Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #204: The Soho Strangler - Part Eight - Roger Vernon the Strangler's Slayer
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EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND FOUR:
This is Part Eight of Ten of The Soho Strangler.
On Thursday 23rd January 1936 at 6:50pm, Red Max entered 35/36 Little Newport Street, the lodging of a petite French brunette known as ‘French Suzette’, who was the mistress of his rival, Roger Vernon. Within half an hour, there would be another killing in Soho. But was this the work of The Soho Strangler?
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
At 6:50pm, Red Max rang the doorbell of 35/36 Little Newport Street, the lodging of a petite French brunette, a local prostitute unnervingly similar to the other three victims, known as ‘French Suzette’.
He didn’t wear a disguise or bring a weapon as Max’s power was his stranglehold on Soho; a place so in fear, he could kill in plain sight and disappear into a busy street as no-one dared to speak his name.
Unlocked by the prostitute’s terrified maid, as with ‘Fifi’, Marie and ‘Leah’, a street door led up a tight stair as his heavy boots thudded up to the soon-to-be crime scene of another killing. By the time the Police arrived, the room would be cleaned, evidence erased, witnesses silenced and a killer unseen.
Only, this murder would be different…
…as sensing their impending death within the tight grip of a large hairy hand, his intended victim would live. In court, they would state “Max had me by the throat, he was trying to strange me…”, as this now broken ‘crime boss’ unleashed his own brand of vengeance over something as petty as a loan of £25.
In total, four women would be murdered by The Soho Strangler… only the maniac who terrorised Soho was not Max. “I fired five or six times. Max staggered away from me in the direction of the window” and barely thirty minutes later and months before Marie and Leah’s deaths, Red Max would be dead.
‘French Suzette’ (at least not that ‘French Suzette’) was unharmed. She did not pull the trigger, as she had no reason to. Many have speculated that The Soho Strangler wasn’t the work of a sadistic serial-killer or a series of copy-cat killings but a white slaver sending a message to his pimps, girls and ponces. And now – just a few streets south of the murders of Fifi, Marie & Leah – a rival crime boss was dead.
But was it something he said, had done, or had seen?
This strangler’s slayer was not a thuggish brute like Max who left fear and devastation in his wake, but an intelligent, unassuming and devious criminal mastermind who could make men like Max vanish.
The murderer of Red Max was his bitter rival, Roger Vernon…
…and there was no denying that this murder was a message.
Investigators wrestled for months to unravel the mystery over who Roger Vernon was, as although he used many aliases and false identities, unlike Max, Roger was so unassuming, it was like he didn’t exist.
Roger Marcel Vernon was born on the 4th January 1901 in Fontenay-sur-Bois, a pleasant suburb on the outskirts of Paris to French parents; his father was a postal official, his mother was a housewife, and coming from a good hardworking family, although he was educated and cultured, Roger wanted more.
Nicknamed ‘Petite George’ owing to his stature, Roger was a thin slightly built man, barely five-foot-high in heels, who wore very expensive exquisitely tailored suits to hide the fact they were child-sized. And although – with dark slicked down hair, a flawless face and often wearing a natty little bowtie - many mistook him for a little boy dressed in his Sunday best, when in truth, he was angel-faced killer.
Like a little Highland Terrier, Roger could be calm, patient, loyal and intensely smart, but burdened by a short-fuse, sharp teeth and a savage bite, very few rats ever escaped a tussle with Roger unscathed.
We know little of his descent into crime, as he used the cover of running cafes to hide the truth from the authorities and his parents. In July 1920, 19-year-old Roger was bound over for theft. In April 1922, her served two years for larceny. And later for larceny with force, at Villaine Assizes in November 1924, he was sentenced to seven years hard labour and ten years banishment to the infamous Devil’s Island.
Harsher than any sentence and harder than any prison, Devil’s Island was one of the most brutal penal colonies in the world. Opened in 1852, Devil’s Island was an uninhabited and isolated strip of land, ten miles off the French Guiana coast of South America. Surrounded on all sides by swirling seas - owing to the heat, the disease and the brutality of the warders - it was nicknamed the ‘dry guillotine’, as 40% of the prisoners didn’t survive their first year, and 75% would die before their sentence was complete.
