The British know how to savor a tantalizing crime. And this week they have been treated to a heist that is irresistibly juicy.
An intrepid cat burglar lifted jewelry valued in the range of $1.2 million from the lavish Sussex country estate of a fabulously wealthy and mysterious Jordanian as he and his family slept. The thief outwitted an elaborate alarm system, floodlights, guard dogs and about 100 servants, making a getaway in a speeding car.
The victim, Taj Hajjar, reputedly has spent a fortune to transform his 1,000-acre spread and Tudor mansion, adding exotic artifacts, a 27-horse stable, a Japanese tea house and a Greek temple. Among his 14 cars is a gold-colored Rolls-Royce.
All that is engaging enough. But what makes the case a sensation is that police believe the thief is the same person who has deftly made off with more than $2 million in baubles over the last year in a series of burglaries at stately homes and treasure troves around Britain.
"Super-thief Raffles" proclaimed the Daily Express, invoking the swashbuckling image of the famed figure of Victorian novels who played cricket by day and emptied country houses by night. Created by E.W. Hornung in a book titled, "The Amateur Cracksman," Raffles, said the Express, was "the first criminal acceptable as a hero to English readers."
With so great a legend being invoked, Fleet Street police reporters are scrambling to offer details of the updated modus operandi. The liveliest unconfirmed report so far is that the new Raffles uses ropes fired from a crossbow to outwit alarm systems and gain entry, then escapes down a hanging ladder.
It is speculated that the thief has inside information and therefore wastes no time searching for safes or valuables. This, in turn, suggests that accomplices are recruited from the staffs of the homes.
Another theory--advanced by T.A. Sandrock, the Daily Telegraph's crime correspondent--is that the burglar has a racing connection.
"In at least three of the burglaries," Sandrock wrote this week, "there were either well-known stud farms nearby or, as in one case, it was close to Newmarket racecourse. It is possible that tip-offs about the targets, their alarm systems and their contents could have come from someone moving among the racing fraternity, probably at the higher level of owners and trainers."
Police spokesmen refuse to discuss any of this with outsiders.
Furthermore, the identity of Hajjar has confounded the press. He was first described in some newspapers as a prince and then was said to be married to a princess. Neither claim is evidently true. He is now said by the Daily Mail to be a once "penniless refugee from the West Bank of the River Jordan who built up a network of Middle Eastern companies to accumulate his phenomenal wealth."
He is portrayed as a "billionaire" by some sources, and his 200 companies are said to turn over about $1 billion a year. A picture of the secretive Hajjar published this morning depicts a genial-looking, middle-aged man who, given all the hoopla, looks disappointingly ordinary.
Even Hajjar's supposed link to royalty grows more and more unlikely. After reports that claimed that Hajjar's estate was actually meant as a "bolt-hole" for Jordan's King Hussein should he ever need to flee his homeland, the Jordanian embassy put out a testy statement insisting that the estate was no such thing and that the king and Hajjar were not even friends.
The case continues to electrify Britons, nonetheless. Police disclosed yesterday their first substantive clues, three empty jewel boxes found by a roadside not far from the scene. A reward of $120,000 awaits return of the contents and conviction of the culprit.
Meanwhile, "Raffles" remains at large.