Myopia at Scotland Yard – Murder on Wimbledon Common

Dec 3, 2012 - by Mark Pulham - 0 Comments

Rachel Nickell, Andre, and Alex in park
Rachel Nickell, Andre Hanscombe and their son Alex in the park

Not even Scotland Yard’s famed Murder Squad is immune from locking in on one suspect to the exclusion of all others and allowing its conceit to permit a serial rapist and murderer to stay at large for years after the evidence to convict him was in the police’s hands.

by Mark Pulham

In the photograph, her smile is wide and bright. A blue sky is behind her and she squints slightly from the sun as a wisp of blonde hair drifts across her face in a breeze. She seems incredibly happy. In another photograph, she and her boyfriend smile at the camera, bundled up against the chill. Between them is the buggy holding their young son.

Some people just radiate happiness, people who are attractive and put a smile on the face of those who saw them, even if they didn’t know the person.

Rachel Nickell was one of those people. Bright, attractive, and with boundless generosity, she was instantly likeable, and was capable of achieving anything that she set out to do.

Rachel Jane Nickell was born on November 23, 1968 to Andrew Nickell, an officer in the army, and his wife Monica, and brought up in Great Totham, a village near Colchester in Essex.  From a very young age, Rachel was naturally charitable, helping out with the elderly and with the disabled children in the area.

When she turned 11, Rachel went to the Colchester High School for Girls, and in her spare time, she joined the Essex Dance Theatre and took up singing, dancing, and acting. She could have pursued this course, but instead, decided to study and get a degree in History and English.

Rachel Nickell
Rachel Nickell

Rachel got a job at a Richmond swimming pool as a lifeguard, and it is there, in 1988, that she met a young motorcycle courier named Andre Hanscombe. The couple fell in love, and a year later, Rachel gave birth to her son, Alexander Louis. Rachel and Andre never married, and there is no indication that they were even thinking about it.

Rachel decided to stop working, at least for then, and devoted herself to being a full-time mother, even though she had been offered work as a photographic model. Maybe when Alex was old enough, she would pursue her ambition to be a children’s television presenter, an ambition in which she no doubt would have excelled.

The young family moved to Balham, in South London, and life seemed perfect. Wimbledon is also in South London. Known throughout the world for hosting the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament, people flock there in the summer to watch the matches and eat strawberry cream tarts at the afternoon teas in the pavilions.

But tennis is not the only thing the area is known for.


Murder on Wimbledon Common

The Windmill on Wimbledon Common
The Windmill on Wimbledon Common

Wimbledon Common, a vast stretch of countryside surrounded by urban sprawl, is a public park where people go for tranquility and relaxation. This 1,100-acre park, unfenced and open 24 hours a day, is a magnet for nature lovers, dog walkers, joggers, and bird watchers. The Common is a mixture of heathland, scrubland, woodland, and recreation areas, with playing fields for rugby, cricket, several miles of horse riding trails, and a golf course. There is even a windmill.

It was a warm Wednesday morning, July 15, 1992. The tennis tournament had been over for 10 days, with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf having won the men’s and women’s singles respectively. On this pleasant summer’s day, many people were walking on Wimbledon Common, and joining them was Rachel and little Alex, along with their dog, a Labrador named Molly.

They arrived at the Windmill car park at 9:45 a.m., and a lot of people noticed them. People would later say that the couple just stood out from the rest, they were such a happy looking family. No doubt both of them were looking forward to the next month, when their little boy would turn 3.

Colin Stagg at time of murder
Colin Stagg at time of murder

Another visitor to the Common that morning was 31-year-old Colin Stagg, who lived in Roehampton, not far from the Common, on the tough Alton housing estate. That morning Stagg was suffering from a headache. The unemployed man had been out once that morning, walking his dog around the Scio pond, but he returned home, his headache pounding. At 9:25 a.m., he took some painkillers and napped on the couch for a short while, until his headache cleared enough for him to take the dog out again.

At 10:30 a.m., a woman walked along one of the paths with her dog, and came across a horrific sight, an atrocity made even worse by its idyllic setting.  Under a silver birch tree, pretty 23-year-old Rachel Nickell lay still in death, her young son soaked in her blood and trying to get her to wake up.

