The Notting Hill Rapist

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A police officer displays the kit used by the Notting Hill Rapist

In the 1980’s, the West London district of Notting Hill was just beginning its transformation from a rundown area to the fashionable, affluent area it is now known as, immortalised in the very successful 1999 film of the same name. It has been forever associated with art and “alternative” cultures since it was first established in the 1820’s, but beginning in 1982, Notting Hill found itself having the unsavoury distinction of being the hunting ground of a vicious and prolific sex attacker, a man who became known as the Notting Hill Rapist.

Late at night on 12 August 1982, a female solicitor who had been out with friends for the evening arrived home to the house she lived alone in, in Clarendon Road. She let herself in through her front door, and turned on the light. It didn’t work. Before she could do anything, she was grabbed by the throat from behind and was warned by a man’s rough sounding voice not to scream. The woman was dragged further down the hallway, and her attacker began to indecently assault her. Terrified but with a survival instinct kicking in, she kicked the man as hard as she could between the legs. In pain, the would be attacker swore at her then fled from the premises.

Detectives investigating the incident believed that the most likely scenario was that the woman had arrived home and had interrupted a burglar, a theory given credence due to the fact that Clarendon Road is one of the wealthier streets in the district. But nothing had been stolen, and would a burglar really commit an opportunistic sexual assault instead? It had been too dark for the victim to be able to give any sort of description, and routine enquiries were made but the trail went nowhere.

Then in November, a second incident made police consider the fact that the incident in August wasn’t just a burglary gone wrong. On Wednesday 10 November, a 45-year-old woman was getting ready for bed in her home on Elgin Crescent – which was just 100 yards away from the scene of the August attack and another up-market area. As she was locking up, a masked intruder jumped at her from the darkness of her kitchen. Restraining the terrified woman at knifepoint, the intruder marched her through her house and pushed her onto her bed. He then gagged her and attempted to rape her, but inexplicably stopped after a brief struggle and fled. Again, the frightened woman wasn’t able to give any sort of description; apart from it was a stocky male, strong, and who wore a black mask that she thought was a balaclava.

A month later, on 13 December, yet another incident forced police to conclude that they had a serial sex attacker at large. A television researcher who lived just a few doors away from the second victim, in Elgin Crescent, was asleep in bed after having had an early night due to illness. It was around midnight when she was awoken by a masked man who was attempting to rape her, and after committing a serious assault upon her, the masked attacker fled. Again, no description was available, but in this instance, the intruder had taken money and bizarrely, two knives had been taken also. One of them was a very unique letter opener in the form of a mini Samurai sword. Two days later, the knives were to be found in a bizarre incident.

The intruder had returned to the scene of the first attack, to the first victim. She had returned home to find that her attacker had been back to her flat, had ransacked it, and performed a bizarre ritual with an oversized teddy bear that the woman had in her bedroom. The stuffed animal had been bound and gagged with strips of a bed sheet and left in a prominent position on her bed. Two knives had been left placed upon her pillow – one of these was the letter opener that had been taken in the attack two days before. That was enough for the frightened woman, and she moved house.

An undercover team was formed to try to catch the attacker – but police did not have much to go on. They believed he was local to the area and knew it well, and that he was at the very least an experienced burglar, due to the expertise that the man had shown in managing to enter his victim’s homes silently and efficiently. What they did not know, was why this burglar had now become a serial sex offender also. Whilst a check on known burglars local to the Notting Hill area began, undercover teams staked out the area at night-time, and an increased police presence hit the streets.

Despite these efforts, the attacker struck again just two weeks later. In the most vicious attack so far, a Middle Eastern woman was attacked in her flat in nearby Ladbroke Grove. Like the first victim, she was ambushed as she came home by the attacker, who lay in wait for her. She was viciously beaten and had a sharp knife forced into her mouth when she struggled, with her attacker threatening to mutilate and kill her constantly throughout the assault. The victim was stripped, gagged and bound with bath towels, and then had an obscene sex act performed upon her. Then the attacker fled. This was the last attack for three months.

The attacks had been prominent and regular, and with a gap of so long, detectives hunting the attacker considered that he may have gone to ground. Perhaps he had been imprisoned for another crime, perhaps he had moved, and perhaps he had even died. Their fears that the attacker had not gone away were realised when on 22 April 1983, the attacker returned with a vengeance. In chilling echoes of the first and fourth attacks, a 22-year-old woman was ambushed in her flat on Lansdowne Road when she returned from a night out. This time, the attacker committed a full rape for the first time. Press who had been following the attacks christened the attacker “The Notting Hill Rapist”. Women in the area now lived in mortal fear, and security firms did a thriving trade in secure door locks and burglar alarms. But after the fifth attack, the attacks again stopped.

But the search for the rapist continued, and detectives looked at what they knew about the man they were hunting. He was stocky and strong, and sounded a native Londoner. He usually wore a dark track suit and training shoes, and was masked in a balaclava. He wasn’t afraid to use violence, and was sexually perverted. Although the man they were hunting was almost certainly an experienced local burglar, he was not forensically aware. Semen samples had been taken from the rapist victims, and although DNA testing was on the near horizon, it wasn’t available at that time. But a broad comparison of matching blood groups could be made, and as suspects and local burglars were questioned and interviewed, some who fitted the general description of what detectives had to go on were asked to give blood samples. This allowed those who didn’t match the rapist’s blood group, identified as group “zero (0)” to be eliminated from the enquiry. More and more months passed with no attacks, and by January 1984, the enquiry was wound down. It was possible that the rapist was dead or had moved away, but detectives believed that the most likely reason for the cessation in attacks was that the rapist had been imprisoned for another crime.

There were no further attacks for more than three years – then in May 1987, the Notting Hill Rapist returned.

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Press reports on the return of The Notting Hill Rapist

If the attacks in 1982 and 83 were distant in the memories of Notting Hill residents, they were reminded in the most horrific fashion on 04 May 1987. Like the MO in the attacks from years before, a solicitor was attacked as she returned home to her Lansdowne Road flat – where the last attack had taken place years before. The woman tried to halt the attack by saying that she had the AIDS virus, but chillingly, her attacker said:

“I have too, I’ll take the chance”.

Holding her at knifepoint, the rapist stripped his victim, tied and gagged her, then brutally raped her. As with the other attacks, there wasn’t much of a description – stocky, strong, violent, London accent. Nothing appeared to have been taken from the flat – and police did find one vital clue that they could add to the profile of the rapist. They managed to glean an imprint of a size 9 training shoe from a work surface in the flat, underneath a window where the rapist had entered through.

The rapist struck next on 28 July 1987, in his favoured hunting ground of Elgin Crescent. A 34-year-old woman had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend, and after a heated row had asked him to leave. Minutes after he had left, the rapist burst into her home and savagely attacked her. He threatened her with a knife in his now trademark pattern, and then tied her up with scarves and a leather belt. As he was raping her, and between threats of violence, the rapist asked her if the reason she had finished with her boyfriend is because he wasn’t very good at sex. He had been listening at a rear window the whole time.

By this time, Detective Chief Superintendent Jim Hutchison was in charge of the hunt for the Notting Hill Rapist, and decided to adopt a strategy of posting plain clothes officers at strategic positions in gardens and parks around the Elgin Crescent/Lansdowne Road areas. It was believed that the rapist was a burglar and prowler local to the area who would spend his nights when not attacking, prowling about and spying on women. It was hoped that a plain clothes unit would be in the right place at the right time – and be able to catch their man. This strategy almost worked twice.

Perhaps the increased police presence had scared the rapist off, as there had been another lull in attacks, but In December 1987, a resident of flats near Lansdowne Road saw a man crouching in the shrubbery at the rear of the block. The alarm was raised, and a nearby plain clothes policeman rushed into the communal gardens and caught the prowler making a run for it. As the man scaled a wall, the pursuing officer managed to grab hold of his leg – but the man broke free and managed to escape, running through gardens and across a children’s play area. Two months later, on 16 February 1988, the same man was again disturbed at midnight in gardens at the rear of Ladbroke Crescent, but again managed to avoid the police blanket and escape.

Many high-profile manhunts have been resolved not through brilliant detective work, but through the shrewd hunches or opportunism of beat constables. A notable example is the capture of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper; or the arrest of John Reginald Halliday Christie when he was being sought over the discovery of bodies at 10 Rillington Place. The Notting Hill Rapist was to be brought to justice due to a hunch of a beat constable, PC Graham Hamilton.

PC Hamilton’s beat area had for many years been the Notting Hill area, and he knew most of the local criminal fraternity through previous dealings. He had a hunch that the rapist detectives were searching for was a 37-year-old local petty housebreaker and violent thug named Tony Maclean, who lived a flat on the Clarendon estate. The Clarendon estate was just a few hundred yards from the scenes of the sex attacks, and Maclean matched the general description given by the victims. He was a strong fitness fanatic, keen on bodybuilding and weight training, and was prone to violence – having several convictions. Also, Maclean’s timeline seemed to fit around the sex attacks. When the attacks had ceased in 1983, it corresponded exactly with a prison sentence of four years that Maclean had started for a brutal attack on a youth with a baseball bat. He had been freed in 1987 – around the time that the attacks began again. Further checks revealed that Maclean had been interviewed as a matter of routine by detectives in 1983, and had voluntarily provided a blood sample. PC Hamilton decided to voice his suspicions to DCS Hutchison.

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Tony Maclean

It was known that the rapist’s blood was in the “zero (0)” secretor category – and it was here that the theory of Maclean as a suspect fell down. When his blood group was checked, the computer screen showed that he was an “O” secretor, an entirely different blood from the Notting Hill Rapist. Furthermore, Home Office files showed Maclean as being released from prison in June 1987 – making it impossible for him to have attacked a woman in May 1987. Maclean was seemingly in the clear. This did not sit quite right with PC Hamilton, who felt sure of his suspicions and would not let the matter drop. Deciding to take Maclean in for further questioning, PC Hamilton called at his flat but Maclean was not home, so the officer left him a note asking him to attend Notting Hill police station. Although under no obligation, Maclean did attend the police station a few days later, in February 1988.

During the interview, Maclean answered everything put to him in a cocky manner and denied everything, even going so far as to show PC Hamilton his penis to prove that he couldn’t be a rapist. Maclean’s penis was badly scarred from a childhood accident after he fell onto broken glass, and as he showed it to PC Hamilton, he exclaimed:

“This is why I ain’t no rapist”.

Despite this, and despite what the computers said, PC Hamilton was more convinced than ever that the man sat across from him was the Notting Hill Rapist. At the cessation of the interview and before leaving, Maclean provided yet another blood sample.

It was a few days later that PC Hamilton got confirmation that his suspicions weren’t unfounded. Forensic examiners contacted him and informed him that the sample Maclean had provided showed he was a “zero (0)” secretor – which matched the rapist. PC Hamilton telephoned and asked them to double-check to confirm, which they did – Maclean was a “zero (0)” secretor. What had happened was as follows: The computer operator when entering details of Maclean’s blood onto the computer had mistakenly typed the letter “O” instead of a “zero (0)”. A simple typing error had had massive consequences. A check with the Home Office to confirm Maclean’s prison release dates revealed yet another clerical error – Maclean had actually been released in January 1987, but a typist had typed JUN instead of JAN. Bolstered by this, a warrant was issued, and Tony Maclean was arrested at his home on 01 March 1988.

Maclean appeared at the Old Bailey in April 1989 charged with a string of offences, totalling three rapes, two attempted rapes, burglary with intent to rape, and robbery. He pleaded not guilty to all counts, meaning that the victims would be forced to undergo cross-examination. The jury heard emotional and sickening accounts from several of the women who had been attacked, and their powerful testimonies left a marked impression on the jury. But it was the miracles of forensic science that provided the most powerful evidence. By 1989, DNA testing was accepted as conclusive evidence by British courts, and Professor Alec Jeffries himself, known as the man who had pioneered and perfected the art of DNA Profiling, testified at Maclean’s trial. He testified that Maclean’s blood sample showed an identical match with semen taken from his victims – and that the chances of the semen belonging to anyone but Maclean were in the region of three million to one.

Maclean was found guilty on all counts, and remained impassive and emotionless when he was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, plus a further 12 years for attempted rape, indecent assaults, and burglary. City of London Recorder Sir James Miskin, QC, told him:

“You are a total menace to women, and these three rapes were absolutely foul”.

Following Maclean’s conviction, the two of his victim’s who had testified in court hugged each other, weeping. DCS Hutchison, who led the hunt for him, said:

“I’m absolutely delighted this sex maniac has been taken off the streets. While casing places, he saw the girls and realised how easy it would be for him to rape them. When we kept watch, we found girls undressing in front of their windows. Maclean would have seen the same and he was tempted”

The full M.O of Maclean’s crimes was established at his trial. A fitness fanatic, he would go out jogging and run the half mile from his flat to his hunting grounds, at first casing basement and ground floor properties to burgle, but then turning to rape. The below map shows the proximity of Maclean’s home and the site of the attacks:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=13ac8xMKGL–KLHBdjfvrbvIH0-g&usp=sharing

He would sometimes watch a property for days at a time and see women undressing. When he had learned his intended victim’s routine, he would return days later and break in just before the victim was due home. He would then unscrew the hall light, and wait in the darkness for his victim to come home. Gloved, masked and always armed with a knife and strips of cloth to gag and restrain the victim, Maclean would then rape or indecently assault them, and then flee into the local area he knew intimately.

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Newspapers detail the conviction of Tony Maclean

 

Psychologists claim that Maclean’s desire to rape stemmed from feelings of sexual inadequacy – even though he was a married father of two children. It transpired that Maclean had found sexual relationships with women difficult throughout his life due to the damage to his penis caused in his childhood accident. In an attempt to prove his masculinity, more to himself than anyone, Maclean took up bodybuilding and weight training – a common trait amongst sex killers and rapists. Maclean had targeted professional, wealthy women because in his view, they were out of his league and represented a lifestyle that he could never hope to be a part of. Hatred and jealousy drove him to attack and rape. His attacks were brutal and escalated in this, and whilst the physical harm varied, the psychological cruelty and terror that he inflicted upon his victims was always paramount. Police were in no doubt that Maclean would have gravitated to murder if he hadn’t been stopped when he was.

“Maclean was a twisted pervert who enjoyed terrorising and humiliating young women. He picked on well to do professional types because they made him feel inferior. He is a very dangerous man. I am sure that if we had not caught him when we did, he would have moved on to murder in a very short space of time” – Detective Chief Superintendent James Hutchison

Much praise was heaped upon PC Hamilton for his pursuit of Maclean, and the hunch that he wouldn’t give up on. If not for his hunch, and even more so for following this said hunch in the face of what may have seemed conflicting evidence, a dangerous rapist may still have been stalking the streets to this day – he might even have become a dangerous killer.

