28th October 1949
A man “disappeared” from a Guernsey ferry
Company director James “Maurice” Pitt disappeared from a steamer on its way to Guernsey on the night of 28 October 1949. Facing a charge of fraudulent conversion at Bow Street at the time, he left a note in his cabin implying that he’d killed himself. He hoped, he said, “to find peace by quietly dropping overboard”.
Pitt had been travelling on the Isle of Guernsey and had left the letter, along with his bags, in his cabin. It had been addressed to his wife and explained that he’d been motivated to take his own life because he was sick with worry. The case and letter were found with the steamer called in at Jersey.
Pitt’s lawyer had been given no notice that his client would disappear when he was supposed to be in court. The first he knew of it was when he received a letter from Pitt, which enclosed a doctor’s certificate. The certificate diagnosed a heart condition and recommended an immediate holiday.
Pitt had followed the recommendation precisely and asked his solicitor to inform the court that he wouldn’t be available for the next two weeks. The court refused to adjourn, in part because by then the certificate was almost three weeks old already.
The day after Pitt’s abandoned case had been found on the steamer, doubts as to whether he really had gone overboard started to surface. A purser on the ship had seen a man writing a letter as they had passed the Needles, but he couldn’t say for sure it was Pitt.
In all likelihood, it wasn’t. The most probable explanation was that Pitt had boarded the ship shortly before it sailed, deposited his case and then left. His first class bed had not been slept in by the time the journey was over.
The following February, with the case still open and the Ministry of Transport unconvinced the man was dead, Pitt was at last found and arrested. The following day he was taken to Bow Street where he should have appeared five months earlier. He was remanded for eight days.
On 3 April, he was sentenced to six years’ detention after being found guilty of 15 specific instances of fraud. These included forging receipts and making false entries in his accounts.
Prison wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to Pitt. He already had 14 other convictions and had been sentenced to a total of 28 years in jail over the years. This perhaps explains why police didn’t buy into his suicide story.
Fraudulent conversion is the act of using someone else’s property for your own benefit, without necessarily intending to steal the property. Examples would include using somebody else’s unsecured wireless internet access or fare dodging on a train since in neither case would you be depriving the owner of the asset the ability to use it themselves.
It could also include keeping hold of something beyond an agreed return date simply because you haven’t specifically been asked to give it back. If your intention was still to return it if and when asked, rather than keep it under all circumstances, that would be conversion rather than theft.
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