The entrance arch of The Oceanic hotel
The entrance arch of The Oceanic hotel

To most residents of Chennai it is an empty piece of real estate, the art deco ‘O’ shaped entrance being the sole survivor. It was a top-notch hotel that once boasted of the city’s first discotheque. To actor Dilip Kumar it was home in Madras, probably because former flame Madhubala stayed at The Connemara. To the Indian cricket team, this was their place of stay when test matches were played here. To me, ever since actor Mohan Raman set me off on the story, The Oceanic will always be the place where a dreaded smuggling duo spent one night.

On December 31, 1965, B.P.C. Comyn and S.T. Lamb, both British nationals, landed at Meenambakkam airport, via an Air Ceylon flight. They spent one night at The Oceanic, before leaving for Bombay, where they stayed at the West End Hotel. There they were arrested on suspicion by police officers D.H. Crawford and R.S. Kulkarni. Their fingerprints were taken and found to be those of wanted international smugglers Daniel Hailey Walcott of the USA and Jean Claude Donze of France.

The two had come back to India in order to retrieve a consignment of gold that they had dumped off Bombay. Both were not new to Indian Courts or jails. In 1962, Walcott flew into India in a DC4 craft. Caught smuggling ammunition, he was arrested, tried and sentenced, being lodged in Tihar. Released conditionally, he would periodically attend to his impounded aircraft at Delhi’s Safdarjung airport. One afternoon, he simply took off in it. Having circled over Tihar and dropped cigarettes and chocolates as gifts for the inmates, he flew off to Pakistan. He had been wanted ever since. Donze had a cleaner track record; he had served his sentence for smuggling off Rameswaram and left the country.

The duo’s 1965 entry into India having been through Madras, they were brought here in the custody of V.R. Lakshminarayanan, later to become DGP, Tamil Nadu. Tried for entering the country on false passports, they were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for five years. The appeal in the High Court of Madras had V.P. Raman as the Special Public Prosecutor. The sentences were confirmed, which the duo accepted meekly, Walcott even congratulating Raman and asking if he would appear for him in the Supreme Court!

Lodged in the Madras jail opposite the Central Station, they were one day found on the roof of the prison, planning their escape! R.S. Kulkarni was summoned to take them to Bombay where after the discovery of hacksaws and files in their cells, they were transferred to Tihar. These attempts increased the sentences. Released ten years later, Walcott came to Kulkarni’s office in Bombay, complimented him on his fairness and left.

He settled in Los Angeles where he was shot dead in a drug smuggling feud in 2001. Donze vanished from his home in France in 2007 and was later confirmed as having been killed in 2009. The Oceanic was demolished in 2005 or so.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 25, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column.

More details on The Oceanic are available here.