On the morning of the 15th July 1992, a twenty-three year old part-time model by the name of Rachel Nickell was out walking her dog on Wimbledon Common (in south-west London) when she was attacked, sexually assaulted and stabbed forty-nine times. What made her murder all the more horrific was that she killed in front of her two year old son Alex, who was thrown aside into the undergrowth, whilst her assailant hacked her to death. (The police were confused for some days afterwards by the piece of paper stuck to Rachel Nickell's forehead, believing it to be some bizarre 'signature' left by the killer, until they realised it was simply the nearest her son could find that approximated a plaster, which of course he'd applied to 'make her better'.)
This apparently senseless and brutal killing carried out in broad daylight naturally attracted a great deal of media coverage and, as with all such high profile cases, the police felt themselves under pressure to catch the killer1. But despite their best efforts they didn't appear to be getting anywhere. And so the police turned to a Forensic psychologist named Paul Britton, reputed to the inspiration behind the television series 'Cracker'2. An expert in the science of offender profiling, Britton had previously helped the police identify the killers of Jamie Bulger in Liverpool, and had worked on the Frederick West 'House of Horrors' murders in Gloucester, and was felt to be just the man for the job.
As it happens the nearest the police had got to a suspect was a local resident named Colin Stagg who lived in a flat close to Wimbledon Common. Stagg had initially attracted the interest of the police because he was something of a loner and an oddball who professed an interest in Paganism. The Police's interest in Stagg soon increased when they heard from a woman who had corresponded with Stagg after placing a lonely heart advert in a local paper and produced some sexually explicit letters that he had written to her. Paul Britton carried out a "sexual fantasy analysis" of the Rachel Nickell killing as well as examining the available evidence regarding Stagg's psyche, and made two specific determinations. Firstly that both the offender and Colin Stagg shared the same "sexually deviant based personality disturbance", and secondly that this "personality disturbance" was so rare that it was virtually certain that they were one and the same person.3
"I wish I was the man for you"
Now that it had been 'scientifically' demonstrated to the police that Stagg was the killer all they needed to do was find some evidence to sustain a case against him in a court of law. Unfortunately in their attempts to build a case against Stagg, all they could find was a witness who claimed to have seen Stagg on Wimbledon Common on the day of the murder, which of itself this was of little value, particularly since they had other witnesses who placed Stagg in two completely different places at more or less the same time.
Faced with their inability to obtain any evidence by conventional means, the police decided, under Britton's guidance and with the full approval of the Crown Prosecution Service to mount an undercover operation they called 'Operation Edzell'. A police woman, known only under her pseudonym of Lizzie James, was instructed to contact and befriend Colin Stagg and to try and persuade him to confess to the murder. This 'Lizzie James' adopted the persona of a woman who had spent her formative teenage years in a satanic cult, where she had participated in the ritual killing of a mother and her baby, and therefore could only form a truly satisfying sexual relationship with a man who had engaged in a similar killing. This was essentially a honey trap operation, in which Ms James at the most fundamental level was simply offering to have sex with Colin Stagg, if and only if, he told her that he'd killed Rachel Nickell.
At one point Stagg was persuaded to confess that he had killed a woman in the New Forest. Sadly for the police, it emerged that there had been no such murder. This led Ms James to express her disappointment; "'I don't believe the New Forest story", she told Stagg and added "If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder; if only you had killed her it would be all right." To which Stagg replied "I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't." 4
Despite the very natural efforts of the police to maintain absolute secrecy over their operation, rumours that Colin Stagg was the prime suspect in the killing and under active investigation eventually emerged and prompted one tabloid newspaper to interview him, at which time he emphatically denied having anything to do with the murder of Rachel Nickell. Concerned that press interest in the case might now compromise their operation, the police decided to call off the operation after some twenty-eight weeks. After reviewing the evidence they had gathered so far they decided that, although they hadn't managed to get the confession they'd initially sought, they had obtained sufficient material to support a case against Colin Stagg. So in August 1993 Stagg was arrested and charged with the murder of Rachel Nickell.
