Throughout the annals of history numerous criminal cases continue to be unsolved. Some of these cold cases which date from centuries ago have become the stuff of legend, for example the Whitechapel killings committed supposedly by Jack the Ripper towards the end of the 19th Century, whose identity to this very day isn’t verified. From common theft to murders-most-foul, police forces across the globe are constantly baffled by crimes committed either so perfectly or so oddly as to offer up nothing but dead ends.
True, there are some which are solved after years out in the cold, including murder investigations benefiting from today’s forensic tests; art work occasionally turns up in the middle of nowhere such as the hoard of art hidden in a basement in Munich since 1945. But on the whole, once there are no more investigative leads to follow, most unsolved crimes just drift to the bottom of a detective’s in-tray; that’s not to say that police are taken off the case but the case is re-prioritised.
Let’s have a look at 15 crimes that never got solved; but we won’t get carried away with gruesome murders even though they make up the most talked-about unsolved crimes…maybe we could do that later; first, let’s look at the most interesting and wacky.
15 The Lead Masks Case
Here’s an interesting one to end with. The discovery of two bodies on the Morro do Vintém, Brazil, prompted a nationwide manhunt and 51 years of legend.
When the recovery team reached the corpses of Manoel Pereira da Cruz and Miguel José Viana, two electronic technicians, they were baffled by the presentation: the bodies lay side by side, covered by grass, both wore a formal suit, lead eye masks and waterproof coats. Next to the corpses lay an empty water bottle and two wet towels. Although it was not the most unusual the authorities had seen, it was certainly cause for curiosity.
Following investigative leads, it was suggested that the men had died from some sort of overdose; however, because the coroner was busy on the days following the discovery no toxicology was carried out. Consequently, the deaths are an unending mystery and the reason for the lead eye masks even more so. Some have even offered alien contact as an explanation. Plausible?
14 The Taken Tucker Cross
Acclaimed diver and explorer Teddy Tucker, whose treasure-hunting exploits were known the world over, made his “most treasured discovery” in 1955. In the shallow waters off the coast of the Florida, Tucker’s perseverance paid off when he uncovered a 22-karat gold and emerald cross from the shipwreck of the San Pedro, a galleon ship that sunk in 1594. He sold his finds to the Bermuda Museum of Art where the cross was proudly displayed for 20 years.
The cross was stolen in 1975 and the thief (or thieves) left a cheap plastic replica in its place; to this day no one knows who took it or where it is. One suggestion is that the cross was melted down and the emeralds taken to be sold on the black market but some say it is in the private collection of a jewel collector. Brian Lam, in a 2011 article for The Scuttlefish remarked that, “It was considered to be the most valuable single object ever found in a shipwreck”. And perhaps it still is. It was worth $250 million.
13 Tuba Thefts In California
In February 2012, The New York Times ran a story about a string of crimes that could have come straight out of a National Lampoons film. Thieves were breaking into numerous high schools in southern Los Angeles County to pilfer not computers or hi-tech sound equipment but brass tubas and sousaphones. At a high school in Bell, CA., instruments worth around $7,000 were pinched leaving teachers and students asking why. After all, the melt-down value of brass is not worth the trouble of such an elaborate heist.
This left some people believing that the instruments were being stolen to be played, particularly in what’s known as a Banda, a traditional Mexican musical ensemble. Certainly Bandas have enjoyed an upsurge in popularity recently and players can make a hefty packet at weddings and other special occasions. The belief is that the instruments are now in the hands of Mexican musicians, but no one will ever really know.
12 The Schiphol Airport Heist
This is not as disturbing as some of the other crimes but it is officially “wacky”; that it was pulled off in broad daylight should be applauded (even though we don’t condone crime in any shape or form).
Two men dressed as Dutch airline KLM employees drove calmly to the dropping off strip outside Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. They got out of the car and walked up to a truck a few yards away that just so happened to be carrying uncut diamonds estimated at $118 million. Although holding a gun to the driver and passenger of the van, not a shot was fired and the heist was carried out with the calm precision of a birdie putt at the 18th hole.
Although a recent development (2017) has seen seven Dutch nationals arrested on suspicion of carrying out the heist, $40 million is still missing and no one has yet been charged.
11 The Salish Sea Foot Mystery
Seriously a bit odd now. Since 2007, 16 dismembered feet have been found washed up on the shores of the Salish Sea. Most have been found in the Canadian province of British Columbia, but some on Vancouver Island and Washington State. The natural assumption was that the feet (most of which were still in shoes) had belonged to victims of a plane crash or boating accident.