Their days consisted of breaking rocks, digging holes and felling trees, in a pointless exercise designed to break and humiliate them, as at night they were housed in dark dank cells; shackled to the bed, fed on a diet of rancid pork, and forbidden from speaking, reading or even sitting before nightfall.
To endure such brutality requires strength and patience, and although Roger was half the weight and size of most prisoners, he lasted three years in near solitary confinement before he finally broke.
Few prisoners have ever escaped Devil’s Island, but one was Roger Vernon. On 15th November 1927, having built in secret and silence a makeshift raft, stockpiled supplies and concocted an almost suicidal plan, eight convicts over cover of night, navigated the black stormy sea, ten miles west to Venezuela.
As one of the most daring prison breaks ever, it caused a national embarrassment for the French, and although they unleashed a worldwide manhunt to capture him dead or alive, Roger was never caught.
From Venezuela, where he met his wife-to-be, he fled to New York and in a Broadway café, he bought a French/Canadian passport under the alias of Charles Edward Lacroix, a native of Montreal, born five years before himself, and blessed with dual nationality it give him access to Canada, France and Britain.
It is unknown how and when Roger Vernon alias Charles Lacroix became a white slaver, but - seeing himself not as a small-time pimp or a ponce, but as the boss - he was unafraid to get his hands dirty…
…and to send a clear message to any rivals, that he was not to be messed with.
On Monday 30th June 1930, Henri Bouclier, a 60-year-old Belgian known as ‘Old Martigues’ (the slang name for the French coastal town of Marseilles) left his wealthy apartment on Dorchester Street West in downtown Montreal and the epicentre of the red-light district. Described as ‘the vice czar’, Henri was a drug-dealer and international white slaver, who wore sharp suits and dripped in gold jewellery.
Henri was the boss of Montreal’s criminal underworld, but losing his grip, new gangs had muscled in.
Police struggled to find witnesses and the statements they made were vague, but it was said that Henri was picked up in a black car (of unknown make) by two men (of unseen description) and driven away. Missing for three days, on the afternoon of 2nd July in a remote disused industrial site called Laval-sur-le-Lac, an 11-year-old boy found his bloated bullet-riddled body, a few yards from a barely used road.
Fully dressed except for his hat; his pockets were emptied, his ID was burned, his jewellery was stolen, so that now everyone could see that this once great man had nothing… because he was nothing.
With no bloodstains, tyre-marks told the detectives he had been murdered elsewhere, driven to this spot, dragged off the road and dumped within view. Being easy to find but hard to identify, his killers knew that speculation would grow and once his death was reported, that the message would be clear.
Examined by the police surgeon, Henri was shot while standing and at close range; with the first bullet smashing his gold teeth into pieces and embedding into his neck, and the second – whilst bent over in pain – breaking his ribs and skewing his right lung as he drowned in gasping breaths of his own blood.
Police interrogated their prime suspects, Roger Vernon and Rafa (a fellow escapee from Devil’s Island) for eight hours about the murder of Montreal’s czar of vice, but with no evidence, they were released.
With Henri dead, Roger assumed control of parts of his criminal empire…
…and even today, the murder of Henri Bouclier remains unsolved.
Across the early 1930s, Roger moved between America, Spain, Belgium, London and Paris, establishing brothels and trafficking women into sex-work, as his wife set up a front by running an honest café.
The white slave trade was big business. It was said that “a new attractive young girl, preferably a virgin could trade hands for £500”, that’s £31000 today. And having added her travel fees, rent, clothes and a sham marriage, each girl would be imprisoned by a pimp’s debt, and living in a code of silence – with nothing written as paper leaves a trail - these contracts would be etched in fear, bruises and blood.
Across the 1930s, Scotland Yard had struggled to smash this Soho vice ring, and to prove who the boss of each rival syndicate really was, but – often - he was so invisible, it was almost as if he didn’t exist.
As a legal citizen with no criminal record in Britain, on 21st October 1931 at Holborn Registry Office, using the alias Charles Edward Lecroix, Roger Vernon married Esther Ode, a former French prostitute. And using the cover that he was a car dealer, with modest lodgings on Grafton Street, he blended in.
