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Columbo’s most sensational cases

Murder by the Book Columbo

One of Columbo’s most enduring traits is his tenacity and his fearlessness when bringing down killers, regardless of their wealth, connections or social status.

He’s gone toe-to-toe with – and bested – some of the greatest criminal minds of his generation. But beyond that, he’s also brought down some of America’s highest profile and most-loved personalities. How these are portrayed on screen is thrilling enough for most. But imagine if it was real.

Let’s be honest, some of the crimes Columbo cracked would’ve been headline news across the civilised world. And that got me thinking about which of his cases would have caused the greatest stir in his homeland and beyond. And we’re not talking minor stirs here (accepting that some US housewives might have been saddened at Dexter Paris’s cookery show going off air), but those that would have stunned entire nations.

“He’s gone toe-to-toe with some of the greatest criminal minds of his generation.”

Given that Columbo solved crimes committed by film directors, politicians, high ranking police officials, TV stars, best-selling authors and more, this shabby, unassuming little figure would have caused more collective astonishment than any other policeman in history. And here are the cases I think would have had the most shock value for the masses, in no particular order (apart from the last three)…

Spoiler: This list doesn’t include Mexican national bull fighting legend Luis Montoya, due to Columbo’s involvement in the Matter of Honor case being unofficial.

Deputy Commissioner Halperin – A Friend in Deed

Bad cops being busted is always big news, and the circumstances surrounding the fall of Deputy Commissioner Mark Halperin would have gripped the nation. A wife killer, who covered up for another murder and tried to frame a convicted con? The press would’ve had a field day. Sure, the ripples might not have extended far beyond US shores, but this would have been big news in the Land of the Free.

Commissioner Mark Halperin Columbo

Hat at jaunty angle + evil beard = BAD COP!

Paul Hanlon – The Most Crucial Game

Admittedly Hanlon himself wouldn’t have the highest public profile. He’s a general manager, a behind-the-scenes manipulator known well in LA, perhaps, but falling short of being a household name. But in a country obsessed with American Football, the killing of the LA Rockets’ youthful owner, Eric Wagner, at Hanlon’s icy hands would’ve been guaranteed to set tongues wagging. And with the sport having mass appeal, it’s a murder that the average Joe would’ve been talking about at every bar and club across the 50 states.

Paul Hanlon

Evil much, Paul?

Nelson Hayward – Candidate for Crime

Columbo blows Senatorial candidate Nelson Hayward’s political career away in unforgettable style (more about that in the Columbo Top 10 gotchas’ blog) on election day, in a building thronging with gentlemen of the press. With the news hounds already on the scene ready to report on Hayward’s presumed successful run for Senate, when the story switches to him being busted for murder you can bet it’s a yarn that would have gripped the nation.

Nelson Hayward

The camel hair jacket never secured the senatorial role it deserved.

That’s huge news, but it isn’t Columbo’s biggest political case by any means. That honour goes to…

Oscar Finch – Agenda for Murder

Ambitious lawyer Oscar Finch has his eyes set on the Attorney General role, and is banking on his long-term relationship with Congressman – and Vice-Presidential hopeful – Paul Mackey to make it happen. But it’s not Finch’s bumping off of a blackmailer that’s the big story here: it’s that Mackey covers up for Finch despite knowing full well he did it. Once Columbo solves the crime, Mackey’s association with Finch would have undoubtedly killed off his Vice-Presidential hopes – perhaps even rocking Governor Montgomery’s Presidential bid. Such political skulduggery would’ve been WORLD NEWS, and as such this would be an even greater sensation than the Nelson Hayward case.

Oscar Finch

The name? Oscar Finch. Special skills? Cheese-nibbling, fake laughing and MURDER

Ward Fowler – Fade In To Murder

One of the highest-paid and popular TV detectives of his generation caught out after slaying his blackmailing producer, despite a magnificent alibi? It’s fair to say this meta-tastic case would’ve generated MILES of column inches for America’s tabloid press, while doubtless drawing some bemused reaction from the European media, too.