The attack on Rachel was frenzied. Forty nine times her attacker stabbed her, every single one of her vital organs had been damaged, one slash to her neck had almost decapitated her. As she lay dying, her attacker rolled her onto her stomach, pulled down her jeans and underwear, and rectally assaulted her with the hilt of the knife.

Banknotes had fallen from Rachel’s purse, and Alex picked them up and put them on his mother’s unmoving body, and kept saying “Get up, Mummy, get up.” Eventually he stopped what he was saying, and would not say another word for the next 24 hours.

Alex was examined at the scene and also later on, and he was found to have abrasions on his face that were consistent with being dragged along the ground while face down.

Once the alarm was raised, the area was flooded with police, who had an impossible task of containing all the acreage and the hundreds of potential witnesses.

Colin Stagg was back on the Common, his clothing changed, his headache easing away. As he approached the area where Rachel was found, a policeman stepped forward and stopped him, telling him that he couldn’t go any further as there had been an incident. Stagg told the policeman that he had been on the Common earlier, and the policeman asked for his name and address. Stagg gave it, and then continued walking his dog in another direction.

The next morning, the newspapers were full of the killing. MURDERED AS HER LITTLE BOY WATCHEDshouted the front page headline of the Daily Mail. BEAUTY SLAIN BY THE BEASTsaid The Sun.

Despite having a crack team of investigators from Scotland Yard, the police were at a loss. There were no witnesses to the actual killing other than Alex, who was too young. There was no evidence to be found anywhere, and there was no motive for the attack. The police couldn’t even be sure of the sex of the attacker.


The Profiler

Paul Britton
Paul Britton

Over the course of the next month the police investigation dragged and got nowhere. Scotland Yard was under pressure to solve this killing, a killing that had shocked and sickened the entire country. In desperation, the police called in Paul Britton, a criminal psychologist, and the inspiration for the television show “Cracker.” He was already known for his profile of Michael Sams, a kidnapper and murderer who was captured earlier in the year.

Britton came up with two profiles of Rachel’s killer. In one profile, Britton stated that the killer would be someone in their 20s or 30s, very likely lived alone, and probably lived close to the Common.

In the second profile, he said that the killer would be someone interested in the Occult, was fascinated by knives, and would have sexually sadistic fantasies.


Colin Stagg

The police had interviewed people who were on the Common that day, and, from their descriptions, came up with a photofit, a facile profile of someone seen on the Common around the time of the murder. Both the photofit and the two profiles advanced by Britton were broadcast on television, and within a short while, the telephones began to ring. Those phoning in mentioned any number of people who they personally suspected: this man, this neighbor, this acquaintance, this co-worker. And one call mentioned a man named Colin Stagg.

More calls came in, and yet another mentioned the name Colin Stagg. Then there was a third and a fourth.

The police eventually questioned almost 550 suspects, and another 32 people were detained and released. But they kept coming back to that one name – Colin Stagg. It soon became clear to them that Stagg was the man who killed Rachel, but there was no actual evidence.  Even so, Stagg was arrested by the police and brought in for questioning.

Stagg denied that he had anything to do with the murder, even though he was on the Common that morning, as evident by his name appearing in a policeman’s notebook. Stagg was scared, he had never been arrested before, and he was unnerved by the experience.

For the next three days, Stagg was questioned by the police, and the police were desperate to discover anything that would implicate him in the murder.  There was one incident that stood out. A woman had once made a complaint against Stagg, telling the police that he had exposed himself to her. When the police questioned him at the time, he said it was all a mistake. In his version, he was sunbathing naked in a secluded area, thinking that no-one would go there. He was surprised when the woman showed up unexpectedly.

Stagg’s solicitor at court advised his client to just pay the fine and get on with his life, which he did. It was all a misunderstanding. But to the police, it was evidence of Stagg’s sexual deviancy, and fit in with Britton’s profile of the killer.

