paper, which they deposited in a large, sand-filled chest located in a parking lot, as Dagobert had instructed. When the alarm sounded around midnight, stakeout police found only an empty sack. It turned out that Dagobert, who had built a trapdoor in the bottom of the chest and positioned it over a manhole, had rummaged through the paper-filled sack and then disappeared through the city's sewage tunnels. Then there was the infamous episode in October 1992, when a Berlin policeman actually nabbed him by the collar—only to slip in a pile of doggy doo and watch the criminal ride off on a bicycle.
Dagobert's plots can be quite elaborate. In January he telephoned Berlin police, directing them to a wooden box, near an unused railroad track, which contained a two-fool-long, battery-powered scooter with a saddlebag. As instructed, police put $800,000 in the bag and then pushed a button on the scooter, sending it speeding down the tracks at 30 mph. Several officers took off in pursuit, twice tripping wires that triggered small explosive devices, showing the waiting Dagobert just how close they were. But when the scooter was some 30 yards from where he was hiding, it hit a protruding spike and derailed, forcing Dagobert to flee without his booty.
Despite a $60,000 reward that has generated nearly 1,500 tips to police, Dagobert's identity remains a mystery. Police believe he is tall and blond; some speculate that, because of his technical know-how and understanding of police procedures, he is a former East German spy or policeman. But for all his cleverness, insists Inspector Daleki, people shouldn't forget that Dagobert is a dangerous criminal who has caused $6 million in damages. "Although injuries have until now been minimal," he says, "we think he could cause a lot of damage." Daleki suspects that Dagobert is the same person who successfully extorted $300,000 from the up-scale Berlin department store KaDe We in 1988. Police are now using voice tapes of that blackmailer to solicit new clues about Dagobert.
Many Germans, however, believe that Dagobert is less interested in money than in matching wits with authorities. "One can have fun in many different ways," says D.O.N.A.L.D.'s Giesler, who offers a tip for Dagobert watchers. "Read the comics to find out what will happen next."
JOANNE FOWLER in Berlin