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The ongoing story of the missing Earl

Over four decades after his disappearance, the seventh Earl of Lucan is still capable of generating newspaper headlines. This week it was announced that, as he is not known to have been alive for at least seven years, a death certificate has been issued under the terms of a recent law called the Presumption of Death Act; he had previously been declared dead for inheritance purposes in 1999. This has duly prompted The Times to (finally) publish his obituary, and it means that his son can now be referred to as Lucan’s eighth Earl. The story, though, does not end here.

The saga surrounding the Lucan case has many classic ingredients – a brutal murder in a domestic setting (of the sort that Orwell identified as being so fascinating to the English), a dramatic disappearance and, of course, that old British obsession that is the class system. Also involved in the saga are high-stakes gambling, a messy legal case, some tigers, various exotic locations, a fugitive MP and the whiff of an upper-class cover-up. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a subject of ongoing fascination and speculation for the press and public over the course of many years.

Lucan was as upper-class as they come – his ancestors included the man who issued the order for the Charge of the Light Brigade and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. A tall, distinctive-looking man with slicked-back hair and a luxuriant moustache, he worked for a merchant bank and had a taste for gambling – initially for fun, but he left his job and became a professional gambler after a big win (which led to his nickname ‘Lucky’ – although in the long run he lost more than he won). Leading an extravagant lifestyle at the higher end of Sixties London society (he was a member of the Clermont Club, a potent mixture of aristocracy and new money), he was once rated as one of the best backgammon players in the world and is said to have been considered as a possible James Bond (the story goes that he was offered a screen test but turned it down).

He married Veronica Duncan in 1963 and although they had three children the marriage was not a happy one. By the early Seventies the couple had separated, and Lucan lost custody of the children in an acrimonious and costly legal battle which came at a time when his gambling debts were spiralling out of control. He took to spying on his estranged wife in an attempt to find something with which to discredit her, and on the night of Thursday 7th November 1974 the family’s nanny, 29 year-old Sandra Rivett, was murdered at the Countess’s home in Belgravia.

The unfortunate Mrs Rivett really had been in the wrong place at the wrong time; she had been working for the Countess for several months and usually took Thursdays off, but that week she changed her hours and had taken the Wednesday off instead. Shortly before 9pm, she asked the Countess if she would like a cup of tea and headed to the basement kitchen to make one; there, she was bludgeoned to death with a piece of lead piping and her body hurriedly placed into a canvas mailbag.

When the Countess went to find out what was taking Mrs Rivett so long, she was herself attacked by the killer but she was able to escape and run, covered in blood and presumably in shock, to a nearby pub for help; she identified her estranged husband as her attacker. The general consensus was that Lucan had mistaken Mrs Rivett for his wife, and the evidence against him was so compelling that later, at the inquest, the jury would take the unusual step of naming him as the killer. By then, though, he had vanished. The last confirmed sighting of Lord Lucan was when he drove to the house of two of his friends in Sussex in the early hours of 8th November; he told them that he happened to have been walking past the Countess’s house when he heard a fight taking place inside; he had gone to her aid, but been accused of hiring a hitman to kill her (he also stated this in a letter that he wrote to his brother-in-law). His car was found abandoned in the Channel port of Newhaven.

Many believe that Lucan took his own life there and then – probably by drowning, either by jumping from a cross-Channel ferry or by borrowing a boat, taking it out to sea and deliberately sinking it. There’s also a more outlandish suicide theory – that after speaking with his friends and deciding that there was no way out, he was left alone in a room with a gun. After he shot himself, his body was fed to the tigers at the zoo owned by his high-rolling friend John Aspinall (who’d founded the Clermont Club). This story has featured in the papers recently – an old member of the Clermont Club who had been told this story years ago finally broke his silence – but it was suggested at the time of Lucan’s disappearance by Aspinall’s mother (who, in one of those familial coincidences that so abound among the upper classes, also happened to be the current Chancellor’s grandmother). This was denied by Aspinall himself, though, who said that his animals were only fed on the best cuts of meat and wouldn’t have wanted to eat “stringy old Lucky”.

Then there’s the theory that he used his powerful connections to disappear abroad – and this is where the story has ran and ran, “increasingly slipping the bonds of fact for the realms of fantasy” (to quote the obit in yesterday’s Times). Sightings of the missing Earl have abounded over the years, although one of the earliest took a turn for the bizarre when an Englishman was arrested in Australia on suspicion of being Lord Lucan in December 1974. He turned out to be John Stonehouse, the Labour MP and Czech spy, who had faked his own death the previous month; interesting times, the Seventies (Stonehouse, by the way, was returned to Britain and eventually sent to prison for fraud, with his spying activities being covered up at the time and not publicly revealed until many years after he had actually died).