The police, meanwhile, had made a search of Stagg’s home, which as predicted in Britton’s profile, was close to the Common. They discovered that he had numerous books on the Occult. Colin Stagg, it turned out, followed an ancient pagan religion called Wicca, which involved nature worship and magic rituals. One of the walls in his home was painted black, and on it was a picture of the Cerne Abbas giant, a large chalk figure carved into a hillside near Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Once again, Britton’s profile was correct; Stagg was interested in the occult.

A woman who knew Stagg contacted the police, and added one more piece of circumstantial evidence against him. She had once been in correspondence with Stagg, and she told the police that in those letters, Stagg had told her that he fantasized about having sex in the open air. Again, this was a link to Rachel’s murder, attacked and sexually assaulted in the open air. Stagg continued to deny murdering Rachel, but Britton expected this, telling the police that it indicated Stagg’s basic intelligence and cunning.

Convinced that Stagg was their man, the police were frustrated by the lack of real evidence against him. Under enormous pressure from the media and the public, as well as their own superiors, they knew they had to do something drastic. But for now, with no evidence against him, they had to release Stagg.


“Operation Ezdell”

With the prospect that Stagg would escape justice, the police came up with a plan, which they named “Operation Ezdell.” The object of the plan was simple, get Colin Stagg to implicate himself in the murder. If, somehow, he was to admit that he killed Rachel, they had him. Getting him to “confess” was a little more difficult. Eventually, the idea of using an undercover police woman to befriend Stagg was proposed.

Using the name “Lizzie James” the policewoman contacted Stagg, pretending to be friends with the woman with whom he’d corresponded before. Lizzie began writing letters to Stagg, under the guidance of Paul Britton, and she made it clear that she wasn’t like the other woman. Lizzie was much more open minded, and told Stagg that she had fantasies that had no bounds.

Sun August 18, 1993
Sun August 18, 1993

Stagg was flattered by the attention, and wrote back. Lizzie’s letters were filled with fantasies, sexual in nature, but Stagg’s responses were more innocent, more sedate. Lizzie wrote more letters, and the fantasies got stronger, with her now revealing that she liked to be humiliated and defenseless. Stagg was very interested in Lizzie, and tried to respond in a similar way, but his attempts to write down erotic fantasies were just variations on what she had written, showing his inexperience with this sort of thing.

Stagg, desperate for sex, also apologized to her in case he had stepped over the mark and offended her. Stagg asked Lizzie if they could meet in person, and the police thought that this was a good idea. Lizzie arranged to meet Stagg in a public park that was filled with undercover officers.

They met and had lunch together, and Lizzie told Stagg about herself, including that she had a former boyfriend who was heavily into black magic and Satanic rituals. She confessed that at one time, they had both taken part in a human sacrifice which involved a pregnant woman and a baby.

Lizzie was a very good-looking woman, and Stagg was strongly attracted to her, even though he thought that she was a bit of a nutcase. Stagg desperately wanted to have sex with Lizzie, but on a later meeting, Lizzie revealed the type of man that she would sleep with. Her preference was someone who was sexually violent, and she began to bring in the Rachel Nickell case. Stagg told Lizzie that he was on the Common the morning of the murder, but went no further than that.

In a taped conversation, Lizzie told Stagg, “If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right.”

Stagg’s reply was, “I’m terribly sorry, but I haven’t.”

The police were frustrated by Stagg’s refusal to admit the killing, but to Paul Britton this was what he expected

The correspondence and meetings between Stagg and Lizzie went on for five months, and during all this time, Stagg never confessed to Rachel’s murder. However, he did tell Lizzie about an incident when he was 12. According to Stagg, he and a cousin raped and murdered a woman and hid her body in a forest.

Despite the failure of Operation Ezdell to elicit a confession from Stagg, the sexual fantasies involving blood and knives that he had written to Lizzie strengthened the police belief in Stagg’s guilt, and they also believed that, from the contents of the letters, that another woman, possibly even Lizzie, was in imminent danger. The police believed that there was sufficient evidence to arrest him and get a conviction. The Crown Prosecution Service was in agreement.

Stagg was arrested.

In the interview room, Stagg was introduced to Lizzie, and he was no doubt shocked to discover that she was a policewoman. Stagg was interrogated, and the police read back the letters that he had sent to Lizzie James and tapes of his conversations were played back for him.

