After Robert Maxwell’s disappearance in the Canaries ten years ago, a Swedish stewardess on board his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, remembered his boasting that he had bought a place in South America, in case things ever went wrong, and that he would “do a Stonehouse if things got worse”. This was a reference to the old Labour Postmaster General, who disappeared one day off a beach, was presumed dead, only to be discovered years later in Australia.
Miami was more likely to be Maxwell’ s choice than Melbourne, but the confusion over his death has led many to wonder if that was a possible explanation for his disappearance. What is certain is that the official story was nonsense, and, whatever happened in the end, a look at some of the unexplained mysteries might point us in a more probable direction.
1. Why did Maxwell suddenly take off on his yacht without any staff, without the usual crew, and without warning? If he wanted some peace in the sun, why not take his Gulf Stream plane?
2. Why did he change course after meeting someone at the Reid’s Hotel ‘m Madeira?
3. Did a meeting at Abona cause Ohim to insist on sailing east round the Gran Canaria, when the airport was a few miles to the south?
4. Why did the first autopsy by the Spanish forensic team describe his body as athletic, with brown hair, when Maxwell was 22 stone and had gray hair dyed black?
5. Why did a man who drank bottles of alcohol a day drink nothing on his last night, according to the autopsy?
6. If it was an accident, and he fell over the back of the yacht, why was there was no salt in his lungs, which meant that he did not die from drowning?
7. Why were fingerprints and dental records not made available for the autopsy, to confirm that this was Maxwell?
8. What was the other large motor yacht that local ex-pats and fisherman noticed in the vicinity, at a time when no large yachts were usually seen?
9. How was his body found so near shore, when the normal flow would have taken it towards America?
10. Why was Maxwell buried in lsrael and not in his own country?
Even a cursory glance at the events of that last week in Robert Maxwell’s public life make it difficult to believe that it was an accident. If he had waddled off to the back of the boat in the middle of the night, for his usual nocturnal pee, in his usual alcohol-filled state, and then fallen over the rope at the side of the boat, he would have died from drowning, and his body, if ever found, would be full of alcohol.
As the body contained neither salt water, nor alcohol, then clearly Captain Bob did not die from an accident that night.
Perhaps he was murdered. He had plenty of enemies. He had only recently been accused in a book by Seymour Hersch of being a spy for Mossad; he was reputed t» be an arms dealer on a grand scale; he had befriended many corrupt leaders in Eastern Europe. He had bullied anyone who ever opposed him. Perhaps one of the new crew, recruited only six weeks before, had been paid to kill him, and saw his chance.
Or did the second boat, that ex-pats noted near his Ghislaine, send a fast dinghy out to drop an assassin on board? Possible but that does not explain why Maxwell, in despair at his empire crumbling by the minute, should suddenly give up the booze. Nor did his assassinators know that he would suddenly change course, and be around Gran Canaria.
It would, however, be an explanation for the pinprick behind one ear that was noticed by both teams of forensics. This could be the fatal injection that caused the body to be dead before it was placed in the sea.
But none of this explains Maxwell’s extraordinary behaviour. He knew that his world was falling apart, but disappears for a long weekend, without any servants or aides. He suddenly becomes charming to everyone, both in person and by phone.
He has mysterious meetings at Madeira and Abona. He ceases to drink anything more than the odd beer. He stays in his quarters and goes ashore alone, refusing even to dine on board, as if he doesn’t want to meet the crew. Another, faster luxury boat is near his in the Grand Canaries.
The after his death, it becomes clear that he has bought a burial plot on the Mount of Olives in Israel, where he has, over the last few years, become the largest foreign investor. He has a Lloyds policy on his life for £20 million. He has left instructions with his family that, in the event of his death, he should be buried in his Israeli plot. As his death occurs outside British jurisdiction, and as he disappears on a Tuesday, the family have to rush proceedings in order to fulfil their promise and have him in Jerusalem by Friday.
