Nearly 42 years after the discovery of his blood-splattered car on the Sussex coast sparked a mystery that became an enduring national obsession, Lord Lucan has been declared dead after a High Court judge granted his death certificate.
The ruling by Mrs Justice Asplin after a hearing lasting barely 60 minutes allowed the son of the moustachioed peer, who disappeared following the murder of his children’s nanny, to inherit his father’s title as the 8th Earl Lucan.
But any hope that the formal declaration under the newly-introduced Presumption of Death Act might draw a line once and for all under the question of what happened at 46 Lower Belgrave Street - the Lucan family home in central London - on 7 November 1974 and thereafter appeared forlorn.
The new earl, George Bingham, 49, who had applied for the death certificate to be issued, insisted after the hearing in central London that the case continues to be a mystery and his father remains innocent.
He was speaking shortly after Neil Berriman, the son of Sandra Rivett, the nanny who Scotland Yard believed at the time had been bludgeoned to death by Lord “Lucky” Lucan after mistaking her for his estranged wife Veronica, emerged from the court to say he believed he had new evidence to suggest the aristocrat was alive as recently as 2002.
Mr Berriman, who had been adopted prior to his mother’s killing and only learned her identity eight years ago following the death of his adoptive mother, declared that he had in recent weeks seen an internal Scotland Yard document indicating that the peer lived long after his supposed suicide in 1974.
The 48-year-old builder claimed the initial investigations into his mother’s death had been tainted by police corruption, adding: “This is closure and a time to move on for [George Bingham] and his family. I can understand that he wants to move on with his life but for me this is something, at this moment, that cannot happen.”
He added: “Maybe the police know more than they let on. But at the end we have to get to the truth and justice for Sandra. A horrible death, a young woman beaten - my mother. There is no getting away from the fact that whatever happened that night, Lord Lucan is guilty of something in my eyes.”
Ms Rivett, 28, had gone down into the basement of the Belgravia house to make a cup of tea when her killer attacked her with a length of lead piping wrapped in a bandage and placed her body in a canvas mail sack. When Lady Lucan, who was estranged from her husband, went to investigate she too was attacked but managed to escape, running while covered in blood to a nearby pub.
Lady Lucan named her husband as the attacker and an inquest declared him the murderer of Ms Rivett a year later.
The whereabouts of the 7th earl, a professional gambler and a fixture in London’s louche netherworld of clubs and monied aristocrats, has been a subject of high speculation and low drama ever since the night of the killing.
After driving to Newhaven in a Ford Corsair, stopping off to speak with a friend and write two letters, Lucan disappeared. Some, including his son, believe that the peer died that night, probably taking his own life by drinking heavily and sinking a borrowed boat. Among the more outlandish versions of his suggested suicide was an account that Lucan shot himself at the Kent zoo owned by his high-rolling friend John Aspinall and asked that his remains be fed to one of its resident tigers.
But the alternative theory that Lucan used powerful connections to escape abroad to a life in luxurious but anonymous exile has lingered potently with sightings in the intervening years from Australia to Ireland and Mozambique to Paraguay. His “rediscovery” in Goa in 1996 caused a flurry of excitement until it was discovered that the man in question was not Lucan but a lifelong hippy known as “Jungly Barry”.
Although the 7th earl had been previously declared legally dead in 1999, his son argued that the declaration had not proved death “for all purposes”, including his right to accede to his father’s title.
Mr Bingham, a former merchant banker who was married last month to a Danish heiress, confirmed he would be taking up his earldom immediately and underlined that the death of his former nanny, whom he described as a “lovely lady”, remained unexplained.
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He said: “It is still a mystery what happened. We do not know how this lovely lady died in 1974, but Neil lost a mother and I lost a father. We still do not know how he met his end.
“And as a British person, I still prefer to consider a person innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Nonetheless I am very pleased with the result that we achieved today.”
The new earl and Mr Berriman shook hands in court and Ms Rivett’s son said she wished Mr Bingham “good luck” before adding that he nonetheless considered his new title “a bit tainted”.
During the hearing Mr Berriman had been asked to produce the Metropolitan Police document to which he had referred. He declined, saying it was not yet possible before adding outside court that he hoped his own enquiries would end the Lucan mystery in “12-14 months’ time”..
The Yard said that, like all unsolved murders, the killing of Ms Rivett remained an open case.
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