Rachel Nickell PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 20 November 2008 12:59
Rachel Nickell

Born: 23 November 1968

Died: 15 July 1992, Wimbledon Common.

Age: 23

Cause of Death: Stabbed 49 times

Notable because: Walking her son on the common, she was brutally murdered and raped with her 2 year old son present, who was found next to her blood soaked body crying 'wake up mummy.'


Rachel Nickell was the victim of a sexual assault and murder on Wimbledon Common on 15 July 1992. She was stabbed 49 times. The case became the subject of the notorious prosecution of Colin Stagg, who was acquitted. On 28 November 2007 a 41-year-old man, Robert Napper, was charged with Nickell's murder.

At the time of her death Nickell was a full-time mother; she and Andre Hanscombe, her motorcycle courier partner, had become parents to a son, Alex, in 1989, and after the birth had settled down to family life with their son and a dog, Molly, close to Wimbledon Common. On 15 July 1992 she and the then two-year-old Alex were walking with Molly on Wimbledon Common when she was attacked. Her attacker cut her throat, stabbed her and sexually assaulted her with her young son present.

A passer-by found Alex clinging to his mother's blood-soaked body, repeating the words "Wake up, Mummy".

Scotland Yard officers of the Metropolitan Police undertook the investigation. Although 32 men were eventually questioned in connection with the murder, the investigation quickly targeted Colin Stagg, an unemployed man from Roehampton who was known to walk his dog on the Common.

As there was no scientific evidence linking Stagg to the scene, the police asked criminal psychologist Paul Britton to create an offender profile of the killer. They decided that Stagg fitted the profile and asked Britton to assist in designing a covert operation, Operation "Ezdell", to see whether Stagg would eliminate or implicate himself. This operation would later be criticised by the media and Stagg's trial judge, Mr Justice Ognall, as a "honeytrap".

Using the pseudonym "Lizzie James" an undercover policewoman from SO10 (then the Metropolitan Police's Special Operations Group) contacted Stagg, posing as a friend of a female with whom he used to be in contact via a lonely-hearts column. Over a period of five months she then attempted to obtain information from him by feigning a romantic interest, meeting with him, speaking with him on the telephone and exchanging letters containing sexual fantasies. During a meeting in Hyde Park, they spoke about the Nickell murder, but Stagg later claimed that he had only played along with the topic because he wanted to pursue the romance. Britton later said he disagreed with use of the fantasy-filled letters and knew nothing of them until after they had been sent. "Lizzie" won Stagg's confidence and drew out his violent fantasies, but Stagg did not admit to the murder. Police released a taped conversation between "Lizzie" and Stagg in which "Lizzie" claimed to enjoy hurting people, to which Stagg mumbled: "Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before." When "Lizzie" went on to say "If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right," Stagg replied: "I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't."

Believing on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service that there was sufficient evidence to convict Stagg, the police arrested and charged him with Nickell's murder.

http://msnvideouk.vo.llnwd.net/d1/itn/storya02bbdfa41fde2fee434199a9ae56f0f_400x300.jpgSeveral detailed accounts of the covert operation have been written by interested parties. Paul Britton's book "The Jigsaw Man", devoted extensive space to it, while a conflicting account can be found in The Rachel Files by Keith Pedder. (Inspector Keith Pedder was technically the third in command of the investigation, after Superintendent Bassett and Chief Inspector Wickerson, but he had day-to-day command of the operation.) Stagg's own version is included in Who Really Killed Rachel? that he co-wrote with thriller writer David Kessler.

Paul Britton claimed in his version of events that he did not have anything to do with Stagg's initial interrogation at the time of Stagg's first arrest (after which Stagg was released), but only the undercover operation, leading up to Stagg's second arrest when charges were brought. However Keith Pedder contradicts this, in his account: "Before starting the interviews, I therefore rang Paul Britton at the Towers Hospital in Leicester and asked if he would want to give any specific advice as to how I should approach him." Pedder also claims that this consultation process was by no means a one-off, but rather went on throughout the three days that Stagg was held and interrogated: "Throughout the interviews, as and when Mr Stagg’s behaviour appeared to be contradictory, and in some cases downright confusing, I would ring Paul Britton; according to him, Stagg’s denials were indicative of his cunning and basic intelligence."

