By the start of the 20th century, Alfred Loewenstein was firmly established as one of the most powerful financiers in the world. He made his immense fortune by acting as a broker between various industries and the financial system. He also invested in several companies across Europe and was one of the pioneers of the concept of the « holding company».
The story begins on the evening of July 4, 1928. On that day, Alfred and his employees boarded a private plane at Croydon Airport. He was heading to his home country of Belgium, a routine trip that he made on a regular basis. The weather was perfect and the flight was going as smoothly as planned. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until, at some point over the English Channel, Loewenstein got up to his feet and went inside the tiny bathroom compartment at the back of the cabin. This compartment had two doors, a windowless one that separated it from the rest of the plane, and an exterior one that served as the sole mean of entrance and exit to the plane.
Alfred Loewenstein never made it out of this compartment, and that was the last time anyone had seen him alive.
Naturally, one of the employees went to check on Alfred when he failed to return to his seat. Upon discovering that the compartment was empty, he notified the pilot, Donald Drew. The latter made a strange decision; he decided to land on a deserted beach just outside of the city of Dunkirk instead of heading to a nearby airfield. This beach was under the control of the French military so the pilot and Loewenstein’s employees were quickly apprehended by the authorities. They were at loss as to what actually happened, but they seemed to believe that their boss must have fallen to his death after accidentally opening the exit door.
The question of whether Loewenstein was actually dead was answered on July 19. A fishing boat spotted a decomposed corpse floating near the French coast. It was identified as the body of Alfred Loewenstein thanks to various clothing items. His widow Madeleine arranged a private autopsy to determine the cause of death. The examination found no signs that could indicate foul play or suicide. However, a small amount of alcohol was detected in his blood, which is odd considering Alfred never drank.
The strangest thing about how the whole incident was handled is that there was little effort to get to the bottom of what had happened. An official inquiry, in which no one was under oath, concluded that Loewenstein’s death was accidental. That conclusion was in great part based on the testimonies of Donald Drew (the pilot) and Robert Little ( the mechanic). Both men insisted that the exit door was easy to open and that it was entirely possible for Lowenstein to open it by accident. As we will see later, the veracity of this claim will come under intense scrutiny.
So was it just an unfortunate accident? This seems highly unlikely. As you would expect, the airplane exit door wasn’t as easy to open as the pilot and mechanic had claimed. In fact, numerous tests to check the door’s stability were conducted in the weeks following the incident Some even involved men from Accidents Branch of the British Air Ministry throwing themselves at the entry door at an altitude of 1,000 feet! The door withstood the weight with relative ease. The conclusion was clear and simple: No one could have fallen out of the plane by accident.
So...was it suicide? Again, the facts just don’t add up. Loewenstein wasn’t depressed and he was making plans for the future right until the day of the incident. And even if we entertain this theory, there is still the issue of the door. Alfred could not have opened it by himself even if he was trying to kill himself.
This leaves us with one conclusion: Alfred Loewenstein was forced off the plane. If that was indeed the case, then who did it? How did they manage to open the door midflight? And who was behind the plot?
Given the erroneous statements that they gave to Belgian authorities, the two obvious suspects are Donald Drew and Robert Little. Author Williams Norris believes that both men were hired to kill Alfred. Drew, who died of stomach cancer a few years after the incident, seems to have lived a lavish life after this incident, which indicates that someone might have paid him a hefty sum of money for accomplishing the job.
Norris believes that the conspirators replaced the entry door with a rigged one that featured loose bolts and hinges. This would make opening it midflight and sending Alfred to his death a fairly simple task. As for the original door, it could have been placed in the small luggage compartment at the back. The two doors would then be switched upon landing. This would also explain the pilot’s strange decision to land on the beach rather than the nearby airfield. Clearly they couldn’t afford to have anyone witness the switch being made.
So who was behind the plot? Some likely suspects include:
Henri Dreyfus: A business rival and former associate of Alfred. Their feud escalated when Loewenstein discovered that Henri was a behind an exposé that circulated in the Belgian press a few months before the incident. As a consequence , Dreyfus was facing a libel suit. Did he turn to murder to avoid appearing in court for what could have been a ruinous lawsuit?
Albert Pam and Frederick Szarvasy: The two men were Alfred’s partners in International Holdings. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like they could have benefited from Loewenstein’s death. But a closer look at the paper trail reveals a different story. As a matter of fact, International Holdings stock soared in the weeks following the incident thanks to a mysterious $13 million profit that appeared out of nowhere. Williams Norris did some digging and discovered that this sum eerily matched a number of anonymous insurance policies that were taken out on Loewenstein’s life shortly before the incident.
While Williams Norris did some excellent work piecing this case together, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Was the badly decomposed corpse that was found floating in the channel really the body of Alfred Loewenstein? Why was the case hastily closed by both French and Belgian Authorities? Who was behind the insurance policies on Alfred’s life?