The trial of Colin Stagg
Stagg spent the next thirteen months in prison on remand until the 14th September 1994 when the case came before Mr Justice Harry Ognall at the Old Bailey. As it turned out, his trial proved to be a very brief affair indeed.
During the pre-trial submissions Mr Justice Ognall was asked to consider the admissabilty of the evidence gathered during Operation Edzell, and after due consideration Justice Ognall had some very unkind things to say about the police's activities. Castigating Britton as the "puppet master", Mr Justice Ognall concluded that a "careful appraisal of the material demonstrates a skilful and sustained enterprise to manipulate the accused, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly" and that the whole operation was a "wholly reprehensible" attempt to incriminate a defendant by "deceptive conduct of the grossest kind". He therefore ruled that the evidence gathered in this manner was inadmissible under s.78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 in that "it would have such an adverse effect on the fairness of the proceedings". Deprived of the 'evidence' gathered under Operation Edzell, the prosecution case collapsed and Colin Stagg was formally acquitted of the murder and set free from prison.5
After the trial
Strangely enough as a result of the case Stagg finally found himself a girlfriend. A woman named Diane began writing to him whilst he was in prison on remand and later visited him on an number of occasions. They were married a year after his acquittal. Of course the relationship did not last. Acocrding to Stagg himself "it turned out that Diane wasn't all there" and she left him after a few months. In 1998 the now estranged Mrs Stagg was being interviewed by the Mail on Sunday claiming that there was a "terrifying anger inside Colin Stagg" and that he had twice told her that he was responsible for the death of Rachel. Not that any 'revelations' by the soon to be former Mrs Stagg made any difference since the ancient legal principle of autrefois acquit, otherwise known as double jeopardy, prevented Colin Stagg from being tried twice for the same offense.
Life also proved eventful for some of the other players in the drama. The undercover policewoman (who has never been named) later had a nervous breakdown which she claimed was due to post-traumatic stress suffered as a result of Operation Edzell and received £125,000 in compensation from her employers. Keith Pedder, the Metropolitan police detective in charge of the case, retired from the force in December 1995. In March 1998 he was arrested and charged with inciting a police officer to commit a corrupt act, but the charges were later dismissed went the court concluded that he had been the victim of an entrapment operation by the Criminal Investigation Bureau. Pedder, who was writing a book about the Rachel Nickell murder believed he's been 'set-up' by his former employers who wanted to prevent him from spilling the beans.
His book, went it eventually appeared, revealed the extent to which Operation Edzell had been carried with the approval at the highest level in both the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. It also revealed the fact that Ian Johnson, the deputy assistant commissioner who had been placed in charge of the investigation into the conduct of the Nickell inquiry launched in the aftermath of Stagg's acquittal in September 1994, was the very man who had who authorised the original undercover operation in the first place.
The "puppet master" Paul Britton later became the subject of allegations of professional misconduct made by Colin Stagg's original solicitor. In 2002 the British Psychological Society finally came around to considering the matter and eventually decided to dismiss the complaint, largely on the grounds of the passage of time. Stagg and Britton actually bumped into one another during the hearing at which point Stagg called him a "pervert". Britton was reportedly unhappy about the incident and was considering making a complaint, although it was unclear as to whom he believed had jurisdiction over the matter.
Who killed Rachell Nickell?
Of course the police refused to concede that they were wrong, The Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon announced that "We are not looking for anyone else" (which is police speak for 'the courts have got it wrong again') giving the impression that Stagg was indeed the killer and had simply been acquitted on a technicality. Much of the British press particularly the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday appeared to accept the official line that Colin Stagg was guilty (largely as a result of off-the-record briefings by the police), as indeed did Rachel Nickell's parents and her boyfriend Andre Hanscombe.