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

 

The Gatwick Blackmailer

“Everybody that I came across, I started thinking that they were the person who had sent me the letter. I used to look at their handwriting to see if it matched the letter. I was accusing everybody…Everybody” – X

This week’s TTCE contains explicit descriptions of sadism and language that the reader may find disturbing or offensive. I make apologies for that, but it is necessary to reproduce here for the context of the post.

Airport security nowadays has undergone such a change since the end of the Second World War that most UK airports now have their own police forces and stations. Aside from todays pre-dominate operational requirement and necessity of an armed police response to deal with any threats to security and well-being, police at airports may also deal with more minor and mundane tasks, such as investigating instances of baggage theft, cases of air rage or the usual day to day trivialities police officers face. But at the end of November 1997, the CID at Britain’s second largest international airport, Gatwick, in south-east England, were faced with something out of the ordinary.

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Gatwick Airport

An attractive blonde stewardess in her mid-thirties arrived at Gatwick Airport police station in a state of clear distress, and placed on a desk the following letter that she had received whilst at work. The name of the recipient has been left out here, but the letter is reproduced:

DEAR X

YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU QUITE WELL. I’M UNEMPLOYED, BUT MAKE A LITTLE DELIVERING THINGS IN MY VAN. I’VE NOT HAD A GIRLFRIEND FOR FIVE YEARS. I HAVE DECIDED I’M HAVING YOU. YOU MUST DO THE FOLLOWING. GO TO A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIO, DRESSED IN YOUR FULL UNIFORM, INCLUDING GLOVES, HANDBAG, STOCKINGS, SUSPENDERS AND HIGH HEELS – BROWN. I WANT 40 PICTURES IN GLOSS COLOUR, 10 BY 8, SO I CAN SEE YOUR TITS, WITH YOUR SKIRT ON BUT PULLED UP – NO KNICKERS, CLEAR VIEWS BETWEEN YOUR LEGS. SEE DIAGRAMS.

IF YOU DON’T COMPLY, NEXT YEAR AT SOME STAGE WHEN IT IS SAFE FOR ME, I WILL THROW CONCENTRATED SULPHURIC ACID IN YOUR FACE. I WILL NOT STAY AROUND TO WATCH YOUR FLESH MELT OFF. I WILL GET YOU, NO QUESTION. NO MORE CHANCES NO MORE WARNINGS. YOU CAN’T HIDE, AND IF THE PICTURES ARENT THERE BY DECEMBER 12, THAT’S IT. IF I CAN’T SEE YOU, NO ONE ELSE WOULD EVER WANT TO ONCE I’VE DONE MY JOB NEXT YEAR. DO YOURS AND YOU WONT NEED TO LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDER ALL YEAR. BY THE WAY, YOU WILL PROBABLY BE BLINDED TOO, UNLESS YOU ARE LUCKY.

This horrifying message also contained with it disgusting and explicit hand drawn sketches of the poses that the author wanted the woman to adopt in the photographs, as well as detailed instruction about how to specifically package the pictures and where to leave them – the location being a ditch by a sign on a minor road near Gatwick Airport.

As one can imagine, this letter frightened the woman beyond belief – if anyone has ever received an anonymous threatening letter, then they will know just how much they can unsettle and frighten. Detectives started an investigation, and although the letter was postmarked 20 miles away in Kingston Upon Thames, they theorised that the author was someone who was employed at the airport in some way. They discreetly began looking at the woman’s male colleagues for a possible suspect, and subjected the letter and envelope to forensic examination for fingerprints or traces of DNA. All fingerprints found on the letter and envelope were ran through fingerprint databases, but no match was found on file. There was no obvious suspect found either. Needless to say, the frightened woman did not comply with the writer’s demands, and the deadline of December 12th passed without incident. The same woman then received another letter on 12 February 1998, written in the same handwriting and in the format of capital letters, simply saying:

YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR NOW, NOTHING WILL HAPPEN

Speculating that the author had gotten wind of the police investigation and had backed off, there was little more that detectives could do – except wait to see if the author wrote again. For nearly a year, there were no further developments.

Then, just after Christmas 1998, a second frightened woman came into Gatwick Airport police station with another disturbing and disgusting letter. It had again been posted in Kingston Upon Thames, and the recipient was again a blonde woman in her early 30’s, who worked on the ticket reservation staff at the airport. This time, the author of the letter had switched to referring to himself in the plural. Again, the name of the recipient has been removed here:

WE NEED YOUR UNIFORM FOR A FILM. IF YOU DON’T SUPPLY IT WE WILL TAKE IT. WE WILL FIND OUT A BIT ABOUT YOU, AND THEN WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT AND YOU ARE OFF GUARD, WE WILL TAKE IT. EVEN IF YOU ARE WEARING IT. WE WILL ALSO TAKE ONE OF YOUR FINGERS FOR MAKING THINGS DIFFICULT FOR US. DON’T BE A CUNT, X, MAKE LIFE EASY FOR ALL OF US. YOU KNOW EVERYTHING CAN BE FORGOT

The letter also contained the same detailed drop off instructions and location as the previous letter. The recipient of the second letter also did not comply with these demands, and although the first inquiry was again looked at, there was no arrest and it did not advance the investigation further. There was no follow up letter this time, and things again went quiet.

Then in April 1999, the letter writer was back. The third recipient was a colleague of the first recipient, and was the now familiar pattern again of a blonde woman in her early 30’s. This time, the letter had been posted at Gatwick itself, and the writer had drawn up a list of “forfeits” for the recipient. He again wanted her uniform, and it was again to be left in the same spot as before. As with the previous letters, the demands were ignored, and a follow up letter a month later contained the threat that the writer would place an obscene picture of the recipient online. The recipient, like the first victim, had been photographed for the airline’s promotional literature, and the writer threatened to graft her picture onto an image of a woman masturbating with a wine bottle. It would then be placed on a website with a message for people to telephone her airline asking for the “cabin crew performance manager”, and to detail which obscene and degrading acts they wished for her to perform.

The fourth and what turned out to be the final recipient of “The Gatwick Blackmailer” also worked for the same airline that victims 1 and 3 worked for – but this time was brown haired and only 22 years of age. The letter had also been sent just a day after the follow up letter to the third victim, which alarmed police. This man was becoming bolder and was stepping up his attacks. He was also becoming more perverted. The letter to the 4th victim again talked of a forfeit system, but as what was becoming a common pattern with the author, used a slightly different approach from the previous letters:

I WAS ON YOUR FLIGHT ONCE AND I MANAGED TO FIND OUT WHO YOU WERE. I WAITED FOR DAYS OUTSIDE THE CAR PARKS TO GET A FEW PICTURES OF YOU. I THOUGHT YOU SAW ME – DID YOU? I THINK ABOUT YOU ALL THE TIME, AS I DON’T HAVE TOO LONG TO LIVE. I’VE SOLD MY HOUSE, GIVEN UP MY JOB AND DECIDED TO GO OUT, FULFILLING EVERY FANTASY I’VE HAD AND DOING WHATEVER I WANT. ALL IN ALL I’M YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE. BEFORE I DIE I WILL THROW ACID OVER YOU. IT’S SO STRONG NOBODY WILL EVER RECOGNIZE YOU AGAIN. HERE IS TASK ONE. WRITE ME A LETTER. DESCRIBE YOUR BREASTS AND HOW YOU MASTURBATE.

The letter also contained a threat that non-compliance would result in a picture of her being posted online with her face grafted onto that of a woman with a frog in her vagina. This would be accompanied by an invitation to call a number and to ask for private shows of the victim with a manner of objects inserted into her vagina and anus.

The 4th victim was so traumatised by this letter, that after reporting it, she quit her job and moved away from the area. Gatwick Police now had 4 victims of what was undoubtedly the same man, but the investigation was at a standstill. When using an offender profiler was suggested, the officer heading the enquiry, Detective Inspector Steve Johns, opted to try it. On 23rd June 1999, DI Johns, DC John Ashbey, and crime analyst Samantha Thompson travelled up to Leicester University to meet their National Crime Faculty recommended criminal profiler, Dr Julian Boon. Dr Boon was a psychology lecturer who was a veteran of more than 400 criminal profiles the length and breadth of the country.

It was fortuitous that they were seeing Dr Boon. As he read out the content of the first letter received, Dr Boon exclaimed that he recognised the content as being an exact replica of that of an offender he had seen before. Dr Boon then described a case he had worked on in Sutton, South London, in mid-1998, where a 17-year-old shop worker had received a threatening letter telling her to dress as an air stewardess and have pornographic pictures of herself taken. This victim had received much more vicious and intimidating content in the letters to her, describing how he would damage her over a prolonged period of time, and going into explicit detail about crushing her nipples and removing teeth one by one. What convinced Boon that this writer was the same offender as the Gatwick Blackmailer were the similarities between each case – a high sadistic content, drawings contained with each letter detailing how the victim should pose for example, a specific instruction of how to package the content and where to drop the package off, as well as a requirement for 40 copies of each picture.

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Dr Julian Boon

Boon then considered the profile of the offender. The offender was likely male, in the older age bracket, and was unlikely to be married with children – or even in a conventional relationship. He was likely a loner, computer literate and technologically minded, with an interest in machinery. There was a possibility that the offender may have some form of disfigurement – as acid and disfiguring featured strongly in his letters. He agreed with the police that the writer would work at the airport, as the lure of being around his particular fetish would be too difficult to resist. It may be a low-level job, but that did not mean the offender was unintelligent. He considered the offender to be heavily into “anal sadism”, who would gain thrills from the humiliation and degradation of the victim. He estimated that the offender would be heavily into pornography – particularly relating to air hostesses as this was his bent, likely having clothing or paraphernalia related to that of air hostesses at his home. There was also the likelihood that the offender had written many more such letters to other victims, which may have been dismissed and to not have been reported. The fact that he had contacted three of the four victims twice gave the opinion that the author was a writer rather than a doer; none of the threats contained in the letters had ever been carried out, the offender gained his kicks from purely writing the letters, with every word giving him deep satisfaction. He would also find it irresistible to visit the drop off location described in the letters.

“He will be getting off on constructing that letter. Every line is just causing him to drip mentally with sexual elation” – Dr Julian Boon

Detectives from Gatwick then liaised with the investigating officers who had worked on the Sutton case, and what they learned made them convinced that Dr Boon was correct in his theory that the offender would visit the drop off location. The drop off location detailed in the Sutton letters had been surveilled by officers on the enquiry for two days covering one of the dates detailed by the author in one of the letters. No package had been left of course, but no one had turned up either. When the operation had been stood down, officers had left an empty bag and envelope at the scene to see the results. Shortly afterwards, the Sutton victim had received a letter asking her if she was trying to trick him with empty bags. It was clear that the offender had visited the scene at some point, even though the surveillance had failed to spot him.

Encouraged by this, DI Johns opted to put into action a round the clock surveillance operation upon the drop off location in the country lane near the airport that had been specified in many of the letters. A bag of clothing was deposited at the scene, a concealed video camera was installed that could observe the location, and two teams of officers hid a short distance either side of the location. On a Monday morning in mid July 1999, the operation began. Would the offender take the bait?

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A blurred still from the footage of Downer collecting the bag that had been left by the police surveillance team

For nearly three full days, police sat in wait but with nothing happening. But then, at nearly 11:00pm on 14th July 1999, the bag was collected. A car was observed stopping, and when the camera footage was later examined, the vehicles headlights were seen to illuminate the scene. A person’s silhouette could then be seen exiting the vehicle, going right to the bag and then returning to the vehicle before driving off the way the way that had approached from. The driver was stopped a short distance from the scene – and the bag was found on the front seat of the car. He was arrested and brought into custody at Gatwick, where he was interviewed in the presence of a solicitor. The explanation the driver gave for being at the scene was described by DC Ashbey:

“His explanation was that he had been working on his house all day long and decided to go for a walk some time after ten o clock that evening. He parked his car nearby in a country lane, walked across a couple of fields and then stumbled across this bag which he believed was rubbish or possibly a dead animal, because he’d found a dead badger stuffed in a black bag like that once before. So, because he liked the countryside and didn’t want to see rubbish lying about, he returned to his car, drove back to the scene, and put the supposed bag on the front seat so he could dispose of it at his home address” – Detective Constable John Ashbey

The man arrested at the scene was Keith Downer, a 40-year-old British Airways engineer who lived near Redhill in Surrey, and who worked on the B Shift short haul line maintenance at Gatwick Airport. Downer was bailed following his interview, but allowed officers to take his fingerprints before he left the station. Within a few days, Downer’s fingerprints were found to be a match to outstanding fingerprints on two of the blackmail letters. He was re-arrested and exercised his right not to comment when this evidence was put to him. Coupled with being in possession of the bag of clothing left as bait, and the unlikely explanation Downer had given for being in the lane at the time, it was enough to charge him. Five months later, when the case came before Chichester Crown Court in December 1999, Downer pleaded guilty to eight counts of blackmail – including the Sutton offence. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, which however was halved to four years at a Court Of Appeal hearing in autumn 2000. Downer’s victims were understandably extremely upset by this.

Downer’s family, partner, friends and work colleagues were all shocked beyond belief when they heard of his complicity in the offences. He was of average height, dark brown hair and described as “reasonably good looking”, who was divorced but had a regular girlfriend. He had a good, well paid job, had no previous convictions or police record, and was considered a pleasant, normal, hard-working person by those who knew him. This went against many of the points that Dr Boon made in his profile of the offender. Yet Downer matched several points of the profile. He did have a sexual fetish for air stewardesses, he did work at the airport and was of the older end of the offending scale. He also lived alone. And he also had visited the drop scene – as predicted. No stewardess uniform or paraphernalia was found at Downer’s house – but both Dr Boon and police remained convinced that there was a stash hidden somewhere – just at a location they didn’t know.

When interviewed for a television documentary series that featured the case not long after Downer’s conviction, Dr Julian Boon admitted that he had made a mistake in 3 areas of the profile – the offender’s appearance, work status and relationship with a woman. Boon went on to explain that the reason he had missed this was that because Downer had been what is known as “staging” – the offender had deliberately presented himself as something other than what he actually was. In the Gatwick Blackmailer case, this was not to obscure the identity of the offender as would be the common reason – but more to increase the level of terror and discomfort for the victims. Boon outlined the need to research Downer’s life, to look at his upbringing and relationships, particularly his previous sex life, to try to pinpoint exactly where and when the extreme sadism that was Downer’s sexual proclivity stemmed from. Boon remained convinced that Downer was more of “a writer than a doer”, and that this bent would never change. It just remained to be seen if Downer would be able to keep them under control upon release from prison.

Downer is long released from prison now. Has he managed to keep his fantasies under control – or has he started writing letters again….?

