“Only those four walls know the truth,” Hernando Rojas reflected, jabbing a gnarled finger into the distance, a crooked smile creasing his cheeks. “But something strange went on that day, I can assure you.”
Rojas was well into his 80s when he finally packed it in as the resident shoe shiner at Bogotá’s emblematic Hotel Tequendama. But for almost 60 years he was the eyes and ears of the establishment’s lobby – watching everyone, observing all. From Fidel Castro to Jimmy Carter, Neil Armstrong to Pelé, many were the stars to cross the famous foyer floor. Yet it was a blond Englishman that the octogenarian remembers best. “A giant; the most elegant man I’d ever seen,” Rojas recalled when I saw him a few years back. “Bobby Moore, champion of the world.”
That afternoon, 50 years ago this week, when the England captain entered Rojas’s world, a mystery was born that still rumbles to this day. Entangled in myth, lies and political intrigue, dragged through the criminal underworld and spat across the international press, the tale of Bobby Moore and the missing Bogotá bracelet threatened international relations and very nearly left England without their main man for the 1970 Mexico World Cup. But why would he have pinched it? Could it have been a prank? Did a bracelet even exist?
It’s hard now to imagine the opulence and splendour that once bathed the Tequendama. Today the discoloured wallpaper is peeling and the carpets are musty, but there is still enough faded charm about the place to evoke a nostalgic leap back to 18 May 1970 when the England team would have spilled into the hotel at around 4pm.
Sat at one end of the lobby, Rojas and his battered toolkit of cloths, brushes and polish; at the other, the Fuego Verde jeweller’s, one of four high-end boutique shops skirting the perimeter. “I was over here working and they were sat over there chatting,” Rojas explained. “I remember them hanging around for quite some time.”
As the players sloped around waiting for their rooms to be prepared, Bobby Charlton peered through the glass window of the Fuego Verde. Spotting an emerald ring for his wife, Charlton entered the shop, Moore tailing him. A third player momentarily slouched by the door. Baulking at the price, Charlton thanked the young shop assistant, the only other person present, before walking out. Both ambled back to the lobby to join their teammates.
“All of a sudden there’s this huge commotion,” Rojas said. “The girl’s come out of the jeweller’s and I see a group of them looking for something under the chairs.”
Events quickly turned more dramatic as the owner of the shop, Danilo Rojas, strutted into the melee. Jabbering away in Spanish, the England players understood very little except something was missing. The shop assistant, Clara Padilla, who had only been working their for two months, pointed at Moore. The mysterious item was then identified: an 18-carat bracelet studded with 12 diamonds and 12 emeralds reportedly worth £650.
By now voices were raised and the fuss alerted a police officer stationed at the five-star hotel’s tourist office. Both Moore and Charlton were taken to one side for questioning.
“Nobody knew what the hell was going on,” Rojas recalled. “I didn’t see anyone lose their temper but the England players were clearly confused and a bit anxious – they’d only been in Colombia for a couple of hours.”
Tensions eventually relaxed and the players were finally handed the keys to their rooms. It was considered the end of the matter. Even the English press didn’t bother reporting the incident back to their London newsdesks that night. For both players and journalists more important matters were afoot.
England were about to play Colombia in their penultimate warm-up game, just two weeks before the World Cup was set to kick-off in Mexico. Colombia’s press gushed at having a team of world champions in the country for the first time but, behind the scenes, forces were beginning to move. In an exhaustive investigation into England’s time in Bogotá for his 2014 biography, Bobby Moore: The Man in Full, Matt Dickinson describes the unfolding events like the plot from a noir thriller. And the second scene was about to begin.
As England prepared for their friendly by training at the Military Cadets School, the police, accompanied by the Fuego Verde owner Rojas and assistant Padilla, had rolled up at the British Embassy. A bracelet was still missing. An England player had taken it. Charges would be pressed.
England thrashed Colombia 4-0, but the following morning Moore was summoned to give another police statement, a process that also involved him clenching his fist to compare its size with the gap in the cabinet where the bracelet had once allegedly been displayed. It would not fit and Moore was free to go.
England beat Ecuador 2-0 in Quito to finish their mini-South American tour with a morale-boosting 100% record. With only one week to go before the defence of their title began against Romania, England were relaxed and confident. The next stop was Mexico, but first they had a six-hour stopover in Bogotá. Little did they know that the case against Moore had been re-opened.
Alvaro Suarez, a 26-year-old street vendor, had appeared from the shadows claiming to be a witness. Despite inconsistencies in his story, he told police he had seen Moore sneak the bracelet into his tracksuit pocket. Danilo Rojas was now claiming the value of the bracelet, plus damages. “He might be the best footballer in the world, the most attractive, distinguished and most highly regarded of anyone, a friend of her British majesty even. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a kleptomaniac,” he raged.