Seen as a small businessman living a seemingly modest life, Roger kept a low-profile from the law as he ruled large swathes of the West End sex-trade with an iron fist; roughing up ‘the meat’ when they stepped out of line, their pimps who skimmed off the top, and stamping on any rival who muscled in.
In 1933, Roger moved his mistress (a petite French prostitute with rose-bud lips and a brunette bob, known of ‘French Suzette’) into a two-floor lodging at 35/36 Little Newport Street, south of Soho…
…where Red Max the strangler would be murdered.
We’ll never know why Red Max was killed, whether he had heard, saw or knew something he shouldn’t have; whether it was simply for the small debt he owed, or what the money was really for?
Fear pervades every element of the white slave trade; from prostitutes to pimps, king-pins to ponces, and even those ordinary people who perform simple tasks to aid their daily life. So, what happened inside the lodging of Suzanne Bertron that night may never be known… but this is as near as we’ll get.
Marcelle Gabrielle Aubin, maid to ‘French Suzette’ would state “(Roger) said he had lent a man called Emil Allard £25 to furnish a prostitute’s flat and had not paid it back… he didn’t like the man… he was a big bully” who was known to threaten women, and to make those he disliked “pay” by violent means.
Two days prior, Red Max paid Suzanne a visit in the flat, while Roger was on business in France. Scaring Suzanne and mocking Roger, what was said by Max went unrecorded, but Roger was said to be fuming.
On Wednesday 22nd January, one day before, a letter was sent to Red Max, it read “Will you call at the flat tomorrow, between 6:30 and 7pm, as I have a letter to hand you personally. Signed. Suzanne”.
Posted that day and received the next morning, the trap was set… but what was the motive?
There were two witnesses to the murder and disposal of Red Max, but both were in fear for their lives.
45-year-old Marcelle Aubin of Paris had been Suzanne’s maid for just eight months. Not too dissimilar to Felicite Plaisant, the maid of ‘French Fifi’, she earned £1 per week, working midday to 1am except Sundays, by cleaning the flat, changing the sheets, and providing assistance if the customer got rough.
In her first statement to the Police, she would deny everything, stating “(Roger) wasn’t there… there was no fight… I broke the window fixing a light… and madame only left as her mother was sick”. All of which they knew was a lie, as the evidence would prove it. Promised protection, this terrified women later admitted “I did not tell you the truth because I am frightened that someone might injure me”.
The second witness was Pierre Alexandre; a driver and garage owner of 21 Sutton Street in Soho, an associate of Roger Vernon, a known ponce who Police suspected “was a flat-farmer linked to white slavery”, and who was also the landlord of 35/36 Little Newport Street where the murder took place.
In his first statement, he too denied it all, stating “I don’t know Suzanne, she may be a prostitute… I have seen her with a small Frenchman (I don’t know his name)… I have not seen Red Max in months… and I was not at the flat that night”, although the maid would state otherwise. He would later admit, “I did not tell the truth as I was afraid. I helped him through fear and because he had said I had to”.
But that’s the power of fear, it can make witnesses silent, and even murders seem like suicides.
Thursday 23rd January was an ordinary day by all accounts. When the maid arrived, Suzanne & Roger were still in bed and then she made them breakfast. Marcelle would state “after this meal, she dressed and went out to meet men to bring back to the flat”, with the last of the sex finishing at 6:30pm.
On the sideboard, in the top-floor sitting room, Marcelle saw a small pistol, a .25 Colt automatic which Roger said “I’ve had that for years. It’s travelled everywhere with me”, along with a tin of 18 bullets.
At 6:50pm, having rang the doorbell, Marcelle nervously showed Max up the stairs. At Roger’s request, Suzanne hid in the second-floor bedroom, later joined by Marcelle, and in the third floor sitting room, instead of meeting Suzanne as he thought, Red Max met Roger Vernon, who was still seething.
What words were exchanged between the two bitter rivals would go with them both to their graves. Whether a debt was repaid or insults were spat is unknown, as with the radio on at a volume too loud to be pleasant, it could be said that this was premeditation, as was the loaded pistol in Roger’s pocket.
As a tiny man with a child-like frame, although quick-tempered and dangerous, Roger was no match for Red Max, a thuggish brute who could strangle this tiny man with one hand, and Roger knew that.
