Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fortune's End: The Mysterious Murder of Sir Harry Oakes

A Brief Investigation

From the beginning, the death of Sir Harry Oakes took on an air of mystery and intrigue. Shortly following the discovery of his body, Harold Christie made several telephone calls for help, one to a neighbor who did not answer and the other to his brother Frank. Christie was able to reach his brother Frank who was told about the gruesome finding and instructed to call a doctor promptly. After he hung up the phone, another call came in. It was a reporter named Etienne Dupuch, who had a scheduled interview with Oakes that day. Christie, who was at the time believed to be in a state of hysteria, screamed into the receiver, "He's dead! He's been shot!" Dupuch immediately sent the information to news agency that quickly sent the headline around the world. At first unsuccessful at preventing the news of the murder from leaving the island, the Duke of Wales immediately blocked any other news about the investigation for two days.

Interestingly, the Duke broke precedent and took complete control of the investigation, from the beginning. His first act was to sidestep the Bahamas Criminal Investigation Department and the Nassau Police Department and bring two outside detectives from the Miami Police Department to lead the investigation. When the public eventually learned of the Duke's decisions to thwart news of the death and to hire outside investigators, it drew much suspicion and criticism.

Miami detectives Captain James Barker, 40, and Captain Edward Melchen, 50, were assigned the task of leading the investigation into Sir Harry Oakes' murder. The Duke chose Melchen and Barker to lead the case because they were considered to be two of the country's leading fingerprint experts. Leasor writes that Melchen served at one time as a personal bodyguard to the Duke, who was impressed by his resourcefulness and loyalty. According to Kirk Wilson, the Duke allegedly told the two detectives that he wanted to "confirm the details of a suicide" of one of the island's more prominent citizens; an unusual statement being that the Duke was aware that Oakes' death was a murder. The two men flew to Nassau the day of the murder and began what would be considered to be one of the most highly botched investigations in the island's history.

When Barker and Melchen arrived at Oakes' house on the day of the murder, they discovered a gruesome scene. Sir Harry Oakes was lying on his backside. His body had been doused with gasoline and half burned. He was also covered in feathers from his pillow. The left side of his head was covered in blood, which ran from the four indentations on his scalp towards his nose. The blood flow from the wounds indicated that Oakes was initially laying face down when the trauma initially occurred.

The crime scene
The crime scene (©Corbis)

A partially charred lacquered Chinese screen, covered in blood and fingerprints, stood alongside the bed. The wall next to Oakes' bed had a single bloody handprint on it. Upon further investigation, the detectives discovered several muddy footprints leading up the stairs from the main floor and to the bedroom. It was apparent to the investigators that Oakes' death was not a suicide as suggested by the Duke, but a brutal murder.

At the time of Oakes' murder, which was believed to have been somewhere in the pre-dawn hours of July 8th, his family was vacationing away from the island. His wife was awaiting the arrival of Oakes at another home of theirs located in Maine. He was scheduled to meet her in there the day after his body was discovered. The Oakes' children were traveling around North America during the time of their father's death. The entire family was immediately excluded as suspects in the crime, except for one member.

The day following the discovery of Oakes' body, detectives collected some of the many fingerprints left behind at the crime scene. Unfortunately, the two "expert" detectives left behind in Miami their latent-fingerprint camera, which was one of the most crucial pieces of equipment needed in order to conduct a thorough collection of the fingerprints. In another bizarre twist to the investigation, the two inspectors allowed some of the island's more prominent residents into the house to see the room where Oakes' body was found, following its removal. No caution was taken to prevent the sightseers from handling the objects in and around the crime scene.

Marie Howard explains that the same morning investigators talked with real estate tycoon Harold Christie, who was sleeping in the room next to Oakes on the night of the murder. He claimed that during the night he did not hear any unusual sounds that would warrant suspicion. The investigators alleged to have also interviewed Oakes' son-in-law Freddie de Marigny. Shortly following the interview with de Marigny, the investigators resumed their search for fingerprints and found what would be the most critical piece of evidence in the case. On the Chinese screen in Oakes' bedroom, a fingerprint was allegedly lifted from the screen that was believed to have belonged to the murderer. Thirty-six hours following the discovery of the body, Captain Barker declared that the suspicious fingerprint belonged to Freddie de Marigny. Shortly thereafter, de Marigny was charged with the murder of his father-in-law Sir Harry Oakes and was interned in the Nassau jail.

Following the arrest, anger amongst the islanders quickly grew toward Freddie de Marigny. Their dislike became so intense that the Duke ordered the Nassau Fire Brigade to stand by the jailhouse to protect him from angry crowds that he believed might form. The islanders could not understand why Freddie would kill someone that had helped so many people.

However, Freddie's wife Nancy believed differently. She found the charges against her husband to be ridiculous. Nancy believed Freddie was simply incapable of committing such a heinous crime. She knew his character probably better than anyone else.

Nancy privately enlisted the help of a detective named Raymond Schindler to help prove what she so strongly believed — that her husband was innocent. Schindler agreed to assist Nancy in proving her husband's innocence on the condition that Freddie passed an earlier form of a lie detector test. After agreeing to the condition, Schindler located a leading fingerprint and lie detector expert named Professor Keeler and they both flew south to Nassau.

To Schindler and Keeler's surprise, when they arrived at Oakes' home to conduct their own investigation they found that police officers were scrubbing the walls in the bedroom clean of evidence. During their cleaning, they washed away a bloody handprint on the wall near the bed. It was unknown whose handprint it was. When Schindler asked why they were destroying vital fingerprints, the officers replied that they were not Freddie de Marigny's and therefore were of no use. It has been theorized that the print was purposely removed to hide the identity of whoever made them.

During the brief investigation, Miami detective Barker had taken photographs of the walls in Oakes' room, including the one bloody handprint near the bed. He flew back to Miami with the photographic plates to have them developed. However, the plates that held the photos of the crime scene were destroyed by light exposure. The identity of whoever left the bloody handprint on the wall was never established.

During the same time, Sir Harry Oakes' body was already on a plane to Bar Harbor to be buried. The plane carrying his corpse had to be re-routed back to Nassau so that Barker could re-photograph Oakes' fingerprints. His fingerprints were collected so that they could be compared with the prints at the crime scene for elimination purposes. Yet, obtaining the prints from Oakes' body proved to be a futile exercise. All the fingerprint evidence on the walls was already washed away by the police officers. It was never learned who had given the order for their removal.

Schindler believed that whoever ordered the destruction of the prints was someone highly influential and was probably involved in the mysterious death of Sir Harry Oakes. His theory was further supported when he learned that his phone was being "bugged."  According to Leasor, Schindler purposely called an unknown number and said he would meet the person who answered at a specific location, then hung up. He believed that whoever was bugging his phone would show up at that location, which is exactly what happened. Shortly after the phone call two police cars showed up while Schindler was hiding out of sight. He knew then that someone powerful was going to extreme lengths to cover up evidence in the investigation, but exactly who remained unclear.

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