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

“The Phantom Of The Forest” – Part 1

Readers in the United Kingdom will undoubtedly be familiar with the July 2010 Northumbria police armed manhunt for Raoul Moat, a 37-year-old Newcastle Upon Tyne man who had shot three people just two days after being released from Durham Prison. Moat shot his ex partner Samantha Stobbart, her new boyfriend Chris Brown, and PC David Rathband, with a sawn off shotgun. Brown was killed, Stobbart was severely wounded, and PC Rathband was left permanently blinded by his injuries. Moat was then on the run for six days before being cornered in the Northumberland town of Rothbury, six days throughout which the nation was gripped with the constant reports of a crazed gunman at large, and watching the manhunt for Moat unfold on television. Moat was eventually to take his own life during a standoff with police when he was cornered near a riverbank in the town. The hunt for Moat received massive publicity and was the largest manhunt of its kind in modern times. Yet it has a precursor, albeit 28 years before, almost to the day, in 1982. This manhunt too involved an armed shooter at large, who shot 5 people over a period of 17 days before taking his own life. Three of those shot by the gunman were killed, including two serving police officers. Even a police dog was shot during the rampage and manhunt for a criminal who rapidly became the most wanted man in Britain, and earned the moniker, “The Phantom Of The Forest”.

The trail of terror began early in the morning of Thursday 17th June 1982, at the beauty spot of Norwood Edge, a country park situated near the B6541 Otley-Blubberhouses Road, near the market town of Otley in the county of West Yorkshire. PC David Ian Haigh, a 29-year-old West Yorkshire Police officer, had started a day shift at 06:00am that day, and one of his first tasks was to check the daily crime reports in order to follow-up any outstanding actions passed on by the off going night-shift. One such task was the serving of a court summons for suspected poaching to a man who was reported to be living rough in a van in the Norwood Edge area. PC Haigh made this his first port of call that day, and should have been back on patrol relatively quickly after such a simple task. But when PC Haigh had not responded to several radio messages given that morning, a separate patrol was sent to search for the officer, thinking he may be having vehicle trouble or having had an accident.

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PC David Haigh

What the patrol found was to launch what was at the time one of the biggest manhunts of British criminal history, for a man who would become the most wanted man in Britain and was known as “The Phantom Of The Forest”.

At 08:00am, PC Haigh was found in the Warren picnic site at the Norwood Edge country park, by a police patrol searching for him. He lay dead beside the open door of his own police patrol car, a bullet hole from a .22 calibre bullet visible in his forehead. Just out of reach of his outstretched dead hand was his clipboard, which provided police with their first clue. On it, PC Haigh had written:

CLIVE JONES. DOB: 18:10:44 LEEDS NFA. KYF 326P

The registration number was quickly traced as belonging to a metallic green Citroen car that had been sold for a cash sale of £475 in Kingsbury, London, in January 1982. “Clive Jones” was the person who had sold the vehicle, but he was able to provide an alibi for the time of PC Haigh’s murder as he lived in London and was there at the time. He described selling the car to:

“A dark-haired, well dressed northerner who gave his name as R.D Carlisle, and that he had just come back off working on the oil rigs”

A witness was quickly found who had reported seeing a green metallic Citroen parked at the Warren picnic site at 06:35am on the morning of PC Haigh’s shooting, with a dishevelled man and unshaven man with dark hair who was fast asleep in the driver’s seat.

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Artist’s impression of the man seen in the green Citroen car

The poacher that PC Haigh had gone there to serve the summons to was quickly found and eliminated from the enquiry, and a search for the car was undertaken and descriptions telexed to all forces, with attempts made to trace its movements before the 17th June. As the killer had remembered the name of the man he had bought the car from and given it as a false name, it meant that he had had the car since buying it – and therefore it was likely that someone would know him or at the very least remember the car.  However, two days later, on Saturday 19th June, the green Citroen was found abandoned in a cornfield near the village of Ledsham, Leeds, 27 miles from the scene of PC Haigh’s murder.

Early the following morning, the 20th June 1982 and 53 miles away in the village of Torksey, Lincolnshire, 75-year-old widow Freda Jackson heard an intruder in her home, a remote bungalow on the outskirts of the village. She got up out of bed to investigate, and was confronted by an armed gunman, who she was later to describe as:

About 35 to 40, slim with dark straggly hair, who looked and smelled unkempt, and who spoke with a “northern” accent

The intruder tied Mrs Jackson up, gagged her, and robbed her of £4.50 and an amount of food before leaving through the back door. Unable to raise the alarm, Mrs Jackson remained tied up until 08:00am, when a bread delivery man on his rounds heard her calls for help, and alerted police. Mrs Jackson was shaken, but otherwise unharmed.

On Wednesday 23 June, in the village of Girton, near Newark and less than 9 miles from Torksey, another house was broken into by the same man. The house belonged to 52-year-old electrician George Luckett and his wife Sylvia.

 

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George Luckett

Again armed, the gunman had broken into the house and after subduing the couple, had tied them together by the elbows. He told the couple that he needed their car, and then went outside to check the amount of petrol in the vehicle. Returning inside the house and finding that the Luckett’s had managed to slip their bonds, the gunman then shot both George and Sylvia in the head in cold blood. George was shot first and killed instantly, but Sylvia survived and managed to make it to a neighbouring house to raise the alarm. She was, however, left with permanent brain damage from the shooting and was unable to recollect the incident clearly. Following the shooting, the gunman fled in the Luckett’s car, a brown Rover registration number VAU 875S, having robbed them of a paltry sum of money and food.

At this time, North Yorkshire police were implementing a new computerised indexing database system that could be used force wide, having learned the costly mistakes of badly indexed and non collated information from the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry just a few years previously. This system, a precursor to the modern-day HOLMES system now used as an investigative tool by police, had a powerful search facility. Because of the relatively close-knit geography of the three crimes, information indicated that they could be linked and information from each enquiry was fed into it. Because the crimes spanned three different counties, North Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, the three different forces liaised with each other, and the incident room covering each crime was equipped with a visual display unit that connected via telephone line to the North Yorkshire database, allowing each force to search it. The crimes were officially linked the next day, the 24th June, when ballistics testing proved that the same weapon that had been used to kill PC Haigh had also been used at the scene of the Luckett’s shootings. Police now knew that they were looking for a cold-blooded double murder, but didn’t have anything further to go on, apart from the description given by Mrs Jackson of the man who had broken into her house and robbed her. The description that matched the man who had been seen asleep in the green Citroen.

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Newspaper reports of the shootings of George and Sylvia Luckett

The same day that the three incidents were linked, there was a further incident, this time back in North Yorkshire and it served to highlight just how ruthless and dangerous the man who by now had hundreds of police hunting for him was. Dalby Forest is a large forest situated just 8 miles from Scarborough, compromised of more than 50 square miles of thick trees, dense undergrowth, and bracken. A North Yorkshire Police dog handler, PC Kenneth Oliver, was on a van patrol covering the area when he came across a man who was parked up in a brown Rover car, registration number CYG 344T. Remembering the circulated reports of the Luckett’s stolen vehicle, and being suspicious of the man sat in the vehicle; PC Oliver readied his dog and approached the vehicle. When he was just four feet away from the driver’s window, PC Oliver saw a handgun pointed at him and a shot was fired, hitting him in the face but not seriously injuring him. Retreating, PC Oliver was then shot twice more as the gunman got out of the car, but each bullet only grazed his head and arm respectively. He managed to release his dog and sent it to attack the gunman – who promptly shot the dog, but again only causing a minor wound. This gave PC Oliver the valuable time to get to the safety of a nearby property and to raise the alarm. The gunman disabled the police radio in the van and then drove it a short distance into the forest, before returning to the Rover car and torching it. He then disappeared into the depths of Dalby Forest.

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A typical path through Dalby Forest that shows how thick and remote it is. Hundreds of police searched the area for the elusive “Phantom Of The Forest”

Armed police arrived on the scene rapidly and a search started, but light was fading fast and it had to be abandoned. The forest was surrounded as best as possible throughout the night by armed police, and a massive search began in the morning. It was to continue throughout the weekend of the 25th to 27th June 1982, with hundreds of police officers involved in the search of Dalby Forest for the gunman, who by now had received the moniker “The Phantom Of The Forest” from the press who were reporting on the hunt for him. Local gamekeeper and forestry commission workers who knew the area well assisted in the search, and all campers and holidaymakers were evacuated from the area. Local residents were warned, with some even leaving their homes out of fear. All roads leading out of the forest were manned with police roadblocks, and the forest was blanketed as best as possible in a strong cordon.

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One of the police roadblocks surrounding the Dalby Forest area following the shooting of PC Oliver

A real sense of fear hung over the area – there was a crazed double murderer on the loose, who only by good fortune had not killed four people. It was imperative that he was found and captured before there was any more bloodshed, but police had an exceptional quarry. The killings had covered such a wide area, and “The Phantom” – who was by now Britain’s most wanted man – had managed to avoid capture and slip stealthily through all police cordons. He had shown such skill at evading capture, going to ground and avoiding detection in the areas that police were searching that more than one police officer only half jokingly suggested that he was somehow charmed. Darkness and appalling weather had been on the side of a quarry that could obviously move stealthily and survive living rough.

“The Phantom Of The Forest” was to kill again on the 28th June 1982, and this time his victim again was a serving policeman. Police Sergeant David Thomas Winter and PC Michael Woods were carrying out routine vehicle checks on the A64 road near the village of Old Malton, about 20 miles away from the scene of PC Oliver’s shooting and the focus of the manhunt. Well aware of the manhunt that was concentrated just a few miles away, both officers were increasingly vigilant that day. When a call was received reporting a suspicious looking man, described as being “like a tramp” near a public house on the outskirts of Old Malton, the officers decided to investigate, all the time bearing in mind that this might just be the elusive “Phantom”. Sure enough, the two officers arrived at the location and nearby saw a man matching the description that had been given. He wore a blue woollen hat, khaki jacket, was dirty and dishevelled, unshaven, and had a long walking stick in his right hand and a blue plastic shopping bag in his other. Sgt Winter got out of the car to approach the man, and as he did so, the man pulled a gun from his clothing and began shooting at the officer. Sgt Winter turned and fled up a nearby alley and over a low stone wall, but the gunman followed the officer and shot him three times at point-blank range. Two bullets entered Sgt Winter’s body, whilst one entered his neck. He was killed instantly. The gunman then fled, again into the depths of a nearby forest, whilst PC Woods raised the alarm through the police radio in the vehicle.

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Police Sergeant David Winter. 

Knowing “The Phantom” had struck again, the area was again immediately surrounded by police, many of them armed, and a thorough search of the area was undertaken. All houses, shops and business premises were searched thoroughly, the villages of Malton and Old Malton were sealed and road blocked, and the mass focus and police presence moved the twenty or so miles down to the Old Malton police station, where the Task Force Headquarters were to operate from. But again, “The Phantom” evaded capture, as a torrential downpour hindered the police dog search as they were unable to pick up a scent. By the following day, over 600 officers were involved in hunting for “The Phantom” – with one in six of them armed and each officer involved in the hunt wearing protective body armour. Police helicopters were used; even an RAF Reconnaissance unit with thermal imaging and infra-red cameras was drafted into the hunt. 139 “sightings” of the wanted man were investigated, but each one proved unsuccessful, he was still nowhere to be found. Police established beyond doubt that “The Phantom” had struck again as ballistic testing matched the bullets taken from Sgt Winter’s body to those linked to the previous shootings. “The Phantom” was now a triple murderer, who was prepared to kill in cold blood – who had a hatred of police, and who seemed to be hunting them as much as they were hunting him.

But by this time, in fact just a few hours before the murder of Sgt Winter, police had finally discovered the identity of the gunman they were looking for, Britain’s most wanted man. “The Phantom Of The Forest” now had a name, and a face that could be issued to the public on wanted posters. Police knew his identity – but he still had to be found and stopped.

 

To be continued

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

“Welcome To The Mardi Gra Experience” – Part 3

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Edgar Pearce, the “Mardi Gra” Bomber

It transpired that the arrested men were brothers Ronald and Edgar Pearce, both of whom lived in Chiswick, West London. The two men were taken off to separate police stations for questioning, and individual teams were despatched to both of the men’s houses to begin a search for evidence. Nothing of importance or relevance, bar a stun gun, was found at Ronald Pearce’s house. Edgar Pearce’s house, however, was a different story.

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A police search officer carefully examines a Sainsbury’s bag removed from Pearce’s rear garden

Armed and explosive specialist officers entered Edgar Pearce’s address, number 12 Cambridge Road North, Chiswick, cautiously. After making an initial sweep of the place to ensure that there were no booby traps or rigged incendiary devices, once it was declared safe a thorough more in-depth search began. The entire house was carefully and methodically catalogued and searched, along with the gardens and greenhouse of the property and a rented lock-up garage that was identified as belonging to Edgar Pearce. The official Metropolitan Police inventory of the items removed from Pearce’s house make for chilling reading, and make the reader appreciate just how dangerous and dedicated Pearce, who had confessed almost immediately to being Mardi Gra, actually was. The list of items removed is as follows:

Items Recovered from 12 Cambridge Road North:

  • Two fully constructed, functioning pipe bombs
  • Four pipe bombs in partial stage of construction
  • One fully loaded shotgun device on stand
  • Baseboard to make at least 15 more shotgun devices
  • 272 twelve-gauge cartridges
  • Two Crossbows
  • 12 home-made crossbow bolts
  • One stun gun, disguised with a false aerial and calculator face to look like a mobile phone
  • One loaded revolver complete with 10 modified cartridges
  • 28 brass shell casings and 81 bullet tops awaiting assembly
  • 50 rounds of.762 ammunition
  • Six butane gas cylinder bombs ready constructed
  • Tubing and adhesive
  • 12 Clockwork timers
  • 39 empty video cassette boxes
  • 25 spring-bolt mechanisms ready constructed
  • A large number of 12v batteries
  • Huge selection of tools and materials necessary to construct further devices
  • A large amount of stationery and adhesives similar/identical to ones attached to previous devices

Searching police were in no doubt that any further distributed devices would have resulted in the death of an innocent, and the relief that Mardi Gra had been taken off the streets was felt throughout the Metropolitan Police

Whilst Ronald Pearce maintained a “no comment” stance throughout his many hours of questioning, Edgar Pearce was the polar opposite. He told the police chapter and verse about the planning and execution of his crimes, how he selected his targets and how he chose his devices, often in a rambling disjointed manner as though he was speaking as he thought of things. He seemed proud and very co-operative, but what was common throughout, however, was that Pearce refused to accept that he intended to hurt people. He was defensive and quick to mitigate himself whenever the potential harm or threat that his devices posed was alluded to – it was everybody’s fault bar his. The following is an example taken from Pearce’s first interview with police, where, knowing he had been caught red-handed, he early on admitted to being the Mardi Gra bomber:

“I chose the original six branches due to the access being possible without video surveillance. Those devices sent through the post were just picked out of the phone book. I don’t recall those details except West London. I don’t know why except I had a Yellow Pages. I got the idea for the devices from another TV programme. This involved spring loaded cartridges. If you look at the original ones, they were a slight extension of that idea. I have handled guns but I was able to work out the construction for myself. It was very simplistic…I knew this would end up like a firework and not much force would result. I didn’t have any intention to injure anyone.