Over the years various revelations regarding the nature and extent of the evidence gathered during Operation Edzell have become a matter of public knowledge. These details tended to undermine the assertion that Colin Stagg was the killer, as the picture that emerged was one of a rather timid individual who was eager for female companionship and struggling to comprehend the rather bizarre persona adopted by his putative girlfriend. When people heard Stagg pleading that he only lived "a quiet life" and begging "If I have disappointed you please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before. Please, please tell me what you want in every detail." they reasonably concluded that far from proving Colin Stagg to be the killer, Operation Edzell demonstrated precisely the opposite. Therefore as the years went by, many were beginning to consider the possibility that the murder of Rachel Nickell might have the work of somebody other than Colin Stagg.
In April 1998 it was reported that Operation Enigma6 had identified the Nickell murder as one of a possible cluster of four cases attributable to one offender, whilst both the killings of Margaret Muller at Victoria Park in Hackney on the 3rd February 2003 and that of Sally Anne Bowman, who was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death just yards from her home at Blenheim Crescent in Croydon on the 25th September 2005, have attracted speculation that they too were the work of the Nickell killer.
However the murder the bore the closest similarity to that of Nickell was the earlier killing of Samantha Bissett and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine. This double murder occurred on the 3rd November 1993 when an intruder gained access to the home of Samantha Bissett near Winn's Common in Plumstead. Samantha was sexually assaulted and knifed to death, her body subsequently mutilated by the killer, whilst her daughter Jazmine was also sexually abused and suffocated to death. (The post mortem mutilation was apparently so gruesome that the police photographer who attended the scene was off work for months afterwards.)
In May 1994 a paranoid schizophrenic by the name of Robert Napper was arrested and charged with the Blisset murders, having been belatedly identified as a result of fingerprint evidence found at the crime scene. (The delay in his arrest being explained by the fact that he not only had the same birthday as his victim but also had fingerprints that were so similar to hers that it took some time for the forensic service to realise that they were in fact from two different people.) Once the police had Napper in custody, they identified him as the Green Chain rapist who had, over the previous eight years, carried out an estimated forty rapes and sex attacks on the Thameside path known as the Green Chain Walk 7. At his subsequent trial the judge described Napper as "highly dangerous" and concluded that he "posed a grave and immediate risk to the public" and sentenced him to serve an indefinite sentence in Broadmoor.
There were evident similarities between the Nickell and Bisset murders that might have led the police to consider that they were the work of the same killer. However at the time Napper was arrested, Stagg was in prison and waiting trial for the Nickell murder and therefore the police had little interest in making any connection between the two crimes. (Obviously Colin Stagg could not have carried out the Blisset murders in November 1993 since he was in prison at the time.) Keith Pedder, as the detective in charge of the Nickell case, later confirmed that they had considered Napper a possible suspect, but that "there was nothing to tie him to the Rachel Nickell murder". (Cynics would note that there was nothing to tie Stagg to the Nickell murder either, but that hadn't proved a hindrance at the time.)
It has been known since at least 2002 that the Murder Review Group, which is the 'elite' Scotland Yard squad that investigates cold case murders, had been considering Napper as a suspect for the Nickell murder. In September 2003 they announced a breakthrough in the case. Using a new technique called DNA Low Copy Number they had carried out exhaustive tests on the items of Miss Nickell's clothing recovered from the murder scene and had succeeded in identifying human DNA which could belong to her killer. In November 2004 it was revealed that this process had yielded DNA details which suggested a similarity to Napper's DNA profile, although the match was not sufficiently conclusive to meet the standard required for a criminal conviction. It has also been known for some years that the Murder Review Group wanted to interview Robert Napper in regard to the Nickell murder but that the psychiatrists at Broadmoor had consistently refused permission.
In June 2006 it was announced that detectives from the Murder Review Group were questioning a forty year old man at Broadmoor Hospital in relation to the Nickell murder. Although the latest reports do not mention Robert Napper by name, there seems little doubt that this is the man that they are questioning. In the event of the current investigation leading to charges and a conviction, it is understood that Colin Stagg will be in line for a substantial compensation payment.
