Lucan is alive and on the vodka, says detective

The death of the billionaire businessman Sir James Goldsmith could help police solve one of the greatest crime mysteries of the century - the disappearance of Lord Lucan.

One of the detectives who hunted Lucan throughout the 1970s after the brutal murder of the Lucans' nanny, Sandra Rivett, believes Goldsmith's death may create a crack in the wall of silence surrounding the aristocrat's disappearance. Now that Goldsmith is dead, Lucan's cover may one day be blown.

The biggest international manhunt in police history failed to locate the gambling peer, who fled the country after Miss Rivett was killed and his estranged wife, Veronica, attacked in the basement of 46 Lower Belgravia Street, in November 1974.

For years there were rumours of a network of wealthy old Etonians who had helped spirit "Lucky" Lucan away and set him up in a new life. Detectives probed the old Etonian network and Lucan's associates who frequented the Clermont Club, a high-class gambling club in Berkeley Square.

Following the death of Goldsmith two weeks ago, David Gerring, second- in-command of the manhunt, has spoken for the first time of his inquiries into the network and, in particular, the flamboyant businessman's role in Lucan's flight. The retired detective chief inspector believes Lucan, who would be aged 62, is still alive, has undergone plastic surgery, has adopted a fake identity and has a comfortable lifestyle in South Africa. He also believes that Goldsmith was instrumental in the escape.

"I don't believe he would have been involved in the nitty-gritty: he was too clever to have put Lucan on to a boat across the Channel himself," said Mr Gerring. "But I do believe he was involved in the planning from a safe distance.

"Think about it; Lucan has just committed murder, so who does he go to? His friends. They see he is in no fit state to organise his own escape, so they do it for him. He had many influential friends and Goldsmith was among the most influential and wealthy."

Mr Gerring interviewed a woman who claims she met Lucan at a lunch in South Africa in the late 1970s. He had undergone plastic surgery. Mr Gerring is satisfied that it was the aristocrat. "She said much of the conversation was about the difficulties of getting money into and out of Africa and using bank accounts in places such as Jersey and Guernsey," he said. "I believe Goldsmith would have used his commercial knowledge to provide advice on financial matters. I can't say whether Goldsmith financed Lucan. Lucan had a lot of other wealthy friends, so perhaps a 'fund' was set up. I certainly don't believe Lucan had the nous to arrange his own escape and his own disappearance."

There have been many reported "sightings" of Lucan, in places as diverse as Edinburgh, Melbourne and Brazil. The most convincing, however, have been in Africa, in Cape Town, Mozambique and Bulaweyo.

"I believe his is in an area north of Johannesburg called the Block," said Mr Gerring. "It is a vast place with huge farms as big as Wales, an area so enormous it would be easy to lose yourself in it. Nevertheless, the woman who saw him said he didn't appear to be living a quiet life. He was always fond of his vodka." Despite inquiries, nothing came of the woman's sighting. After the murder, Lucan's friends were interviewed by Mr Gerring and his superior, Detective Chief Superintendent Roy Ranson. A group admitted holding a meeting to discuss their response should Lucan approach them for help, but they denied giving any such help.

The inquiry team came up against a brick wall, although the society types they interviewed were not entirely unco-operative.

"I don't remember them bringing any solicitors to interviews or being awkward," said Mr Gerring. "But there was a lot of loyalty. The worst problem was in getting hold of them. If we were on an inquiry in the East End, we'd knock on Bill Smith's door and say we wanted Bill Smith to come to the station with us. But the people we were dealing with in the Lucan case simply weren't there when we knocked on the door."

Goldsmith was so difficult to pin down, because of his foreign travel, that it was three months before Gerring and his team managed to interview him. When they did, he said he knew Lucan and went to Eton with him but was unable to provide any more information.

So now that Goldsmith is dead, is Lucan more likely ever to be found?

"It's possible," said Mr Gerring. "The whole thing is like a jigsaw and if you take a piece away, who knows, the entire picture may begin to crumble."