Police found the body of film star Charlie Chaplin buried in a cornfield yesterday after two Eastern European political refugees confessed to having stolen it two months ago in a bizarre plot to extort a ransom.
The two refugees, a Bulgarian and a Pole now living in Switzerland were arrested Tuesday and reportedly told police how they took Chaplin's oak coffin from the village cemetary at Corsier-sur-Vevey and buried it in a shallow hole in the cornfield near Villeneive, about 10 miles away at the eastern tip of Lake Geneva.
The events of the last few days, revealed this evening by authorities, finaly bring to an end a bewildering search for the remains of the tattered vagoond of the silent movies who had lived for over 20 years near here in peaceful semiretirement before his death last December.
The capture of the alleged grave-robber followed intentionally prolonged bargaining over the ransom, the clue of a Slavic accent on the telephone, and a massive stakeout of more than 200 public phone booths in Lausanne. One of the two accused thieves was taken into custody just after he had made another in a series of ransom demands.
As police tell the story, the Chaplin family began receiving ransom demands by phone several weeks after the coffin was taken. The caller had a Slavic accent.
Although the family had received many false calls asking for exhoribit sums, this time the demand was backed up with a photograph, sent by the alleged coffin just before its reburial in the cornpatch.
Chaplin's widow, Oona, refused to consider ransom. But in order to cooperate with police, the family, through its lawyer, Jean-Felix Paschoud, bargained with the alleged grave robbers over a tapped telephone. By the time the demand had dropped from $600,000 to $250,000, the police had figured out that the ransom calls were coming from a public pay telephone.
Two earlier traps set for the alleged grave robbers did not succeed but a dragnet of 100 policemen keeping an eye on all of Lausanne's more than 200 pay public telephones proved too difficult to elude for a 24-year-old Polish auto mechanic, until recently unemployed.
The Pole who was not identified except by his initials "R.W.," was caught outside a phone booth. He refused to name any accomplices, but within hours after his arrest police had tracked down and arrested a friend of his, a 38-year-old political refuges from Bulgaria, also an auto mechanic, now known, here as "G.G."
Police reportedly believe no one else is involved, partly because after weighing the coffin they found that it is not as heavy as they thought at first.
The two, according to police, used a van from the Balgarians shop to transport the coffin. Authorities here who had expected the motive for stealing the coffin was to extract a ransom, do not seem surprised by the outcome of the case, although for weeks many theories were rampant, including the idea that fanatic admirers have ship ed Chaplin's body to his native England.
The two accused men face seven-and-a-half years in prison for extortion and for "disturbing the peace of the dead."
Chaplin's family has not disclosed what it plans to do with his recovered coffin.