On the night of 5 December 1955, an assortment
of jewels belonging to Bridgett Oppenheimer, Harry Oppenheimer's
wife, was stolen from Little Brenthurst. Their house lay in the
grounds of Brenthurst, Ernest Oppenheimer's palatial mansion in
The most valuable item taken was a pure-white
diamond ring estimated to be worth £35 000. A number of
other exquisite pieces, valued at anything from £20 000
each, were also stolen. The total collection, valued of over £200
000, was insured for £250 000. (In current terms, that
translates to well over R3-million.) It transpired that, sometime
between 7.15 and 10.30 p.m. on the night in question, the thief
or thieves walked into the grounds of Brenthurst, made their way
up to Mrs Oppenheimer's bedroom in Little Brenthurst, removed
the jewels, which were kept in a safe concealed in a built-in
cupboard, and then walked out again. They needed neither sophisticated
cutting tools nor explosives to get at the valuables, since they
were able to use the safe key, which Mrs Oppenheimer had left
- as was her habit - in a little box which she kept conveniently
nearby. They carried the jewels away in a small pillowcase.
None of the domestic servants heard or saw
any of this. When Mrs Oppenheimer returned from her dinner engagement
that evening, she didn't bother to return the jewellery she had
been wearing to the safe. Although she did notice that a pillow-
slip was missing from the room, she didn't attach any particular
significance to the fact.
It wasn't until she opened the safe the following
morning that she realised she had been robbed. She first telephoned
the police, then her husband's office (Mr Oppenheimer was on a
safari in Central Africa at the time); then she summoned the servants.
“I told them what had happened,”
she said, “that my jewels had apparently been stolen. But
they knew nothing about the robbery.”
Police-Colonel Ulf Boberg, Divisional Criminal
Investigation Officer for the Witwatersrand, took charge of the
investigation, and within a short time a large team of police
officers was on the scene. An exhaustive search of the grounds
proved fruitless. Given the ease with which the crime had been
carried out, it was suspected that the robbery had been an 'inside
job' involving one or more members of the domestic staff. However,
it quickly became apparent that this was not the case.
Photographs of the jewels were dispatched
to Interpol, Scotland Yard and the FBI, and police and customs
throughout the country were ordered to be on the lookout. Carried
by newspapers and radio services, news of the theft quickly spread
On 9 December, a reward of £20 000
was offered for information leading to the return of the jewels.
The valuables were insured by the London & Lancashire Company,
in London. One week after the robbery, a firm of adjusters, which
represented the insurers, sent their own chief investigator, Mr
Dudley Strevens, to South Africa.
On his arrival in Johannesburg, Mr Strevens
immediately contacted the firm of John Murray & Company, the
South African representatives of the London insurers, and on 13
December, he met with one of their insurance assessors, Mr A.D.
Cook. It emerged that the latter gentleman had been approached
by an Australian named William Lindsay Pearson, who claimed to
have information regarding the missing jewels: he maintained that
he knew not only who had them, but also where they were, and he
was prepared to arrange their return - in exchange for a reward
considerably higher than the £20 000 offered. Mr Cook had
not yet informed the police of Pearson's approach.
Shortly after Strevens' arrival, the two
insurance men went to meet Pearson at his room in the Old Carlton
Hotel in Eloff Street. The Australian stated his case in no uncertain
“Gentlemen,” he began, “I've
been a swindler and confidence trickster all my life, and I've
no intention of changing now. I've got information, but you're
not going to get it out of me for the reward offered. You're going
to have to pay a lot more before those jewels are back in Mrs
Pearson was undoubtedly a cool customer,
but Dudley Strevens was no fool either.
“Mr Pearson,” he replied sharply,
“my company is not in the jewellery business. We have no
intention of buying back the jewels. We are looking for information
that will lead to their recovery.”
Pearson nodded. “Yes, I quite understand.
Unfortunately, the thieves will not consider returning them for
less than £75 000” - Streven’s resolutely shook
his head – “but I may be able to persuade them to
drop this figure to £50 000.”
“That amount is out of the question,”
Stevens replied. “In England, the reward paid is normally
10% of the value of the stolen articles, which in this case means
£20 000. We might raise this figure to £40 000, but
I stress the key word is ‘might’. Furthermore, any
negotiations with the robbers would have to be conducted through
official police channels.” At the mention of the word 'police',
Pearson took fright. One of his concerns was that if the police
became involved, they would investigate his shady background and
deport him. It was at this point that he came up with a second
He proposed that if Strevens or Cook obtained
a gun license on his behalf, he would hijack the jewels himself.
The two insurance men were totally against this idea and pointed
out that, besides, it was impossible to get a gun license. Pearson
then presented a third scheme, a compromise of sorts. He would
accept the figure of £20 000 on the understanding that
he would in addition, be paid a further £20 000 'retainer'
by Strevens' firm, in the form of four annual instalments of £5
000 each, for which he would not have to perform any work. Again
Strevens refused. After a long princess of negotiation, Pearson
reluctantly agreed to accept a reward of £20 000.
With a deal of sorts finally worked out,
Pearson now told his story. He maintained that a month or so earlier,
while having a drink at the Victoria Hotel, he had met a man named
Percival William Radley. At the time, Radley, who it would later
turn out was a convicted felon who had spent over 10 years in
British prisons for a variety of crimes, had hinted that a 'big
job' involving jewels was about to be carried out.
Between 23 November and 8 December Pearson
had been in London, but, reading of the theft of the Oppenheimer
jewels on his return to South African, he immediately realized
that this was the 'big job' to which Radley had referred. His
suspicions were confirmed when he contacted Radley, and it was
then that he decided to make himself some easy money.