During the committal hearing Britton claimed that Operation "Ezdell" was meant to present the subject with a series of psychological "ladders" to climb rather than a "slippery slope" down which a vulnerable person would slide if pushed. The defence argued that Britton's evidence was speculative and supported only by his intuition.

When the case reached the Old Bailey Mr Justice Ognall judged that the police had shown "excessive zeal" and had tried to incriminate a suspect by "deceptive conduct of the grossest kind". The entrapment evidence was excluded and the prosecution withdrew its case. Stagg was acquitted.

An internal review estimated that the Stagg case had cost the Metropolitan Police £3 million and that vital scientific information had been missed. Stagg decided to sue the police for damages totalling £1 million following the 14 months he spent in custody.

Stagg has co-written and published two books about the case, Who Really Killed Rachel? and, more recently, Pariah (with journalist Ted Hynds), the latter appearing on the same day as current suspect Robert Napper's appearance in court to enter a plea.

"Lizzie James" quit the police force in 1998, eventually taking early retirement. With the support of the Police Federation she too sued the Metropolitan Police for damages arising from the investigation. In 2001, shortly before it was due to be heard, her case was settled out of court and she received £125,000. Her solicitor said: "[T]he willingness of the Metropolitan Police to pay substantial damages must indicate their recognition that she sustained serious psychiatric injury.". Stagg had offered to testify against "Lizzie James" in order to try to prevent what he claimed was an unfair demand on the taxpayer but, as the case was settled out of court, Stagg made no deposition.

Paul Britton was placed under charge by the British Psychological Society but, in 2002, in lieu of any substantive hearings, further action was dismissed due to the time delay in bringing proceedings. Britton's lawyer, Keir Starmer QC (who was later appointed as the Director of Public Prosecutions ), successfully argued that the "exceptional" delay of more than eight years since the first complaint was made would mean his client would not be given a fair hearing.. Stagg was invited to attend the proceedings but was not permitted to participate, address the committee or answer Britton's claims. A detailed account of the substantive case against Paul Britton can be found in Who Really Killed Rachel?

André Hanscombe later wrote a book, "The Last Thursday in July", about his life with Rachel, coping with the murder and life with Alex afterwards. There are two separate references to the book's title in the text itself. One is in relation to a poem of the same name that the family received after Rachel's death; the other is when Hanscombe recounts how he met Rachel on a last Thursday in July. In 1996 Handscombe moved with Alex to France, driven abroad – according to notes in his book – by media intrusion. "Callous, mercenary, unfeeling ... cowardly, snivelling scum" is how he described some of the reporters who tracked him and his son down to his "sanctuary" in the French countryside. Handscombe has since embarked on a new career writing and illustrating children's books.

In 2006 Nick Cohen, at the time of the murder a junior reporter on the "Independent on Sunday", commented in his column in "The Observer" that the inaccurate reporting of the case – and, in particular, frequent suggestions by the press that Stagg was guilty – stemmed from too close a relationship between the police and the media.

In January 2007 the Home Office confirmed that Stagg would receive compensation for wrongful prosecution, with the amount to be set by an independent assessor. On 13 August 2008 Stagg's solicitor announced that the compensation had been set by Lord Brennan QC and accepted by Stagg in the amount of £706,000

In 1996, despite Mr Justice Ognall's previous criticism of Operation "Ezdell", Essex Police mounted a similar operation, Operation "Century", as part of their investigation of the "Rettendon Triple Murders" case. It too proved unsuccessful and highly controversial.