Police and forensic teams remain baffled by the apparent lack of any other body parts and the suggestion of foul play hasn’t been ruled out. However in some of the regions where the feet have washed up the currents and tides make tracing a source virtually impossible; in addition, the feet could feasibly belong to someone who lived the other side of the world. While the identities of two of the feet have been confirmed, the others remain, err, outstanding.
10 Penguin Pinched From A German Zoo
In February 217, a rare Humboldt's penguin disappeared from Luisenpark zoo, Mannheim, Germany. Who took it, no one knew and the bird was only discovered missing after a head count. Apparently, whoever had snatched it was able to do so in broad daylight by entering the enclosure and no one had batted an eyelid.
Zoo officials were distraught at the theft and concerns for the animal’s safety grew since a captive bird like the Humboldt's requires just the right kind of food and temperature. Many of those involved in the search suspected the bird was going to be sold on the black market but it soon became clear that even if a sale had been the intention of the thieves, the black market for Humboldt's was a little slack; two days later it was found tied to a nearby car park railing and very much deceased. The case remains open.
9 Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Stewart museum opened in 1903 as a benevolent gift to the people of Boston, USA. Up until March 18, 1990 it was home to an exceptional collection of masterpieces including works by Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer. That was until two thieves pulled off what Wikipedia states as, “The largest art theft in world history”, by stealing works of art worth $500 million.
The theft was expertly planned although not exactly careful in its execution. The museum’s night-watchman didn’t help matters by letting two “cops” through the security door without first making the necessary checks with the BPD. Ten minutes later he and his fellow guard were bound and gagged as the two thieves went to work ransacking the galleries. The crooks left with 13 works of art; Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert,” was one of only 36 known paintings by the 17th Century Dutch master.
Although the FBI is certain a criminal gang was responsible for the heist, the paintings were never found, never turned up in an auction and the thieves were never caught.
8 Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?
In April 1943, four young boys looking for birds’ nests in some woods near Birmingham, England discovered a human skull shoved into the hollow trunk of an elm tree. It led to a police search that would uncover almost a complete skeleton and some fragments of clothing.
It was later determined that the remains belonged to a woman, but her identity was a complete mystery; was she a prostitute or the victim of a silly prank? To hinder things further, in the middle of WW2 so many people were going missing it was virtually impossible to find a lead on the case. Naturally, the case went cold pretty quickly but six months later some strange graffiti started to appear across the area; one piece in particular on a nearby obelisk:
“Who put Bella in the wych elm?”
To this date no leads are forthcoming and only speculation keeps the mystery alive. Some say “Bella” was a German spy who according to interrogation reports by MI5 was to be dropped into the area in 1941 on a secret mission. She failed to make radio contact with her case officer which suggests she met an untimely end, possibly at the hands of an unknown killer.
7 Northampton National Bank
In January 1876, New York thieves broke through the new security system of the National Bank in Massachusetts and carried out the biggest bank robbery in United States history, ever. With some careful planning that had seen some previous successful break-ins of a handful of other banks, the gang of thieves now headed for Northampton, MA. Codenamed “Rufus” the group set up their hideout in a school attic which afforded clear views of the town in all directions.
Observing the movements of the bank’s employees and the town’s law enforcement the gang believed they had only to contend with a night watchman but soon even he left for the night leaving the bank effectively theirs for the taking.
About a month after the heist, the thieves write a ransom note to the bank, offering to sell the “bonds, letters and papers to the smallest document” back to the bank for $150,000; the arrogant action spelled their downfall since the lengthy negotiations which followed allowed the police to track down the gang. The money on the other hand was never recovered.
6 What Happened To Hoffa?
Becoming president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is a big enough accolade for most people but Jimmy Hoffa wasn’t most people. He may have secured the first US national agreement for teamsters' (union of blue collar, professional, public, private workers) rates in 1964 and played a major role in the development of the union but Hoffa wanted a little piece of Mafioso action because, well, it all looked so shiny.
One summer night back in 1975, Hoffa stood waiting in a Detroit carpark to meet two goons. They never showed up and he, well, he disappeared for good too.