I tested the devices at home. No damage was caused. I primed the cartridge to test the alignment. I didn’t detonate a live cartridge. Regarding people opening the mail which I sent, I suppose I wanted the damage to be as minimal as possible. Six branches received devices with a demand letter. I didn’t think the response was valid. It was an extortion attempt. I didn’t pursue it then because they invited me to meet up and collect a bag of money. I didn’t want to do this as I had already suggested a credit card plan which has never changed. Ten cards required International access. I originally asked for it to go in a video magazine. I was looking for a low circulation so that the inserts could be put in”

                                                                                                   – Edgar Pearce (“Mardi Gra”)

What on earth occurs in a person’s life to drive them to such actions? Who was Edgar Pearce, and why had he become “Mardi Gra”?

Edgar Eugene Pearce came into the world on 07 August 1937, the middle child of Edgar and Constance Pearce. Edgar was a bright child who showed exceptional aptitude in school, and at age eleven was sent to Nelson House, an Oxford prep school. Although fees were expensive there and the cost of sending Edgar there put large financial strain upon the family, they felt it worthwhile as he was their hopes for the Pearce family name to be known outside the working class community in East London that they lived in. But just three years later, Pearce had to leave as his family could no longer afford to send him here. Regardless, he gained a respectable education from the Norlington Boys Road School he then attended, and went on to study advertising at Charing Cross Polytechnic upon leaving.

In 1961 at age 24, Pearce married a girl four years his junior, Maureen Fitzgerald. By all accounts the couple were happy, Pearce was doing well in his chosen career of advertising, and the couple had moved to a pleasant house in East Sheen, South-West London. But by 1971, Pearce had grown bored with life as an advertising executive, and he and Maureen emigrated to South Africa. A year later, Maureen gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Nicola. But the move to South Africa wasn’t the new life Pearce had expected it to be. He grew to hate the apartheid system and was also worried by the political situation that threatened to flare up, as the black majority became ever more vocal in their demands for equal rights, and the minority white government waged a war of oppression against them. Finally, by 1976, the Pearce family returned to the UK.

In a new venture, Pearce decided to completely re-invent himself. Ever a keen cook, he and Maureen bought a small bistro in Hayling Island, Hampshire, called Jeanne’s Cuisine. But this venture was not a success – Pearce displayed talents that nobody there wanted or welcomed, and custom soon died away, with many people put off by Pearce’s “fancy” cooking. Nobody wanted the exotic dishes he prepared, and as a result, in what was to become a lifelong pattern, Pearce began to behave erratically and to drink heavily. He was reported as dressing like the stereotypical French onion seller, and at least on one occasion was said to have fired a loaded shotgun into the ceiling of the restaurant during a rare evening when the restaurant was full of customers. By the early 1980’s, the bank that had been funnelling money into the bistro to keep it afloat had refused lending any more, and when Maureen was diagnosed with cancer in 1982, Pearce was forced to sell the business.

The bank that had refused his pleas for a financial lifeline was Barclays.

The family moved back to London following this failure, and were allocated a council property at 12 Cambridge Road North, Chiswick. Maureen was to make a recovery from her cancer, and Pearce re-invented himself yet again, this time as a property developer. He was not a success at this either, although he managed to scrape together a meagre living. But the heavy drinking and the brooding about his many failures in life continued, and by 1992 Maureen could stand it no longer. She left the house and Pearce, and the couple separated after thirty years of marriage. Although separated, they remained on friendly terms and saw each other regularly, right up to his arrest. It transpired later that Pearce would often post devices on his way to visit Maureen – who lived in south east London. A loner with few if any friends, Pearce instead spent his time between visiting his brother Ronald, his estranged wife Maureen, his local pub, or brooding in front of the television.

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12 Cambridge Road North, Chiswick – the lair of the Mardi Gra Bomber

To support himself, Pearce began to illegally sublet the upstairs rooms in his council property. He lived solely in the ground floor front room, and having tenants earned Pearce between £600 to £750 per month, taking care of his rent, groceries and most importantly, funded his drinking. This was already at staggering levels, with Pearce drinking numerous bottles of red wine each day, topped up with daytimes spent in the pub or at least a dozen cans of cheap, strong lager. He would also regularly take trips to France in his car and would arrive back with the vehicle so laden with boxes of red wine that the axles were in danger of giving way. Box after box was then stacked up in the hall. This cycle of destructive heavy drinking continued, until in August 1992, Pearce was found collapsed in the street and suffered a fit in the ambulance taking him to hospital. He suffered a further fit once he had been admitted, and doctors told him that he had developed epilepsy and suffered brain damage as a result of these fits, plus his lifestyle. It was also suspected that he had suffered a mild stroke that had caused his fall. After surgery to repair a severely broken shoulder that he had received in his fall, Pearce was released from hospital a changed man. But not changed for the better.

He recovered physically to an extent from his injuries, but his behaviour became increasingly stranger. Pearce began to obsessively shop – with his choice of supermarket being Sainsbury’s, which he was described as being obsessive over. His cupboards and fridge were stocked full with Sainsbury’s groceries and cleaning products – yet the house was often in a state of near squalor. His tenants began to notice that Pearce would rise each day at 6am, cook a full roast dinner of exotic foods such as beef, lamb, venison and quail for breakfast, all the while washed down with red wine. He would inevitably be drunk at any time of the day, lived in near squalor, and was often lecherous and abusive to some of his female tenants. He also behaved abusively to his neighbours, and was generally disliked by the majority of people, who he considered himself a cut above. One neighbour was later to tell how Pearce deliberately flooded her flat on one occasion, gave her teenage son a live bullet, and placed piles of shotgun cartridges on her doorstep. Her husband was later to assault Pearce for this, leaving him needing hospital treatment for a fractured jaw. After his arrest, several of Pearce’s tenants were later to testify to his bizarre behaviour and cold hearted nature:

“To him, everyone was worthless, almost beneath him. He was the type of man who wouldn’t bat an eyelid if one of his explosions wiped out an entire family. He was as cold as a reptile, totally and utterly concerned about the welfare of anyone else. But he surpassed even himself when talking about his brother in law John, who was dying of stomach cancer. He said, “That man’s always whinging. Why doesn’t he just get on with it?” – Graham Hirst (Pearce’s former lodger)

By 1994, this downward spiral had continued and Pearce was still brooding away in his ground floor room. He was still suffering pain from the shoulder that he had badly broken two years before, and was topping himself up with copious amounts of painkillers and alcohol, and lived constantly in front of the television. Then one day, he saw a documentary about a man named Rodney Witchelo. Witchelo is infamous throughout the annals of UK crime as being the Heinz Baby food blackmailer – who in the 1980’s contaminated several jars of pet and baby food with razor blades and caustic soda and replaced them on supermarket shelves in an attempt to extort money from the manufacturer, Heinz. Witchelo was caught and imprisoned for 17 years in 1990 for his crimes as he was captured when he attempted to physically recover the money that he had so desperately craved. This made Pearce sit up and take notice in fascination, and a plan began to formulate in his mind about how he could strike back at the society that he considered had dealt him a bad hand. He believed he could do better than Witchelo, that his time for greatness had arrived. The “Reservoir Dogs” style calling card stemmed from Pearce’s advertising background – and the name “Mardi Gra” was chosen because it is the French translation of “Fat Tuesday”, and it had been a Tuesday when Pearce had formulated the idea for his extortion campaign.

This then, was the genesis of the Mardi Gra bomber.

Pearce admitted that he had tinkered with clocks and their working parts to experiment if the workings could be used in a device. An experienced and capable handyman despite his alcoholism, Pearce constructed each of the devices at home by himself – the majority in a greenhouse in his back garden. He was often seen in there for hours on end, quite late into the night.

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Pearce’s workbench in the “bomb factory”

A neighbour, William Branson recalled:

“We would often see him sitting in his greenhouse late at night. I just presumed he wanted to get away from it all, and maybe had a TV in there or something.”
Each type of device was tested on a remote plot of land nearby during Mardi Gra’s periods of inactivity. Each down period was Pearce refining his strategy, constantly practising with different devices and testing them to seek improvements. He was patient and cautious – but no less determined and focused upon his campaign. It was practices like this that convinced police that this was in no way a PR exercise or a “joke” that went too far – as was later claimed – and that Pearce had a calculating rather than confused mind. For example, Pearce was to admit that he had deliberately targeted his local pub, the Crown and Anchor in Chiswick, because he rightly suspected that the press were withholding news of his campaign and he wanted to ensure his devices were being successfully delivered. By sending a device there and then going into the pub for a drink afterwards, he could check as to whether his devices were being successfully delivered by thinking that if so, the bomb would be the predominant if not sole topic of conversation in the pub amongst staff and customers.  He was not wrong.

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Pearce’s local pub, the target of a Mardi Gra attack

News of the Pearce brother’s arrests had leaked to the media within 24 hours and 12 Cambridge Road North was soon under siege from reporters. A factual, but extremely brief statement was issued by Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve confirming nothing more than the brother’s names and ages, and a scant few details of the operation that had led to their arrest. The press was left to research the brothers lives for their headlines and articles, whilst the following day both Edgar and Ronald were charged on the following counts:

  1. Conspiracy to blackmail Barclays Bank
  2. Conspiracy to blackmail Sainsbury’s
  3. Conspiracy to possess firearms with intent to endanger life

At 10:00am on the morning of Friday 30th April 1998, the Pearce brothers appeared in a 30-minute hearing at Horseferry Road Magistrates Court in central London. Both brothers were remanded in custody awaiting trial, and for nearly a year were held on remand as Category A prisoners, Edgar at HMP Belmarsh in south-east London and Ronald at HMP High Down in Surrey. During this time, they made several interim court appearances where a total of twenty charges relating to the Mardi Gra campaign were listed against them. A trial date was set to begin at the Old Bailey on February 5th 1999, where the brothers were expected to enter a guilty plea. Edgar was expected to put forward the mitigating circumstances of diminished responsibility due to a result of his 1992 collapse and subsequent epilepsy/suspected stroke. By the time the morning of 5th February arrived, the Pearce brothers were facing a total of twenty charges. Edgar faced all twenty charges:

  • nine charges of blackmail against Sainsbury’s and Barclays Bank
  • three charges of causing Actual Bodily Harm
  • one charge of wounding with intent
  • one charge of causing an explosion
  • one charge of intending to cause an explosion
  • one charge of possessing explosives
  • two charges of illegally possessing prohibited weapons
  • one charge of illegally possessing an “improvised explosive device” with intent to commit blackmail
  • one charge of illegally possessing an “improvised explosive device” with intent to endanger life

Ronald was jointly charged with nine of these offences:

  • four charges of blackmail against Sainsbury’s
  • one charge of causing Actual Bodily Harm
  • one charge of illegally possessing an “improvised explosive device” with intent to endanger life
  • one charge of wounding with intent
  • one charge of possessing a prohibited weapon
  • one charge of possessing explosives

When each charge was read out, however, a “Not Guilty” plea was entered by both brothers. A trial date was set then for April 7th 1999.

On April 7th 1999, when each charge was again read out to Edgar Pearce, he pleaded “Guilty” to each. Ronald Pearce pleaded guilty to possession of a stun gun – but not guilty to the remaining charges he faced. Edgar had steadfast refused to discuss the extent of Ronald’s involvement, and after lengthy consideration, no evidence was offered on the remaining charges against him, although one charge of conspiracy to blackmail Sainsbury’s was ordered to lie on file. Ronald was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment for possession of the stun gun, but as he had served this already on remand, was from that moment a free man. He was released, and Edgar was returned to HMP Belmarsh to await sentencing.

On Thursday 14th April, Edgar Pearce again stood in front of Mr Justice Hyam in Court Number 1 at the Old Bailey, this time to await his fate. Medical professionals, employed by Pearce’s counsel, had argued that Pearce was guilty based on the grounds of diminished responsibility as a result of a combination of hypertension, heavy alcohol use, a bleed on the brain due to his 1992 collapse, and bizarrely, that the purpose of his action was to see if he could pull off a successful PR campaign!! Mr Justice Hyam was having none of this, however, and found no sort of defence based upon diminished responsibility to have any valid grounds. He believed prison rather than hospitalisation was more suitable and reflected this in summing up, telling Pearce:

“These offences were committed by you in the course of a campaign of extortion. Your apparent intention was to obtain a large amount of money, first from Barclays Bank and then from Sainsbury’s. Your plan was to terrorise the public, particularly staff and customers of Barclays and Sainsbury’s by threats and by the planting of weapons designed to cause physical injury. Some of the devices which you used had the potential to cause death to anyone who was within range. By good fortune alone, these devices did not kill anyone. Your motivations were greed and an insatiable appetite for notoriety. These offences were so serious that only a very substantial custodial sentence can be justified. It is also necessary to impose exemplary sentences to deter others who might be minded to offend as you have done” – Mr Justice Hyam

Pearce received prison sentences totalling 224 years, but as these were set to run concurrently he would only serve the length of the maximum sentence, which was 21 years in total. “Mardi Gra” remained impassive as he was sentenced, having been long expecting it, and he was taken back to HMP Belmarsh to begin his prison sentence. He served many years in obscurity, rarely if ever mentioned in the headlines, then was released. Edgar Pearce is nearly 80 years old now, and although he is no longer in prison, is in very poor health and lives quietly at an undisclosed location. Again alone.

The campaign of the Mardi Gra Bomber had cost dearly. Barclays had had to pay an extra £140,000 in additional security as a result, and Sainsbury’s were an estimated £640,000 down in lost business. Pearce had gained just £1,500 from his whole campaign – and held this for all of 30 minutes. He never got to spend a single penny – and lost more than a decade of his life behind bars for a campaign that though largely unsuccessful, was driven by a determined and cold mind. The detective who led the hunt for Mardi Gra said this after Pearce was sentenced:

“This was a callous, calculating individual who was wholly indifferent to the possibility that the devices might cause death or serious injuries. It is a miracle no one was killed.”- Det Supt Jeff Rees

To this day, police use tactics learned from the Mardi Gra investigation and operation to capture him as part of a training exercise teaching police how to combat any extortion threats that may be received.

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

“Welcome To The Mardi Gra Experience” – Part 2

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Eltham High Street after one of Mardi Gra’s attacks

It was to be December 17th 1996 before Mardi Gra surfaced again, and once again with a new tactic. A letter arrived at the Daily Mail offices containing a threat that unless Sainsbury’s acknowledged that he was back and paid the ransom he demanded, Mardi Gra would begin shooting its customers with an improvised crossbow device, an example of which he detailed in the letter. It would be mounted inside a large, reinforced Sainsbury’s bag and would fire through a prepared slit in the side after being activated by a fishing line attached to the trigger. This could be operated in a crowd of people, and Mardi Gra himself could escape with ease and anonymity. There was also a photograph of a lone female shopper enclosed, ominously marked with a label marked “targeted for action”. Police believed that this threat was a bluff however, as it would require Mardi Gra to operate in person at the moment of impact, a world away from the remoteness and safety of his distance and anonymity. As a result, his bluff was called and under request from SO13, the Daily Mail did not publish the photograph as requested. A further letter followed on January 7th 1997, which now contained two photographs, again of lone female shoppers  – and a home-made crossbow bolt. This demand was again ignored – and following this, Mardi Gra again disappeared into the woodwork.

