Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast #48 - The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place - Part One (Ruth Margarete Christina Fuerst)
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Welcome to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within one square mile of the West End.
Episode Forty-Eight: On Tuesday 24th August 1943, 21 year old Austrian refugee Ruth Fuerst vanished from Ladbroke Grove in West London. Having been missing for almost a decade, it was believed that she was just one of thousands of unidentified bodies and body-parts littered across the city’s bomb-craters, but – in truth – Ruth Fuerst was the first confirmed victim of the infamous British serial killer John Reginald Halliday Christie. This is part one of the full, true and untold story of The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place
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Ep48 - The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place – Part One (Ruth Margarete Christina Fuerst)
Memories are subjective. We all see the same sights, we all hear the same sounds and we all smell the same smells, but (burdened by a limited capacity) our minds only remember the smallest of fragments, all of which are distorted by time, bias, emotion and trauma.
The simplest of details may imperceptibly change; colours, shapes, sizes, names, dates, times and even locations, to the point where two people, sitting side-by-side, in the same room, at the same time, may see the same event in a radically different way as their brains edit that brief moment to suit their own perspective. Unconsciously we all do it, and yet, we all believe that our memories are real.
In 1943, just two miles west and less than one year after horror of The Blackout Ripper, a second serial sexual sadist stalked the bomb-damaged streets of London. Strangely, they both wore uniforms, they both struck during the blackout and they both appeared as kind, pleasant and caring.
But unlike The Blackout Ripper – whose insatiable lust for sex and death left four women dead and two lucky to be alive – this serial-killer was older, wiser and calmer.
Seen as an upstanding pillar of society, a happily married man and a decorated war-hero who lived locally at 10 Rillington Place, although he was known as Mr Christie, to those he liked he preferred they call him Reg. And yet, in a reign of terror which would last (not a few days but) a whole decade; eight women would disappear, one man would be executed and no-one would suspect him.
You may think you know this story, as many variations of it have been told, but with much of the evidence destroyed, there is no definitive account of what happened. Some of what follows is based on the killer’s own memories and perspective; so what part of this story is true… is up to you.
My name is Michael. I am your tour-guide. This is Murder Mile. And I present to you; part one of the full, true and untold story of The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place.
SCRIPT: Today, I’m standing at 110a Ladbroke Grove, W10, at the farthest fringes of London’s West End; three miles west of Soho, one mile north of Hyde Park and within spitting distance of Portabello Road, Notting Hill and that infamous blue front-door adorned by Hugh Grant but owned by the film’s writer, who subsequently (following the film’s success) sold the house for oodles of cash - clever man.
Now called The Flowered Corner, 110a Ladbroke Grove is a four-storey brown-brick Victorian terraced house nestled on the north-east corner of the crossroads of Lancaster Road and Ladbroke Grove; with the Kensington Park Hotel and North Kensington Library opposite, just as it was during war-time.
With three flats above, the ground-floor is a floristry-shop; a single bright spot on a dirty dusty street, where the sweet smell of nectar is strangled by the greasy stench of chicken shops, the soothing colours of tulips are smothered by the choking fumes of trucks, buses and tube-trains, and the harmonious tranquillity of fresh pansies was once (as witness by myself) sullied - without no hint of irony – by a rather displeased youth cussing from a beaten-up banger; with his music blaring, no lights on and no windscreen, who was smoking a spliff, wearing a “f**k da Police” t-shirt and bemoaning two straight-faced coppers by complaining “why you police always hassling me?”
Back in the 1940s, 110a Ladbroke Grove was known as David Griffin's Refreshment Room; a simple café serving standard British staples like tea, coffee, toast and fry-ups for a reasonable price in a poverty-stricken area. Inside (away from the bombs, the death and the debris) it was safe, welcoming and warm. And yet, it was here, on 21st August 1943, that a 21 year old girl called Ruth Fuerst, who had already escaped her certain death… would meet her new murderer. (Interstitial)
Ruth Margarete Christina Fuerst was born on 2nd August 1922, the second of three children to Ludwig, an Austrian landscape painter and Friederike, a Jewish housewife, with an older brother Gottfried and younger brother Gabriel.
