The truth is often stranger than fiction, and in the case of John Stonehouse you'd almost believe it was the plot of an episode of Colombo. MP and former Cabinet minister, he got involved in some serious fraud and tried to pull a Reggie Perrin, faking his own death and getting found out.

The Rise

John Stonehouse was born on July 28th, 1925. He studied at the London School of Economics, and joined the Labour Party. He made it into Parliament in 1957 as MP for Walsall. The suave, handsome Stonehouse quickly took his first steps towards real responsibility in the Wilson government in 1964, becoming Secretary to the Minister of Aviation.

At the ministry, he was involved in BOAC's order of Boeing 707 aircraft, against his own recommendation that they should invest in a rival aircraft, the Super VC-10. This led to his throwing accusations at colleagues about the reasons for the decision.

John Stonehouse's rise continued, and in 1967 he became Minister for Technology. Shortly afterwards, he was given the Cabinet position of Postmaster General instead. This is one of those 'poisoned chalice' jobs, like Health Secretary, and it's often been speculated that the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson gave him this position to Stonehouse so he could undermine a potential leadership threat, and fire him. Stonehouse oversaw the introduction of the highly unpopular first and second class stamps.

It's probably at some point during his time as Postmaster General that John Stonehouse first met Sheila Buckley. He was married, but he didn't let it get in the way of a good time. Sheila Buckley became his secretary, and his mistress. This was apparently public knowledge in Westminster, but everybody kept it quiet from John's wife.

After Labour's defeat in the 1970 general election, John Stonehouse didn't make it into the Shadow Cabinet; he wasn't too popular with this ex-cabinet colleagues, who saw him as a bit of a show-off. He focused his ambitions on making money instead.

It seems that in preparation for losing his position, Stonehouse - with his nephew, Michael Hayes - set up a series of companies in third world countries, which passed funds obliquely between each other. A corporate smokescreen thus established, Stonehouse set up an Investment Bank in Bangladesh. He felt secure enough move Sheila Buckley into his London flat.


The Fall

John Stonehouse's brand-new business empire didn't last very long, though. He cross-subsidised his companies, began misleading his accountants, and pretty soon was involved in fraud. The Department of Trade and Industry started investigating him, and the press began sniffing round too.

By 1974, it was clear that John Stonehouse had to do something drastic. He asset stripped his companies, forging documents where necessary. He encouraged new investors in imaginary projects and kept the money. He took out a big life insurance policy.

He also went to a local hospital and asked about recently widowed women, ostensibly for charity purposes. Really he looked for recently deceased men of about the right age. You see, he'd read Day of the Jackal and therefore knew about faking passports. After obtaining the birth certificates of two of the men, and speaking to the widows (pretending to comfort them), he was able to obtain two false passports, in the names of Donald Mildoon and Joseph Markham.

Stonehouse managed to get about 2,000,000GBP in cash through his various means. With only Sheila in on his plans, he went to Miami, with the Markham passport, everything in place, and... comes back to Britain again, changing his mind at the last moment.

However, everything was ready now. Two weeks later, on the 20th of November 1974, John Stonehouse got up the nerve, left a pile of clothes on Miami beach, went for a swim and disappeared. His clothes were found shortly afterwards.


Being Dead

The first thing he did was flee to San Francisco and launder his money, eventually paying it in under his assumed identity. He phoned Sheila, who told the newspapers that he liked to go swimming by himself, and had probably drowned. The House of Commons held a minute's silence and began to prepare a by-election. His wife, Barbara, and children were convinced he had died too, and Barbara Stonehouse had to be treated for shock.

John Stonehouse himself, meanwhile, had safely made it to Australia - via Hawaii - on his false passport, keeping in contact with Sheila by phone, but telling her that she mustn't come to him, because it would be too suspicious.


Discovery

There was one little problem in his plan. Normally, drowned swimmers wash up on the beach after a day or two. But no corpse appeared. The tabloids jumped to the obvious conclusion that he must have been eaten by sharks. The FBI also suspected that the drowning story was implausible. They had a much better explanation; Stonehouse was killed in a Mafia hit. They even went as far as digging up a car park to search for his body, and succeeded in finding a corpse. Unfortunately, it was somebody else. Someone leaked to the press that Stonehouse was a Soviet spy, taken back to Mother Russia.

Stonehouse kept his money moving around various Australian banks to avoid detection, and it's this odd behaviour that betrayed him. One of the banks reported strange money movements, suspecting a fraud. The Melbourne police did a little investigation, and started surveillance. They saw this tall, dark wealthy Englishman desperate not to be found and came to a conclusion that they had him; they'd found Lord Lucan. Lucan went missing at about the same time, so it wasn't such a stupid idea. They watched and waited.

Stonehouse kept moving, going to Singapore, Denmark and Lebanon, and then back to Austrailia again under the second false passport. While in Denmark, he met Sheila in Copenhagen.

When he re-entered Australia, the police were sure something dodgy was up. Stepping up surveillance, they finally decided that they had enough evidence to arrest him for passport fraud. On Christmas Eve, they arrested him, and he immediately confessed to the passport fraud, but told the authorities that he was fleeing for his life, after being blackmailed in the UK.

Well, it was Christmas, normally a quiet time politically, and the UK press had a field day, putting as many people as possible on the story. Here was a sitting MP and member of the ruling party - for Labour had won the election by a tiny majority - involved in a scandal, whichever way you looked at it. In Australia, they found it sort of funny. John's wife was so happy that he was alive that she immediately flew to Australia to be by his side and support him.


Farce

Well, the UK police wanted Stonehouse back, as they were sure he was involved in something illegal, but that hadn't entirely figured out what yet. They realised he must have has an accomplice, and soon traced Sheila Buckley. The tabloids ran on details of their affair, which is how Barbara Stonehouse found out the real story.

Britain didn't have a good case for extradition yet, and Australia seemed not to be pressing any charges. Stonehouse must have relaxed for a little while, until Sheila Buckley arrived in Australia to see him. This pushed things too far, and Barbara left the couple in Australia, and filed for divorce back in England.

It took six months to get Stonehouse back to Britain, and once he'd been bailed he acted as if nothing had happened, returning to the House of Commons and attending the Labour Party conference. His trial didn't start until summer 1976, and lasted 67 days, the longest fraud trial in UK history. But the weirdness doesn't stop yet. On the 7th of August, Stonehouse resigned the Labour whip and a week later joined the somewhat racist English National Party, becoming their only MP. Two weeks later, he resigned from Parliament after he was found guilty. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, of which he served three, suffering from heart troubles.

Leaving prison in 1979, Stonehouse ended up marrying Sheila Buckley in 1981 and having a child. They lived a quiet and more modest life, only occasionally appearing on chat shows. In the end, John's heart got the better of him, and he died in 1988.

http://www.pf757.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/reggie/Real.htm
http://www.expressandstar.com/days/1950-75/1974.html
http://www.westmidlands.com/days/1976-2000/1976.html
http://www.dailynews.lk/2003/02/25/fea08.html
http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/december/24/newsid_2540000/2540557.stm

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