Stagg was advised by his solicitor to answer “no comment” to anything that was asked, though he did say that he only played along with the fantasies that were in the letters because he wanted to sleep with Lizzie.

On August 18, 1993, The Sun’s headline trumpeted the news. “WPC ‘TRAPS’ RACHEL MAN.”


Stagg Charged with Rachel Nickell’s Murder

The next day, just over a year after Rachel’s death, Colin Francis Stagg was officially charged with the murder of Rachel Nickell.

The Murder Squad at Scotland Yard was ecstatic with the capture. The elite group’s prime suspect was in jail, and the investigators were confident that he would go to prison for the brutal murder that he had committed.

Although one member of the Crown Prosecution Service refused to take the case, another one did, and Stagg’s trial was set for February, 1994.

In the meantime, Stagg was held in jail while the prosecution built its case against him.

Witnesses came forward who said they saw Stagg coming from the direction of the Common shortly after Rachel was murdered. They reported that he was carrying a bag. Other witnesses came forward who said they also saw someone who resembled Stagg heading toward the Common before the murder took place, and that he was also carrying a bag of a similar description. Yet another witness picked Stagg out of a line up, and said that she had seen him on the Common and that he had made her feel afraid. The case against Stagg was growing.

By the time of the trial, Colin Stagg’s physical appearance had changed dramatically. In jail he had lost a lot of weight and his hair had grown long.

There was a committal hearing, during which Paul Britton explained the theory behind Operation Ezdell. The operation was designed to present the accused with a series of psychological “ladders” that he would have to climb. Stagg’s defense took a different view, that it was purely speculation and rather than ladders to climb, it was a slippery pole.



The trial began in September, 1994, and the prosecution went in confident and clearly expecting to put this dangerous man behind bars where he could do no further harm. They were about to get a short and sharp shock. Stagg’s defense team presented statements from specialists who said the case against their client was filled with errors and was clearly entrapment.

Sun September 15, 1994
Sun September 15, 1994

Mr. Justice Ognall looked at the evidence presented by the prosecution and the police – and immediately threw it out. He said that Operation Ezdell was deceptive conduct of the worst possible kind, that it went well beyond what was legally acceptable and that they had used “excessive zeal” in their pursuit of Colin Stagg. In short, it was a “honey trap.”

It was a disaster for the police and the prosecution. In over two years, the police investigation had resulted in 4,500 statements, an untold number of man hours, and a cost of over £3,000,000 for the British taxpayer in what was the largest murder investigation in British history – and it collapsed on the very first day of the trial.

As angry and disappointed as the police may have been, it was nothing compared to the furious reaction of the press and the public.

Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Chief Commissioner of Police, announced “We are not looking for anyone else.” The unexpressed message in those words was perfectly clear. We are not looking for anyone else because we had the guilty man, but slick lawyers had got him off.

Colin Stagg was acquitted and freed, but he was about to face another trial, and this one would not be over in a single day.


The Hounding of Colin Stagg

Outside the court he was mobbed by the public, all chanting “Guilty! Guilty!” and cries of “Hang him!” The police informed Rachel’s father that they would keep the file open, but they are not going to look for anyone else. They knew that they had the murderer in the hands, and they let him get away.

Stagg’s second trial began immediately, and there was no defense team this time. His prosecutors and judges were the media.

But first, there was blame to be handed out, and the newspapers had a number of scapegoats. There was the police that had managed to mishandle the case, and allowed a murderer to be set free. There was the Crown Prosecution Service that had gone to court unprepared, and allowed a murderer to be set free. There was Paul Britton, the psychologist, whose profile and coaching with the letters, allowed a murderer to be set free. There was Mr. Justice Ognall, a liberal judge who allowed a murderer to be set free. And there was “Lizzie James” herself, whose honey trap allowed a murderer to be set free.

And this was the overlying theme, that a murderer had been allowed to be set free, as there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Stagg had gotten away with a most brutal murder.

Stagg’s trial by media was a foregone conclusion. Stagg was guilty, and from the moment he was released, Colin Stagg’s life became unbearable. He may have gotten away with murder in the courts, but the newspapers were going to make certain that he was not going to get away with it in the public eye.

