In May 1960, while staying in rented accommodation near Elstree Studios during the filming of The Millionairess, the Italian actress Sophia Loren was robbed of £185,000 worth of jewellery. The jewels were never recovered, nor was anyone ever tried for the crime, even though credible suspects made themselves available; two notorious cat-burglars, Peter ‘The Human Fly’ Scott and Ray ‘The Cat’ Jones, both claimed credit for the theft. Scott believed he had been “sent by God to take back some of the wealth that the outrageously rich had taken from the rest of us”.
The poisoner of Pimlico
In 1886, in Pimlico in central London, a wealthy grocer by the name of Thomas Bartlett was found dead with a lethal amount of liquid chloroform in his stomach. The prime suspect was Bartlett’s wife Adelaide, but she was found not guilty at her trial because the prosecution couldn’t satisfactorily explain how the poison had been administered. There were no damage to Bartlett’s throat or windpipe. “Now that she has been acquitted for murder and cannot be tried again,” declared Sir James Paget, a leading surgeon of the day, “she should tell us in the interests of science how she did it!”
The body in the tree
In 1943, four teenagers were hunting for birds’ eggs in Hagley Woods, near Birmingham. But when one of the lads climbed a wyche elm tree, it was a human skull he found. In fact, the rest of a woman’s skeleton was there in the tree’s hollow trunk, albeit missing a hand which had been buried nearby. The mystery didn’t end there. Graffiti about the case began to appear across the West Midlands, all rendered in the same handwriting: ‘Who put Bella in the wych elm?’. The local police never cracked the case and the real identity of ‘Bella’ seemed to die with her. Some say she was a victim of an occult ceremony, others that she was executed for her part in a Nazi spy ring.
The theft that wasn’t a theft
In 2003, an apparently sophisticated theft occurred at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, with raiders evading alarms and cameras to bag paintings by Gaugin, Van Gogh and Picasso. After an anonymous phone call, the artwork was discovered the next morning 100 yards away behind a disused public toilet. Attached to them was a handwritten note: “The intention was not to steal, only to highlight the woeful security”. Relieved that the paintings had been recovered and with only minimal rain damage, the gallery nonetheless heeded the unknown robbers’ advice and upgraded its security measures.
The Green Bicycle Murder
The village of Little Stretton, in rural Leicestershire, was rocked by a murder in 1919. At first, police believed the death of cyclist Bella Wright to have been a simple road accident. That was before an officer discovered a bullet at the scene and then noticed an entry wound on the young woman’s body. She had last been seen in the company of a man on a green bicycle; five months later, a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock called Ronald Light was witnessed dismantling such a bike and throwing it into a river in nearby Leicester. Light was arrested, after which an army holster and live ammunition were also recovered from the water. At his trial, though, inconclusive ballistics evidence, plus his articulate demeanour, saw him walk free. Press coverage of the trial had painted Light as a well-spoken ex-Army officer accused of the murder of a mere “factory girl”.
The kidnapping of a champion
In 1983, the record-breaking racehorse Shergar was into his second year as a breeding stallion at a stud in the Republic of Ireland when he was kidnapped by an eight-strong gang of masked gunmen, their progress unhampered by security measures that extended no further than a bolted five-bar gate. The kidnappers demanded a £2million ransom from the horse’s owner, but there was a problem. They believed Shergar to have been wholly owned by the billionaire Aga Khan; in actuality, 34 syndicate members each had a share in the 1981 Derby winner. The ransom was never met and Shergar was never seen again. It is widely believed that the IRA was behind the crime, the aim being to raise funds for the organisation. Claims abound that, following the unproductive negotiations, the horse was shot and buried at a mystery location in the Irish countryside.