The more anyone looks at the facts, and matches them to the personality of the man, the greater is the suspicion that maybe the man who died that night was not Robert Maxwell.
Look at it from his viewpoint. Throughout 1991 he realizes that the game may soon be up. As an eternal optimist, he probably reckons that he’ll have a big win at the Casinos or in the foreign exchange market, which will yet again save his public companies, as he feeds the money back.
But as a realist he also starts making preparations. The last thing he could ever bear is being the laughing stock of the English financial community, whom he despised and used. Nor of the British Establishment, whom he regarded as the easiest people in the world to bribe, and the cheapest. While they come to realize that no amount of fiddling the books and fudging the accounts was going to save him, and so he starts to plan the end game. Supported by his friends in Mossad he bought his burial plot. That gave him the chance to be buried on sacred land, so that the body could never be exhumed.
He bought a place in South America, he claimed to Kevin in a conversation overheard on the yatch. Kevin probably thought it was the old man’s usual boasting but, as he never even told Kevin the truth, the safe haven could be anywhere.
When, and if, the time ever came to disappear; it was necessary to have a body, to prevent Interpol searching for him for the rest of his life. The inevitable choice would have been one of his doubles. Whether Maxwell had one double or many is uncertain, but the body had first to be found, and second to be recognizable, after being beaten by the waves and the sun, by his wife.
Maxwell was certainly ruthless enough to plan this, but could it happen in real life? In a film, yes, but, in reality, it is too far away from the gentle world of Miss Marple for most of us to envisage. I asked everyone I knew if they knew anyone who was part of the hidden “security” world used by some international companies. Finally I got a phone call one night from a man who was, apparently, in the security business, and who gave me his version of what might have happened.
“You’ve got to understand I didn’t do this job. I know who did it. It was a group of ex-CIA and ex-Mossad. They’re expensive but good.
“We first heard about it in July. Story was that a big industrial tycoon was in trouble. He thought he could see it through, but just in case, he’d approached this man, call him Robin, and they’d discussed how he could disappear in an emergency.
“He had a double, who’d been with him for years as a decoy. He was a big man, like the tycoon, but very fit and fast. A black belt, a nice guy, drank little, and made a very nice living, thank you, at a 100 grand a year, on call to the tycoon.
“This tycoon didn’t just to disappear: he wanted a body identified, so he could live without fear of being hunted for the rest of his life.
“Anyhow, it didn’t come to us, and I forgot about it until November, and the papers were full of Maxwell going over board from his gin palace. Now people just don’t fall overboard from those poncy boats, and I remember the stories of that summer. This was obviously the guy who wanted to disappear, and by the end of the week it was clear the scam had worked.
“Maxwell was buried with full state honours in Israel. The autopsies said he died of heart attack. The bereaved widow had identified the body. It was beautiful. I take my hat of to him. I didn’t know the Israeli bit. He’d got himself a burial plot on the Mount of Olives: he’d got himself buried quickly as a Jew.
“If he’d stayed English C of E, he’d be back here in a freezer with every kind of investigation carried out for weeks, before they let the body go. The buriel in Israel was an act of genius. There’s this poor sucker of a double buried in hallowed ground, where he can’t be dug up, while Captain Bob gets off to South America, with the quacks liposucting the fat out of him, and changing his face to look like you or me.
“Following the papers, I realize it all fitted in with his whole life. I mean, the man was a down-the-beach crook. He hated the Establishment: they hated him. They said he wasn’t fit to run a public company: he built an empire that fooled the lot of them. You’ve got to admire the guy.
“I mean, can you believe all those banks lending money to a guy who had told them his holding companies were all in Liechtenstein?
“Of course, I knew about him before, because we’d done jobs for him. Small jobs. Bob was a big arms dealer, he loved being part of the spy brigade. East European politicians sometimes needed persuading they should understand Bob. Nothing nasty mind you, just a back-up service to show the guy was serious. Now, how was the last job done? Well I can only tell you what I think.
Continued in part II