Life Is a Rollercoaster: The Downfall of a Funfair Family

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Norbert Witte was a funfair operator worth millions. He and his son were arrested while attempting to smuggle 167 kilograms of cocaine from Peru to Germany and today Marcel Witte is imprisoned in one of the world's toughest prisons. The family are struggling to piece their lives back together.

Pia Witte wears heavy, black eyeliner around her big, dark brown eyes, a way of drawing attention away from the wrinkles in her face. Once again, she has spent half the night lying awake. She has had trouble sleeping since the arrest of her son Marcel in Peru five years and eight months ago.

This time Marcel called her at four in morning, as he often does. He was crying. He told her that he needed money and was afraid -- almost as afraid as his mother.

Marcel Witte has been held in a prison on the outskirts of Lima, Peru since November 2003. More than 3,000 prisoners are crowded into the facility, which was built to house 500 prisoners. Trickles of excrement and leftover food crisscross the prison grounds. A European who hopes to survive there must purchase a cell for $1,000 (€715) and pay $250 (€180) in monthly rent. The cells can be locked from the inside, providing protection against violent prisoners and unpredictable guards. But securing one of these cells is no guarantee of winning the daily battle for survival. It is a struggle that German director Peter Dörfler has documented in his latest film, "Achterbahn" ("Roller Coaster").

"I can't remember the last time I slept well. I'm so afraid that I won't hear the phone when my son calls," Pia Witte told SPIEGEL ONLINE. And yet, when she does hear the phone, she is also afraid of what the call could mean. Is Marcel injured? Has he tried to commit suicide, as he did once before? Is he dead?

She blames Norbert Witte, Marcel's father, for the constant pressure, fear and uncertainty of her life today.

Norbert Witte is a tall, compact man with a full head of hair and a gray moustache. He is a chain-smoker, has a winning smile and slightly protruding eyes. Some say he is a down-to-earth guy with his heart in the right place, while others call him a charlatan. Witte comes from an affluent German family of carnival performers and ride owners. His grandfather Otto was a famous carnival artist who once swindled his way into acquiring the title "King of Albania." Norbert Witte, who was born in Hamburg, seems to have inherited his delusions of grandeur from his grandfather.

From the Biggest Fairground To Bankruptcy

Witte wanted to make it big in the amusement park world. After German reunification, he dreamed of turning the Plänterwald, a popular state-owned amusement park in Berlin in the days of East Germany, into the biggest fairground in reunified Germany. The "King of Carousels," as his friends called him, decided to invest in the park, which he called "Spreepark" and operated under his wife's name. It went well at first, but when the city government eliminated 3,000 of the park's parking spaces, visitors stopped coming and Spreepark went out of business.

In December 2001, manager Hans Ludwig Trümper was forced to file for bankruptcy, leaving the city-state of Berlin and banks with a mountain of debt totaling €15 million ($21 million).

In January 2002, Witte left Germany and moved to Peru, taking along his family and six carnival rides. He wanted to start over again in Lima and turn the big wheel once again. This time, he planned to open an amusement park, called Lunapark, directly in front of a major supermarket. He sent his wife and their five children ahead.

It was the first time Pia Witte had relied on her husband's judgment without asking questions. Uncharacteristically, this time she kept out of the plans and preparations for the family's new life and did not take control. Her husband assured her that he had found a house and that everything had been taken care of. It was the biggest disappointment of her life.

When Pia Witte arrived in Peru, a completely foreign country to her, nothing had been taken care of. Nothing at all. She began searching for a house for the family, and was cheated several times, but she eventually found an opulent villa in one of the city's typical wealthy enclaves. It was the beginning of the plight of the family, which had come to Peru with only meager savings.

The problems continued when Peruvian customs officials refused to release the carnival rides in their entirety. Instead, they released individual parts from the shipping containers, making it impossible to assemble a single roller coaster or Ferris wheel.

"He Must Have Had no Other Choice"

The slide into poverty happened quickly. Within a few months, Pia Witte was having trouble feeding the family, and she flew back to Germany with four of her five children. Her husband and their son Marcel, who was 21 at the time, stayed in Lima. Norbert Witte, deeply in debt and desperate, allowed himself to be recruited by an old friend from Berlin -- as a drug courier for the Peruvian mafia. Back in Germany, his wife was completely unaware of his new line of business.

"My husband and drugs? He used to complain when the kids smoked," says Pia Witte. "He must have had no other choice."

