For Ronald Chesney, the lust for money swept aside any hint of moral

scruple. George Hume looks back at the brutal criminal career of

a man whose first victim was the mother who loved him

TWO deeply scratched forearms, their muscular power still evident in a tall jar of formaldehyde at Scotland Yard's Black Museum, provide the macabre full stop to the buccaneering and murderous career that was the life of Ronald John Chesney.

His amoral rampage over three decades first broke surface 70 years ago this weekend when a single pistol shot cracked out, followed by a scream, in the smart West End home of Edinburgh teenager John Donald Merrett.

Chesney the man, who escaped the gallows by putting a pistol in his mouth and blowing his brains out in the heart of war-battered Germany, was one and the same person as Merrett the boy who, even as his mother fell to the floor of her drawing-room in Buckingham Terrace, blood seeping from a bullet-hole in her head, had only money on his mind.

Later on the day of the shooting, March 17, 1926, as his mother lay under guard in the Royal Infirmary suspected of having attempted to take her own life, the far from distraught young Donnie - as his fond mother called him - was dancing in the arms of a ballroom hostess, her charms booked out for the day, paid for with money the 17-year-old had stolen from his mother.

As Merrett the boy, he would stand trial for the alleged murder of his mother and enjoy the peculiarly Scottish benefit of a not proven verdict: as Chesney the man he would amass an Aladdin's cave of stolen drugs, jewels, and alcohol in the ruins of post-war Europe, drown his wife in her bath, strangle his mother-in-law, and die by his own hand . . . still, doubtless, with only money on his mind.

It was the fierce resistance of his frail, elderly mother-in-law in London, the enigmatic and bogus ``Lady'' Menzies, that left deep wounds on Chesney's arms: the forensic clue that tied his corpse to murder, the grisly clincher that won detached fame in the Black Museum.

The criminal career of the dual-identity New Zealand-born rogue that began with the theft of money from his mother and ended in a frenzy of murder spanned almost 30 years after a jury put the question mark of a not proven verdict over the head of the teenage Edinburgh University student.

Uncertain though the jury were about the Crown's charge of murder against young Merrett, they were in no doubt about a second charge on the indictment and the youth, already, according to medical examiners, precociously developed, went to prison for a year for fraud, a simple but lucrative scam that had involved stealing blank cheques from his mother and forging her signature - a number of them even after his mother, shot through the right ear, was removed to hospital.

Today the three-room converted flat at 31 Buckingham Terrace where, it seems almost certain, Bertha Merrett discovered the web of cheque thefts and forgeries and taxed her son with his guilt, is much as it was that morning after breakfast when she opened a letter from her bank to find that she was, inexplicably, overdrawn.

When the shot from Merrett's pistol - a .25 Spanish automatic bought with funds looted from his mother's bank account - rang out in the genteel silence of Buckingham Terrace, the young student, unknown at his lectures although his mother believed him diligent, rushed from the room where he had been standing beside his mother to tell the daily cleaning woman: ``Rita, my mother has shot herself''.

His explanation then, and subsequently, was that she had done so because of ``money matters'' - a subject on which Donnie was certainly able to declare with some authority. The official mind, though, did not think it necessary to probe the motives and finances of a woman so meticulous in money matters that she required a weekly statement of expenditure from Donald - including his donations to the church collection plate.

Not for the last time was Donald believed even as his mother, puzzled as to what had happened, lay behind the barred windows of Ward 3, the Royal Infirmary's suicide ward, and told a friend: ``Something burst in my head, just like a pistol shot. Did Donald not do it? He is such a naughty boy''.

Two weeks after something burst in her head ``just like a pistol shot'' as she sat writing to a friend - a letter from her bank manager before her - Bertha Merrett, seldom visited by her only offspring, succumbed to her injuries. Aged just 55, Donnie's fond mother was laid to rest in a grave bought by her sister in the city's Piershill Cemetery. Donald, his father long since disappeared in revolutionary Russia, was now an orphan.

In support of his ``money matters'' theory young Merrett had told Rita the maid, even as they stood over the shot and bleeding Bertha, that he had been ``wasting my mother's money'' - an unusually frank admission from him.

The wasted money, it subsequently came to light, bought the much beloved son acceptance in his spiritual home, the Dunedin Palais de Danse in Picardy Place, where the student became a familiar free spender as he booked out the hostess of his choice - 30 shillings a night, 15 shillings an afternoon - and adorned them with gifts, jewellery, and the thrills of Edinburgh's 1920s fast set.

Even as his mother lay in a hospital bed, paralysed down her left side as the result of the bullet wound in her head, Donald toured the countryside with the danseuse of the day in a second-hand motorcycle combination bought a fortnight before the shooting for #28. For a young man on a pocket money allowance of 10 shillings a week, Donald got a lot out of life.

