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.