This was to be his longest gap – and also the precursor for his deadliest, but thankfully final phase.

While Mardi Gra had gone to ground, Operation Heath continued in earnest, and the Metropolitan Police utilised two different types of profile in hunting for Mardi Gra. One was a psychological profile delivered by Professor Bill Tafoya, who had been the lead profiler of the FBI’s Unabomber Task Force. Tafoya was to produce a profile that was to prove ultimately very close to the mark. He wrote that the reason for targeting Barclays and Sainsbury’s could have been as simple a reason as having been insulted by a member of staff, buying soiled goods, or having a credit card application refused. He claimed that the bomber would be male, middle-aged, of average intelligence, would have a boring or menial job and would be known as someone who was known to harbour grudges. He would feel “undervalued”, would live in London and would be a loner, although possibly married in the past. Examining the devices sent by Mardi Gra, and in what was a deliberate ploy to draw out a response from him by insulting him, Tafoya suggested that the devices were “unsophisticated”, highlighting his constant use of readily available ammunition and everyday items, and that “if Mardi Gra had the intellectual capacity to make more complex bombs, he would have done so by now”.

The other profile utilised by the Met, and again one that was to prove accurate, was a geographical one. Using the maxim that a criminal strikes within defined routines, or to put it more simply, where you live defines the parameters in which you act, the details of Mardi Gra’s existing 24 attacks were entered into a US prototype profiling software called Orion. It already was clear to investigators that there was an existing clear pattern of attacks, which the majority occurred in the West and the South-East of London. The profile created by the Orion software highlighted a peak over the W4 district of the city, specifically Chiswick. This again was to later prove uncannily accurate. But frustratingly, although it was a focal point, it did not serve to narrow down the field of suspects except to confirm to police that Mardi Gra was local to the West London area.

So the hunt continued – and then Mardi Gra returned after 11 months.

On Saturday November 15th 1997, three branches of Sainsbury’s were targeted in a return to Mardi Gra’s preferred method of device: the video case explosive. Copies of the video case of the film “GRAND CANYON” were left in abandoned bags of groceries in the Sainsbury’s stores in Greenford, West Ealing and South Ruislip. All three were devices of the shotgun cartridge type, designed to fire pellets into the face or body of the person opening them. But, as investigators were becoming used to seeing from Mardi Gra, there were modifications. The barrels had been reinforced and angled, the shot was better packed, and the method of disposal showed a newer, ingenious twist: Mardi Gra had got customers to take the devices into the stores at random. Each video had attached a blue sticker with the following message:

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Mardi Gra placed stickers like these on each of the video case devices

Perhaps realising that by physically leaving items instead of posting them out, Mardi Gra ran the risk of being captured on CCTV. By someone else taking the device into its intended target, Mardi Gra was ensuring that as much distance as possible between capture and himself was placed.

And then Mardi Gra followed with a double attack just ten days later, in yet ANOTHER refinement of his MO. Again the video cassette devices were used, but this time the message on the stickers contained a red dot, with a small sticker claiming:

ANY VIDEO BEARING A RED DOT HAS BEEN CLEARED BY SAINSBURY’S SECURITY STAFF

The first was found on the driveway of an empty house in Chislehurst, Kent, about 500 yards from the local Sainsbury’s. It had exploded itself, and chillingly, had been left opposite a primary school. An hour later, a customer to Sainsbury’s Burnt Ash store in Lee Green handed in a device that had been left outside in a bag of shopping. SO13 quickly arrived and disarmed the device. Eleven days later, on 06 December 1997, a 73-year-old lady named Joan Kane who had caught a bus outside the Sainsbury’s in West Ealing arrived home with her shopping to discover that she had somehow picked up an extra shopping bag. She fished out a Mardi Gra device and began to innocently examine it, and was only saved with the timely intervention of a visiting neighbour, who recognised the danger instantly. Sadly, just 10 weeks later, Joan died very suddenly from an aggressive form of leukaemia. Her last weeks were spent in fear and suffering what must have been horrific flashbacks of how close she had come to serious injury, or even death. Her peace of mind was destroyed and she became a shell of her former self due to her finding the device, a fact that her doctors were in no doubt accelerated her condition.

A few days before Christmas 1997, a change in police strategy had been decided upon, and a decision had been made to pay Mardi Gra, hoping to catch him in the act of receiving his money. Working on the theory that Mardi Gra would next strike again within his chosen ground of West or South-east London, a decision was made to blanket every Sainsbury’s store in each area with covert surveillance, and hope that they would get lucky and catch him planting a device. It was a mammoth task and one that seemed to have a slim chance of succeeding, but hunting him was getting nowhere. They opted to post communication agreeing to his latest demands, which had been £10,000 per day unlimited. Promotional cards, as of the type Mardi Gra had first demanded in his initial communication three years before, were to be made and given away with Exchange & Mart classified advertising magazine. Then, using a PIN number known only to Mardi Gra, a maximum of ten could be used as cash cards. On December 27th 1997, the following message from police appeared in the Daily Telegraph personal column:

Work will be completed and ready for London circulation on Thursday 26th March 1998. This is the earliest possible date. Hope it meets your schedule. G

Mardi Gra ignored this, but responded by planting bombs in Sainsbury’s Chiswick High Road on January 16th 1998, followed by a device left at the beginning of February at what transpired later to have been the same bus stop that Joan Kane had picked up her surplus shopping bag. The former was found and deactivated, the latter exploded, albeit luckily before it had been collected by anyone. A week later, a member of the public who had found a bag of shopping left by a cash point nearby to a Sainsbury’s in Forest Hill, south-east London, had a lucky escape when the bag he had placed onto the passenger seat of his car suddenly detonated as he was driving down the A2. This was followed on March 4th 1998 by another “shotgun” type device that injured a 17-year-old shop worker quite seriously, and was again left at the Forest Hill store.

It transpired that the next attack, the Mardi Gra Bomber’s 36th attack, was to be his final one.

On Eltham High Street, on 17th March 1998, Mardi Gra was finally caught on CCTV planting a device just yards away from the entrance of the Sainsbury’s store. In 9 seconds of black and white footage, a man wearing a striped anorak and flat cap is seen striding across Eltham High Street carrying a black bin bag in his gloved right hand. A still from the footage is shown here:

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Mardi Gra is captured on CCTV for the first time planting a device. It exploded just 5 minutes later.

At 11:59am, Mardi Gra is seen to place the bag against the wall of the Sainsbury’s and alter it, so the barrel of the device inside the bag pointed towards an adjacent bus stop. He then walks off to the left of the camera. Just five minutes pass, during which many pedestrians pass through the projected firing line. The last one just four seconds before the device detonated at 12:04pm. Frustratingly, although this was as close as police had ever come to Mardi Gra – the footage did not show his face. He had not moved his head, even as he had crossed the busy high street. After some decision-making, it was decided not to release this clip to the media. It could make Mardi Gra go to ground again, and although risky, it was thought this a better strategy than release it and make him ditch the recognisable clothing that he wore.

But perhaps because of this, and perhaps the Home Office had finally realised the need to do whatever it took to catch Mardi Gra – regardless of cost – authorisation for what was to become Britain’s biggest ever covert surveillance operation was granted. A special bank account containing £20,000 was opened and the following message was placed in the Daily Telegraph personal column.

Everything on schedule. Arrangements commence 8.am 23.4.98. We agree on new notified number. No change possible. Thank you. The number remains in place until 8.am 30.4.98 for joining. Then only the daily allowance for each of the ten items remains. This allowance is unchangeable because of the system. Any difficulties do not hesitate to write. May be in touch before 23.4.98. G

On 23rd April, the issue of Exchange & Mart containing the “promotional” cards hit the shelves, and the waiting game started. It has, however, never been revealed how this PIN number was passed to Mardi Gra for reasons of operational security. Hundreds of officers watched the areas that the Orion software had identified in West and South-East London, spreading manpower between as many cashpoints in  the area that they could monitor, and Sainsbury’s stores in case Mardi Gra would plant further devices. The cashpoint computers had been pre-programmed to alert a New Scotland Yard control room computer as soon as the secret PIN number was used. They were also programmed to slightly delay any transactions using this PIN number, and by limiting the amount Mardi Gra could withdraw each transaction, it would force him to use cashpoints more often – giving surveillance the chance of getting closer to him. Although Mardi Gra could use universal non-bank specific cash points, if any sort of geographical pattern was noticed then the locations could be actively tracked, and Mardi Gra could be caught.

At 6:14pm on April 28th 1998, the alarm sounded at New Scotland Yard. Mardi Gra had removed money from a cashpoint in Ealing – although the machine used was one of the ones that was not under surveillance. Whilst police waited anxiously to see if Mardi Gra would try again at a different machine, the minutes ticked by. After a number of minutes, the alarm sounded again – this time from a cashpoint just a mile away from the first withdrawal, on the Uxbridge Road in West Ealing. This was one of the points under surveillance – and surveilling officers were soon reporting back that they had a visual on two men who were drawing attention to themselves due to their strange attire and how inconspicuous they were. Officers were ordered to observe the suspects and report back. They began to make a video recording of the two men, stills of which are reproduced here. The footage was later leaked to the BBC Newsnight programme:

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Mardi Gra is caught on police surveillance video using the cashpoint

Both men were wearing identical calf length fawn coloured raincoats, beige trousers, gloves, wigs and dark glasses. One was wearing a checked cap pulled far down across his head, the other a flat white cap. The man in the flat white cap was also carrying an A4 clipboard with a mirror affixed to the back of it.

 

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Mardi Gra and accomplice 

Both men then got into a dark red Vauxhall Senator car and drove off. At 6:39pm, the car – which was being tailed by a second police surveillance team that had arrived – pulled up at the junction of Bridge Street and Whitton High Street, and parked on double yellow lines. Coincidentally, this was almost exactly opposite the business premises that had been the site of Mardi Gra’s 14th attack. Both men got out of the vehicle and made their way to a cashpoint a bit further down the road. The one holding the clipboard lowered it mirror side down onto the machine and began pressing numbers – with every action being relayed by radio to the investigating team monitoring at New Scotland Yard. The pair spent two minutes at the cashpoint – with the computer back at the Yard confirming that this cashpoint was being used at that exact time by the PIN number that had been exclusively passed to Mardi Gra. The pair had removed two withdrawals of £250 each time, and had then turned and walked back towards the car, the man with the clipboard holding it in front of his face as he walked away.

With confirmation given via what he had seen over the computer, and what the surveillance team had told him, Detective Chief Superintendent Jeff Rees gave the order to move in and arrest the pair. With public safety in mind, this was to be done once the pair were in the vehicle. As soon as they were in the car, undercover officers in vehicles screeched to a halt and boxed in the Vauxhall Senator. The doors were ripped open and both men were pulled out and placed face down on the ground. At 6:54pm, both men heard the following:

“You are under arrest for demanding money with menaces, and also for firearms offences”

 

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Whitton High Street – the scene of Mardi Gra’s capture

During the next 30 minutes, both men and the vehicle were thoroughly and meticulously searched. The wigs, glasses and hats were removed to reveal two middle-aged men, both of whom looked embarrassed and crushed that they had been caught. The man in the checked hat gave his name as Ronald Pearce, and had nothing of suspicion on his person barring his odd disguises. The man in the white flat cap, the man who had pressed the buttons at the cashpoint and who was carrying the “anti-surveillance” clipboard, was a different story. In the pockets of his mac, officers found meticulous reconnaissance notes detailing the locations of cash machines that were unobserved by CCTV, and route plans of roads to and from each that were also unobserved by CCTV. There was also found £1,500 in cash, and a lead-lined wallet that contained ten of the promotional cards that had been given away with Exchange & Mart. There was also a scrap of paper with a PIN number on it – the same PIN that was only known to police, and Mardi Gra. When asked his name, he replied, “Edgar Pierce”.

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The moment of Mardi Gra’s capture

 

Mardi Gra had been caught.

 

 

 

 

 

To be continued

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

 

“Welcome to The Mardi Gra Experience” – Part 1

The terror began on December 6th 1994. Six individual parcels, each one about the size of a book and wrapped in blue Christmas wrapping paper with gold stars on it were delivered to six different branches of Barclays Bank in London. The address on each parcel had been carefully typed on an old-fashioned typewriter, cut out and taped to each package, and each package had been sent first class, with the stamp being franked as being sorted at 5:13pm on December 5th. In the bottom left hand corner of each parcel was stuck a photocopied picture of four men wearing black suits and sunglasses, in a scene that looked like a mock up still from the film Reservoir Dogs. On the photocopy was the caption:

WELCOME TO THE MARDI GRA EXPERIENCE

A part-time clerk working at the Hampstead High Street Branch, Bali Hari, recieved burns to her arms and hands when a Christmas present delivered with that morning’s post had exploded as she opened it. Just four minutes later, a few miles away in the Ladbroke Grove branch, a clerk named Martin Grimsdale was temporary deafened when one of the parcels exploded as it was opened. Quick thinking staff raised the alarm and called each branch in an attempt to halt the opening of the morning post. The four other parcels that had been sent were recovered at different branches across West London, and the packages were examined.

The “bombs” were found to have been concealed inside empty double video cases, with a larger photocopy of the “Mardi Gra” logo placed in the sleeve. Clearly home made, they consisted of a spring loaded bolt with a sharp nail fixed to one end. Fastened onto the end of this was a shotgun cartridge that had been primed with firework gunpowder and loosely packed with ball bearings. Because they had been so loosely packed, they had not exploded outwards as the bomber had intended. But a forensic expert who examined them was to later say that if these cartridges had been packed properly, although home made and basic, each device could easily have killed the targets.

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One of the initial six “Mardi Gra” packages

SO13 of the Metropolitan Police were tasked with investigating the bombings, and “Operation Heath” quickly ruled out any links to any mainstream terrorist organisation being involved: the devices were too crude, the target was unlikely, and as one detective on the case later stated,

“The target was wrong, the technology of the device was wrong. It was real kitchen table stuff”

The first line of enquiry to be undertaken by investigators was to try and source the devices components, and to examine the mechanics of how the device had been made. Perhaps the bomber was someone with a mechanical or engineering background – in which case it may make the task of narrowing down the field of suspects easier. Another team concurrently combed Barclays personnel files and customer complaint files, working on the premise that when a commercial organisation is attacked, the most likely culprit is either a disgruntled customer or current or ex member of staff with a grievance. Police had decided that this was the beginning of an extortion campaign, but they had had no word from the bomber about any ideology behind the attacks, or any possible ransom.