Raised in the middle-class affluence of Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, Ruth’s upbringing was peaceful, happy and joyous; and being a well-educated girl from a very liberal and unpolitical family, she embraced her life, her rights and her freedom.
Eager to become a nurse, although a little bit shy; Ruth was always studious, intelligent and patient. Having inherited her father’s slim awkward frame, being a few inches taller than most girls, she always stood out. And as a fastidiously neat girl, with pale (but easily flushed) skin, brown (but eternally sad) eyes and a neat bob of dark straight hair - a colouring passed down from her mother’s Hungarian ancestry - although Ruth looked typically Jewish, she wasn’t.
Plagued with minor complaints from birth; like a hereditary blood disorder (which often left her weak), buckled knees (which kept her excluded from sports) and terrible teeth (which left her in chronic pain), as a beloved girl from a well-to-do family, able to afford doctors, medicine and – fortuitously – a metal crown fitted to her upper-right molar, life could have been a lot worse.
In need of fresh air, good light and striking landscapes to paint, her father (Ludwig) moved the family to a spacious villa on the edge of a forest, at Waldandacht funfzehn, in the picturesque Austrian spa-town of Bad Voslau, famed for its lush vineyards and rolling hills, twenty-three miles south-west of his hometown of Vienna. Being surrounded by her family, Ruth was happy, safe and loved.
And although this affluent and bustling market town was home to just over nine-thousand people, by the late 1930’s, many homes would become vacant, many people would vanish and - for the first time in its history – the population of Bad Voslau would rapidly shrink.
On 15th September 1935, with the National Socialist German Worker’s Party having risen to power and its leader - Adolf Hitler – appointed as the country’s Chancellor, fuelled by rabid anti-Semitism, bigotry and a decree to “protect German blood and honour”, the Reichstag established the Nuremberg Laws. Its purpose; to create an Aryan state and to eradicate anyone who wasn’t a pure-blood, whether black, gay, Romany, disabled, or Jewish.
The Nazis classified a Jew as anyone who practiced Judaism, identified as Jewish, had married a Jew, was dating a Jew, and – regardless of whether they were (and always had been) a practicing Roman Catholic, as many German Jews had been since in 19th century – if any person had a traceable Jewish ancestry, they were subject to the Nuremberg Laws and regarded as a ‘mischlinge’ (or half-blood).
Born Friederike Altmann, with her mother being a Hungarian Jew, although Ruth was a devout Roman Catholic who was never without her silver crucifix, being classified as a ‘mischlinge’, aged fourteen, Ruth was forced to leave Volkschule Bad Voslau on 4th July 1936, ending her dreams and her education.
For the next two years, under Nazi rule, with all five members of the Fuerst family being ‘mischlinges’, they were all denied any rights, freedoms and being treated as an ‘untermensch’ (German for sub-human), Ruth and her family were forced to undertake menial and demeaning jobs. One of which included scrubbing the road surfaces with acid, which left Ruth’s palms badly scarred forever.
On 12th March 1938, as the Nazis annexed Austria, ‘Anschluss’ was enacted, therefore – by law - all Jewish owned properties were seized, all personal belongings were sold, and having been forcibly separated, the fate of the Fuerst family was unknown. Some hid, others fled and where-as the rest were rounded-up and transported to uncertain fates.
For the first time ever, Ruth was alone, homeless and scared, she was just sixteen years old.
From 1st October 1938, for eight months, Ruth hid in a basement room at nummer zwei Nestroyplatz in Nazi-controlled Vienna, never knowing if her family were alive or dead. With fate smiling upon her, aided by a Swedish Christian mission, Ruth was issued with a passport and on 8th June 1939, just three months before start of World War Two, and being hungry and exhausted, Ruth fled to England.
And yet, having escaped the horrors of the Nazi regime; a life of poverty, persecution and her certain execution, it was here, in the safety of West London, that Ruth Fuerst would end up dead (Interstitial).
