Elizabeth Feltman died as she would have wished — after a good lunch, and in the penthouse suite of one of the most costly pieces of real estate on Britain's south-west coastline. The windows of her luxury apartments looked out over the palm trees of Torquay, jewel of the English Riviera and the UK's most expensive and exclusive holiday and retirement resort.
Torbay Court, a period block of luxury flats in the most elegant part of town had been left to Mrs Feltman by her father. Now she lived with her husband Carl, 67 and her 37-year-old son, Christopher, in a spacious penthouse, worth millions. The whole building was probably worth over $5 million, according to Carl and Christopher, who were desperate for Mrs Feltman to sell the place to finance a failed construction company, but for months she had refused. Now, it seemed, Elizabeth Feltman had changed her mind. On a warm June afternoon in 1999 she had obligingly killed herself. Carl and Christopher were obviously shattered with grief. But the fact that their money worries were presumably now over was at least a slight consolation.
But what appeared to be a fairly routine tragedy quickly took on a new and sinister aspect when detectives moved into the penthouse suite to start their investigations. For although there were pills, drugs and even a revolver in the house, Mrs Feltman had chosen a bizarre and novel way of ending it all: she had set herself on fire. The blaze that apparently asphyxiated her had blackened the elegant white and gold sitting room and turned the white carpet on which she had fallen, a grubby brown around the body leaving a stark white outline when it was removed. It was this that alerted Detective Inspector John King that this was no innocent death. As he was later to tell a jury at Exeter Crown Court: "The outline showed that she was clutching a handkerchief to her face when she died. And why should she be holding it in that position unless she was frantically trying to stop herself inhaling the smoke?" Inspector King's suspicions increased with every new piece of evidence: Why hadn't the smoke alarms gone off? Why didn't Mrs Feltman call for help from a phone on a nearby table? Why didn't she escape on to a balcony about three steps away? And why were fires started in three separate places? Some of the questions were soon answered — a post-mortem examination showed that 58-year-old Mrs Feltman, ravaged with advanced cancer, had been drinking and taking sleeping pills shortly before she died. In her feeble physical state she had probably succumbed to the smoke and been unable to call for help or reach safety.
But what was the explanation for the fact that all windows were locked, the door locked from the outside — and Mrs Feltman's keys locked into the boot of her Jaguar car? And why had all cables to the phone and the smoke and security alarms been cut? And who had started fires in three airvents leading into the penthouse? Could Mrs Feltman's grieving husband and son provide any answers? "I loved my mother very much," Christopher Feltman told Inspector King.
"I didn't kill her and I know my father didn't kill her, as God is my witness. I had nothing to do with the fire. There would be absolutely no reason to kill my mother." He believed that Mrs Feltman killed herself because of the pain and distress caused by the cancer. Carl Feltman also insisted that he was completely innocent. "I did not kill my wife," he said. "We loved each other with a passion. I would never do anything like that." Detectives didn't believe either of them: a week after the blaze Carl and Christopher Feltman were arrested and charged with murder, a charge they both strenuously denied. Given bail on $100,000 surety, Christopher Feltman left custody claiming that he could prove that both he and his father were innocent and returned triumphantly carrying what he claimed was his mother's suicide note which he had found hidden in the back of a table-top picture frame.
Miraculously the fire had not damaged it. But, as prosecutor Harold Harley was to tell the Exeter jury: "We believe Mrs Feltman wrote the note months before she died and her son held on to it to help prove, if necessary, that he didn't kill her."
Harley told the jury that the fires had been started in airvents leading to the penthouse which had been sealed off to prevent the heat and smoke escaping. "It was inevitable that anyone in the penthouse would suffocate unless they were able to escape — and in this case escape was impossible, certainly for a woman in Mrs Feltman's condition," Harley alleged. He said that eventually the temperature in the penthouse reached an incredible 700 degrees Fahrenheit, a heat which actually melted the smoke alarms.
Fireman had to smash down the front door, which had been securely locked, and the smoke was so thick that one fireman fell down a lift shaft, breaking both legs, because he could see less than a foot in front of him. Why should Mrs Feltman's son and husband want to kill her? According to Harley, a motive was not hard to find: they were having serious money troubles. "Their construction company had fallen on hard times and had gone into bankruptcy. They had pressured Mrs Feltman to sell the house and so save them from ruin but she refused to do so, saying that she had left them the property in her will and they would have to be patient.
"At first Carl and Christopher Feltman expected that Mrs Feltman would die quickly of cancer but then the chemotherapy treatment apparently began to work and they plotted to kill her." The jury heard that when police began to investigate the lives of Carl and Christopher Feltman they found that the family had claimed insurance on no less than five fires in the previous 20 years. One company took Carl Feltman to court but he eventually won the case. Another fire, six years earlier, gutted Christopher Feltman's home and he collected $100,000 which went to pay debts on another failed business.
Police had also learned that shortly before the fatal fire, Carl Feltman had taken out policies on this wife's building which would pay out $600,000 in property and life insurance.
"Here we are dealing with men who will obviously stop at nothing to get money," Harley told the court. "To them a woman's life was far less important than financial gain." Carl and Christopher Feltman denied everything. They were, they said, over 100 miles away in Cornwall at the time of the blaze and had hotel bills to prove it ... a story which might have been believed had the prosecution not suddenly produced a surprise witness on the third day of the trial. David Meehan, who had shared a cell with Christopher while he was on remand, claimed that Feltman had told him that he started one of the fires. "He said: 'I watched the flames go up the wall before I left the house,'" Meehan alleged. "'We just had to do it. There was no other way of saving the company.'"
Meehan stuck to his story, despite fierce defence allegations that he was making it up in order to be considered for parole. It certainly seemed to impress the jury: in less than an hour they found Carl and Christopher Feltman guilty of murder. They were jailed for life and are expected to serve at least 15 years. Nor can they look forward to being rich men when eventually released. For Elizabeth Feltman has had the last laugh. Unknown to her family she had sold the building a year before her death and left the money to a distant relative in New Zealand.