Magnus von Buddenbrock and Stefanie Giesselbach arrived in Chicago in 2006 full of hope. He was 30, she was 28, and they had both won their first overseas assignments at ALW Food Group, a family-owned food-trading company based in Hamburg. Von Buddenbrock had joined ALW—the initials stand for its founder, Alfred L. Wolff—four years earlier after earning a degree in marketing and international business, and he was expert in the buying and selling of gum arabic, a key ingredient in candy and soft drinks. Giesselbach had started at ALW as a 19-year-old apprentice. She worked hard, learned quickly, spoke five languages, and within three years had become the company’s first female product manager. Her specialty was honey. When the two colleagues began their new jobs in a small fourth-floor office a few blocks from Millennium Park in downtown Chicago, ALW’s business was growing, and all they saw was opportunity.
On March 24, 2008, von Buddenbrock came to the office around 8:30 a.m., as usual. He was expecting a quiet day: It was a holiday in Germany, and his bosses there had the day off. Giesselbach was on holiday, too; she had returned to Germany to visit her family and boyfriend. Sometime around 10 a.m., von Buddenbrock heard a commotion in the reception area and went to have a look. A half-dozen armed federal agents, all wearing bulletproof vests, had stormed in. “They made a good show, coming in with full force,” he recalls. “It was pretty scary.”