The continuing sightings over the years that followed made Lord Lucan the most famous British fugitive from justice. He was ‘seen’ in Colombia (that one turned out to be an American businessman) and Paraguay (hanging out with ex-Nazis!), hiking on Mount Etna and working as a waiter in both San Francisco and Greece. For years, a homeless British expat in New Zealand had to deny claims that he was the Earl (despite being several inches shorter). It has been alleged that he was flown out of England in an aircraft piloted by the racing driver Graham Hill. It was claimed that people working for his friends took him to Switzerland, where they deemed him to be a liability and killed him. In 1982 a self-styled bounty hunter claimed that he’d tracked Lucan down to Cuba, although a tabloid newspaper subsequently found out that he was a hoaxer. A Rolex watch believed to have been the Earl’s surfaced in South Africa, lending credence to apparent sightings in a hotel bar in Bostwana and in a clinic in Johannesburg.

It was also claimed that he lived out his days on a beach in India. This was the pet theory of an ex-Scotland Yard detective who in 2003 published a book, Dead Lucky, which claimed that a British hippy known as ‘Jungle Barry’ who had died in Goa in 1996 was the missing Earl. It was, however, quickly established that said hippy was in fact a distinctly un-aristocratic pub musician from St Helens.

In 2004, thirty years after Mrs Rivett’s murder, the police released a computer-generated image of how Lord Lucan might have looked had he still been alive (by which time he would have been 69); this featured in a Channel Four documentary, The Hunt for Lord Lucan, which suggested that the 1974 murder enquiry had been flawed – the crime-scene had been contaminated, and the investigation had proceeded from the start on the assumption of Lucan’s guilt despite concerns over the Countess’s reliability as a witness – and featured an interview with the Earl’s son who claimed that his mother had been mistaken in identifying his father as the man who attacked her. The Countess, who refused to be interviewed for the programme and was by that time estranged from her children, stuck by her original story and has always believed that her husband drowned himself; in a rare newspaper interview, she claimed that her husband was “not the sort of Englishman to cope abroad”.

Claims of some sort of cover-up have continued. In 2012 a former personal assistant to Aspinall claimed in an interview with the BBC that she was involved in helping Lucan to set up a new life in the West African state of Gabon, and that Aspinall and the businessman James Goldsmith (another Clermont member) later arranged to have two of Lucan’s children sent out there on false passports so that the fugitive Earl could see them, albeit from a distance (the children denied this, and it is worth noting that this claim was only made in public after both Aspinall and Goldsmith had been dead for several years; the latter was notoriously litigious and won a libel case against Private Eye in 1976 after the magazine had alleged that he and Aspinall had met after Lucan’s disappearance to discuss how they could hamper the police enquiries). At the same time, one of the detectives who worked on the Lucan case during the Eighties claimed that there had been two very credible sightings of Lucan in that decade (one of them in Africa) but he was denied the funding to follow them up.

Detectives who’ve been involved in the case have published books on the subject over the years, with titles like Looking for Lucan and Lucan Lives. In the case of the latter, the author had once been convinced that Lucan had drowned himself (and had publicly said so in 1975) but later, in the course of his working on the book, he visited Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa in a bid to track the missing Earl down. It is perhaps with studies like this in mind that the eighth Earl once commented that: “I get a little tired when former Scotland Yard detectives at the end of their careers get commissions to write books which happen to send them to sunny locations around the world.”

Despite his having been declared to be the killer of Mrs Rivett by the coroner (a highly unusual occurrence which later led to a change in the law preventing killers from being named at inquests, for fear of prejudicing any future trial), the fact remains that Lucan never stood trial. The murder of Mrs Rivett has, therefore, never been solved. Most studies of the case, though, have worked on the assumption of Lucan’s guilt (although there has been a book with the intriguing title of Lucan: Not Guilty which makes the case for the defence).

One aspect of the story that always seems to have taken a back seat is the victim herself; for all the talk of the upper-class fugitive Earl not much is said of the working-class murdered nanny. The publicity surrounding the issuing of the death certificate has been unusual in that for once, a relative of hers has featured prominently. Neil Berriman, Mrs Rivett’s son (he was given up for adoption some time before the murder, and only learned who his mother was when he was an adult), has stated that he believes that Lucan planned to kill the Countess but hired a hitman to do it; the hitman, not Lucan, killed the wrong woman. He also claims to have seen a police document stating that Lucan was alive as recently as 2002 (the eighth Earl, by contrast, believes that his father died soon after the murder).

The story doesn’t end here. Mr Berriman, who has declined to produce the police document to which he referred, has stated that there are unnamed individuals “withholding evidence and not telling the truth … I do feel and hope that the Lucan mystery will be at a possible end in 12 to 14 months time through new evidence and lines on enquiry.” It seems that, even though Lucan’s family has now got legal closure with the death certificate, the saga surrounding Lord Lucan and the murder of Sandra Rivett has not finished yet.

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