(Christie’s whisper) “She were Austrian I believe, a nice girl, plain but sad-looking. I’d met her in the summer of 43, in a café in Ladbroke Grove. Got herself in a dreadful mess she had, awful, so I gave her a few shillings – you know - to help her along. That’s all. It seemed like the right thing to do”. (End)
On 1st September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany; a brutal six-year conflict which left homes decimated, families displaced, countless casualties maimed, crippled and traumatised, and - by the end of it all - at least eleven million people would be dead. One of whom was Ruth.
Having just turned seventeen, Ruth was still a child; an impressionable young girl from a foreign land, who was scared and lost in a big strange city, with a limited grasp of English, a patchy education, weak legs, bad blood and sore teeth, with no skills, no friends and no family. And although she was thankful to be safe - missing her mother’s hug and her father’s love – she was alive… but also so alone.
The last four years of her life were solitary and chaotic, and as much as she strived, she struggled.
Initially, she lived with her guarantor Miss Edith Bessie Willis, in a delightful white terraced cottage at 92 Oakwood Road in the very Jewish north-west London neighbourhood of Golder’s Green. But with Edith being a prim and proper lady, and Ruth being a distraught teenager with scars on her hands, an emptiness in her heart and unimaginable horrors still plaguing her mind, they never got on.
Still seeking to fulfil her dreams, being “intelligent and alert”, Ruth enrolled as a student nurse at St Gabriel’s Home in the seaside town of Westgate-on-Sea, and upon graduation, with a bright career in her sights, Ruth found work at the Santa Claus Children’s Home in Highgate… and life had hope.
And then, as an Austrian exile who had legally entered England, even though she was just a young girl, being unsure whether she was a Nazi sympathiser, Ruth’s newly adopted country had her transferred to the Hutchinson Internment Camp in Douglas; a cold, barren and inescapable prison on the remote Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea; surrounded by bare walls, locked doors and barbed-wire.
Sixth months later, having been deemed “not a threat” by the British Government, Ruth regained her freedom. But with her job gone, her reputation ruined and her life in tatters; with German bombers obliterating every city, Ruth was evacuated from London and (once again) uprooted to the windswept wilds of Elswick in Lancashire, where she knew no-one. And still, her life would only get worse.
Half a year of enforced captivity had taken its toll; and where-as once this sweet, polite and joyous girl had been replaced by a fiery moody mess with tatty clothes, sullen eyes and unwashed skin; looking like a ragged orphan - which she knew she most likely was - Ruth had become trapped in a mental fog.
With a doctor diagnosing her as “severely depressed”, although the capital wasn’t safe, for the sake of her mental wellbeing, Ruth moved back to familiarity of London.
London was a city in ruins. After eight months of sustained aerial bombardment, as a wave-after-wave of bombers rained down death from the sky, the deep ominous drone of their engines untraceable amidst the thick clouds of black smoke. And although The Blitz was over, having failed to pummel the proud populous into submission, with the Luftwaffe being unrelenting, the bombings continued.
An estimated forty-three thousand civilians would die during the air-raids, as with a daily risk of being killed by an incendiary bomb, a doodlebug or a V1 rocket, to many Londoners, death was a part of life.
Houses would vanish overnight, sometimes terraces and even whole streets.
And with its occupants being obliterated by blast-waves or incinerated by fire, the only evidence that a family ever existed, was when the Special Constables (a merge of my voice and Christie’s) “pulled bodies from the debris; sometimes alive, sometimes dead, sometimes whole, injured or disfigured, and yet sometimes all that was left was a foot, a hand or a head. Nasty business it was”.
(Christie’s whisper) “But in war-time, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to simply vanish”. (End)
Being eager to rebuild a small semblance of life and feeling like she was slowly becoming a Londoner, with the war being really just a bit of an inconvenience to her routine – as soot stained her skin, dust clogged her lungs and as she’d munch some bread, only to hear a crunch as she’d bit into grit – having endured rationing, blackouts and the limitations of her refugee status, Ruth ploughed on, hoping to truly make something of herself and (God rest them) her parents proud.
