A pensioner missing for two years who police said may have won the lottery and gone on a round the world trip was yesterday found to have committed suicide in his garage.
Police said yesterday they had found Walter Bellman's remains, more than two years after they first searched his house when he was reported missing. They failed to discover him at the time because they looked in the wrong garage.
That error led to a two-year search for a man already dead. After checking his bank records and finding that he had spent £1,200 on National Lottery tickets in the months before he vanished, police even suggested he had won the jackpot and gone off round the world.
Mr Bellman, a former Customs and Excise officer, was last seen alive on 13 January 1998 when police called at his home in Brighton, East Sussex, to tell him of the death of his brother, Fred. Several months later, relatives of the reclusive old man told police they were worried because he had not been seen.
Officers broke into his two-bedroom property to find he had covered furniture with dust sheets and packed his clothes into boxes. His fridge was full of rotting food and post had piled up inside his door.
Police began searching the records of old people's homes, coroners' departments and mortuaries, but there was no trace of Mr Bellman.
Sussex police reopened their investigation this year when relatives again contacted them.The lottery organiser, Camelot, said yesterday that, having been contacted by the police, the company had taken a decision on "humanitarian grounds" to break its usual rules and reveal that Mr Bellman had not won.
Following a suggestion that they had been looking in the wrong place, police returned on Wednesday to the garages at the rear of Mr Bellman's home and looked once more. They found Mr Bellman's skeleton on the floor, a plastic bag over the skull and a hose leading from the bag to the exhaust of his 23-year-old Austin Allegro.
Sergeant Bryan Bell said: "Police were originally told that his garage was number five, but they counted from the wrong end and saw an empty one, which fitted their theory that he had gone away on a trip.
"The police didn't do a very good job as they should have checked it was the right garage, but there must have been a horrendous smell coming out of the garage in the summer of 1998. One theory was that he could have won the lottery, so it is very sad as it looks like he had one last-ditch attempt to win."
Mr Bellman's niece, Chrissie Bellman, said: "He has sat there for two years - this is such a ghastly mistake by a Sussex police officer. We were not surprised he was not alive, but we are more distressed about the fact that he had been there for two years."