Witte hid 167 kilograms (76 pounds) of pure cocaine -- compressed into 211 small disks, with a market value of €10 million ($14 million) -- in the 12-meter (39-foot) steel mast of the "Flying Carpet" carousel. He told customs officials that the carousel had to be shipped to Germany for repairs. But a supposed accomplice turned out to be an undercover drug investigator, and the smuggling operation was exposed.

On Nov. 5 and 6, 2003, Norbert and Marcel Witte were arrested, the father in Berlin and the son in Peru. In May 2004, the Berlin District Court sentenced Norbert Witte to a seven-year prison term. After four years, most of it spent in a low-security, open facility, he was released from the prison.

But his son faced a much harsher sentence. "When I was arrested, I thought to myself: I'll be dead soon. Then I was taken to the police station, which was horrific," says Marcel Witte, who is 28 today and weighs 15 kilograms (33 pounds) less than on the day of his arrest. He endured three years in a dilapidated prison until, in October 2006, the Fourth Criminal Chamber of the Lima Court sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

"You Have to Try not to Think about It"

"I got involved with bandits, ruined Marcel's life and destroyed our family," Norbert Witte told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He is ashamed of what he did, but he is hopeful and is doing everything in his power to bring Marcel back to Germany. Unlike Marcel's mother, Norbert has no trouble sleeping, enjoying life or going out. Life must go on, he says. "To endure the pain, you have to try not to think about it," he says, smoking a cigarette despite his six heart attacks. Witte is good at not thinking about things.

No one knows this performer as well as Pia Witte.

The couple met when she was 14. Her father owned a bumper-car ride, and at 19 Pia married Norbert, the 21-year-old son of a carnival performer. Together, they purchased the "Catapult," the "world's fastest roller coaster." The couple, together with their five children, spent the next two decades on the road, traveling from carnival to carnival. Soon their business grew to include eight carnival rides and more than 40 employees.

Their life went sharply downhill when Witte, on the night of Aug. 14, 1981, caused Germany's worst-ever carnival accident. While Witte was attempting to repair his loop-de-loop ride, the Catapult, at a fair in Hamburg, the crane he was operating collided with the "Skylab," a carousel. Seven people were killed and 15 injured, some seriously. "Being responsible for that accident -- that was the worst feeling in my life," he says today.

Successful years followed -- and so did an admission of complete failure

It took the couple years of hard work to reestablish their reputation, and during this time they toured separately in Europe. Pia, 24 at the time, traveled alone through Yugoslavia with six carnival rides, an eight-month-old baby and 30 employees.

Pia Witte, a striking, proud woman with pitch-black hair, clearly finds it difficult to talk about her imprisoned son. In her tiny apartment outside Berlin, she is surrounded by the remnants of a once-comfortable lifestyle: oil paintings in garish frames, petite dressers and ostentatious arrangements of plastic flowers. But there is nothing of any value. She recently took yet another ring to a pawnshop to raise money for Marcel. "I'm finished -- financially, too," she says quietly.

After a life of independence, it was difficult for her to apply for social welfare and admit failure. "I receive €300 ($420) a month. How am I supposed to live on that and support my son at the same time?" There are no relatives, friends or acquaintances left from whom she hasn't borrowed money, or who haven't slipped her some cash now and then.

The 51-year-old feels deeply demoralized by feelings of self-reproach, for having left her son with his father in Peru. When she learned that her son had been arrested, Pia suddenly entered menopause, and her hair turned gray from one day to the next. "Gaining Marcel's freedom is all that I live for at the moment," she says.

Two Trailers and a Bit of Optimism

Marcel's case dealt the deathblow to an already shattered marriage. "I will not forgive him for it," says Pia Witte, referring to her husband, from whom she is now divorced. "I just can't."

Her dream is to own a concession trailer and work for herself. "I have to earn my own money and take care of myself, or else I'll be destroyed."

Her ex-husband lives in two trailers on the rundown grounds of the former Spreepark amusement park. He earns a living making wooden stalls for public festivals. He has set up a workshop in a spot once occupied by a bumper-car ride.

Witte isn't giving up. He wants to turn the big wheel one more time. "Once a showman, always a showman," he says, laughing. "I always have either a lot or nothing at all." Will he turn the corner one more time in his rollercoaster of a life? "I'm curious to see if I can make it to the top once again."

Witte has never been this close to the bottom. Parents are there to protect their children, he says. "Therefore, I failed completely." These are not easy words for him, nor can they provide any comfort for Pia Witte.

The last time she saw her son was when she visited him in prison this spring. "I will never forget the despair and look of panic in my mother's eyes," Marcel says on the telephone.

They are emotions that no amount of makeup can cover up.

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