On 14 December, the day after Strevens and
Cook had met with Pearson, Colonel Boberg learnt of the discussion.
He was extremely angry at having been excluded, and soon the three
men were on their way to meet with Pearson at the Carlton Hotel.
When Boberg confronted Pearson, the Australian
was very cool about the whole affair. Boberg challenged him to
produce any item of jewellery to prove his story. Naturally, Pearson
could not oblige. However, he did agree to act as go-between in
a scheme to get the jewels back. He already had his part carefully
worked out: he would claim to be acting on behalf of an internationally
famous crime boss named Lucky Luciano. He would summon his contact
man - Radley - to his hotel suite, where a member of Luciano's
gang - a disguised policeman - would be waiting with the money.
A meeting with Radley was duly arranged for
that same evening. A large contingent of plain-clothes policemen
descended on the hotel and Detective Sergeant Swart, the man who
was to play the role of Lucky Luciano’s henchman, hid in
Pearson's bathroom. He had with him two suitcases containing £48
000 in cancelled notes.
At about 9.15 p.m., Pearson received a telephone
call in his room. Fifteen minutes later, two men knocked at the
door. One was Percival Radley and the other a 34 year old former
security officer named Donald Miles. Miles was carrying a box
wrapped in Christmas paper. Pearson carried the box into the bathroom,
where Detective-Sergeant Swart was hiding. Shortly afterwards,
Swart said, “You can tell your men I'm satisfied. I'll buy
the jewels.” And he handed over the money.
While Radley and Miles were counting the
money on the bed, Swart slipped into the corridor and summoned
his waiting colleagues. Within seconds, Radley and Miles had been
arrested for the theft of the Oppenheimer jewels. The two men
were taken to Marshall Square Police Station for questioning.
It was at this point that things began to
go wrong for the police. Both Radley and Miles denied vehemently
that they had had anything to do with the robbery. Radley claimed
that he had been invited to Pearson's room for a social drink
and Miles declared ignorance of the whole affair. He maintained
that he had been given the Christmas parcel by a 'Jewish chap'
and asked to deliver it to suite 641 - Pearson's suite. “I've
been taken for a ride,” he said.
To make matters worse, Pearson suddenly developed
cold feet over the whole affair; whether he was suffering pangs
of conscience or was concerned about his reputation among the
criminal fraternity is impossible to say. Without his testimony,
however, the police had no case. Help came from an unexpected
source. On the day following his arrest, Percival Radley declared
that he was prepared to co-operate with the police if he was guaranteed
immunity from prosecution. The police agreed to this condition.
In his statement, Radley admitted that he
had originally been prepared for involvement in the robbery. He
also confessed to entering the grounds of Brenthurst with Miles
and 'casing' the house. However, on the night in question he had
been at the cinema with a girlfriend. It was Miles alone, he claimed,
who had broken into Little Brenthurst and stolen the Oppenheimer
A preparatory examination was held at Johannesburg
Magistrates' Court in January 1956. Miles was charged with theft
and housebreaking with intent to steal. Pearson, whom the Crown
alleged was in no way involved in the actual theft, was to be
charged with accessory before and after the fact. Radley, a colourful
character who gave the public vivid glimpses of the underworld,
was the prosecution's chief witness.
On 16 March, the Attorney-General announced
that he would not prosecute Pearson. Miles, however, was committed
to trial on the charge that, on the night of 5 December 1955,
he had stolen from the home of Harry and Bridgett Oppenheimer:
16 rings, nine bracelets, 17 brooches, five necklaces, six watches,
an evening bag, two buddhas set in platinum with diamonds, a powder
case, a festoon ornament, a platinum-and-diamond bog, two tie
pins, a buddha without stones, 50 to 60 Rhodesian bank notes,
a wallet containing notes, safe keys, three jewellery boxes, a
number of badges and cigarette holders, and a pillow slip.
Miles' trial before a nine-man jury began
at the Witwatersrand Criminal Sessions on 3 April, 1956. Pearson
attended the trial, but was called by neither party. The prosecution
alleged that Miles, who had worked at Little Brenthurst for a
roofing contractor in 1954, had knowledge of the jewels. The evidence
against him was based, in the main, on the testimony of Radley,
a person the prosecution admitted was a confirmed criminal and
of dubious character. He was also an accomplice to the crime.
Miles' defence was that he had been duped
by Radley and had no knowledge of the theft. The first time he
had discussed it was a few days after the theft had been reported
in the newspapers. When he was asked how the jewels came to be
in his possession, he claimed that he was employed by Radley and
was to be paid £250 for carrying a cardboard box wrapped
in Christmas paper up to the hotel room. (Notice that this contradicts
his original statement when he was arrested.) He did not know
what was in the box, but was under the impression that it contained
a number of uncut diamonds, which were being sold by a syndicate
to an unlicensed buyer. lt was only after he had been arrested
in Pearson's room that he realized he had been carrying the Oppenheimer
jewels. He alleged that Radley had stolen them.
The trial was over after six days. Although
Miles had been questioned closely, the prosecution had failed
to shake his story. On 9 April, the judge gave his summing-up
of the case: it took only 25 minutes. In less than an hour the
jury had returned with a verdict of not guilty.
So, no-one was punished for the theft of the
Oppenheimer jewels. Pearson received a reward of £20 000
from the London & Lancashire Company, of which he was obliged
to pay £6 000 to the South African Receiver of Revenue.
He was subsequently asked to leave the country, as was Radley.
Perhaps the best summary of the whole affair
appeared in the Cape Times shortly after the trial had closed:
We now know of three men who did not steal
the jewels. But this does not help us to know who did. Perhaps
we never shall and the whole affair, except for a small dent in
the profits of an insurance company, will be forgotten.