To Helen Peyton, the man with the long, wiry beard and unkempt hair she met 11 years ago in Goa was just one of those colourful characters one meets while travelling. Known locally as Jungle Barry, he lived in the roots of a banyan tree and for two months taught her to play the penny whistle in exchange for food and drink. So it came as something of a shock when Helen read in the weekend newspapers that the alcoholic hippie was not, in fact, Barry Halpin, but Lord Lucan. The peer vanished in November 1974, the day after the body of the murdered nanny Sandra Rivett was found at the Lucans' family home in London.
The claim is that of a former Scotland Yard detective, Duncan MacLaughlin, whose book, Dead Lucky, which contains the startling allegation, is published this week. Two years ago MacLaughlin met Mark Winch, a former small-time drug dealer he had once pursued until he fled to India in 1991. Winch lived in a commune in Ximera with a man he later became convinced was Lucan. Halpin, in common with the peer, was an expert backgammon player, had a keen knowledge of culture and expensive cars, spoke German and came from Ireland, though he spoke an aristocrat's English. During a card game, and after considerable quantities of drink, Winch asked Halpin if, like many Westerners in Goa at the time, he was a fugitive. Barry stopped playing and replied: "Isn't everybody?" Winch then went to the detective with the tale.
Helen, now 37 and an art lecturer living in the Yorkshire Dales, met Jungle Barry in 1992 while travelling for a year with Nicholas, now her husband, who works as a gardener. "We met him in a bar called Bob's Inn in Ximera and just got talking," says the mother-of-one. "He taught me to play the tin whistle. We were in Goa for two months and I used to meet him every other day. I've still got a whistle that he gave me. I met him in various different places for the lessons - in a restaurant or a café, or on the beach. I bought him lunch or a bottle of feni [a Goan drink] - he was an alcoholic and didn't earn any money. He was such a charming man that people looked after him. He was very knowledgeable - he was a gentleman and he knew a great deal about history.
"He was really poor and had nowhere to live. The banyan tree that he lived in was near Bob's Inn. People would let him stay on their floors. He had a lot of friends and people really did care for him. Many came back year after year to spend a few months there, and they always left cash with the barmen or landladies to make sure that he was fed and looked after when the tourist season was dead.
"He was a real character and always good company. Everyone liked having him around. He was just so much fun. He attracted really interesting people as well."
Helen says it was a "running joke" at the time that Jungle Barry was Lord Lucan and, like everyone else, she didn't take it seriously. "In Bob's Inn there was a framed newspaper article about the whereabouts of Lord Lucan and everyone used to joke that it was Barry. Nobody actually believed it, though," she says. "I don't know whether Dead Lucky is clutching at straws or not. But it has made me think, because Barry was gentlemanly and he was very knowledgeable. But then again, when I look at the photographs of Lord Lucan, he has a very distinctive nose. Barry had a big, bulbous nose. I wouldn't look at a picture of Lord Lucan and think, 'Oh, look, that's Jungle Barry!' And his accent was quite cultured Lancashire. It would be lovely if it was him, because it's a great story to tell my friends. I would like it to be true, just for the laugh, but I don't know."
Helen and Nicholas moved on from Goa to the Himalayas, and never saw or heard from Barry again. But while holidaymakers dismissed the idea, MacLaughlin thought that he was on to something. After studying forensic analysis of photographs of Jungle Barry taken in Goa, the detective flew there. He showed a picture of Lord Lucan to a former landlady of Barry's, who claimed that "it could be him", and added that the one thing that upset him was that he couldn't wear earrings as he had no ear lobes. "My heart skipped a beat," wrote the detective. "Lord Lucan had no ear lobes. The fact had even been included in the description that went out to Interpol in the days following the murder."
Another former landlady, Cecilia, said that she let Barry lodge for free in return for giving her daughter, Philomena, English lessons. "He stayed many months and he called us his 'second family'. I did ask him once about his family. There were no other people around, just the two of us, and he hadn't had his first drink of the day yet. I asked him: 'Barry, have you been married?' He replied: 'I do have a wife, but I've a problem with her and I don't want to talk about it.' It was the same with his children. He had children, he said, and he loved them very much, but he wouldn't say any more. We never spoke about his family again."
According to the detective, as soon as he showed Philomena a photograph of the fugitive, the woman, then 40 and married to a clerk in a local government office, recognised the pictured man instantly: "That's Barry! I will never forget his eyes. I looked into them across a table every day for more than a year. He was teaching me English and I was educating him in the local dialect of Konkanese. Looking at this photograph, I see him staring back at me!"
At Bob's Inn, the landlord Pradip Lawande told MacLaughlin that the name Lord Lucan had been mentioned over the years. "Friends who came from England would laugh and joke with him about it, and several times I saw them give him large wads of rupees. Barry would always stuff them into his shirt. I heard the name Lucan a couple of times, late at night after they had been drinking, but it meant nothing to me then. One of them called him 'Lord L' once, but he just laughed it off.
"Once, one of his visitors produced a cutting from a British newspaper that had an article on Lord Lucan and a photograph. I saw it over his shoulder and remarked: 'That looks like you!' And he nodded and said: 'That's right. I'm Lord Lucan!' Then he smiled. I never knew whether he was joking or serious and I didn't take much notice anyway. He had a sense of humour and I think it rather appealed to him."
Jungle Barry drank himself to death in 1996, and his friends gave him a Viking funeral. Less than a dozen mourners gathered around his pyre. Four years ago, the High Court declared Lord Lucan officially dead, enabling executors to finalise details relating to the peer's estate, estimated at only £15,000. In June 1975, an inquest jury had taken just 31 minutes to deliver their verdict on the death of Miss Rivett as "murder by Lord Lucan". It was the last time an inquest jury used its right to name a murderer.
Without a body and DNA evidence, MacLaughlin and his co-author William Hall will never convince sceptics of their claims. Lady Lucan is particularly unimpressed. "There is nothing conclusive in it," she said. "I could never imagine my husband looking as pathetic as this man." But MacLaughlin said: "Lady Lucan has maintained for 29 years that her husband did the honourable thing. She is in her own little cocoon."
Nor is Lady Annabel Goldsmith, an old friend of Lord Lucan, convinced by the new allegation. "There was no way he would have wanted to live that sort of life, without his children. I can't say too much about it at the moment because I'm writing quite a lot about Lord Lucan for my own book, which I hope will be out in March."
The authors admit that they cannot be absolutely sure that they have the right man. "This book is about trying to establish beyond reasonable doubt that this was Lucan," says Hall. "We are claiming that we have overwhelming evidence. We don't have proof, because there is no body." But what they certainly do have is a book for sale at the not-inconsiderable price of £14.99, and the hope of making a tidy profit.
'Dead Lucky' is published by Blake Publishing Ltd