Ward Fowler

William Shatner’s turn as Ward Fowler continues to defy conventional description, 4 decades on

Abigail Mitchell – Try and Catch Me

Presumably adored by millions due to her diminutive stature, grandmotherly charm and mystery writing skills, news of Abigail Mitchell’s crime would’ve been received with disbelief by the masses. They might even have thought it was a PR stunt to promote her next book – until she got locked away, that is…

Abigail Mitchell

Killer grandma, or wronged old dear – YOU decide…

Emmet Clayton – The Most Dangerous Match

The thought of chess Grandmaster Emmet Clayton making this list might seem far-fetched to a modern audience. I mean, how many chess Grandmasters can you name? And if you just thought of Garry Kasparov, can you name another? However, chess enjoyed a much higher profile in the early 1970s, and with Cold War tensions escalating, American Clayton’s callous murdering of lovable Ruskie Tomlin Dudek would have definitely caused a global stir, although one hopefully stopping short of triggering World War 3.

Emmet Clayton

Aside from certifiable maniac Emmet Clayton, how many chess Grandmasters can YOU name…?

Ken Franklin – Murder by the Book

Just imagine it: the most famous writing partnership in US history torn asunder due to one of them being slain in circumstances so mysterious even fictional detective Mrs Melville would struggle to crack the case. If the news of Jim Ferris’s death wasn’t a big enough shock, the knowledge that his partner – the ever-affable Ken Franklin –  did it would have had hearts palpitating and jaws dropping the world over.

Ken Franklin

Ken and Jim: a lovers’ tiff gone wrong

And the real biggies…

Alex Brady – Murder, Smoke and Shadows

Given that we’re told he’s had a string of the highest-grossing movies ever made behind him, everything this lad did would be of interest to the global media, so imagine the hullabaloo his arrest for murder would have caused. It would be the equivalent of a young Spielberg having been taken down: every man and his dog from LA to Lahore would know about it.

Alex Bradey

Alex Brady: bigger than Spielberg?

Tommy Brown – Swan Song

Tabernacle-tastic Tommy Brown sells biblical albums by the truckload and is a revered figure from Coast to Coast – and almost certainly well beyond. But it’s not just God-fearing old crumblies that dig his style. Witness the gaggle of gals crowing for him outside his dressing room and it’s abundantly clear Tommy has sex appeal in droves and is totally down with the kids. His miraculous escape from the plane crash would’ve been deemed an act of God. His subsequent arrest for murder would have been a stunning development – perhaps even shaking the faith of some of his most devout followers.

Tommy Brown

The big question: whatever happened the TABERNACLE?

Nora Chandler – Requiem for a Falling Star

We must assume from Columbo’s stunned reaction at meeting her that Nora Chandler is a household name and one still held in sky-high regard for her past glittering career, even if she’s past the mega stardom stage. The downfall of such a beloved figure would be the equivalent, perhaps, of an aging but perennially popular Oscar winner, say Michelle Pfieffer or Jodie Foster, being busted for murder today. She might not be front of mind, but she’d have been known to a global audience, leading to consternation and confusion the world over. Mind blowing stuff.

Nora Chandler

That’s right, Lieutenant, just plaaaay it cool…

So there we have it! As always, please let me know your thoughts on this post, and who else you think might have warranted a mention. The aim of these posts is to stimulate discussion and debate, so do leave a comment below. And thanks for reading. It will always be appreciated.

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41 thoughts on “Columbo’s most sensational cases

  1. Pingback: Seven times Columbo refers to his previous cases | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  2. General Hollister from Dead Weight might qualify. Probably not a household name like some of the others in the list, but a revered war hero famous enough to have a museum exhibit dedicated to him.

  3. Pingback: 5 best moments from Candidate for Crime | The Columbophile

  4. Pingback: Six times Columbo refers to his previous cases | The Columbophile

  5. Pingback: Columbo full episode: A Friend in Deed | The Columbophile

  6. I always thought Columbo finding the murder victim’s body in the nightclub on opening night in “Columbo Likes the Nightlife” was sensational.
    Can you imagine being there???

  7. Mr columbophile how come you didn’t include the saurian king in a case of immunity as he was a king and believed he had diplomatic immunity and wealth , after all this is what the episode is centred on and titled after all he virtually admits to the murder to Colombo or is this episode which some people consider a poorer episode forgotten about , im sure you wouldn’t have done that.

      • Gotta disagree, the U.S. government isn’t allowed to control what the press prints (can’t prosecute journalism, etc.), and the Feds don’t and can’t control state-level criminal matters. To clarify further for non-Americans, if Columbo were FBI, the Feds could plausibly exercise some control over him. But he has nothing to do with Federal law enforcement, he works for the State of California. Steve is right about this one IMO.