As was widely reported in the Sunday press on the 18th November 2007 murder charges were expected to be laid against Robert Napper in the following week, although as it turned out it wasn't until the 28th that he was in fact charged. It then emerged that Napper had been ruled out of the original investigation "on the grounds that he did not frequent southwest London", although it later became known that he was receiving psychiatric treatment at a clinic next to Wimbledon Common. It also transpired that during a re-examination of the case in 2001 the forensic teams had missed small samples of DNA taken from her body which would have otherwise led to the identification of Robert Napper.
Asked for his re-action to the news Colin Stagg said that "Finally people are going to have to believe I didn't do it." His lawyers have submitted a claim for personal injury to the Home Office although it has yet to be decided how much he will receive, whilst he also has a claim against the Metropolitan Police and could now be in line for £1 million in compensation.
1 Although the detection rate for murder in England and Wales is quite high, the reason for this is quite simple. Most murders are carried out for reasons of love, money or revenge by someone who is closely acquainted with the victim and it is thus painfully obvious who carried out the crime. Apparently random murders such as the Rachell Nickell killing are far harder to solve and the clear up rate on these is embarrassingly low despite the resources devoted to such cases.
2 Or 'Fitz' if you have the misfortune to be from North America and were forced to watch the third-rate American remake of a fine British drama.
3 It is worth noting that not everyone agreed with Bitton's assessment. A Professor David Canter of Liverpool University who is probably the country's leading expended on offender profiling, was later to offer the opinion that Nickell's killing bore the hallmarks of the type of brutal individual who simply loses control when meeting with resistance and that such a personality type was sadly by no means rare. The point not understood by the police at the time is that there are a plethora of rival schools of psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors who have adopted quite different and often mutually contradictory theories regarding personality and behaviour.
4 One might venture the opinion that most men would have cheerfully confessed to a hundred murders if they believed that this would result in an attractive young woman agreeing to have sex with them.
5 Section 78 PACE confers on a trial judge the discretion to exclude unfair evidence whilst section 76(2)(b) requires the automatic exclusion from evidence of a confession obtained in circumstances conducive to unreliability.
6 Operation Enigma was a review conducted by the National Crime Faculty into some 200 unsolved murder cases searching for patterns that might identify them as the work of a serial killer.
7 Robert Napper was actually interviewed by the police in August 1992 with regard to the Green Chain attacks but was excluded from consideration since they believed that the Green Chain Rapist was only 5ft 5in tall.(Napper was considerably taller.) Thus the police decided not to take a DNA sample from Napper even though he offered to provide one.
- Nick Cohen, With police and tabloids in cahoots, Colin Stagg became a sacrificial lamb, June 25, 2006, The Observer
- Stewart Tendler, Broadmoor sex killer questioned over Nickell murder, June 21, 2006
- Richard Ingrams, Stagg deserved better, November 14, 2004
- John Steele, New DNA lead in Nickell murder, 09/11/2004
- Alice Miles, Guilty until proved innocent, The Times 10th November 2004
- David Bamber, Rachel Nickell police have breakthrough as DNA sample is found, 07/09/2003
- Nick Craven and Stephen Wright, Is this Rachel’s killer?, Daily Mail, June 22, 2002
- Dee O'Connell, Acquitted of murder, Colin Stagg describes life on the outside, The Observer June 16, 2002
- Steven Morris, The jigsaw man, The Guardian November 30, 2000
- Michael Sean Gillard, Geoff Seed and Laurie Flynn
I was set up, says Nickell detective, The Guardian, September 2, 1999
- Nick Cohen, Warning: Paul Britton can seriously damage your health, February 21, 1999
- Millennium TimeLine - 1998 March
- Terry Hayden Offender Profiling
- Two Genuinely Controversial Cases of Ram's Trial Judge
- David Tilley, Rachel killer linked, 20th June 2003
- Sally Anne Bowman