Just two days later, that was to change.

On December 8th 1994, a typewritten letter, containing the now infamous logo on its envelope, was received by police. The letter demanded £2,000 per day, 365 days a year, a detailed method of communication back and forth, and how to pay the ransom. Barclays were to produce promotional, dummy looking Barclaycards, and give them away with magazines. But they were actually able to be used as a cashcard. The bomber would have a PIN number that could activate the cards, and this was to be given to him through a coded message in the personal column of the Daily Telegraph newspaper, no later than December 10th. Chillingly, the letter warned:

“In the event of a negative response, all Barclays staff will be regarded as dispensable targets”

The letter was signed Mardine Graham. The “Mardi Gra” bomber had played his opening hand.

As is commonplace with extortion attempts, a strict news blackout was imposed, hoping that lack of knowledge about the hunt for him may make the bomber make a mistake or lull him into a false sense of security. But it was important to try to establish a line of communication with him, so police co-operated and placed this advert in the Daily Express personals column on December 10th.

O.K. MARDINE GRAHAM, sorry was late, I was confused. Please explain. Richard

They heard nothing. Mardi Gra never replied, and had gone to ground. In the absence of any further communication, detectives worked through their enormous list of disgruntled customers, employees and ex employees with grievances, looking for a suspect. But this mammoth task led to nothing. It was to be over five months before Mardi Gra was heard from again.

On May 15th 1995, Barclays Bank head office in Northampton received a second demand letter from Mardi Gra, in which he detailed a new approach to his campaign. Rather than attack banks directly, Mardi Gra had now decided to select random people. There was an added bonus to this, it spread the bombing campaign whilst still tightening the screw on Barclays. It would also massively waste police time as they would be forced to do a detailed check on victims, searching for any link between them, however tenuous. Every device sent was accompanied by some form of reference to Barclays Bank, usually a piece of paper bearing the slogan, “With the Compliments of Barclaycard”

More bombs were then sent, one to an address in Peterborough which arrived on 19th May. The next arrived at a shop in Dymchurch, Kent, on 1st June. On 9th June, the Crown and Anchor pub in Chiswick received a package – the only one of the three to explode, although nobody was seriously hurt. Three more, again sent to random people, were despatched over a two week period following this. The first however, was sent to Barclays head office and consisted of a rifle bullet surrounded by gunpowder and lead pellets, packed inside a plastic bottle. This device was sent deactivated, however, as it did not contain a  firing pin.

This set a pattern that would continue into early 1996. There would be a flurry of activity from Mardi Gra – he would send devices out in succession to random private addresses, with the targets scattered around a wide area with no discernible pattern. He also experimented with different disguises for his bombs – they were sent disguised as rolled up copies of magazines, as hollowed out books, or in his classic wrapped present guise. He would switch tactics from using his favoured parcel type bomb, to then use a crude and homemade anti-personnel nail bomb designed to explode into someone’s face, to then use a briefcase with a helium gas cylinder that had been emptied and refilled with a petrol based gas. He attacked businesses, left devices in telephone boxes, or on the pavement near Barclays premises, and all within wide ranging locations that had no discernible pattern to them. What was common, however, was the “With the Compliments of Barclaycard” message that was placed with each. The bombs, although still crude, started to become bolder and to have more lethal potential, and police were more fearful that ever that someone would be soon be killed by a “Mardi Gra” device.  Following the last gas cylinder device, which exploded outside a Barclays branch in Eltham, Mardi Gra again went quiet for two months.

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A police replica of one of Mardi Gra’s devices

Since the beginning of Mardi Gra’s campaign, police and Barclays senior management had adopted the strategy of a media blackout to prevent mass panic and any possible copycat attacks or threats. In the two months of quiet, the bomber had pondered how best he could exert pressure on Barclays to cave into his demands, and so decided to self-publicise his campaign. On April 3rd 1996, the offices of the Daily Mail newspaper received a long rambling letter from Mardi Gra himself, detailing his demands, the 25 devices that had been planted up to that point – including pictures of a prototype “new” device – and a repeated threat to the welfare of Barclays customers and staff in public, at work or even at home if an acknowledgement was not published within the Mail within a seven day time limit.

This forced the hand of police and Barclays, and they had no choice but to go public. At a packed press conference, Detective Superintendent John Beadle tried to play down the perceived threat. He was to tell the assembled media:

“I must stress that the real threat to the public is low. The fear of crime is much greater than the reality…….My advice is to report anything suspicious to the police, but the public should carry on in their normal daily lives.”

The media response to this was electric. Double page newspaper features and television reports were everywhere, describing Mardi Gra’s devices, their potential for harm and their construction, and the campaign and communication that police and Barclays had received from the bomber to date. The bomber’s motives were examined, and “celebrity” figures such as former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, John Stalker, contributed to sensationalist newspaper articles in which the bomber was profiled and the general public were invited to become armchair detectives to identify “Mardi Gra”.

Just over two weeks after his letter to the Daily Mail, Mardi Gra struck again. On April 20th 1996, a black plastic bin liner containing a device was placed in an alleyway that was adjacent to the Ealing Broadway branch of Barclays in West London. At exactly 3:00pm, it exploded. For the first time since the initial devices had been sent nearly 18 months before, Mardi Gra had caused real harm. Three people who were stood in close proximity to the device were peppered with shotgun pellets that were travelling at over 300 feet per second, and required hospitalisation to tend to their wounds, which although serious were not life threatening. This brought this part of West London to a standstill that day – TTCE remembers this well because as a young RAF serviceman on his way back to camp that day after visiting home for the weekend, he was caught up and delayed for hours whilst travelling through London as a result of this Mardi Gra attack.

When the remnants of the device were examined by forensics, it was discovered that this was the “new” device that Mardi Gra had detailed in his letter to the Daily Mail. It was more an updated version of the classic video case device that Mardi Gra had first used, but now contained a single home- made barrel acting as a compression chamber. This then gave the shot in the Winchester clay pigeon cartridge contained within more force and a better general direction. This was an alarming escalation, and of course the media fed upon this. The newspaper reports and television appeals continued.

Barclays Bank chairman at the time, Andrew Buxton, was interviewed on a BBC news television broadcast just after this latest attack, and he revealed that Barclays were preparing to take the most drastic steps available to protect itself, its staff and customers. He revealed that this would even mean closing branches down if this was deemed a necessary precaution. This revelation was to change the course of the investigation and provide a major hurdle to Operation Heath – because Mardi Gra simply decided to stop again. It was later revealed that he had not simply given up his blackmail campaign – but he had decided to muddy the waters by changing targets. Or rather, focusing also upon an additional one.

In the mid 1990’s as is still the case now, UK High Street supermarkets were locked in a war for custom and profit. The coveted premier spot had been held by Sainsbury’s for many years – but in 1995 they were toppled by an arch-rival and one of the canonical “big four” supermarkets in the UK, Tesco. This made widespread news and was all over the press and television. And somebody took note, because on 10th July 1996, the following letter arrived at the Sainsbury’s head office in Central London:

Welcome to the Mardi Gra Experience……The police will be able to fill in the general details of the deal as we are almost old chums……You have seven days to respond followed by a death or glory outcome. Now there’s a deal that’s a boardroom winner!

The letter went on to explain that Mardi Gra had not called amnesty on his campaign against Barclays – they would be his focus again at some stage. Operation Heath now had the unenviable task of majorly beginning the enquiry again – it had been a daunting enough task looking through the list of possible persons of interest that they had gained from Barclays. Now they had to look again from the beginning of the list to see if any of the people they had already cross- checked had a connection to Sainsbury’s as well as Barclays – all the while bearing in mind that there may be no connection at all, and that Mardi Gra had just chosen two of the most famous UK established names at random to target. Police responded – again using Mardi Gra’s chosen form of communication of the personal columns – but this time using the Daily Mail newspaper. The response is reproduced here:

MARDI GRA We are ready to help and give value. Contact us on the verification number.

Nothing. Mardi Gra had gone to ground again.

 

To be continued.

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

The Beast Of Shepherd’s Bush – Part 2

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David Lashley – “The Beast Of Shepherd’s Bush”

David Lashley had been born on September 30th 1939 in St Lawrence, Barbados. He had left school aged 13 in 1953 and went into apprenticeship as a car sprayer, before transferring to the London factory of the Rootes company that he worked for. Lashley boarded with an aunt who lived in Southall, West London, before meeting a pregnant 19 year old girl called Jean in the early 1960’s. By all accounts, Lashley was a law abiding citizen and was devoted to Jean, and the couple set up home together soon after the birth of her son. But by 1962, the couple had had a daughter, Sandra, and Lashley began to change. He once beat Jean so badly she suffered three broken ribs. Yet he begged her forgiveness, and as a result, the couple got married. A son followed shortly after, and from this point onwards Lashley began to be violent once again. He was obsessive about Jean’s past, and was convinced wrongly of her constant infidelity. His sexual demands became brutal and more frequent, but were unaccompanied with love and tenderness. Beating after beating followed, with Jean being clubbed unconscious with a chair on one occasion.

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Jean Lashley

By 1965, Jean was so frightened for the safety of her children that she placed her illegitimate son into the National Children’s Home, as Lashley had grown to despise the boy. The turning point finally came later that year when Jean became pregnant once more and Lashley dragged her to a backstreet abortionist, who was to bungle the operation. The baby died nine days later, and Lashley ignored the funeral. Jean despised him from that moment onwards, and was largely shocked but relieved when Lashley was arrested and imprisoned for the “Beast of Shepherd’s Bush” attacks – never thinking for a second that he was the rapist in all the tabloids. For years she thought that she had triggered some sort of hatred for blonde, white women in him because like his victims, she was a blonde white woman. Jean divorced him whilst he was in prison and moved away, only enflaming Lashley’s already seething hatred of white women.

Lashley had never been flagged up as a suspect in the July 1976 Chesterton Street attack as there was no record of him having a scar on his cheek, but DCS Mooney felt sure that he had the right man. The attack, and Janie’s abduction, all bore the M.O of the “Beast of Shepherd’s Bush” too strongly, plus Lashley knew the area and lived nearby, and was powerfully built, having spent his previous prison sentence bodybuilding. Officers were assigned to keep surveillance on David Lashley, and they soon reported back that Lashley did, after all, have a scar on his cheek – received from a fight in prison during the sentence he served for the “Beast of Shepherd’s Bush” rapes. Lashley was picked up on 17th February 1977 for questioning about the Chesterton Street attack, and Janie Shepherd’s disappearance.

Lashley was to strongly deny involvement in both crimes, although according to DCS Mooney, Lashley was to confess almost immediately to the July 1976 attack. Lashley himself was to deny that he had. He was placed on an identity parade, where the victim from the Chesterton Street attack picked him out immediately and unequivocally. This was enough for police to charge Lashley with rape and an account of attempted murder, and he was remanded in custody to Brixton prison. Whilst he was in custody, detectives investigating the disappearance of Janie Shepherd were to question him about her disappearance. Lashley claimed to know nothing about Janie’s disappearance and offered an alibi for the night that she disappeared. Lashley claimed that on Friday 4th February, he had travelled to Leicestershire with a female friend, not returning to London until the early evening. He claimed that at 5:30pm he had been doing a respray job on a car in the paint-shop that he was employed at, and that he had returned home at about 7:00pm to watch television. Finally, he had gone to bed at about 9:30pm that evening. Lashley’s female companion and friends corroborated part of this story, but no one was able to confirm that Lashley was in bed when he said that he was.

Meanwhile, while Lashley was on remand awaiting trial for the Chesterton Road attack, the search for Janie continued. The Darlings continued their daily searches throughout the remote countryside of the surrounding counties, and on three consecutive Friday evenings, investigating officers staged a reconstruction of Janie’s last known movements. A policewoman, similar in look and stance to Janie and wearing identical clothes, re-enacted her last known movements. The purpose of these reconstructions was an attempt to trigger a memory of someone – people are creatures of habit and weekly pay was more commonplace in 1977 than nowadays. As the end of the normal working week was a Friday, then it stood to reason that a lot of shoppers may visit their regular supermarket at this time, having been paid, and if so, there may be someone who had noticed someone loitering around, or had seen Janie talking to someone who had not yet been traced. It brought nothing.

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Angela Darling shows the strain whilst on one of the many searches for Janie

By mid-April 1977, Janie had been missing for ten weeks. Her heartbroken parents, as well as Roddy Kincaid-Weeks and Janie’s cousins and friends, had searched fruitlessly for her alongside investigating police. They had developed a good relationship with DCS Mooney and his team, who had sensitively included them in as much of the investigation as he operationally could and had been honest with them in his opinions. Angela and John Darling left to return to Australia on 12th April 1977, convinced that Janie was dead, having been raped and murdered.

It was just six days later, on Monday 18th April 1977, that their convictions were tragically proved correct.

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Neal Gardener and Dean James

Nomansland Common stands just off the B651 road from St Albans to Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire. The area is popular with dog walkers, off road motorcyclists and model aircraft enthusiasts, and is known to locals more commonly by the ominous name of “Devil’s Dyke”. On the 18th April 1977, two schoolboys, Neil Gardiner and Dean James, were taking advantage of the bright and clear weather that day. It was the start of the Easter holidays from school, and the two boys were cycling around the area, racing each other and enjoying scrambling about. All of a sudden, the boys noticed what they thought was a pile of rags, but a closer inspection petrified them and caused them to drop their bikes and flee. When they composed themselves enough, they retrieved their bikes and sped home. It was early evening when Dean James finally mustered up the courage to tell his father that he was convinced he had seen a real dead body whilst cycling that afternoon. Peter James was convinced that his son was no liar, and contacted police. Police who questioned both boys were also convinced that they were sincere, and this was not a prank of any kind. Accompanied by their fathers, the boys took police to the spot where they had seen the “body”. One look by accompanying police was enough to confirm the boys were telling the truth.

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The body lies covered at the spot on Nomansland Common

The body was badly decomposed, and was found fully clothed. It was clothed in jeans, striped socks and a black sweater with bright red polo neck and vivid green cuffs. Gold rings still encased three of the body’s fingers, and around its neck, a thin chain complete with “Woodstock” charm was found.  Suspecting that the body could be the high profile missing Australian girl, as procedure the area was cordoned off and Detective Chief Superintendent Ronald Harvey, head of the Hertfordshire CID was summoned. Preliminary tests were performed, whilst awaiting the arrival of Home Office pathologist Professor James Cameron, and Dr Bernard Sims, a forensic dentist, before the body was removed to St Albans mortuary. DCS Mooney was also contacted, getting the call he long suspected but ever dreaded. Professor Cameron and Dr Sims began a four hour autopsy at 11:15pm that evening, and recorded ligature marks to the feet and upper arms of the body. There was extensive bruising to the upper arms and torso, the left foot, the right thigh and shin, and extensive bruising to the left temple area, although no evidence of a fracture. There were also what may have been finger nail marks to both breasts. Due to the advanced state of decomposition, it was impossible to determine whether a  sexual assault had taken place. The lungs and heart showed evidence of suffocation, coupled with extensive bruising and crushing to the throat. This enabled Professor Cameron to conclude that cause of death was due to strangulation. By the end of the autopsy, Dr Sims had been able to sadly confirm through dental records that the 11 week hunt for Janie Shepherd had come to an end. Tragically, her body had been found a mere three miles from an area searched by Angela and John Darling some weeks previously.