As England stepped off the plane at Bogotá airport, the British Embassy informed Moore he would be required to answer a few more questions. The England captain duly obliged and left his teammates back at the Tequendama watching an old black and white film before accompanying security service agents at a downtown court where a magistrate was waiting to analyse the case.
A few hours later, the rest of the squad returned to the airport to board a flight to Panama. But they were without their captain. Tired, hungry and utterly baffled, Moore had spent hours repeatedly insisting he knew nothing about the bracelet he was accused of stealing. Yet the grilling continued.
Deep into the night the magistrate announced he had finally reached a decision – one of the world’s most famous footballers, world champion and England captain, would be detained; that night Moore would be thrown into a cell.
Hearing the news, the Colombian FA President, Alfonso Senior Quevedo, knew just how disastrous this could be and that Moore’s life was now in danger. The infamous Department of Security Services jail where Moore was to be sent was located in a lawless part of town. Only a month earlier, Colombia had seen widespread fraud tarnish presidential elections. The country was angry and frustrated. Moore had stumbled into the rage of its aftermath.
Senior pleaded with the magistrate to let the England captain stay with him under house arrest instead. The request was granted and two detectives were assigned to watch over Moore night and day while more evidence was gathered.
News spread like wildfire. While the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, instructed diplomatic services to do all they could to secure his release, the world’s press struggled to make sense of the mess. Colombian newspapers saw the incident as particularly embarrassing, defending “the English gentlemen” and wincing at Colombia’s reputation being dragged through the mud. “We should have more faith in his [Moore’s] statements than those of the witnesses who contradict themselves and lack seriousness,” argued El Tiempo, the country’s main newspaper. “This farce has caused irreparable damage.”
Padilla, however, was sticking to her guns. “Nobody, and I repeat nobody, other than him [Moore] could have been the author of the jewel’s disappearance. I’m sure of that.”
On the second day of Moore’s detention there was a breakthrough. In a re-enactment of the crime back at the Tequendama, with all protagonists present, Padilla repeated her story claiming she saw Moore stuff the alleged bracelet into his tracksuit pocket. Lifting his arms Moore challenged the judge to find the hiding place. There were no pockets.
Suarez also began to crack. It was common knowledge that the Colombian emerald trade, responsible for the majority of world production, was a crime-riddled industry controlled by mine barons who were protected by mercenary death squads. Suarez operated at the bottom of the chain, equipped with neither the brains nor experience to tackle the glaring scrutiny of his increasingly confused story. And when it was revealed that he had accepted money from shop owner Rojas for his cooperation with the case, yet more credibility dissipated.
In customary style, Moore continued to show remarkable stoicism, despite the World Cup now being only days away. Celebrating the birthday of one of the armed guards stationed at Senior’s house one night, Moore helped drink the house dry. Yet he was still up at first light to sneak out for a run and then finish a plate of ham and eggs before the guards eventually crawled out of bed nursing thunderous hangovers.
Finally, four days before England played in Guadalajara, Judge Pedro Dorado concluded there was insufficient evidence to justify keeping Moore detained. He was free to leave the country.
Moore stepped off the plane in Mexico City the following day to a hero’s welcome. Despite the psychological torture he had just been dragged through, Moore had responded with admirable gravitas. As the media rattled jingoistic sabres back home, he simply got his head down and focused on the task at hand. Just over a week after battling the Colombian justice system, Moore led England out against Brazil and put in a dazzling performance. Both on and off the pitch, he demonstrated inviolable inner strength.
In August 1970, Colombia’s chief of police admitted Moore had probably fallen foul of a conman’s extortion trick: an exotic jewel used as bait in a fancy hotel frequented by the rich and powerful. Fifty years on, it remains the most likely theory. Yet the embers of doubt still smoulder, not least because the case has never been fully explained.
One of the main counter theories has been propagated by his biographer and friend Jeff Powell. Both East End lads, Powell suggested Moore had confessed before his death in 1993 that a bracelet may have indeed existed: “Perhaps one of the younger lads with the squad did something foolish, a prank with unfortunate circumstances.”
Five decades on and one of the few people alive still connected to the case is Pedro Bonnet, the Fuego Verde lawyer. But he refuses to talk, swiftly putting the phone down after warning never to call him ever again when asked for his thoughts.
“There’s a piece missing from the jigsaw that nobody has ever found,” shoe shiner Rojas claimed shortly before he died a couple of years ago, yet another crime-scene witness to depart the stage. “I don’t believe Moore was a thief, but I don’t believe the shop owner would have gambled everything on a such a scam either.”