In 1992 Rachel Nickell was walking her dog with her young son on Wimbledon Common. She was sexually assaulted and stabbed 49 times right in front of her child, in an horrific, daylight murder. The Metropolitan Police, always eager to ‘work together for a safer London’, and unable to find a credible suspect, descended on local loner Colin Stagg and decided he must have done it. They had heard he was on the Common that day, and based on the conclusion of criminal profiler Paul Britton that Stagg had the same “sexually deviant-based personality disorder” as the killer, decided without any actual evidence that he was a good enough fit for the culprit. Britton was also asked:
to help design a covert operation – based on what he knew of the killer from the profile – aimed at testing whether the suspect would eliminate or implicate himself.
This ‘honey trap’ was designed to trick an ersatz confession out of a very weak, suggestible man. As London Mayor Boris Johnson describes:
So desperate were the Met to inculpate this loser that they organised a honeytrap of surreal absurdity, in which a young blonde policewoman took the alias of “Lizzie James” and tried to engage Stagg’s interest. She met him, made much of him, and then started to write him letters in which she encouraged him to share a secret desire to kill young blonde women. She informed him that she had once killed a child and a baby in a black magic ritual. Was that the kind of thing, wondered “Lizzie James”, that turned Stagg on?
The bewildered Stagg tried to cooperate as best he could with this beautiful woman and her appalling fantasies. It may have added to his creative difficulties that he was then still a virgin. After “Lizzie” had sent him a particularly torrid and gory account of killing blonde women, Stagg attempted rather lamely to reply in kind. “I hope that was to your satisfaction, Lizzie,” he wrote at the end of one painful composition. “I’ve written the story on the lines of what I feel you are into.”
It is unbelievable that the police could have decided to rely on this as “evidence”, let alone think it enough to bring a prosecution.
had tried to incriminate a suspect by “deceptive conduct of the grossest kind”
Yet the Met persisted in their belief that he had done it, despite advice Britton has since claimed he gave them to link Nickell’s murder with the later, equally brutal murder of another young mother, and revealed:
that the undercover operation (had been) presented to a top-level police meeting where it (had been) given full approval.
“My first question was, ‘Is this legal?’ What the police said echoes for ever: ‘Please don’t concern yourself with legal issues,’” said Mr Britton who still advises British and overseas police.
He also suggests that if the further advice he claims to have made about the earlier Green Chain rapes had been listened to, the Bisset (and Nickell) murders would never have happened. But:
The month after the (Nickell) murder, Napper was taken in for questioning about the Green Chain rapes after a tip-off from a suspicious neighbour, but he was released after he persuaded detectives they had the wrong man. He offered to give a blood sample, which would have determined his guilt, but failed to turn up and provide the specimen and was never chased up by officers.
It took until November 2007 for Robert Napper, already in Broadmoor for the Bisset murders, to be arrested for the murder of Rachel Nickell, this time with forensic evidence amongst other, credible suggestions of guilt, and Colin Stagg has now won £706,000 compensation. There could be few victims of the Metropolitan Police more deserving. Yet again a man’s life was destroyed by their incompetence, their eagerness to presume guilt without evidence, to cut corners, and their willingness to pander to the worst tabloid excesses. Nick Cohen shows the terrible parallel to be drawn with the Met’s response to the London suicide attacks, their killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and their continuing spin of it in the aftermath:
The debacle came about because of an over-cosy relationship between police and reporters. It doesn’t do either side any good because the off-the-record briefings and anonymous comments from ‘senior officers’ look bad when a case collapses. If Sir Ian Blair is forced to resign because of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, what will have done for him is not that the police made a mistake – people can accept that – but the unattributable claims from nameless spin doctors that they had killed a guilty man.
Ermine Saner is all too right when she says:
Stagg deserves some very public apologies: from the police and others who were convinced Stagg was guilty. From defaming authors who have made money from him and from every person who has ever spat at him in the street or hurled abuse. And definitely from certain newspapers (it would be tempting to think the press had learned its lesson but the recent experience of Robert Murat shows that nothing has changed). Then, perhaps, at last Colin Stagg really can get on with his life.
Yet not if the very same tabloids, which Saner and others identify as having bayed for his blood, have their way. The Daily HateMail it seems hasn’t changed its position at all.