Marcelle recalled “Soon after he went up, I heard quarrelling… footsteps backwards and forwards and while high words were being spoken… then I heard some shots. There were several… I heard a scuffle and then (Roger) shouted ‘Marcelle’”, as both women rushed up the stairs to his aid of the little man.
“Max had me by the throat” Roger would claim “he was trying to strange me”. Only with no bruises to his neck, all he had was a cut to his lip, as this lump of a man stumbled about, bleeding profusely.
Five shots were fired in total; the first penetrated both sides of his right hand as he tried to defend his face, the second and third ripped into his stomach with both bullets buried in his right leg and back, a fourth fired from the side burst through his hip and right kidney, and shot from behind as he stumbled, the fifth skewered his right shoulder and breaking three ribs as he slowly drowned in his own blood.
Stubbornly still standing and trying to flee, when Marcelle & Suzanne arrived, Red Max would growl “‘oh mademoiselle, he has shot me”, as the cruel white slaver whined at his own impending demise.
Pushing the lumbering lump back into the room, “when he got near the window, with his forearm, he smashed two panes of glass”. And although she would state “Suzanne and I pulled him away from the window…”, several witnesses did refuse to speak or talk to the police, but many more who had no links to drugs, crime or white slavery, openly spoke of the shots they heard and the falling glass.
Stella Healey, hostess at the Office Club on the first floor heard “footsteps and shouting”. Evan Thomas a driver at Cambridge Dairies next door spoke of ‘smashing glass’. Minnie Florence, owner of a cat meat stall “heard a commotion, some bangs and a window came out into the street”. Sophia Levey who ran tobacco kiosk right outside, stated she had been showered with broken glass and “heard a bang up above me coming from the flat. It sounded like an explosion, glass fell into the street, a crowd gathered and looked up…”, with passer-by Alan Kehoe confirming “the sound came from the top floor, the lower pane of the left window was broken. I looked up and immediately the light was extinguished. After the light went out, the whole house was in darkness”. Their statements would prove pivotal…
…but oddly, not a single person had called the Police.
In the bathroom on the second floor, as blood and stomach bile pooled about his crumpled legs, Max pleaded “take me to the hospital”, as this terrifying monster - who had subjected thousands of girls to an unspeakable horror being repeatedly raped by drunken men - begged “I am going to die, give me some water”. But as he struggled to breathe, gasping “air, air”, Roger simply barked at him, “shut up”.
With bullet wounds to his stomach and kidney, the pain would have been agonising at it took him half an hour to die, as slowly, this once feared Soho crime boss bled dry, slumped at the base of a toilet.
Red Max the Strangler had been murdered…
…but with enough money and power, even a big man can be made to vanish.
(Phone) “Pierre? It’s Roger. Come round at once. Very important. Bring a car”. Backing up his black Chrysler 66, a four-seater saloon to the street-door at 11:20pm, Pierre saw the body and went white, both in shock and in fear. With the street still trickling with curious faces, but no police, they waited till 3:30am, when the club had shut and street-lamps went out, plunging the whole area into darkness.
Throughout the night, “Suzanne & I washed away the bloodstains”, Marcelle would later confess; they washed the walls, scrubbed the carpets, and erased any trace of Max from every surface. When Roger came in, he said ‘there’s a spot there and there’. He wasn’t happy until every spot of blood had gone”.
Into the fire, anything Max had on him when he died was burned; his letters, his ID, his passport, his tie, his collar and even his trilby hat. His money was nicked and his jewellery was stripped, so that – when found - everyone could see that this once great man had nothing… because he was nothing.
The window was repaired, the curtains were burned, the pistol was dumped, and the spent cartridges were slung down a drain, so that by the morning, even a passing policeman would be none the wiser.
At 4am, with a foggy frost having descended on this cobblestoned street, amidst the gloom, a 16 stone lump wrapped in a blanket was dragged down the stairs and bundled into the back of Pierre’s car. Ordered by Roger to “go to the country”, this makeshift hearse headed 25 miles north to St Alban’s.
Sneaking down unlit lanes through impenetrable fog, Pierre later said “after wandering for while, we went down a little turning and Roger said ‘here is a good place’”. Pulling up quietly, and dragging the body by its feet across the hard frosty grass - so his once-fine suit was ragged and torn like a penniless pauper - like rubbish, he was dumped between a hedge on a barely-used road in an isolate spot.
