Teen's Double Life Emerged Only After His Death

'New Yorker' explores the convoluted circumstances surrounding the death of Zac Brettler in London
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 11, 2024 9:00 AM CST
Teen's Double Life Emerged Only After His Death
Stock image of the River Thames and London.   (Getty / Scott Blanche)

CCTV captured images of 19-year-old Zac Brettler jumping from a fifth-floor apartment balcony overlooking the River Thames at 2:24am on November 28, 2019. The images were blurry, but Brettler appeared to be alone and thus London police were inclined to label it a suicide when his body was found on the riverbed hours later, writes Patrick Radden Keefe in an examination of the case for the New Yorker. The teen's parents were dumbfounded, and their subsequent push for an investigation yielded jarring details about what Keefe calls the teen's "double existence." For one thing, he'd been passing himself off around the city as the son of a wealthy Russian oligarch. This appears to have stemmed from his stint at a boarding school when many of his classmates were the sons of rich foreign figures.

Worse, he'd gotten tangled up in the complex web of London's drug underworld. The night of his death, Brettler had been in that fifth-floor apartment with a known gangster named Dave Sharma and "a dilettante posing as an accomplished entrepreneur" named Akbar Shamji. Brettler's parents believe their son jumped to escape something happening in that apartment. (The story points out that Shamji texted a friend at 10:35pm, "I have just been heating up knives and clearing up blood.") So was it suicide or murder? A coroner's inquest in 2022 delivered an "open" verdict, meaning she could not reach a conclusion. "I was living on the balcony with Zac, in my head," his mother tells Keefe, reflecting on the family's quest for the truth. "I literally had a stomach ache for months after he died, because you're having to digest grief." Read the full story. (Or check out other longform recaps.)

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