Death on the Nile

UPDATED 11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

The Englishman rushed into the hotel lobby, sweaty and disheveled, declaring in an urgent voice that his wife was dying. Pamela Black—a marketing representative from Minneapolis who was checking into the New Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor, Egypt, with her parents that October evening in 1998—went with him to see if she could help. Upstairs in room 508 she found Cheryl Lewis, 43, sprawled naked on the double bed and foaming at the mouth. "She was absolutely gray, and her toes were clenched," says Black, 29, who is trained to administer first aid. "She had a weak pulse, and she was going in and out of consciousness." Racing the clock, Black asked the man to give Lewis mouth-to-mouth. Oddly, he refused, saying he preferred to wait for a doctor. "So I said, 'Tell her that you love her; keep her in the here and now,' " remembers Black. "But he refused to do that too."

And so, as the life ebbed out of Cheryl Lewis—in a place along the same river on which Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile—the man paced back and forth at the foot of the bed, declining even to help gather her clothes. One might imagine that John Allan—Lewis's boyfriend, not her husband—was paralyzed by shock, were it not for what police discovered during the following months. Evidence revealed that Allan, who police say kept company with prostitutes only days after Lewis's death, was a cold-blooded con man who had allegedly dabbled in forgery and theft before slipping cyanide into Lewis's drink after a day of shopping and sightseeing. Allan expertly covered his tracks—and, according to police, may have planned to poison another woman—until, last March 7, a British jury found him guilty of killing Lewis. "He was very cocky, and I'm sure he thought he was going to get away with it," says Lewis's estranged husband, Graham Lowsby, 51, who made a critical discovery that helped crack the case. "If you read a book about it, you'd find it in the library under fiction, because it's just unbelievable."

Most remarkable was Allan's knack for masking his treachery beneath a veneer of warmth and civility. Plump and plain yet supremely self-confident, Allan, 48—who declined to comment for this story—"has an ability to flatter women and attend to their every need," says Detective Superintendent Dave Smith of England's Merseyside Police, one of the investigators on the case. "He opens car doors for them, has their drinks when they come home, cooks their meals and just pampers them."

Born in a suburb of Liverpool, Allan was an industrial chemist by training but liked to spin fanciful tales of his life as a golf pro, an arms smuggler and a mercenary. His first marriage, to fellow chemist Jackie Millard, ended after three years in 1977; two years later he wed an Iranian student named Sima, who needed to marry a British citizen to remain in England. "He was so charming and a very good listener," says Sima, 47, who eventually bore Allan three daughters. In 1983, Sima was shot at and injured in the arm while driving alone to meet friends in Zambia, where the couple were living while Allan worked on a construction project. According to news accounts, Allan was arrested on suspicion of the shooting but was released on bail and disappeared for five months while Sima recuperated. Then, "out of the blue, John returned," says Sima, who adds of the arrest, "Allan said it was mistaken identity. No way had he done the shooting; I would have recognized him."

Sima believed him—"Why would I carry on living with a man who tried to shoot me?" she says—and the marriage endured. But then sometime around 1990, Allan began an affair with his lawyer, bright, beautiful Cheryl Lewis. One of the first women to set up her own law practice in the Liverpool area, Lewis was married to Lowsby, an accountant, but turned to Allan when that relationship soured. "He professed to be friends to us both," says Lowsby. "He knew there were difficulties in the marriage, and he was supposedly helping us get through them." Instead, Allan divorced Sima in 1993 and began living with Lewis.

The couple were vacationing in North Wales in 1997 when Lewis's prized blue topaz ring, left to her by her mother, disappeared. A ransom letter demanded $3,225 for the ring, and Lewis paid it. (Two years later, after Lewis's death, British police found Allan's DNA on the stamp on the ransom envelope.) "She realized then that he was a wrong 'un," believes her widowed father, Eric Lewis, 73. "But he persuaded her to go on this last holiday."

In October 1998 Lewis and Allan traveled to Egypt for a long-planned vacation. One night, after dining out, Allan fixed a gin and tonic for Lewis in their hotel room. Moments later he was in the lobby summoning help, but Lewis was pronounced dead at the scene. "We all thought, 'This poor man,' " says Pamela Black. "He was acting very upset." At the insistence of her father, Lewis's body was shipped to Liverpool for an autopsy, but tests revealed no clear cause of death. "The pathologist was baffled," says Sgt. Stephen Moore of the Mersey-side Police. "There was lots of smoke but no fire. Until we had a cause of death, we didn't know whether we were dealing with a murder or not."

For his part, Allan wasted no time in getting on with his life. He returned to the home he had shared with Lewis in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, drove her Mercedes around town and devised wild theories about her death. "He told Cheryl's sister Judith that she had possibly died of a heroin overdose," says Lowsby, who smelled a rat when Allan reported Lewis's leased Mercedes stolen in December 1998. Suspecting Allan had hidden the car to avoid returning it, Lowsby searched for the Mercedes and found it parked a few blocks from Lewis's home. Inside, police discovered a black plastic bag wedged in a compartment, containing enough cyanide to kill more than 500 people. When forensic experts retested lab samples from Lewis's autopsy, they confirmed that she had been poisoned with cyanide.

By then, Allan was dating Jennifer Hughes, 53, a friend of Cheryl's who had called to express her sympathy. When Hughes was rushed to the hospital with mysterious stomach pains in February 1999, Merseyside Police—who had had Allan under surveillance since finding the cyanide—arrested him immediately. "I've been told I had a very lucky escape," says the shaken Hughes. "I owe my life to the British police."

Now all that authorities needed was a motive, and they produced one at trial this January. Prosecutors said that Allan had forged Lewis's 1993 will in an attempt to secure virtually all of her $690,000 estate. "He prints off three new pages and puts them on top of the original back page, which had been signed and witnessed," says Sergeant Moore. "His mistake was that the typeface he used wasn't quite the same." Still, Allan denied both the forgery and the murder. "I was in love with her; she was in love with me," he said at trial. "I would say towards the end, the bond was getting closer.... We were making plans for the future."

For now, Allan's only future is in Liverpool's Altcourse prison, where he has started serving a life sentence. Meanwhile, those who knew Cheryl Lewis mourn the life that ended with a grisly death on the Nile. "There was a feeling of euphoria over the verdict, but it doesn't alter the tragedy," says Lowsby, who never divorced Lewis. "In the end, Cheryl died an agonizing death, and it was just for money."

Alex Tresniowski
Ellen Tumposky in London, Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis and Esther Leach in Liverpool

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