It wasn’t hidden, that was the point. Roger wanted the body to be found; bereft of life and stripped of wealth, as the speculation grew, once Red Max’s death was reported, the message would be clear…
…just as it was with Henri Bouclier.
By the morning - as a passer-by found a bloodied bullet-riddled body - Roger & Suzanne boarded a boat-train to Paris, assured that the flat was clean, evidence was destroyed, and witnesses silenced.
The murder of Red Max could have gone unsolved, as many other murders had. But as much as a king-pin has the power to make a mere minion too terrified to talk and to erase them if they do, there is nothing more intimidating than a police detective, who can arrest you, deport you and convict you.
With the body identified that day as Meier Kassel alias Red Max, although the press made spurious claims over the dead man’s identity based on hearsay, the Police investigated the crime using the most logical methods known; an autopsy confirmed his fingerprints, with no criminal record they liaised with the French police, in his list of known associates was Roger Vernon who was missing, as was his mistress, a convicted prostitute known as ‘French Suzette’ who lived at 35/36 Little Newport Street.
When questioned, local witnesses spoke of shouting, glass smashing and gun shots. Inside, although the flat was spotless, fingerprints were found, as well as a few tiny blood spots. A witness at the King’s Head pub next door had seen and heard Red Max struggling to breathe in the bathroom. And speaking to neighbours, they were able to trace two terrified witnesses who demanded protection to speak – a prostitute’s maid called Marcelle Aubin, and the flat’s landlord, Pierre Alexandre, owner of an oddly clean black Chrysler 66, and - although he initially denied it – it was seen outside of the flat that night.
On Saturday 1st February, nine days later, at a hotel in Porte St Denis in Paris, the Surate charged Charles Lecroix & Marguerite Ferrero, alias Roger Vernon and Suzanne Bertron with wilful murder.
With both suspects French, the inquest began on Monday 3rd February at Paris Assizes in France. The evidence against Roger Vernon was solid, only one key witness who had seen everything was missing. As may have happened with ‘French Fifi’ and the white slavers it is said she helped convict, before the trial, a petite French brunette and a prostitute’s maid called Marcelle Aubin was found dead.
Investigated thoroughly, an autopsy would confirm it wasn’t murder or a suicide, but that this healthy 45-year-old “had succumbed to a mysterious illness” - the exact cause of which was unknown. (End)
In court, the tiny ‘crime boss’ in his natty bow-tie pooed evidence, dismissed lawyers and tried to tie to the court up in knots by denying he was Roger Vernon, or that the murder of a rival had taken place. Turning against his mistress and hanging her out to dry, as he shouted ‘Liar’ every time she condemned him, Roger spat “I swear that I did not know Max Kassel and that I had nothing to do with his death”.
Roger Vernon was a big time criminal and a feared gangster, and although tough and devious, calm and controlling and a man who wrought fear upon a city, the prosecution knew how to get him. Nine days into the trial, they pulled out their trump card – not evidence, not a new witness – but his beloved 74-year-old father who scolded his son like the little boy he was, shouting “you unhappy boy. You grind our name into the mud. You must tell the truth”. And with that, Roger Vernon, the international drug dealer and infamous white slaver who ruled large swathes of Soho, fell to his knees and sobbed.
On the 29th April 1937, at Seine Assizes in Paris, Suzanne Bertron was acquitted. Pierre Alexandre gave his damning evidence and then fled the country, fearing his own life. And found guilty of wilful murder, 36-year-old Roger Marcel Vernon was sentenced to 10 years hard labour and banished for 20 years.
It could be said that Roger Vernon was a likely suspect to be The Soho Strangler, but he was never suspected, as before the brutal murders of Marie Cotton and ‘Dutch Leah’, he was already in prison.
With three women dead, the killings stopped, the panic over and the press having ceased writing silly stories about a serial-strangler in Soho slaying similar looking women with links to the sex-trade, with their focus on the looming war in Europe, the excitement had died down and the case was forgotten.
Only, with a fourth and final woman still to kill, The Soho Strangler was hunting a prostitute…
…a petite French brunette, who was also known as ‘French Suzette’.
Part Nine of Ten of The Soho Strangler continues next week.
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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