The Sun headline on Thursday, September 15, 1994, said it all. NO GIRL IS SAFEit read, in the largest bold black typeface it could get on the page. Right next to it, taking up a large chunk of the front page was a photograph of Colin Stagg. Underneath Stagg’s photo, in much smaller letters was “Not Guilty,” just enough to stop a libel action. But the photograph and the headline that close together made it abundantly clear, Colin Stagg was free to kill again.

Stagg’s name periodically appeared in the newspapers. Whenever a murder was reported, whenever the British legal system was being judged, whenever injustice was the headline of the day, Colin Stagg was mentioned, the man who got away with murder.

Some tabloids were more circumspect when mentioning his guilt; others were blatantly saying it, keeping their remarks just on the line of being libelous.

Stagg’s home was frequently vandalized and covered with obscene graffiti labeling him a murderer, and it was pointless for him to look for a job. He was unemployable. He would send out job applications, and sometimes he would get accepted, until the employers realized who he was. Then he would be turned down.

Stagg could hardly go anywhere as his face had been on the newspapers so much that he was recognized everywhere he went. He was attacked on the street, spat upon and assaulted.

The News Of The World reported on how Stagg demanded that his terrified girlfriend have sex with him in the place where Rachel was killed, though the accuracy of this statement was extremely questionable. The Daily Mail quoted Rachel’s boyfriend, Andre, saying that the double jeopardy law should be removed so that Stagg could be re-tried.

Stagg went on television and took a lie detector test, which he passed. But that wasn’t good enough, and the television program asked him to take a truth drug. Stagg refused as he was scared of needles. Someone told the tabloids that “it is a pity because truth drugs are the most reliable.”

Each year, on the anniversary of Rachel’s death, the tabloids would bring up the murder and Stagg’s name would once again be in the newspapers, keeping him in the public eye.

As for the others involved, Britton was heavily criticized for his role in the case. He later said that he didn’t agree with the use of the fantasy letters and had no knowledge of them at the time. This has been heavily disputed by others in the case. The British Psychological Society charged Britton with professional misconduct, but his case was delayed for so long that it was eventually dismissed.

Lizzie James took early retirement from the police force, and, claiming a mental breakdown due to the stress, also sued the police for damages that came from the investigation. The case was settled out of court in 2001, and Lizzie James walked away with £125,000. The payment to Lizzie was severely criticized by a number of sources, particularly because Alex, Rachel’s son, only received £22,000 from the Criminal Compensation Board.

In 1996, Andre and his son moved away from England. Andre wanted to get away from the relentless reporters. But the “callous, mercenary, unfeeling…cowardly, sniveling scum” as he called the press, tracked him and Alex to their hideaway in France.


The Cold Case Reopens

The vicious death of Rachel Nickell had become a cold case, but the pressure on the police to bring someone to justice had been constant over the years, and in 2002, the case was reopened.

Over the 10 years since the killing, DNA testing had vastly improved, and the new investigators began going through the evidence. They also wondered if other crimes could be linked to Rachel’s murder.

Over the following 18 months, police forensics examined and tested Rachel’s clothing, and finally, in July 2003, they found something. There was male DNA on the clothing, and it didn’t match Andre Hanscombe or their son, Alex. There wasn’t enough to confirm an identity, but there was enough to rule out any suspects.

And it ruled out Colin Stagg.

The forensic team had also found minute flecks of paint in the evidence that had been combed from Alex’s hair at the time. They would play their part in finding Rachel’s killer.

Broadmoor Hospital is in Berkshire, England, and is the most famous of the high-security psychiatric hospitals in the country. Its patients have included the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe; Moors Murderer, Ian Brady; and Daniel M'Naghten, whose name was given to the legal test of criminal insanity.


Robert Napper and the Green Chain Rapes

Robert Napper
Robert Napper

In July, 2006, a team from Scotland Yard came to Broadmoor to see one of its inmates, a 40 year old paranoid schizophrenic who also suffered from Asperger syndrome. His name was Robert Napper.