The open road before him, money in his pocket and a girl by his side, he had little time for hospital visiting. Mrs Merrett may have been on the point of dying, but for her unworthy son, liar, cheat, thief, and - by way of a pastime - brutal tormentor of dogs, life had just begun.

But all good things, including being believed, come to an end. Eight months after the fatal gunshot over ``money matters'' - the police investigation having got off to a slow start on the naive assumption of a suicide - young Donald was unceremoniously returned to Edinburgh from his new home at the vicarage of Hughenden in Bucking- hamshire where he had gone ostensibly to prepare for Oxford University, his Edinburgh Alma Mater having by now shown him the door.

On February 1 the following year John Donald Merrett stood in the dock of the High Court, a policeman on either side with drawn baton, charged with murdering his mother and fraudulently passing off her cheques.

The jury were treated to a virtuoso performance by defence counsel Craigie Aitchison, KC, that cut the Crown's case to pieces. The jurors, reminded by the trial judge that they were sitting not in a court of morals but in a court of law, took just 55 minutes after hearing seven days of evidence to save Donald's bacon by pointing out to His Majesty's Advocate that a callous son keen on motorcycling in the company of a dancing instructress as his mother's life slips away does not a murderer make.

After he was found not proven on the murder charge, there remained the matter of the cheques. Here the jury, certain of its ground, unanimously found for the Crown and Donald, by now 18, was sent to prison - an experience that was to be the first of many as a guest of His Majesty.

The sentence was 12 months and young John Donald Merrett disappeared from view down the stairs from the dock - out of sight for the time being but not for long out of the public eye. Discharged from prison in October 1927, Merrett's subsequent history was that of an outlaw against society: smuggling, theft, drug dealing, gun running, fraud and, ultimately, double murder.

In the months immediately after the end of the Second World War officers of the Royal Navy involved in the job of dismantling the remnants of the German Kriegsmarine found the bleakness of life at Buxtehude, a short car ride from the shattered ruins of Hamburg, eased by the Mr Fixit expertise of a large, bearded, RNVR Lieutenant-Commander whose job it was to ensure that life ran smoothly.

The officer, who called himself Ronald John Chesney, was the man-about-Buxtehude, the fellow to see for service no matter how testing the request. Meeting life with an airy and breezy manner, unfailingly helpful and eager to oblige, Chesney displayed a knack for conjuring up champagne by the case and petrol by the tankful. For money anything was possible. Wartime commander of a motor gunboat in the Mediterranean, then in charge of a schooner operating out of Alexandria which ran supplies into Tobruk under the enemy's guns, the swashbuckling Chesney somehow made a lot of money on the side. For all that he was saved from considerable embarrassment when his ship was sunk beneath him and he was taken prisoner - thus avoiding court martial for a series of bounced cheques.

Come peacetime and still with a single gold ear-ring in place when he arrived at Buxtehude, Chesney was the life and soul of the party, busy on everyone's behalf as well as his own. His endless fund of racy tales kept the mess in near incredulous mirth though most of them were true.

The most dramatic shot in his locker, that of his murder trial as the young John Donald Merrett, he only hinted at, once blurting out during a game of bridge when a pre-war incident was mentioned: ``Oh, that was the year I murdered my mother''. Then, a bridge partner recalls, he giggled - a disconcerting sound from a man his size.

That bridge partner, the author Alan Ross, says Chesney's obvious power and opulence were at odds with his appearance: mean, piggy, watchful eyes with his head narrowing to a point above his forehead. His face, in repose, wore a mean and vindictive expression.

Ever on the make, a clever exploiter of loopholes, Chesney quickly became a law unto himself, even in uniform, and soon moved a German woman, Gerda Schaller, into his quarters. He managed to have her elevated to official status, largely at taxpayers' expense.

Long before the first post-war Christmas, as millions in Europe came close to starvation, Chesney was waxing fat on deals involving food, drink, and cigarettes as well as petrol, cameras, drugs, and jewellery. He had enjoyed a ``good war'' but peace was proving even more profitable.

But once more in the life of Merrett/Chesney the good times came to an end. Demobilised and then returned to Germany as a member of the Allied Control Commission, he was soon behind bars for four months for - minor enough considering what he had done unpunished - appropriating a Royal Navy car for his own use. The bearded giant who had started down the slippery slope on an Edinburgh dance-floor was now properly on the skids.

Released at the end of his sentence, served in Wormwood Scrubs, and prison pallor notwithstanding, he was seen within 24 hours behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce bought with the proceeds of contraband diamonds.

With Schaller still in train Chesney quickly established a smuggling headquarters in Liege. From there he and his Buxtehude pick-up toured Europe in a large and luxuriously equipped van stuffed with contraband. His fortunes flowed and ebbed. A prosperous spell in Algiers was followed by a short stay in the bleaker surroundings of the Sante Prison in Paris, the first of many trips behind the bars of foreign jails in the next few years for currency fraud and drug smuggling.

