On a cool Sunday in March, Bernhard Günther was traversing a small neighborhood park after a Sunday run with several friends. He had just bought a bag of bread rolls for his breakfast and was a few hundred meters from his home in Haan, a swank suburb of Düsseldorf. Suddenly a man, later described to be in his 20s or 30s, stepped in front of Mr. Günther and blocked his path, while another assailant rushed up from behind. He was thrown to the ground and held down while one of the attackers opened a bottle and poured the contents – acid – onto his face.
The assailants then rushed off and Mr. Günther stumbled home. He instinctively worked to wash as much of the acid off as he could as he called emergency services. And detectives have been stymied by the case ever since, even though they have footage from nearby security cameras and found a glove and the container that held the acid at the crime scene.
“As I was in the rescue helicopter being flown to the hospital, lots of things went through my mind,” Mr. Günther told Handelsblatt in his first and only interview since the attack. “But the only thing that didn’t was that I should have worked more. In that kind of situation, you become aware of what’s really important.”
Mr. Günther remains the chief financial officer of Innogy, the renewables upstart of RWE, Germany’s No. 2 utility. He wasn’t a household name at the time of the attack, and was mostly known only to those in the financial and power industries. The crime was puzzling because he seemed an unlikely target for anyone trying to make a statement, or earn a quick buck on the back of Innogy’s stock or deep corporate pockets, even despite Germany’s dark history of executive attacks.
“The whole thing happened in just seconds,” says Mr. Günther, who returned to work in April. “I can understand that there are people who want to know how I’m doing. As the CFO of a listed company, I have a certain responsibility, which is why I decided to do this interview.”
He admits he is lucky, relatively speaking. He retained his sight, though he wears sunglasses to protect his now-sensitive eyes, and has scars and skin discoloration, though not the level of disfigurement of other acid victims. His appearance still plays a role when he goes out in public and he isn’t physically 100 percent yet. And psychologically, he’s still working to process the attack, which is why he returned to work as quickly as he could – routine and familiarity have helped.
Mr. Günther says he’s already come to terms with the apparent random nature of the attack but feels he won’t have complete closure until it’s been solved. An understandable emotion, experts say. “Ideally, these [victims] don’t change at all but instead understand that it’s the dark side of their environment,” says Denis Mourlane, a psychologist and executive coach.
The RAF, Würth and Metzler
The crime is perplexing and has piqued public interest because of the many events that intersect with it. For Germans, it immediately brought back memories of the violence of the Red Army Faction, a far-left terror group from the 70s and 80s. The group was responsible for numerous acts, including at least 10 high-profile assassinations, such as the murder of Deutsche Bank Chairman Alfred Herrhausen, who was killed by a roadside bomb in 1988, as well as the kidnapping and murder of industrialist and former Nazi, Hans Martin Schleyer, in 1977.
Well-heeled German business families have also often been targeted by extortionists, even as recently as 2015 when the 50-year-old handicapped son of construction products maker, Alfred Würth, was abducted. In that case, the €3 million ransom went unpaid when the son was found unharmed. It also brings to mind the the high-profile abduction and murder of Jakob von Metzler, the son of a Frankfurt private banking legacy, in 2002.
Then there was the timing – the assault occurred just months after Mr. Günther’s boss, Innogy CEO Peter Terium, was fired following a profit warning and just a week before an announcement that Innogy would be re-absorbed into former parent RWE. Innogy was spun out in a 2016 IPO to separate RWE’s traditional power generation business from its renewables. If a senior executive like Mr. Günther was badly injured or even killed, it might have caused a temporary fall in share prices, potentially enough for anyone who was expecting it to make good money.
But possibly the most titillating thing is that this wasn’t the first violent assault on Mr. Günther: Six years ago he was attacked and beaten by unknown assailants, also on a neighborhood footpath and also on a Sunday morning – that is also a crime that remains unsolved. “That just shows how broad the spectrum for potential motives is – from share price manipulation and takeover plans, to my activities at Innogy, or even career motives, to my private life,” Mr. Günther says.
The crime also put the focus on the security of German executives. In order to warrant armed body guards, police must have assigned them one of three risk levels, which isn’t always possible, though security experts who asked to remain anonymous told Handelsblatt that the country is relatively safe. While some executives have a squad of bodyguards, sometimes stationed in a nearby apartment, others require only a quick, simple method – for example, to be able to swiftly contact security personnel when necessary. Or, family members can carry GPS equipment that would allow them to be located in seconds.
“Security can be limiting,” the expert said. “It requires a happy medium of paranoia and laissez-faire.”
Mr. Günther says he’s now more conscious of how vulnerable human beings are in general and how quickly the unplanned can happen. Police continue to look at both his personal or professional life, to try and see what it was that led to the acid attack. Since there are no solid leads, no trail can yet be eliminated. So does he have his own theory?
“Yes,” he says, “but I’d prefer to keep it to myself.”
Andrew Bulkeley is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. The article was adapted from interviews conducted by Handelsblatt energy reporter Jürgen Flauger, investigative reporter Lars-Martin Nagel and Christian Wermke. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com