        • In fact, there’s no way in the US to shroud *any* prosecution in secrecy, even if it is Federal, so it would be like if MBS had shot a store clerk or something – a total media frenzy.

    • It wasnt the king that was the killer, it was an official that was (implied to be) involved in plotting a coup against the king because he was trying to open up Saurian society, and the whole gotcha at the end was bringing out the king to threaten Saurian justice that made him confess and abandon his diplomatic immunity. If anything it strengthened the diplomatic ties in the end because Columbo hit it off great with the king and all the non-murderous diplomats. Still right it would be a huge event. Although given recent events that plot would have made for an interesting modern episode.

  8. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Friend in Deed | The columbophile

  9. I’d say “The Conspirators”. Not only does Joe Devlin, a best selling author, go down but the investigation would also lead to the O’Connell’s and their company. Add in “Friends Of Northern Ireland”, Chuck Jensen the gun dealer which would lead to his supplier, and that’s a lot of dominos that would fall as a result of one murder.

  10. Out of those choices, It would either be Ward Fowler or Nora Chandler. Imagine, say, Sean Bean whacking his producer like Ward did or Angelina Jolie had killed a former husband, huge. Now, If the Heyward scenario had happened for real post 2010, that would be huge. And even though I think the episode is overrated, Dale Kingston would be a huge deal, so would Alex Benedict. Anything that interferes with peoples distractions is not well received.

  11. “Now You See Him” would go well in the #12 spot. The Great Santini seems to be a reasonably prominent celebrity (he played a show at Madison Square Garden that was televised nationally and his tours pull in six-figure profits in 1970s dollars), he used magic tricks to carry off a murder and establish an alibi within another alibi, and then there’s the bombshell revelation that he was a fugitive Nazi war criminal all along. I think there would be extensive national media coverage, books written about the case, and maybe even a movie based on it.

  12. What about listing the top ten murder plans? Some of the killers went to great lengths to get away with murder – most of season 4 in particular was elaborate – staged accidents, faked kidnappings, elaborate alibis etc.

  13. You really hit the nail on the head and reasons with these. A Friend in Deed, The Most Crucial Game, Candidate for Crime, Agenda For Murder, Fade in to Murder, Murder, Smoke and Shadows, and Swan Song. With police tension, America’s love of football, politics, celebrities, religion and music all being a big part of America, these definitely would have made huge headlines.

    I can think of one Chess Grandmaster, Bobby Fischer. I mostly remember him because of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer which after looking it up to make sure I had his last name spelled correctly wasn’t even about him. Lol It is about a Chess prodigy though.

  14. I can never find this one – and big spoiler – where Columbo DID make national headlines inside the show. He was convinced this guy offed his…wife, I think. But the guy insisted she was on vacation somewhere. Against his superior’s orders, against the family, against the public, Columbo investigates her murder. And then SPOILER, the supposed murder victim shows up! Alive and healthy. I loved that one. My sister and I used to watch that episode over and over, yet I haven’t seen it – even found it – since I was a kid.

    • I think you’re referring to Columbo Cries Wolf from 1990. Magazine publisher pretends to bump off his partner, Columbo investigates and she shows up alive. Guy then kills her for real.

    • And the press was there in Blueprint For Murder, too, though that may have been more local.

      But then Commandant Sanchez conscripts Columbo because of the cruise ship case (Troubled Waters), so obviously that one was pretty well known.

      I was thinking Dagger of the Mind—those two were ostensibly quite famous, at least in Ol’ Blighty.

      • I always thought that a great post would be “The Top Reasons Lieutenant Columbo Remained a Lieutenant”, and several of these cases would be some of the reasons. My gut feeling is that Columbo made a bunch of enemies. Certainly there were people who were banking on Nelson Hayward winning or were cronies in crime with Mark Halperin. They probably couldn’t take out Columbo but they could make sure he never got any further.

  15. Brilliantly written and it gives you a lot to think about. I was going to say that Hayward should definitely be in but then I started to think that in their own way each case would have got a lot of attention. This makes me think of the question in another way, and that is which one would have gained the least coverage?

    • Good question. The Suarian embassy story would’ve been hushed up, I’m sure. Same likely to be true for Identity Crisis. Other ones involving less well known figures would includes Lady in Waiting; Greenhouse Jungle; Short Fuse and Old Fashioned Murder (this one particularly).


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