The years of post-war opportunity for the fast-moving and light-fingered ran on and as a change from Continental prisons Chesney, who had purchased an ex-German Navy E-boat for what he called ``cross-Channel activities'', spent three months in Pentonville Prison for importing nylon stockings without paying duty, a sentence quickly followed by 12 months in Wands-worth Prison for a similar undertaking - all small-beer crimes for which he got only scant cover in the press. Then, in January 1954, Chesney made it big on the front page of almost every newspaper in the land - a picture of the bearded, ear-ringed smuggler, naval cap on head, wanted in connection with the murder of two women at an old people's home they ran in Ealing: one the woman who had been his child bride, the other his self-ennobled mother-in-law.

Merrett had married a 17-year-old Ward in Chancery on his release from the 12-month sentence handed down at the High Court in Edinburgh. His wife, Vera, was the daughter of a bogus aristocrat, ``Lady'' Menzies, and Donald Merrett - within a short time appreciating the benefits of his mother-in-law's ``what's in a name?'' philosophy - transmogrified into Ronald Chesney. The name change did little for him and within weeks the young bridegroom was back behind bars - nine months with hard labour for false pretences in the Gateshead area.

Two years later, by which time the couple were living rough in a tent, he inherited from his grandfather a fortune amounting to #50,000 - in 1929 a very considerable sum - and settled #10,000 of it on his wife under the condition ``survivor takes all'': an arrangement that was to prove, for them both, fatal.

The remainder of his inheritance quickly went on a speedboat and a two-seater aircraft - both bought with a view to smuggling - an open Bentley, country mansion, lavish entertainment, fast women, and a stableful of slow horses: his dishonest, rackety lifestyle was established.

In the 1930s he smuggled drugs and arms on a run between Malta, North Africa, and Spain. The war, when it came, was treated by Chesney as just another opportunity to make a dishonest living.

By the time the two women met their violent end in Ealing, Chesney was a habitual criminal, almost broke and more at home behind bars than in his own bed. Even his long-standing companion from Buxtehude, his German shadow Gerda Schaller, was no longer at his side to remind him of the good old days of wine, women, rich living, and sackfuls of cash.

Operating a double shuffle with his own and a false passport, the man who was once content to fund his fun with cheques torn from the back of his mother's chequebook set off from Germany bound for the old people's home at Montpelier Road, Ealing, determined to make good on the ``survivor takes all'' clause that would provide a much-needed #10,000 for a new start in life.

But police investigating the deaths of the two women - one strangled corpse in the hall, the other drowned in her bath - were more suspicious of Chesney the husband than Edinburgh police had been of Merrett the son 28 years before.

As detectives pieced together details of the #10,000 ``survivor-takes-all'' settlement, the not proven acquittal on the charge of murdering his mother, the pan-European criminal career, and the vast quantity of alcohol in the drowned wife's body, Merrett/Chesney remained hidden from the hue and cry.

The long-discarded Vera and ``Lady'' Menzies, the police believed - and a coroner's jury later confirmed - had been murdered: the wife targeted because she would neither grant her husband a divorce nor part with her marriage settlement, the mother-in-law slain out of necessity when she came across Chesney as he tried to slip undetected from the house. Ronald John Chesney or John Donald Merrett . . . either way the police wanted a word.

Back in Germany, five days after the discovery of his two murdered relatives, Chesney read the newspapers and faced up to the inevitable: captured, his career would close on the end of a hangman's noose. He wrote a letter to his solicitor, another to the public trustee to authorise release of the marriage settlement funds, and a third, more tender, farewell to Sonia, daughter of a Cologne greengrocer and his latest German girlfriend.

Then, in the loamy privacy of a mist-shrouded wood on the banks of the River Rhine the bearded buccaneer for whom money came before scruple put the muzzle of a pistol in his mouth and squeezed the trigger. Only Gerda Schaller, loyal still from the happy days at Buxtehude, turned up for his funeral.

The body was unclaimed but London detectives asked for the badly scratched arms - proof, almost from beyond the grave, that they had got their man. Flesh from Chesney's arms, torn from just above the wrists, had been found under the fingernails of ``Lady'' Menzies.

Today Donald Merrett's forearms - disarticulated at the elbows - stand in a clear plastic container of formaldehyde in the Black Museum at Scotland Yard, the scratches inflicted by ``Lady'' Menzies still clearly visible. To one side on the same shelf are the metal handbag frame and rock-hard gallstone that hanged acid-bath killer John George Haigh, to the other lie artefacts from the case of the infamous Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen.

Merrett, the beloved Donnie of his betrayed, swindled, and slain mother, is in the company that suits him best.

The criminal career began with the theft of money from his mother and ended in a frenzy of murder

On the banks of the River Rhine he put the muzzle of a pistol in his mouth and squeezed the trigger