In December 1941; whilst living in a small but pleasant lodging at 141 Elgin Crescent in Maida Vale, studying for her return to nursing and working as waitress at the exclusive May Fair Hotel in Stratton Street, W1, just shy of Piccadilly Circus; although she was a shy girl who struggled to make friends, Ruth met and fell in love with a Greek Cypriot waiter called Anastasio Isiedoran.
A few months later; being rosier about the cheeks, fuller round the hips and with a noticeable bump, Ruth discovered that she was about to become a mum. And with the little miracle of a baby girl blossoming in her belly, having prayed nightly to the Lord and him (finally) hearing her cries, he blessed her with one more miracle; Friederike and Ludwig Fuerst - her mother and father - weren’t dead.
Having fled the horrors of the Nazi regime and boarded a boat; her parents were alive, well and living in the safety of East 57th Street in New York City, where – they hoped – Ruth would join them.
But being heavily pregnant, desperately broke and very recently single, in her state, Ruth knew that she couldn’t… (Christie’s whisper)…”and – as fate would have it - she wouldn’t”.
As a young girl with weak legs, bad blood, poor teeth and frequent bouts of depression, life was hard. As an unskilled and partially-educated female in the nineteen-forties, life was harder. As a war-time refugee of Austrian-Jewish heritage living in London, life was even harder. But also being an unmarried expectant mother of no fixed abode; with no job, money or immediate family, life was impossible.
So, on 9th October 1942, in the West End Lane ‘Home for Unmarried Mothers’ in Hampstead; being alone, scared and desperate, Ruth gave birth to a baby girl, who she named Christina… moments later, her baby was taken away. She never saw her again.
From the end of 1942 to the middle 1943, having moved from job-to-job, lodging-to-lodging, leaving a trail of unpaid bills, as slowly she sunk back into depression, Ruth’s life returned to chaos.
On 25th May 1943, Friederike received the last letter Ruth would ever write. Albeit brief (with all of the war-sensitive details deleted by national censor), in it, she stated she was working the night-shift in a local munitions factory, and reassured her mother that she was fine, well and she sent her love.
On 29th June 1943, Ruth quit her job as a machinist at John Bolding & Sons of 56-58 Davies Street, W1, a munitions factory at the back of Bond Street station. And although she was always tired, tardy and sickly, barely working twenty hours of her forty hour week, her co-workers believed she was pregnant.
On Saturday 21st August 1943, at a little after lunchtime, Ruth was seen by her landlady - Julie Teresa Walker – leaving her flat at 41 Oxford Gardens as she walked one road south towards Ladbroke Grove tube station wearing a distinctive fake leopard-skin coat.
That was the last confirmed sighting of Ruth Fuerst.
Believing she’d absconded without paying her rent, her landlady reported her missing ten days later. As one of many of missing refugees, her details appeared in the Police Gazette two weeks after that, but nobody searched for her. And as one of thousands of innocent civilians killed during the aerial bombardment, the mystery surrounding her death wouldn’t be investigated until a decade later.
(Christie’s whisper) “She were Austrian I believe, a nice girl, plain but sad-looking… but in war-time, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to simply vanish”. (End)
After this moment, only one person witnessed her alive; a Special Constable working out of the Harrow Road police station who’d been commended twice by the Police Commissioner and as a local man – who was moral, teetotal and charitable - was widely regarded as an upstanding pillar of society, a happily married man and a decorated war-hero. The Special Constable’s name was John Reginald Halliday Christie, known as Mr Christie, but (Christie’s whisper) “I prefer it if you call me Reg”.
It was Saturday lunchtime. As per usual, although small and snug, David Griffin’s Refreshment Room at 110a Ladbroke Grove was busy, as throngs of famished regulars glugged tea, nibbled toast and tucked into hearty British fry-ups, which – like the walls – oozed with a thick slather of pig fat.
In the corner, Ruth and Reg sat side-by-side, as they had done several times before. Ruth found it difficult to make friends, but with Reg being so approachable, kind and caring, even though he and his wife (Ethel) had no children of their own, the word which best described him was fatherly.