Was he killed, or did he do a runner, is he in a shallow grave near the car park or did he live to a ripe old age being wafted by two Brazilian playboy bunnies? The questions and rumours still abound to this day, some with enough weight to have instigated new searches, such as the 2013 FBI dig at a property owned by a Detroit mob boss
5 Belfort Museum, Belgium
Crime doesn’t get much easier than this. In late summer 2010, two men walked into the Belfort museum in the centre of Bruges, Belgium and headed for the permanent Salvador Dali exhibition then hosted by InterArt. Here were paintings, watercolours, drawings and objects by the prominent Spanish surrealist but our men knew what they had come for. For a moment or two they stood in front of Dali's 1964 bronze statue Woman with Drawers and while one of the thieves stood between the guard and the statue, the other simply lifted it up and stuffed it into a holdall.
At 20 inches tall and 22 pounds in weight it has to rank as one of the easiest heists in history and despite surveillance camera footage, the duo and the statue (said to be worth $150,000) have never been found.
4 Michael Rockefeller's Disappearance
Fifth child of New York Governor (later Vice President) Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Michael Rockefeller and Dutch anthropologist René Wassing set out in a canoe to study the indigenous tribes and animal species of the Asmat region of New Guinea. Shortly after arriving in the area, the canoe overturned leaving Wassing drowning while Rockefeller swam to shore. He was never seen again and legally declared dead 1964.
Theories abounded at the time as the press speculated about Rockefeller having succumbed to the native’s penchant for cannibalism and headhunting. However, it may simply have been the case that he also drowned after the canoe accident along with this Dutch counterpart or survived but was subsequently attacked by a shark or saltwater crocodile. Either way, no one to this day truly knows what happened to the intelligent Harvard graduate except that he was pronounced dead in absentia despite an intensive and lengthy search effort.
An interesting book by Carl Hoffman published in 2014 recounts the author’s own investigation of the New Guinean villages and makes some startling suggestions.
3 The Fall Of An Empire
As the Reich Chancellery in Berlin lay in ruins and Adolf Hitler’s evil empire collapsed in April 1945, a collection of treasure looted from victims of the Nazi regime was supposed by some to be used by the fleeing dictator. Fortunately for us, the moustached lunatic never got round to buying that coastal penthouse in Bertioga because firstly he killed himself and secondly the infamous collection worth an estimated $3.34 billion, which included gold expropriated from individuals and foreign governments ($223 million from Belgium and $193 million from the Netherlands), vanished sometime afterwards.
Speculation and legend have afforded numerous explanations and on occasion various items of gold or collections of jewels have appeared. Over the years, some pieces have been found in Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey, not to mention the much publicised suggestion last year that three tonnes of stolen gold bars lay 450 meters below the surface of the Baltic sea. However, most of it remains undiscovered and perhaps will never be found.
It is called the largest bank robbery in history and it still remains an intriguing international mystery.
2 The Abduction Of Elizabeth Canning
Cor blimey guvnor, ‘eres an ‘ow dee do for ya! Let’s step back in time to the London of 1753, a bustling, smoky, dirty hive of industry where men made money standing up and many women made it lying down. Elizabeth Canning however, was a good girl; a maidservant to publican John Winklebury, who considered her an honest girl, she worked for him for just one year until her untimely disappearance.
She was gone but a month and, upon her return, made a shocking allegation that she had been abducted and forced into the sex industry by two unsavoury women - Mother Wells, the madam of a brothel in Enfield, and her gypsy accomplice Mary Squires.
The charges brought against the two ladies were serious enough to warrant the death sentence for Squires, although this was later repealed by King George II. The public had a field day and almost blindly supported Canning’s case in the High Court.
However, among the braying, the Lord Mayor of London at the time, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, suggested that both the accused had sufficiently watertight alibis even though he could not properly account for Canning’s absence. In the end, Canning was found guilty of perjury but the reasons for her disappearance remain a complete mystery.
1 William Cantelo, Where’d He Go?
William Cantelo was a 19th-century British inventor and credited with the invention of the early machine gun. Over the course of ten years he had perfected his killing machine along with his sons in a secret tunnel underneath Arundel Tower in Southampton, UK. Soon after announcing its conception, Cantelo mysteriously disappeared.
The oddest part of the story centres on his sons’ efforts to locate him. They discovered, in the States, that an almost exact copy of the machine gun had been devised by someone called Hiram Maxim. Later called the Maxim gun, Maxim sold his work to the British government for a pretty pound.
The boys searched high and low for their father, and even confronted Maxim, whom they were convinced was their father (he even looked the same); alas to no avail, their father’s disappearance remained a mystery and he was never found. Nor was his machine gun.
Sources: livescience.com, telegraph.co.uk, wikipedia.org, nytimes.com