March 2, 1978
The body of Sir Charles “Charlie” Spencer Chaplin is stolen and later ransomed
Charlie had died in his sleep on December 25, 1977, at the age of 88. On March 2, a municipal worker conducting a routine check of the small cemetery where Charlie had been interred noticed his grave had been tampered with and his coffin missing. Indentations in the ground indicated Charlie’s coffin — described as “massive” and 325 lbs. (148 kg), requiring three or four men to move — had been dragged a distance of 50 feet (15 meters) before it was loaded into a vehicle and driven away.
Charlie’s fourth wife, Lady Oona Chaplin (52), was eventually contacted about her husband’s missing body, with the abductors demanding $600,000 (about $2.4 million today) in exchange for the return of the corpse. Oona refused, noting her late husband would have found the demand to be “ridiculous.” When the ransom was unsuccessful the graverobbers made threats on the two youngest of Oona’s 8 children, who were 15 and 18 years old.
Authorities wire-tapped some 200 phone booths in the area and stationed detectives to monitor the phones, in the hopes the body snatchers would use one to call Oona to arrange a drop location for the ransom. The tactic worked. Roman Wardas (24) and Gantscho Ganev (38) were soon arrested and charged with grave robbing and extortion.
On May 17, authorities were told of Charlie’s new, temporary gravesite where he was buried while the pair waited for their ransom. His body was disinterred from a cornfield approximately a mile (1.6 km) away from his family home in Corsier. Charlie was re-buried in his original plot, with his casket entombed in concrete to prevent further grave robbing.
Wardas explained he had been inspired to hold the corpse for ransom by a similar case in Italy, and had demanded the money to resolve his financial strains as an out-of-work political refugee. “I left my country [of Poland] in order to be free,” he told the court, “but found it difficult to get steady work in Switzerland.” Wardas also explained he had originally planned to stash Charlie’s body deeper in his grave, “but it was raining and the earth got too heavy.”
Wardas, who planned the crime, received a sentence of 4½ years of hard labor while Ganev — who testified he had used his vehicle to transport the coffin and assisted in the re-burial — was given an 18-month suspended sentence.
“Charlie Chaplin’s body snatched from his grave – archive, 1978.” The Guardian. December 12, 2019. Accessed: March 2, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/dec/12/charlie-chaplins-body-snatched-from-his-grave-archive-1978
Clark, Laura. “Grave Robbers Once Held Charlie Chapin’s Body For Ransom.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 2, 2015. Accessed: March 2, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/grave-robbers-once-held-charlie-chaplins-body-ransom-180954443/
“Grave robbers steal Charlie Chaplin’s body.” History. Accessed: March 2, 2021. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/grave-robbers-steal-charlie-chaplins-body
“Body thieves get sentences.” Pacific Daily News [Agana Heights, Guam]. December 16, 1978
Warshaw, Andrew. “Chaplin’s Body Recovered; Police Nab Grave Robbers.” Shreveport Journal. May 17, 1978
“The Mysterious Chaplin Kidnapping: Plenty Of Theories But Few Solid Clues.” Fort Lauderdale News. April 21, 1978
“Chaplin Grave Looted of Body.” Hartford Courant. March 3, 1978
“Charlie Chaplin’s Body Is Stolen From Grave.” Intelligencer Journal [Lancaster, Pennsylvania]. March 3, 1978
“Ghouls steal body of Charlie Chaplin.” San Francisco Examiner. March 2, 1978