Just who was that mysterious priest living a quiet life in Equador? Could he have been Adolf Hitler?

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He’d seen the world. But as soon as he arrived in Cuenca, retired American Lieutenant Colonel Wendelle Stephens knew it was different.

Nestled in the remote highlands of Ecuador, Cuenca is a small town surrounded by the archeological remains of ancient American people.

But it wasn’t the dead that fascinated Stephens about Cuenca. It was the living – and one living man in particular.

When Stephens had first travelled through Cuenca on holiday in 1981, he’d met an old priest –  87-year-old Father Crespi.

A screen-shot from rare video footage of Father Crespi

Rare footage of Father Crespi

Years before, Father Crespi taken a vow of poverty.

It meant his toes poked through the holes in his shoes and his long, white beard was tangled and unkempt.

But the people of Cuenca loved little Father Crespi.

‘What little money I give to the poor is all they have,’ Father Crespi told Stephens

Stephens was intrigued.

Father Crespi had nothing. How could he afford to help anyone else?

The priest’s answer was simple. Local tribes people had given him many artefacts of gold and precious stones. These he used to help the poor.

He took Stephens into the first of a series of connected rooms to see some.

Stephens asked what was kept in the rooms beyond.

All of a sudden, Father Crespi was flustered. He tried to wave Stephens out of the church.

But Stephens snuck past, and what he saw in the rooms beyond left him speechless.

Thousands of paintings, presumably worth millions.

The priest said he’d once helped an old man who’d been dying. The man had turned out to be a millionaire art collector. And he’d left his art collection to Father Crespi.

Stephens wasn’t convinced.

Back in the US a few months on, he paid a visit to a woman called Magda Stapleford.

Now widowed, German Magda had married an American man at the end of the Second World War, a friend of Stephens.

Stevens told her about Crespi and described the paintings.

One of the descriptions made Magda draw a sharp breath.

A young, round-faced shepherd boy, on his left a sheep, on his right a staff with a ribbon on it.

‘It was his favourite,’ she said.

Before she’d started working against the Nazis in 1944, she’d been one of Germany’s top intelligence agents.

She’d seen that painting many times hanging in its owner’s office.

And that owner was Adolf Hitler.

The priest’s name also interested Magda greatly.

Crespi was an alias Hitler had used in the early 1940s.

And Father Crespi always walked with his hands behind his back – just like Hitler had.

But how was it possible?

Everyone knew Hitler had shot himself at the end of the war , then his closest aides had doused his body in petrol and burned it.

But what if it had been a body double?

Magda thought Hitler had been planning an escape for years.

In 1943, three high-ranking Nazi officials had visited Magda’s father. He’d been a well-known cosmetic surgeon.

He was told to make the men look different, and that no records were to be kept.

After, the three men were taken off to a submarine and never seen again.

Was one of the men Hitler?

Soon after the operations, Magda’s father had been murdered.

Silenced by the Nazi regime?

One thing’s for certain. After that date in 1943, Hitler never spoke in public again.

Had the real Hitler escaped Europe, leaving behind a body double?

All Stephens could do was find out everything he could about the mysterious Father Crespi…

Father Crespi was from an Italian-Austrian family, and he’d arrived as a novice priest at the Vatican in 1943 – the last year Hitler was seen.

He’d worked cataloguing the Vatican art collection, and was soon found a parish in distant, inaccessible Ecuador.

Meanwhile, WWII survivors struggled to come to terms with what had happened at Hitler’s hands.

The extermination of millions in his concentration camps. Of the Jewish, the mentally ill, of gay people, of so-called gypsies and of his political opponents.

Now, it seemed to Stephens, Hitler was was alive and well in a small town on the other side of the world.

But in 1981, no one else would listen to Magda and Stephens’ theory.

A decade later, in 1993, Father Crespi died.

If Crespi and Hitler had been one and the same, he’d have been 104 years old.

And when Crespi died, the mystery only deepened.

Soon after, local people claimed two cargo jets landed in Cuenca, loaded up with Father Crespi’s European art collection and left.

That art has never been seen since.

Father Crespi was buried in a white marble crypt – hardly in keeping with his vows of poverty. And several European dignitaries, all with an armed guard, were at the service.

In the years since he died, Father Crespi’s crypt has been cleaned and adorned with flowers every week – all paid for by anonymous donations.

If Hitler had escaped, it’s possible he lived the quiet life of a priest for nearly 50 years.

But if he shot himself in the head, it amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Adolf Hitler escaped justice.

 

What history says:

Undated photo of Adolf Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun posing on the Terrace of the Berghof, Berchtesgeden, Germany. (AP Photo).

PA Photos

Before killing himself on 30 April 1945, Hitler gave strict instructions that his body should be burned. Four days later, Soviet troops found the charred remains of what they believed to be Hitler and his wife, Eva. Their bodies were identified by dental records, but these were dental records drawn from memory by a dental nurse who had cleaned Hitler’s teeth only twice.

In 1970, Soviet authorities decided to dispose of the bodies for once and for all, burying them in a secret location. A fragment of skull believed to be Hitler’s was later found, but DNA tests in 2000 showed it to be from a 20-year-old woman.