The moment newspaper executive Alick McKay opened the front door of his home in Wimbledon, south-west London, it was clear something was terribly wrong.
On that evening of December 29, 1969, the telephone had been ripped off the wall, the contents of his wife Muriel’s handbag were strewn over the hall while a billhook and a roll of twine had been discarded.
McKay dashed from room to room calling desperately for Muriel, the billhook blade in his hand in case the intruders were still there. There was no sign of his wife. Then, a phone call came that would kickstart the first high-profile, kidnap-for-ransom case in the UK.
Mistaken identity: Anna Murdoch and husband Rupert. The abductors had planned to target Anna Murdoch, the 25-year-old wife of newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch
Police at Wimbledon Common. Part of the problem for the police lay in the unusual nature of the abduction case
It was from a man demanding £1 million — equivalent to £20 million today — if Muriel was to be returned alive.
But the case was all the more extraordinary because Muriel had been snatched by mistake. Her abductors had planned to target Anna Murdoch, the 25-year-old wife of newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch.
Their taking of a middle-aged housewife was just one of a catalogue of bungles by both the criminals and the police pursuing them, as a recent Sky documentary explained.
With detectives adopting bizarre disguises in their attempts to outwit the kidnappers, who in turn were very far from criminal masterminds, there are elements of the story which beggar belief in the desperate search for Muriel.
Part of the problem for the police lay in the unusual nature of the abduction case.
‘This was a crime you might see in America, possibly in Italy,’ says the director of The Wimbedon Kidnapping, Joanna Bartholomew. ‘Everyone kept saying this isn’t a British crime.’
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The first officers on the scene were unable to comprehend that anything like it could have happened in Arthur Road — an avenue of desirable family homes only a few hundred yards from the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club where the Wimbledon tennis championships are held each year.
At first they suggested that 55-year-old Muriel might have eloped with a lover.
This was a ridiculous notion to anyone who was familiar with the church-going mother of three grown-up children. And it was soon obvious that Muriel was just the victim of a terrible mistake.
She and Alick had moved to the UK from Australia so he could pursue his career in newspapers as the right-hand man to Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of The Sun and News of the World.
Murdoch first came to the kidnappers’ attention in a TV interview with Sir David Frost.
To find out where he lived, they tailed his Rolls-Royce from his office. But the tycoon was on business in Australia and it was Alick McKay using the car in his absence.
Thus mistaken, they set their sights on poor Muriel. We can only imagine what brutality she suffered at their hands that night, her terror apparent when a letter in her handwriting arrived at the house the next morning. It begged her husband to ‘Please do something to get me home. What have I done to deserve this treatment?’
With their home under siege from reporters and photographers, McKay tried to keep the phone line free for the kidnappers. Some 18 calls came over the next six weeks, from a man claiming to represent an international group called ‘Mafia 3’ — M3 for short.
He talked menacingly of ‘execution’ and told Alick the matter had initially been dealt with by ‘intellectuals’ at M3 but was soon to be put in the hand of its ‘ruffians’.
As negotiations continued for Muriel’s release, two more letters arrived in her handwriting. In one, she wrote ‘I am deteriorating in health and spirit. Excuse writing. I’m blindfolded and cold. Please keep the police out of this and co-operate with the gang’.
Meanwhile, the family were being contacted by dozens of clairvoyants, all claiming that Muriel was alive and offering information about where she was being held. A Dutch psychic, Gerard Croiset insisted that the name ‘Elsa’ was somehow associated with her kidnapping. As we will see, this would prove strangely accurate.
Pictured,Muriel McKay.Today the horrific crime has faded from public memory but Muriel McKay lives on in her children’s hearts
On January 30, 1970, more than a month after Muriel’s disappearance, the kidnappers issued instructions for the McKays’ son Ian to deliver the ransom in Rupert Murdoch’s Rolls-Royce, and in return Muriel would be returned.
Rather than put Ian in danger, the police insisted one of their own should pretend to be him and take a case filled mainly with fake banknotes. As instructed by M3, ‘Ian’ went to a specified London telephone box and waited for the phone to ring.
During the ensuing call he was given the location of another phone box where he went to receive another call. This continued from phone box to phone box until he ended up on the A10 outside London, leaving the suitcase of false notes on a grass verge marked by a bunch of paper flowers left by the criminals.
Although M3 had insisted that Ian should travel alone, the Rolls- Royce driven by the police officer was conspicuously followed by a convoy of ‘undercover’ colleagues — three of them riding motorbikes and dressed as Hell’s Angels in an effort to appear part of the normal flow of traffic.
Unsurprisingly, this did not fool ‘M3’ who left the money. A new drop-off was arranged — this time to be made by Alick and his daughter Dianne — and the kidnappers warned of dire consequences should the police be in evidence.
Once again, the detectives in charge decided family members could not be endangered and one of their men was to play Alick and another Dianne.
The male officer given the latter part was chosen simply because he was the only one who could fit into her knee-length boots. When the make-up applied to his face by Dianne and her sister Jenny failed to make him look remotely feminine, it was decided that a policewoman would be sent instead.
Fruitless search: At this Hertfordshire farmhouse.At the farm they found twine like that left at the McKays’ house and a notebook with missing pages which matched those on which Muriel McKay wrote her pleas for help
This time the drop-off point was at a garage in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire. All went well until, as the watching police officers waited for M3 to pick up the fake notes, a well-meaning passerby spotted the two suitcases in which it was left and reported them to local police who took them away.
All was not lost, however. Before the cases were removed, the
undercover detectives had noticed a blue Volvo sedan. Its registration number led them to the village of Stocking Pelham and a rundown farm owned by Trinidad-born Arthur Hosein, an East End tailor with aspirations to be a country squire. He had moved there with his German wife Elsa — the name mentioned by psychic Gerard Croiset.
But there was far more than supernatural evidence to connect 34-year-old Hosein and his younger brother Nizam, then 22, to the crime.
At the farm they found twine like that left at the McKays’ house and a notebook with missing pages which matched those on which Muriel McKay wrote her pleas for help.
But there was no sign of Muriel — despite the dredging of the farm’s ponds and the search of its buildings and land by 120 officers. One theory was that the Hoseins had fed her body to the pigs.
When the brothers were brought before the Old Bailey in September, 1970 it was one of the first murder prosecutions without a body.
During the trial it was suggested Arthur Hosein had abducted Muriel McKay as he desperately needed money.
He and his brother were found guilty and, in sentencing them to life, the judge called their crimes ‘cold-blooded and abominable’.
As he left the court, Alick McKay told reporters. ‘I just want to know where she is so I can put flowers where she is.’ But he died in 1983 without ever finding out what had happened to Muriel.
It is unlikely we will ever get an answer to that question. Arthur Hosein died in Ashworth High Security Psychiatric Hospital in 2009 and Nizam, who served 20 years before being deported to Trinidad, still claims his innocence.
For a while, there were effigies of both standing in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds, alongside such notorious killers as John Christie and Dr Crippen.
Today their horrific crime has faded from public memory but Muriel McKay lives on in her children’s hearts.
‘I still wake up and think about her. She is always there,’ says her daughter Jenny in the documentary. ‘She was one of the kindest people I have ever known. She was just delightful.’
They hope that somebody watching the programme might have fresh information about what happened to their mother — a kind and loving woman snatched from her family by the cruellest twist of fate.