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Detectives examine the body dump site

An inquest opened in St Albans on 22 April 1977, but was adjourned pending further tests on both the body and Janie’s car. Following these, the inquest was re-opened on 24 October 1977 before a jury, where a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown was returned. That same afternoon, Janie’s remains were cremated in a private ceremony at Garston Crematorium, Watford, attended by Angela and John Darling, Roddy Kincaid-Weeks, and a small number of Janie’s close friends.

Of course, long before this – before even Janie’s body had been found, the man who police were convinced was her killer was already behind bars. David Lashley had been convicted at trial of the charges in the 1976 Chesterton Street attack, and had been sentenced to serve eighteen years in prison. Although a dangerous predator was off the streets, it needled Mooney and his team that their prime suspect had not also faced trial for Janie’s murder. There was no evidence, physical or forensic evidence to tie Lashley to Janie’s murder, but Mooney was convinced that he was the man responsible, so much so that Mooney shared his suspicions with John and Angela Darling, and made a promise to them that he would one day bring Janie’s killer to justice. He kept in regular touch with the couple for years, even long after his own retirement.

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Detective Chief Superintendent Mooney

During his imprisonment for the Chesterton Street attack, Lashley had caused no trouble for the authorities over the years, instead spending his time honing his powerful physique in the prison gym. Lashley could, and regularly did, power lift 700 pounds. As a result of being a “model prisoner”, Lashley had earned remission enough for him to be aware that he could be due for release by February 1989. However, by June 1988, and perhaps aware of this fact, Angela Darling had written to the Home Office requesting any fresh information about the now long unsolved murder. It spurred the Home Office to react, and Hertfordshire Police were subsequently served with a recommendation for a cold case review of the Janie Shepherd murder.

A review of every witness statement made in the 1977 investigation was undertaken, and witness who had made them were re-traced and re-interviewed. All agreed to testify in court should the need arise. When the review began, note was taken of Detective Chief Superintendent Mooney’s suspicions about the identity of Janie’s killer, and a serious look was taken at Lashley as the prime suspect. In June 1988 he was still a Category A prisoner, and detectives travelled to Frankland Prison in Durham to talk to prison staff whilst researching Lashley’s character. This visit was to be crucial in the case. Prison staff had made a written record of several conversations that Lashley had had with other prisoners, and the consistent theme throughout all of these – recorded over a number of years – was of his hatred for the police, and for white women. The extent of this hatred can be summed up in a remark Lashley had once said to another prisoner, when the pair were talking about being released:

“When I get out, there are two things I am going to do. First, I am going to get even with the police. Then, I am going to go on a rape and murder campaign against females. If you think Hungerford was bad, just wait and see when I’m free”

Top of his list was Detective Chief Superintendent Mooney and his family, who Lashley had promised to despatch with a machete.

Justice came for Lashley in an unusual way, as he was delivered to the police by another criminal serving time in prison. It testifies to the horrific character of David Lashley that a prisoner was prepared to “grass” on another to keep him from wreaking the havoc he so wanted to. Daniel Reece was a prisoner serving a long sentence for a variety of sexual and theft offences, and had worked with Lashley in the sawmill of a prison they were serving time in together. The two men had a shared interest in bodybuilding, and spent hours training together. Whilst reading a newspaper article about a black male who had received a long sentence for rape, Lashley had said to Reece:

“He should have killed her. If I had killed that bitch who put me in here like I did the other, I wouldn’t be here now”

In detail that was unknown to anybody except police and Janie’s killer himself, Lashley went on to describe the events of the night of Janie’s murder. He claimed to have watched “a nice looking blonde” go into a supermarket in Queensway, and had abducted her on her return to her car. He described the Mini in great detail, even down to the “FOR SALE” sign taped to the back window. Lashley went on to describe how he had forced her into the passenger seat after threatening her with a butchers knife, and mentioned how he had cut the roof of the car to demonstrate its sharpness. They then drove to a dark place in the Ladbroke Grove area of London, where he had ripped her clothes to shreds with the knife and brutally raped her. He told Reece that she had struggled and fought, but was no match for his physical power, and that he had taken great pleasure in forcing her to say how much she was enjoying the assault. The most chilling aspect of the conversation was yet to come, however. Lashley demonstrated to Reece how he had then killed the girl – by holding the back of her neck with his left hand, whilst pushing his giant fist into her throat. She had died after mere seconds. Lashley then re-dressed the body in the clothing found in the red bag, strapped the body into the passenger seat, driven out into the country and dumped the body in some bushes. He had leisurely eaten peanuts and smoked whilst driving. He then described driving back and leaving the car, then taking the groceries to eat but discarding them in gardens around the Elgin Crescent area.

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Daniel Reece at his wedding in Durham Prison in 1995

Taking this into account with Lashley’s comments about his plans upon release, Reece eventually decided to confide in a prison officer about what he had heard. He claimed it was for the safety of white women in the country, and that as evil a monster as Lashley should never be released from custody. When police received this report it was like electricity. Reece had described details that were unknown to the general public, and the pathologists report tallied exactly with Lashley’s account of the killing. It also explained why Janie’s body was dressed in her spare clothes. The files on the “Beast of Shepherd’s Bush” rapes were re-opened and the victims re-interviewed, leaving police more convinced than ever that Lashley was the killer. The similarity and pattern on all the attacks, as well as the Chesterton Street attack, were like a carbon copy of the offender profile of Janie’s killer. All were young white women, all attacked in cars and all were robbed and threatened with broken necks if they screamed. Lashley had been tracked down at the time by his car number plates, and had been separately identified at identification parades by each victim individually.

By November 1988, police were convinced they had enough evidence to prosecute Lashley and had decided to wait for his release in February 1989. But in January 1989, news was leaked to the press that the Janie Shepherd case was being re-opened, and that the prime suspect – a vicious rapist and attempted murderer – was due for imminent release from prison. Lashley had read this in the papers, and was convinced that Reece had “grassed”.  At 7:00am on Monday 7th February, Lashley walked towards the prison gates on the day of his release from the sentence for the Chesterton Street attack. He must have been resigned to his fate, for he said to a prison officer:

“The police are waiting for me, aren’t they?”

He was right. Detectives met him outside the gates and arrested him and charged him with the murder of Janie Shepherd. He had been free all of 30 seconds before he was on his way to St Albans police station. The arrest was widespread in the press, and by the time Lashley appeared for remand at St Albans Magistrate’s court on 10th February, police had gleaned further vital evidence against him. Prison officers at Parkhurst prison came forward to say that another prisoner, Robert Hodgson, had come forward to allege that Lashley had made a similar confession to him whilst both were in Wakefield Prison in 1981. Committal proceedings began at St Albans Magistrates Court in May 1981, and both Reece and Hodgson gave evidence as to what Lashley had told them. As a result of reporting restrictions being lifted, a third prisoner was to come forward stating that Lashley had confessed to the crime. He was committed for trial for Janie’s murder on 02 June 1989.

Lashley’s trial for the murder of Janie Shepherd began on Tuesday 7th February 1990 at St Alban’s Crown Court. He pleaded “not guilty” to the murder, and the trial was to last for three weeks. Chief witness for the prosecution was Daniel Reece, who gave an impressive and comprehensive account of the confession Lashley had told him. It was so detailed and authentic that it contained several details that had not been made public, but were known to investigating officers, and left a strong impression on the jury. There were other minor points of evidence, albeit circumstantial, against Lashley. Chewing gum packets of a type he used were found in the Mini, as well as branded cigarette butts that he smoked. Peanut shells matching those found in Janie Shepherd’s Mini had been found in Lashley’s Vauxhall Victor car. He was very familiar with Nomansland Common, having taken his stepson to play there on many occasions in the 1960’s. DNA technology had come so far by 1990 that semen groups could now be identified, and the semen found in the Mini tested positive for an “A” secretor. David Lashley was an “A” secretor.

Lashley strongly denied his guilt, but could not explain the circumstantial evidence and was no match for how powerful a witness Daniel Reece was. All he could do was offer the same alibi that he had given when first arrested and questioned about Janie’s murder in 1977. This was again corroborated by the woman he had visited Leicester with, and Lashley’s aunt. But ultimately, it was to do no good. On Monday 19th March 1990, a jury who had listened for three weeks to the appalling catalogue of evidence concerning Janie’s rape and murder took just two and a quarter hours to unanimously find David Lashley guilty of Janie Shepherd’s murder. The public gallery erupted in cheers, and Mr Justice Alliott had to call for order in the court to pass sentence. Lashley said nothing, but glared with unbridled hate at the judge, who sentenced Lashley to life imprisonment. Mr Justice Alliott chose his summing up carefully when passing sentence:

“The decision is such that whoever is responsible must have the utmost, careful regard before you are ever allowed your liberty again. In my view, you are such an appalling, dangerous man that the real issue is whether the authorities can ever allow you your liberty in your natural lifetime”

He was then escorted from the dock to begin his life sentence.

Throughout Lashley’s trial, Janie’s mother Angela Shepherd had bravely attended each day, and had even given evidence for the prosecution. Each day, she wore the “Woodstock” charm on a chain that had been found on Janie’s body, and was dignified and left triumphant that justice had finally been served for Janie. It is fitting to conclude with the words that Angela gave to reporters covering the trial after the guilty verdict and sentencing had been passed:

“Justice has been done. We have always prayed that this would happen. I’d do anything to spare other parents the traumas we have experienced. Anyone with a daughter can feel safer now”.

Lashley has never shown any signs of remorse, and continues to serve his life sentence to this day.

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

The Beast Of Shepherd’s Bush – Part 1

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Janie Shepherd

Australian Janie Shepherd came from an affluent background. The daughter of prosperous, middle class Sydney couple Angela and Anthony Shepherd, for the first few years of her life Janie knew little but happiness and security. But the Shepherd family was to have to endure tragedy, beginning with the death of Janie’s father Anthony from a heart attack when Janie was just 11 years old. Some years later, her mother Angela remarried to a friend of the Shepherd family, wealthy merchant banker John Darling. Janie loved him dearly and John in return treated her like his own daughter. John was successful in business and managed to rise to the position of chairman of British Petroleum in Australia, meaning that the Shepherd family was to travel frequently throughout Europe. For stability, Janie was educated at a private boarding school which she enjoyed, being remembered as a happy, popular and studious pupil with plenty of admirers. Between terms, she enjoyed various holidays with her parents, and it was on one of these holidays in 1973 where she discovered the place she was to love, and to meet the love of her life at: London.

It was also London where the second major tragedy was to strike the Shepherd family, because in 1977 it was in London that Janie was murdered.

In 1977, 24 year old Janie enjoyed what was pretty much the perfect life. She had discovered a love for London whilst on holiday there, and had moved over in 1976 to live. She was attractive, outgoing and had lots of friends. A generous allowance from her stepfather gave her more than enough to live independently on, but Janie was a people person and chose to work, being employed at the Caelt Art Gallery, a small independent gallery in the bustling and culturally mixed area of Westbourne Grove, just off West London’s Notting Hill Gate. It was a job that she enjoyed thoroughly. Janie had not bought a flat of her own in London, instead living in a flat in St John’s Wood with her cousin Camilla and Camilla’s husband Alistair Simpson. This was only intended as a temporary measure, as she was planning to get a place together with the man she had fallen madly in love with, her boyfriend of over a year, merchant banker Roddy Kincaid-Weeks. The couple were very happy, were madly in love, and enjoyed spending lots of time together, and the weekend of the 4th to the 6th February 1977 was to be no different.

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The petrol station that Janie stopped to fill up her Mini

At 8:40pm on the night of Friday 4th February, Janie had planned to pick up a supper of smoked trout, celery and cheese for the pair on her way over to Roddy’s flat, 3 miles away in the Knightbridge area of Lennox Gardens. They were due to spend the weekend together, and Roddy was expecting her for about 9:00pm, but when she hadn’t arrived by 9:30pm he became concerned. Although Friday night traffic in the West London area was severe at the best of times, it should not have taken her so long. His concern turned to worry when at 9:30pm he telephoned  Camilla and Alistair Simpson to see if Janie had left the flat, only to be told that she had left nearly an hour before. He rang back thirty minutes later, and thirty minutes after that, but there was still no word from Janie. Both Roddy and the Simpsons subsequently rang hospitals in the local area to see if a woman matching Janie’s description had been admitted after an accident, but this proved negative. Finally, at 3:15am Janie was reported as a missing person by both Alistair Simpson and Roddy Kincaid-Weeks to St John’s Wood and Chelsea police stations, respectively.

Police realised near enough instantly that Janie was not the type of person to disappear deliberately – she was happy, stable and very in love with her boyfriend. She had no money worries, and there was no question of her being involved in any illegal or immoral activity. It was quite probable, almost from the off, that Janie had come to some harm.  What police were aware of, and were increasingly concerned about, was the possibility that Janie had been kidnapped. They knew that she was from a very wealthy family, and the possibility loomed large that someone, knowing Janie’s family would pay any ransom to get their daughter back, had snatched her and was holding her for ransom.  Bearing this in mind, the search for her got underway and a detailed description of Janie was circulated, down to the clothing and jewellery she was wearing, the possessions she was carrying, and the details of her car.

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The missing person’s poster distributed by police investigating the disappearance of Janie Shepherd.

When she left the flat she shared with Camilla and Alistair, Janie had been wearing jeans and brown Cossack style boots, a dark polo neck sweater with a man’s check shirt over it, and a white cardigan with a reindeer motif on it. She had several items of jewellery, including a large gold bangle, a Russian wedding style ring, and a Gucci wristwatch on a grey leather strap. Around her neck was a thin gold chain, containing a gold charm of the character “Woodstock” from the Charlie Brown cartoon strip. Her handbag contained about £40 in cash, a tapestry that she had been working on, several balls of wool and knitting needles, clean underwear and a change of clothing, consisting of a black sweater with a bright red polo neck, and bright green cuffs. Nothing that would suggest she was going to do anything other than spend a quiet relaxing weekend with her boyfriend.

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A mannequin displays a replica of the clothes Janie was wearing when she was last seen.

Janie’s car was a blue mini with the registration number KGM 300P that she was in the process of trying to sell, so it was clean and shiny inside and out at the time of her disappearance, and had a FOR SALE sign taped to the rear window. A description of Janie and her car was circulated within the hour of her being reported missing, and a check of the Police National Computer was undertaken to ascertain if the Mini had been spotted  anywhere, had been stolen, or had been involved in an accident. But nothing showed up.

