LONDON • It was a case that riveted the world: In 1974, a dashing British aristocrat and army officer, known for his prowess at backgammon and bridge and his fondness for vodka martinis, powerboats and Aston Martin cars, vanished after the bludgeoned body of his children's nanny was found in his family's house in the affluent Belgravia area of London.
Richard John Bingham, the seventh Earl of Lucan, was declared the killer in 1975. But he was never found, despite an international manhunt, unverified sightings in places as far-flung as Australia, Colombia, India, Paraguay, the US and New Zealand, as well as endless conspiracy theories.
A British judge declared Lord Lucan dead in 1999, allowing the resolution of certain estate and inheritance matters, but the ruling did not definitively close the issue.
Under a law that took effect in 2014, the earl's son, Mr George Charles Bingham, 49, asked a court to formally issue a death certificate so that he could inherit his father's title and become the eighth Earl of Lucan.
High Court Justice Sarah Asplin granted Mr Bingham's request in London on Wednesday. The proceeding, which attracted significant attention in the British media, was brief for a case with such a notorious and lengthy history.
Ms Asplin's decision came after Mr Neil Berriman, son of the nanny Sandra Rivett, dropped his objection to Mr Bingham's petition.
Mr Berriman, 49, who was put up for adoption as an infant, learnt that his mother had been murdered only after his adoptive mother died. He had said a death certificate should not be issued because of the possibility, however remote, that Lord Lucan might still be alive. (If he were, he would be 81.)
The disappearance of Lord Lucan had riveted Britain. The country was suffering from high energy prices and a sluggish economy. At a time of flux and malaise, the lurid tale of aristocratic impunity astonished the country.
The search for Lord Lucan began on Nov 7, 1974, after his estranged wife Veronica Duncan, bleeding from head wounds, burst into a nearby pub and shouted: "He's in the house! He's murdered the nanny!" The couple had separated in 1972 and Lord Lucan had moved out of the house. He had heavy gambling debts and was battling his wife for custody of their three children.
Inside the house, police officers found the body of Ms Rivett, 29. She had been bludgeoned to death and placed in a mail bag in the basement. It was not clear why Lord Lucan, then 39, might have killed her, but one theory is that he had mistaken her for his wife.
Soon after, a Ford Corsair that Lord Lucan had borrowed was found - abandoned and soaked in blood - in East Sussex, south-east of London. An inquest jury declared him the killer in 1975.
When Mr Berriman raised his objections last autumn, he asked the British tabloid Daily Mail: "Why on earth would Lord Lucan's son want to carry on a title that is linked to a possible murderer?" But Mr Berriman and Mr Bingham, who are months apart in age, made conciliatory comments in separate remarks to reporters outside the courthouse on Wednesday.
Mr Bingham said his father's fate was a mystery. "My own personal view - and it was one I took, I think, as an eight-year-old boy - is that he's unfortunately been dead since that time," he said.
"In the circumstances, I think it's quite possible that he saw his life at an end - regardless of guilt or otherwise - of being dragged through the courts and through the media, (which) would have destroyed his personal life, his career and the chances of getting custody of his children back. And that may well have pushed the man to end his own life. But I have no idea.
"To hear that your father is racist, a snob, a poster boy for the aristocracy in the 1970s didn't sit very well with the rather charming, rather lovely and kind man I knew. Nevertheless, people, if they leave a party early, get to be speculated about, don't they?"
NEW YORK TIMES