Jenson Button and his wife 'may have been gassed' in St Tropez burglary

Two men broke into rented villa in St Tropez while Formula One driver and his partner were sleeping, but experts cast doubt on gassing theory

French police are investigating whether anaesthetic gas was used during a burglary on Formula One driver Jenson Button and his wife Jessica in a rented villa on the French Riviera. Two men, who stole jewellery reportedly worth £300,000, including an engagement ring, may have pumped gas through the air conditioning system before the break-in on Monday in St Tropez where the couple were holidaying with friends, the racing driver’s spokesman claimed.

But authorities cast doubt on the theory, saying there had been no similar burglaries in the area.

The group were unharmed but were left “unsurprisingly shaken by the events”, said Button’s spokesman. “Jenson, Jessica and friends were on holiday in a rented villa in St Tropez when on Monday evening two men broke into the property whilst they all slept and stole a number of items of jewellery including, most upsettingly, Jessica’s engagement ring.

“The police have indicated that this has become a growing problem in the region, with perpetrators going so far as to gas their proposed victims through the air-conditioning units before breaking in,” he said.

Authorities in in St Tropez played down the claims. Philippe Guemas, deputy prosecutor in Draguignan, told Europe1 radio: “To our knowledge there has never been a burglary like this in St Tropez where gas was used to knock out the victims. Nothing has been established. Jenson Button’s entourage has made this claim as the driver didn’t feel well the following day. We have taken blood samples, which will be analysed.”

The F1 champion, who has been tipped to join Chris Evans as co-host on the revamped BBC motoring show Top Gear, drives for McLaren Honda. He married his wife, a model, in Hawaii in December.

Rumours of burglars using gas have circulated in recent years. But Dr Liam Brennan, vice president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists, was highly sceptical of claims that anaesthetic gas could have been used in the raid. “We find it very difficult to understand how anaesthetic agents could be delivered in the concentrations required to produce that sort of effect,” he told Sky News.

Asked specifically about nitrous oxide, reportedly used in previous thefts, Dr Brennan said: “Nitrous oxide is an anaesthetic agent that we use, but it is a very weak anaesthetic agent and the concentrations required to render somebody unconscious are extremely high. It would simply not be possible to pump enough into to the environment of a house.”

He nitrous oxide was a “non-starter” because a 90% concentration of the gas would be required to inflict oxygen starvation on the victims. “It just would not be possible to get enough nitrous oxide to do that in a house or a room.”

He added that other gases used in anaesthetics, including ethers and chloroforms, would induce “coughing and spluttering” to anyone exposed to the doses required. “Even if they were in natural sleep, it would wake them and they would cough and splutter,” he said.

A source said to be close to the Button inquiry told French agency AFP that burglaries using gas were not known in the area. “The investigation is under way. We’re not ruling out any theory and we will test to see if any drugs were used,” said the anonymous source. “We have not seen this modus operandi in the region and it certainly is not a growing problem.”

St Tropez, in the south of France, is a popular destination for the rich and famous. It is not the first time gas has been mentioned in association with burglaries there, or elsewhere. In 2006, footballer Patrick Vieira, his wife and daughter were victims of a raid on their family home near Cannes. The family had complained of feeling unwell after the burglary and it was later confirmed that gas had been pumped into the air-conditioning system of their house to ensure that they slept while jewellery was stolen.

In 2011, the Guardian reported that police in the billionaires’ retreat of Porto Cervo on Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda believed thieves used gas to sneak into the rented holiday villa of a Milanese pharmaceutical tycoon and steal cash and jewels worth £280,000.

At the villa next door, two holidaymakers awoke feeling “weak and dazed” to discover a watch and €15,000 cash missing. Similar robberies were said to have been reported that summer in France and Spain, and so-called “gassing gangs” were reported to be targeting caravans and camper vans in France.

Following reports of caravans and camper vans allegedly targeted by “gassing gangs” last year, the Royal College of Anaesthetists said it was “a myth”. It would not be possible to render someone unconscious by blowing either chloroform or any other currently used volatile anaesthetic agents into a motor home without its extremely pungent smell being noticed and of sufficient intensity to knock someone out. The smell also “hung around for days” and would be instantly noticed, it said.

“Even the more powerful modern volatile agents would need to be delivered in tanker loads of carrier gas by a large compressor. Potential agents, such as the one used by the Russians in the Moscow siege, are few in number and difficult to obtain. Moreover, these drugs would be too expensive for the average thief to use,” it said.

A police spokesman for the Var region said: “Mr Button learned about the burglary as he woke up. Nobody was hurt.” When asked by Reuters news agency, the French police had no information about the possible use of gas.

Source: C.Davies and M.Weaver, 2015, The Guardian, 7th August: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/aug/07/jenson-buttons-wife-has-engagement-ring-stolen-as-pair-burgled-while-asleep