Robert Clive Napper was born on February 25, 1966, and raised in Plumstead, South East London. His father, Brian, was a driving instructor, and as a child, Napper witnessed the violence that his father inflicted upon his mother, Pauline. It was a troubled and dysfunctional family, which fell apart when his parents divorced when he was 9 years old. He and his younger siblings, two brothers and a sister were placed in foster care for a while.

Napper’s mother was worried about her eldest child’s mental state. He would listen to relatives while he hid, and then accuse them of talking about him. He was aggressive and a liar, and Pauline began to believe that he was mentally disturbed. She sent him for a psychiatric assessment when he was 11, and he returned from his first session with a grin on his face. “The psychiatrist thinks I’m mad,” he said. Napper’s treatment went on for six years.

When he was 13, a family friend sexually assaulted him when they were on a camping trip, and Napper became introverted and reclusive. He also began to bully his brothers and sister, and spied on his sister when she was getting undressed.  

After leaving school at 16, Napper had a string of menial jobs, and his behavior was increasingly erratic, so much so that when he was 18, his mother threw him out, unable to put up with it any longer.

He first came to the attention of the police in 1986, when, at the age of 20, he was arrested for carrying a loaded air gun. It had been suggested that he’d been in the local woods shooting small animals. He was given a one year conditional discharge.

Between the River Thames and Crystal Palace is a series of 300 open spaces, small parks that were created by four London boroughs and the Greater London Council. They are protected from any building action and are known as the Green Chain Walk.

When his mother next saw Napper, it was October, 1989. The month before, Napper had made a suicide attempt, swallowing a number of pills. His mother asked him why he had tried to kill himself, and his answer was shocking. He told her that “some men are after me because I raped a woman on Plumstead Common.” Plumstead Common was part of the Green Chain system.

Pauline was horrified, and the next day rang the police at Plumstead and reported his confession. The police checked their files, and told Pauline that no rape had taken place on the common. Unbelievably, as a result of even more police incompetence, they had only checked back as far as a few days earlier, and only looked for rapes that had specifically taken place on the Common itself. Napper’s attack, on a 30-year-old mother in her own home, was in August, and the home was a few yards away from the Common.

Had the police checked the Metropolitan Police computer system, they would have seen the rape report, and they would have been able to match his DNA to that which he left behind on his victim. The result, had the police done their job properly, would have been Napper’s arrest. Instead he was free to commit a series of more rapes, several of which ended in brutal murders.  

On March 10, 1992, Robert Napper attacked and raped a 17-year-old and just eight days later, he attacked and raped another 17 year old.  The following May, Napper saw a 22-year-old woman pushing a buggy along King John’s Walk in Mottingham, another area on the Green Chain. In the buggy was the woman’s 2-year old daughter. Napper, brandishing a knife, pushed the woman to the ground, beat her around the face and placed a ligature around her neck. The terrified young mother was stripped naked and raped in front of her daughter while she begged for her life. The attack was frighteningly similar to the murder of Rachel Nickell.

Any one of these attacks should have resulted in Napper being picked up and questioned, DNA taken, and eventually linked to the attacks.

Clearly, it would help if a criminal psychologist was brought into the case to give some insight, so the police called in Paul Britton.

The series of attacks, spanning 1989 to 1994, became known as the Green Chain Rapes, and would eventually number an astonishing 106 offenses. Napper would eventually confess to four of the attacks, but he is believed to be responsible for all of them.

And in the middle of these came the death of Rachel Nickell.

It is hard to understand how Paul Britton, working on both the Green Chain rapes and the Rachel Nickell murder, could have missed the similarity between the May rape of the 22-year-old mother and the death of Rachel. Yet, he did.

And still, the mistakes piled up.  In August, 1992, the police issued an e-fit of the man wanted in connection with the Green Chain rapes, compiled from the descriptions given by his victims. The e-fit resembled Napper enough that one of his neighbors phoned the police, and gave Napper’s name.

The next day, two police officers stopped Napper as he was leaving for work. Instead of taking him in for questioning, they asked him to come to the police station on September 2 and give them a sample of his blood for a DNA comparison.