As a slightly built man, twice her age but the same weight and height as Ruth, Reg seemed a harmless sort. And being almost totally bald (except for a thin crown of brown hair above his ears), wearing thick-lensed horn-rimmed spectacles (which magnified his soft brown eyes), a set of false teeth (which being too big sometimes slipped as he spoke) and talking in a barely audible whisper – having been injured in a mustard gas attack whilst bravely serving his country during The Great War – although he looked a little odd, she could see that Reg was a sweet and caring man who wouldn’t harm a fly.
Ruth and Reg sat together, him having bought her a tea and toast, as he listened to her woes. His hand tenderly touching hers, but it wasn’t hard and coarse, but a little bit limp and damp.
(Christie’s whisper) “Got herself in a dreadful mess she had, awful” (End). Being ten days away from failing to pay her rent, once again, Ruth risked eviction. Being unemployed, she couldn’t afford a check-up on her weak legs, her bad blood, her chronic teeth or the new baby which was (possibly) on the way. And as a deeply moral man who “never used prostitutes myself”, during war-time he’d often turn a blind-eye to good women who’d fallen on hard-times and struggled to make ends meet.
(Christie’s whisper) “…so I gave her a few shillings – you know - to help her along. That’s all. It seemed like the right thing to do”. (End) Or so he said. And yet, the Police could find no-one in David Griffin’s Refreshment Room who remembers seeing either Reg or Ruth that day.
Having visited his home twice before and kept this Special Constable company on his beat, on Tuesday 24th August 1943, Ruth entered Rillington Place; a grey featureless dead-end lined with ten three-storey Victorian terraced houses on both sides, with no trees, plants or front gardens, and – like it was cutting the street dead in its tracks - a ten-foot high brick wall behind which tube trains thundered by.
Keen to collect those ten shillings, Ruth knocked on the black wooden door of 10 Rillington Place.
First to greet her was Judy, Reg’s over-excitable brown mongrel who widdled a little when stroked, but once again, there was no sign of his wife Ethel, who was up north visiting her family in Halifax.
The hallway was thin, drab and dark; to the left was a set of stairs which led up to other tenant’s flats, and to the right was the ground-floor flat which belonged to the Christie’s; with a front-room, a bedroom and a kitchen, with a neat little garden and a communal wash-house and lavatory outback. So with tea brewing on the hob, Reg ushered Ruth along the thin hallway into the kitchen.
Oddly, none of the residents in Rillington Place remember seeing either Reg or Ruth that day.
Having no central heating, limited electricity and illuminated by Victorian gas-lights which bathed the pokey kitchen in a flickering yellowy glow, as Reg perched awkwardly in front of the alcove on a small round stool, Ruth leaned back in his one good seat. By “good”, it was really just a wooden deck-chair draped in a grey blanket and held together by (what should have been) six lengths of rope, but as she sat there, supping a nice cuppa and getting toasty in front of the wood-burning range. Ruth was cosy.
For a while they chatted, as the older man imparted his wisdom, knowledge and fatherly advice to the inexperienced girl, keen to help her out of her difficult situation; with her rent due, bad teeth and (possibly) another baby in her belly. But it was as she stared into his soft brown eyes; longing for love and missing a man’s touch, that – being overcome with lust – Ruth started to undress.
(Christie’s whisper) “She were madly in love with me” (End). Christie was a happily married man, for twenty-three years, he didn’t do this sort of thing and was quite shy to boot, but as she slowly undid the buttons on her fake leopard-skin coat, revealing a young slim body with a full heaving bust, being a woman with strong sexual urges, Ruth led Reg into his bedroom.
(Christie’s whisper) “She were completely naked, lying on my bed, wanting me to have intercourse with her” (End). And as much as Reg reminded her he was married (Christie’s whisper) “she wanted us three to team up, to go away somewhere together. I wouldn’t do that” (End). But not wishing to offend her, (Christie’s whisper) “I got on the bed and had sex with her”.