Scotland Yard annually came under pressure on the anniversary of the murder for progress. Under new management, they began to collate evidence and files related to the case from 2000.

In 2002, ten years after the murder, the Scotland Yard police used a cold case review team, which used refined DNA techniques only recently made available. A small team of officers and retired veteran investigators working from secret offices in South London analysed statements from witnesses, reassessed files on a number of potential suspects, and examined the possibility that the case was linked to other crimes. Officers compared the injuries suffered by Rachel with other attacks and consulted forensic scientists about improvements in DNA matching.Robert Napper

In July 2003 reports surfaced that, after 18 months of tests on Rachel's clothes, police had found a male DNA sample which did not match her partner or son. The sample at the time was insufficient to confirm an identity, but was large enough to rule out suspects.

In July 2006 the Scotland Yard team interviewed a convicted sex killer for two days at Broadmoor hospital in Berkshire, 50 miles west of London. The 40-year-old man diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, had been held at the secure institute for more than ten years.

Later reports revealed the man questioned to be Robert Napper, the convicted killer of Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine, which occurred a year and a half later in 1993. Napper is also suspected of being the "Green Chain rapist" who carried out at least 70 savage attacks across south-east London in a four-year spree until 1994.

On 28 November 2007 Robert Napper was charged with Rachel Nickell's murder. He appeared at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on 4 December 2007 where he was remanded until another hearing on 20 December 2007. On 24 January 2008 Napper pleaded not guilty to the murder of Rachel Nickell. He will face trial in November 2008.

 In December 2008 Robert Napper, 42, pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

An Old Bailey judge said Napper would now be held in Broadmoor indefinitely.

Mr Justice Griffiths Williams said: "You are on any view a very dangerous man.

"You still present a very high risk of sexual homicide which can only be managed in a high security hospital."

Victor Temple QC, prosecuting, said two psychiatrists agreed that at the time of the killing Napper suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and Asperger's syndrome.

He said after consultation with police, lawyers and the victim's family it had been decided that it was "proper and appropriate" to accept the plea.

The plea ends one of the most high-profile crimes dealt with by the Metropolitan Police.

In 1994, Colin Stagg, from Roehampton, south-west London, went on trial for the murder, but the case was thrown out after evidence from an undercover policewoman was ruled

Mr Stagg, 45, spent 13 months in custody. This year, he was awarded £706,000 compensation from the Home Office. 

After Thursday's trial Assistant Commissioner John Yates apologised to Mr Stagg for the "mistakes made".

In an impact statement, Ms Nickell's parents, Andrew and Monica, said: "The greatest loss is your future.

"All the things that any family hopes for and expects are completely smashed. There will be no daughter to talk to in our old age, no grandchildren to love and admire.

"At a stroke all this has been removed."

Question marks still hang over the original investigation and the missed opportunities to catch Napper, who went on to kill another young mother and her daughter.

Napper was questioned in December 1995 about Ms Nickell's killing and denied involvement.

He had been sent to Broadmoor secure hospital two months earlier for raping and killing Samantha Bissett, 27, and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine in an attack in Plumstead, south London in November 1993.

A tiny particle of Napper's DNA was picked up when Miss Nickell's body was swabbed soon after her death.

But it was too small to be analysed until recent advances made it possible. A match to Napper was confirmed in 2004.

The former warehouseman, who lived near Miss Bissett, was interviewed again in Broadmoor in 2006, but again he did not own up to the crime.

Police investigators admit that a series of failings meant Napper was not caught sooner.

Officers failed to question him after his mother rang a local police station in 1989 to say he had confessed to a rape.

The officer she spoke to could not match up details of the offence with any rape which had been reported.

Napper was also questioned about a series of sex attacks in 1992, but was wrongly eliminated.

"We have been absolutely honest about this to their family and we have told them that we deeply regret that this happened and have apologised to them," Commander Simon Foy said outside court.


Last Updated on Thursday, 18 December 2008 16:20

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