Fleet Street conman took overdose of painkillers

For a quarter of a century he was famous for deceiving some of Fleet Street's finest minds into printing his outlandish hoax stories. Among his fanciful stunts, Michael "Rocky" Ryan convinced papers of sex and drug orgies on Everest and devil worship among British explorers in the Amazon.

For a quarter of a century he was famous for deceiving some of Fleet Street's finest minds into printing his outlandish hoax stories. Among his fanciful stunts, Michael "Rocky" Ryan convinced papers of sex and drug orgies on Everest and devil worship among British explorers in the Amazon.

Arguably his biggest scams were to con The Sun into running stories that the kidnapped racehorse Shergar was alive and living in Jersey and that the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, had been let out of Broadmoor to visit the pub.

But yesterday an inquest heard how the life of the colourful trickster had come to a tragic end when his body was found surrounded by packets of pills and empty alcohol bottles.

Ryan's brother Robert told Hornsey coroner's court how he became concerned in January after not hearing from Michael for five days. He alerted police who found Ryan'sbody at his home in Neasden, north London.

Mr Ryan described his brother as a "storyteller" to the court, saying that his hoaxing had begun around 25 years ago with some encouragement from an evening newspaper reporter.

"They didn't care whether it was true or not, they just wanted to fill their papers up," said Mr Ryan. He added that his brother liked "more than his share" of whisky and vodka.

The coroner heard that after a stroke in 2001, which affected his hand, Ryan, 66, became a recluse, preferring to spend time in his own company. Although blood tests revealed a potentially fatal level of strong painkillers, they found no alcohol in Ryan's system. The cause of death was given as dihydrocodeine poisoning.

Recording an open verdict, Dr William Dolman, the coroner, described Ryan as an accomplished prankster and hoaxer. "The press really enjoyed his presence adding a bit of excitement to everyday life," he said.

After the inquest Mr Ryan said his brother "enjoyed meeting rich people who had got to the top through their own efforts." He said his brother had always told him: "I may be alone, but I'm not lonely."

Ryan, a one-time petty villain and film stuntman whose aliases included Major Travis, Peter Bernstein, David Oppenheimer and Rocco Salvatore, was well known for being the scourge of Fleet Street, a man who consistently conned a number of newspapers into printing his fanciful stories.

Among other successful stunts, Ryan, posing as a drug cartel expert on Sky News, alleged British mercenary involvement with Pablo Escobar.

His tricks were not confined to the British press. Israeli papers ran stories of Hitler being alive and working in Golders Green, north London. He also fooled CNN into believing that Mikhail Gorbachev was going to resign long before he did.

His reputation meant Mr Ryan had difficulty convincing anyone - including friends and news editors - that his brother had died.

It was not only the press who were tricked by Ryan - in 1970 he claimed to have gained an audience with the Pope at the Vatican and in 1984 got into Luciano Pavarotti's dressing room shortly before a performance of Aida. Ryan was once quoted as saying: "I first got a taste for pulling off con tricks as a choirboy. I'd seen Billy Graham whip an audience into a frenzy.

"I thought well, that's a lot of guff. But when he sent the collection plates round they came back brimming, I couldn't believe my eyes."

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