THE THEFT OF THE OPPENHEIMER JEWELS

1955

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 Parktown, Johannesburg.

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 worldwide.

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 terms.

“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 Oppenheimer's safe.”

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 scheme.

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 jewels.

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.

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