Of the many statements he gave, all are inconsistent; sometimes he’d be pedantic about the smallest and most insignificant of details (“no it definitely wasn’t that”) and yet, he’d be impossibly vague about whole events (“I can’t be certain, it were a while ago, you know?”). But when asked where, when, how and why he murdered Ruth Fuerst, he would simply state (“I don’t recall”). Except to say: (Christie’s whisper) “it were while I was having intercourse with her, I strangled her with a piece of rope”.
As the full weight of Reg’s naked spindly body bared-down upon her, his putty-white legs pressed tightly around her skinny thighs, trapping her legs; as Ruth’s arms flailed wildly - being gripped in panic, fear and unable to breath, let alone scream - the more her trembling hands grasped at the taut rope which slowly crushed her throat, the tighter he pulled it.
As her soft youthful skin turned a mottled shade of puce as the blood vessels in her face swelled and ruptured. As the tightening ligature forced her tongue to jut-out of her mouth like it was trying to escape from her silently screaming face. As being in uncontrollable terror, her shaking body expelled its last splash of urine and faeces. And as the capillaries in the whites of her eyes began to burst so they appeared almost black, the last thing that Ruth saw - wasn’t the sweet smile of her baby daughter, the peaceful fields of her hometown of Bad Voslau, or Ludwig & Friederike Fuerst, her beloved parents – but the terrifying grimace of Reg Christie; the father-figure she liked, trusted and (he thought) loved, as in his hands he gripped both ends of the straining rope, until her life drained away.
There she lay, dead. (Christie’s whisper) “She looked more beautiful in death than in life… I remember I gazed down at the still form of my first victim and experienced a strange peaceful thrill”.
But his thrill was to be short-lived. (Loud knock at door)
Receiving a telegram that his wife would be home that evening, Reg dragged the naked corpse from the bedroom, along the communal hallway and into his front room, and under a large rug, where (with a few floorboards loose after a plumber had repaired a leaky pipe) he hid Ruth’s body.
Ethel arrived home that night and – with fresh sheets on the bed, her brother (Henry) fast asleep just a few feet away, Reg having burned the clothes in a dustbin and buried the body by the back-garden – she was none-the-wiser; of the sex, the death, the body, or her husband, the murderer.
There were four other tenants at 10 Rillington Place that day, but none of them heard a sound. And although, John Reginald Halliday Christie made several vague statements; when asked in court “Mr Christie, was this the first person you had killed”? He would reply (Christie) “I think so, I don’t recall”.
21 year old Ruth Margarete Christina Fuerst was just a girl with weak legs, bad blood and painful teeth, who (somehow) had escaped persecution, anti-Semitism and her extermination in a concentration camp at the hand of the Nazis. She had endured hardship, poverty, hunger, bombings, imprisonment, abandonment and the loss of her family, her home, her baby and – finally - her life.
But being listed only as missing, not dead and certainly not murdered, Ruth Fuerst would become just one of thousands of innocent civilians believed to have been killed in the war-time bombing raids.
(Christie’s whisper) “She were Austrian I believe, a nice girl, plain but sad-looking… but in war-time, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to simply vanish”. (End)
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
If you enjoyed part one, part two of The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place continues next Thursday. And if you’re a murky miler, stay tuned for more goodies after the break, but before that, here’s my recommended podcasts of the week; which are Unresolved and Dark Histories. (PLAY PROMO)
A huge thank you goes out to my new Patreon supporters, who are literally saving my life by financially keeping Murder Mile afloat with their generous donations, which I definitely don’t spend on cake. This week’s heroes are Alex Stone and Harriet Oliver. May your world be full of Belgian buns, battenbergs and fondant fancies. For me? That’s as good as heaven.
Murder Mile was researched, written and performed by myself, with a special voice cameo by Police Constable Arsenal Guinness and with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
Credits: The Murder Mile true-crime podcast was researched, written and recorded by Michael J Buchanan-Dunne, with the sounds recorded on location (where possible), and the music written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Additional music was written and performed by various artists, as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0. A list of tracks used and the links are listed on the relevant transcript blog here.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British podcast Awards 2018", and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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