Robert Napper didn’t bother to turn up, and the police didn’t bother to follow up on it.

On September 3, the police received another call, this time from a man who worked with Napper. Again, the police were told that the e-fit looks like Robert Napper. The police went to Napper’s home, but he was not in. Instead of having an officer wait until Napper returned and then bring him to the station, they left him a note asking him to drop into the station and give a sample.

Once again, Napper ignored the request, and once again, the police didn’t follow up on it.

The police had placed the height of the rapist as between5-foot-5 inches to 6 feet tall. Despite the phone call from Napper’s mother about his confession, and despite two independent phone calls reporting that the e-fit looked like Napper, on October 24, the police ruled him out as a suspect as Robert Napper was 6-foot-2 inches tall, two inches taller than their estimate of the rapist’s height. And this was despite his latest victim placing her attacker at over six feet tall.

In February, 1993, some boys were playing on Winn’s Common in Plumstead, part of the Green Chain Walk. As they played, they came across a biscuit tin buried in the ground, and when they opened it, they were surprised to find that a World War II Mauser pistol was hidden inside. The police were called, and the tin and its contents were taken to the police station. An examination found a fingerprint on the tin, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the fingerprint was identified as Napper’s, despite his prints being on file.

In July, 1993, a year after Rachel’s death, Napper was seen climbing a wall so that he could look into the home of a woman. The police were called, and the woman’s husband followed Napper as he scampered off to a nearby wood that was, once again, part of Green Chain Walk.

The police arrived, and caught Napper hiding in an alley. The policeman who spoke to Napper noted that he was strange, and that he should be considered as a possible rapist. Amazingly, none of this information was passed on to the detectives investigating the Green Chain rapes.

In August, 1993, a knife was found buried in a box on Wimbledon Common, just 800 yards from where Rachel was attacked. It was matched to Napper, but by this time, the detectives investigating Rachel’s murder had already decided that Colin Stagg was guilty, and the Napper information was dismissed.


“The Plumstead Ripper”

Samantha Bissett and daughter Jazmine
Samantha Bissett and daughter Jazmine

Samantha Bissett was 27 years old and a former “New Age Traveler.” But, since becoming a mother, she has settled down into a more conventional lifestyle, and now lived in a basement flat with her young daughter, Jazmine.  Samantha didn’t close the curtains on her windows, which allowed anyone to see into the flat, even when she was walking around naked after taking a shower. She had never been worried about it, but what she didn’t know was that she was being watched. The person watching her was Robert Napper.

On November 3, 1993, Napper broke in. Samantha tried to resist, but Napper had a knife. He jabbed at her a few times, tormenting her, and then launched his attack. In a frenzy, Napper stabbed Samantha Bissett’s head and neck 20 times, one of the knife cuts severing her spine while another severed an artery, saturating the hallway with blood. He then sexually assaulted her body.

In the bedroom, asleep, was 4-year-old Jazmine. Horrifyingly, Napper woke Jazmine, stripped off her clothes and then raped the little girl. Napper then redressed her, took the pillow and suffocated her.

But Napper wasn’t finished. He went back to Samantha, dragged her body into the living room, and began to mutilate her. There were 60 stab wounds on her by the time he finished. He had sliced her open from the chest down to the pubic area, and then pulled the rib cage apart so that he could get to the internal organs. He had also tried to cut off one of her legs as a trophy, but had to settle for a slice of her abdomen instead.

Samantha’s boyfriend discovered the bodies later.

The police were called and the investigation into “The Plumstead Ripper” was headed by Detective Superintendent Mickey Banks.  

The crime scene was so horrific that one police photographer was so traumatized by what she saw that she was unable to work for two years.

Banks came to a conclusion – that this murder was strikingly similar to that of Rachel Nickell, and he linked both murders to the Green Chain rapes.

Once again, a criminal psychologist was called in, and once again, it was Paul Britton. And, once again, Britton failed to make a connection.

Fingerprints were found at the scene, but at first they were thought to be Samantha’s, but six months later, it was determined that they were in fact, not hers, though there were similarities. The fingerprints were identified as that of Robert Napper.

Banks gave his opinions to the teams investigating both the Green Chain rapes and the Rachel Nickell murder, but in both cases, he was dismissed, Napper being, according to the Green Chain detectives, too tall to be the rapist, and the Rachel Nickell detectives already had the guilty party, Colin Stagg.

In a search of Napper’s home, the police found two A-Z London Streetmap books, which had locations marked with notes. Many of these were on the Green Chain Walk, and were near places where an attack had taken place. Others were thought to be places where Napper planned to carry out attacks at later dates.

On October 9, 1995, Napper pled guilty to the manslaughter of Samantha and Jazmine, and admitted to four rapes on the Green Chain Walk. He claimed diminished responsibility. He was committed to Broadmoor Secure Hospital, where he stayed until the Rachel Nickell case was reopened and linked to him through the DNA that he had left on her body, and the paint flecks in Alex’s hair that were from Napper’s toolkit.

In December, 2007, Napper was charged with Rachel’s murder, and during the subsequent trial, although he at first denied it, he eventually pleaded guilty, on December 18, to her manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He was sent back to Broadmoor where he will spend the rest of his life.

The trial revealed the depth of his mental illness. Napper lived in a complete fantasy world, where he was convinced that he was a millionaire who had won the Nobel Prize for Peace, that he was a war hero in Angola, and that he had been kneecapped by the IRA. His illness also made him believe that he was untouchable by the police. Their mistakes reinforced this belief.



Paul Britton was critical of the police, and at the end of 2008 stated publicly that he told the police to look for links to the Green Chain rapist just after Rachel’s murder, a claim that was denied by the police. But in his book, The Jigsaw Man, published 10 years earlier and before Robert Napper was arrested, Britton clearly stated that there was no link between Rachel’s killing and the Green Chain rapes. He went on to add that the police ordered him to concentrate on Stagg, which they also denied.

It sounded more like Britton covering himself for his failures. One journalist described Britton as “a grandstanding and, in my view, faintly sinister, psychologist.” His book has been variously described as self centered and egotistical. Not surprising as the jacket describes Britton’s “almost mythical status.”

Britton’s part in all three cases focused attention on criminal profiling, and exposed the pitfalls of placing too much reliance on the psychologist. The police had viewed Britton and his assistance as a magic spell for revealing the truth, rather than just another tool that suggests a direction.

Others wrote books as well. Keith Pedder, the investigating officer and third in command in the Nickell case, wrote a book that contradicts Britton, but which has also been described as self-congratulatory.

Daily Mail criticises the award
Daily Mail criticises the award

Colin Stagg, innocent victim of a police and media witch hunt also wrote a book, as did Andre Hanscombe, in his own way a victim of the press and police, both of whom failed him.

The police were forced to make a public apology to Stagg, and he was awarded £706,000, and even then the Daily Mail couldn’t stop from criticizing the payout, labeling Stagg as ungrateful.

In fact, although all of the newspapers had spent the previous decade vilifying Stagg, perpetuating the idea that he was a man who had got away with murder, and generally making certain that his life was one of abject misery, not one newspaper thought it correct to apologize.

Throughout it all, Colin Stagg maintained his dignity and acted in an exemplary fashion. He did not blame the police, stating that he knew they were under enormous pressure. He also said that the victims in the whole debacle were Rachel Nickell, Samantha Bissett, and Jazmine, and their families.

But Colin Stagg was guilty of something; he was guilty of being “odd”, of being a “weirdo”, of being “different” which in many cases is all the proof some people need. Unfortunately, some of those people are policemen, who sometimes believe that the phrase “it stands to reason, you just have to look at him.” is an ironclad proof of guilt.

To be fair to the police involved, this was not a case of corruption and an innocent man being “fitted up.” It was a case of too much pressure being brought to bear on investigative officers by superiors and the media who wanted a quick result, forgetting that real life cases do not get solved in a given time frame like a television crime show. However, the number of mistakes made in both the Green Chain rape case and the murder of Rachel Nickell is stupendously high.  What Scotland Yard’s handling of this case showed more than anything was how it undermined its entire investigation by locking in on Colin Stagg and then turning a blind eye to all the information pouring in about the real perpetrator.

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