After a harrowing three days, with Janie’s loved ones waiting anxiously for any news, there was an ominous breakthrough on Tuesday 8th February 1977. Four days after Janie had last been seen, her Mini was found parked in Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill Gate – but there was no sign of Janie with it. This discovery strengthened the fears of investigators that Janie had come to harm, indeed, may never be seen alive again. The car was parked illegally on double yellow lines, and had had two parking tickets posted on it, one dated Monday 7th February at 11:45 am; and one from 12:00 pm the day it was discovered. The state of the car was a far cry from the clean and polished state Janie had set off in it in – it was filthy dirty and had mud spattered all over the bodywork. The interior of the car was in a dishevelled state, and chillingly, two parallel slash marks that had obviously been caused with a large weapon had been made in the sun roof. There were also traces of semen found in the car, cigarette butts, and interestingly, peanut shells. In the back footwell, Janie’s boots and red shoulder bag lay on the floor – but the contents of the bag were nowhere to be found, apart from two receipts – that were to give police their first clue.

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Janie’s car as it was discovered in Elgin Crescent.

One was from the Europa Foods supermarket in Queensway, where Janie had bought the supper intended for her and Roddy. More importantly, the other was from a self service petrol station in Bayswater – which showed that Janie had topped up the 7 gallon petrol tank of the Mini with three gallons of petrol on the night that she disappeared. From this, and by examining the remaining contents of the Mini’s fuel tank, police were able to estimate that the Mini could have travelled up to 75 miles between Janie filling it on the Friday, and its discovery on the Tuesday. But this left police a massive area to search, because it took in several different counties with no sure way of choosing the correct area to begin to search.

But it was a start, and with the investigation being spearheaded by Detective Chief Superintendent Henry Mooney – famous for being the man responsible for the arrest and conviction of the Kray twins – the police enquiry got underway, beginning with a police search starting from that spot. Police officers soon found the groceries Janie had bought that Friday evening discarded in various back gardens in the area nearby to where the Mini was found, which spurred their search further. Helicopters utilising infra red cameras scoured the area looking for Janie, and for the first time in British criminal history, specially trained cadaver dogs were brought in to try and find a body. A direct appeal was made to the public, and posters were distributed showing the now canonical picture of Janie Shepherd, and a picture of the Mini as it had been found in Elgin Crescent.

By Wednesday 9th February, Janie’s mother and stepfather had arrived in London. Both were distraught and willing to assist officers in whatever way that they could. They were able and of course only willing to pay any ransom demand should one arrive from someone who had kidnapped Janie, but all the while dreading more and more that the unthinkable had happened. When no ransom demand had arrived as more and more days passed, the Darlings decided to help in the search themselves. For the next month or so, 65 days in total, each day the Darlings left the flat in the St James area of West London they were staying in, and took themselves off to remote areas in parts of the country that the Mini could have theoretically visited. They explored remote copses, lonely lanes, and hedgerows all over the different neighbouring counties searching for any clue as to the whereabouts of Janie – but they never found her.

Police theorised that whoever had abducted Janie was not a first time offender – this was a practised attack that had been refined over time, and as the car was found only a few streets away from where Janie was last seen, they worked on the theory that the offender was local to, or had good local knowledge of the Notting Hill area. A check on all local sex offenders was performed – and although this was to lead to at least 18 other crimes being detected and solved – it did not instantly lead police to Janie’s abductor. But a further search of unsolved attacks in similar circumstances to Janie’s disappearance did, however, lead to an ominous precursor.

In June 1976, there had been a horrific attack, again on a young woman and again in a car, in Chesterton Street, Kensington. This was a mere half mile from the street where Janie’s car had been found abandoned. In the June 1976 attack, the victim was similar in description to Janie, a young, blonde white woman. The victim had driven home from her boyfriends flat quite late at night, and had just parked up when a black male approached the vehicle, knocked on the driver’s door window and asked her what time it was. As she was glancing at her watch to tell him, he wrenched open the driver’s door, pushed her into the passenger seat and, holding the terrified woman at knifepoint, drove to a railway arch in a nearby back street. Here she was subjected to a horrific, brutal two hour catalogue of rape. Midway through the assault, a woman walked past the vehicle pushing a baby in a pram. To dissuade the victim from calling out for help, the attacker said menacingly:

“Don’t think about shouting for help. I’ll kill you and then I’ll kill that woman and her baby.”

Before fleeing, after claiming that he “hated all white bitches”, the attacker viciously slashed the victim’s left wrist, almost severing her hand. He then ran off into the night. With blood pumping out of the wound, the victim somehow managed to drive home. She was found collapsed on her doorstep by a neighbour, and rushed to hospital, where a blood transfusion was to save her life. Doctors who saved her life claimed that she had lost so much blood that she was mere minutes from death, and that they believed the knife attack was deliberately intended to kill her. Police agreed. When the victim had recovered sufficiently enough to tell police what had happened, she described the rapist as being a powerfully built black male, in his mid 30’s, with a noticeable scar on his face. He had smoked during the assault, and had at several times professed his hatred of white women. He had also forced the victim to profess her enjoyment whilst assaulting her.

It seemed to DCS Mooney that this could have been a carbon copy of what had happened to Janie, a theory strengthened by the fact that the June 1976 attack had so far remained unsolved. He and his team were sure that this attack and Janie’s disappearance were linked, and set about looking at known offenders who could fit the pattern. One name jumped out at the investigators almost immediately, due to his crimes and the modus operandi used in them, making him a strong suspect in both crimes. In 1970, a man had been sentenced to twelve years imprisonment for a series of horrific knifepoint attacks and rapes in the Shepherd’s Bush area of London. The tabloids had christened the attacker, “The Beast Of Shepherd’s Bush”, and in four out of the five cases the man had been charged with, the victims had been young white women attacked at knifepoint in their own cars. He had been paroled early in 1976 after coming to the aid of a prison warder during a prison riot.

The man’s name was David Lashley.

 

To be continued

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

The Hull Arsonist (Part 2)

Bruce Lee seemingly couldn’t stop talking once he had admitted his shocking claim, and what he had to say was almost unbelieveable. To admit to such an amount of damage and a love of fire would be shocking enough. But worse, Lee admitted that nine of his previous fires over the years had caused fatalities, 26 fatalities in total when the victims from each were tallied. Unfazed by what he was recounting, Lee began to set out his accounts of the many fires and deaths he had caused. Apart from the Hastie fire, none of the other fires that Lee confessed to setting had been classed as arson at the time. They were all thought to have been accidental.

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Inset: Bruce George Peter Lee, and main picture: the scene of one of Lee’s fires.

The first fire set by Lee that was to lead to a fatality was on the 23rd June 1973, when six year old Richard Ellington was suffocated after being overcome by smoke inhalation after Lee had set fire to his family home on Askew Avenue, Hull. Lee knew the boy – he attended the same special school as Lee and they would often be on the same school bus. The cause at the time was thought to have been a faulty gas meter. Lee was to say of this murder:

“When we stopped in bus next morning, they said he’s died in a fire during night. I just sat on bus quiet looking out a window and said nowt…I’ve kept it secret from everybody for years.”

72 year old Bernard Smythe was the next to die, dying in his armchair at home on Glasgow Street on 12th October 1973. A recluse who suffered from gangrene in both legs, Mr Smythe was thought to have knocked over a paraffin heater in his sleep – whereas Lee had in reality squirted paraffin throughout his front room and ignited it. Lee had been walking the streets all night and when he felt the familiar tingling in his fingers, entered Mr Smythe’s house through a broken window. He then set the fire and left through the front door – leaving Mr Smythe to burn to death agonisingly.

Just over two weeks later on 27th October 1973, 34 year old David Brewer was burned alive after Lee set fire to his house on Madeley Street. Again it was thought to have been a paraffin heater knocked over, but Lee was to confess his guilt by giving an example that showed his malicious streak. He had rowed with Brewer some days previously over some pigeons, with Brewer threatening to give Lee “a clout”. Seething about this,  Lee broke into his home late at night and finding Brewer asleep in his armchair, poured paraffin on him and around the room and ignited it. Brewer caught fire and rushed outside screaming, but despite the efforts of neighbours who came to his aid, Brewer died in agony nine days later in hospital.

“He clipped my ear – and he shouldn’t have done that” claimed Lee. Some days later, Lee returned to the house and wrung the necks of every one of Brewer’s pigeons.

It was more than a year later when one of Lee’s fires caused its next fatality. An frail partially blind 82 year old woman, Elizabeth Rokahr, died in a house fire on Rosamund Street, the cause of which was thought to have been her falling asleep whilst smoking in bed. Lee was to say when describing the fire, in an example of his indifference to life:

“I did see someone lying in a bed, but I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman. I didn’t wake ’em up to ask, did I?”

He admitted that he had entered Mrs Rokahr’s house through the unlocked backdoor – kept open for the old lady’s cat to come and go.

The next death was on 3rd June 1976, when 1 year old Andrew Edwards died from smoke inhalation after Lee had set fire to his home on Orchard Park. Andrew’s great grandmother – who was looking after the children that evening – managed to get Andrew’s two siblings to safety but was unable to save him. The elder sibling was later blamed for starting the fire accidentally. Lee followed this death by claiming another child as a victim, setting a fire in the home of the Thacker family on West Dock Avenue on 2nd January 1977. Six month old Katrina Thacker was asleep in her cot in the living room of the family home and her mother and siblings were upstairs. Lee entered the home (it transpired later that he knew the family and had again rowed with them some weeks previously) and started a fire, again using paraffin, in the front room. The cause was thought to have been “shedded sparks” from unburnt fuel in the open fireplace. Three years later, Lee was to prove this theory wrong:

“I just went in through a window one evening. I sprinkled paraffin on some carpet and the couch. The living room, I think it was, and up it went. The little baby died in it and I killed her.”

Lee’s worst fire followed just three days later, on 5th January 1977. Wensley Lodge Residential Home was a council run premises that accommodated elderly men of various ages and of various physical and mental ability. Lee claimed that he had cycled the three miles to the area to ” to just come along here to do a big house, just ride along, any house” and had painstakingly held a can of paraffin on the handlebars of his bicycle as he pedalled. He then claimed he had chosen the big house as it was “nice and quiet”, kicked a window in and started a fire in the bedroom of one of the residents, then left and went to watch the fire from outside. An orderly noticed smoke coming from a first floor corridor and raised the alarm, but the fire spread through the first and second floors, trapping many. Killed in the fire were as follows:

Harold Akester, 95; Victor Consitt, 83; Benjamin Phillips, 83; Arthur Ellwood, 82; William Hoult, 82; William Carter, 80; Percy Sanderson, 77; John Riby, 75; William Beales, 73; Leonard Dennett, 73; Arthur Hardy, 65

Strangely, the cause for this fire was blamed on a blowtorch that a plumber had been using earlier that day in a bedroom directly underneath the room where the fire was found to have started. Experts found no faults with any of the plumber’s equipment and the plumber himself denied any negligence – yet was still blamed. It was only when Lee confessed three years later was the possibility of arson raised. Again, whilst confesing to this fire Lee showed his indifference to human life:

“I could hear like old blokes shouting. Don’t ask me how I know’d they was old blokes, but they was not women and babies. I heard a man’s voice shouting ‘God help me’. It was bloody terrible.  I knew that the fire was killing people. I knew as I walked along blokes was dying in the fire. I’d killed people before in my fires so I wasn’t that bothered like.”

Lee next killed two people in a fire on 27th April 1977, a 7 year old boy named Mark Jordan and a 13 year old disabled girl called Deborah Harper. He squirted paraffin through the letterbox of the house on Belgrave Terrace, igniting a blaze in the living room. Out of 7 people in the house that evening, three adults and four children, five of them managed to make it out to safety. Brave Mark had gone back in in an attempt to help Deborah escape, but both had tragically been overcome by smoke fumes and died. Mark was later recommended for a posthumous bravery award. The cause of this fire was thought to have been one of the adults smoking and falling asleep, but again there was little evidence to support this theory.

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Lee as a teenager, and right, the scene of the Brentwood Villas fire

Brentwood Villas, Reynoldson Street was the next scene of horror, on 6th January 1978. 24 year old Christine Dixon was talking to a neighbour outside when she noticed smoke and flames coming from an upstairs window. Inside were her ill husband and four sons. Christine instinctively ran in to save her family, but only Christine’s husband managed to escape, along with their baby son. Christine was killed in the fire, along with her sons Mark, 5; Steven,4; and Michael, 16 months. The inquest later was to suspect that the elder boys had started the fire themselves with matches and lighter fluid, but this was strongly denied by Mr Dixon.  In his favoured method, Lee had squirted paraffin through the letter box and then set matches to ignite it. He was to claim:

“I had to go to the Bible after that one”

Christine was awarded a posthumous award for bravery, and the baby she had saved was raised by her mother. Lee had wiped out an entire family for the simple reason that he had:

“Tingling in me fingers and a fire in me head”

Following this, Lee’s next fatal fire was his last, which claimed the life of the Hastie children.

Sagar and his team decided to test Lee’s claims. They considered the possibility that Lee may have been a fantasist, but although Lee could not be specific in many dates and times of his fires, he knew exactly where each one had been. A check of his story revealed that there had indeed been fires in the locations he had described. They decided to take him around Hull in a police car, asking him to take them to the locations that he described without any prompting. He could do this each time, and to test how much truth Lee was telling, he was taken to a location where there had been a fire but someone else had already confessed to and been convicted of it. Lee vehemously denied ever setting a fire at the location. Sagar and his team knew then that Lee was indeed telling the truth, and in October 1980 he was charged with twenty six counts of murder, various counts of arson, and two counts of grievous bodily harm in the case of the Fenton fire. Lee was reportedly happy with this, and even when a solicitor advised him to recant his confessions, Lee refused to do so, instead dictating a statement where he again accepted all responsibility for the fires.

After psychiatrists had examined Lee and determined that although he was a pyromaniac, he was fit to plead and he stood trial in Leeds Crown Court in January 1981. Lee pleaded not guilty to 26 charges of murder, but pleaded guilty to 26 counts of manslaughter, 11 counts of arson and the counts of GBH that he was charged with. This was accepted by the crown, with Mr Justice Tudor Evans stating that Lee was “a psychopath and an immediate danger to the public”, and he was ordered to be detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act. He was taken first to Liverpool’s Park Lane Special Hospital, but was then later transferred to Rampton Secure Hospital. He remains incarcerated to this day.

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Lee revels in his notoriety after being sentenced

Following Lee’s conviction, articles in the Sunday Times newspaper raised questions about the validity of some of his claims, even though he had fully admitted his culpability in a convincing manner. It was suggested that police had used Lee’s low intelligence against him and coerced him into confessing to crimes that, because of his disabilities, he could not have had the mobility to have committed. It was also suggested that police had falsified witness statements, something that Ronald Sagar strongly denied and actually successfully sued the Sunday Times newspaper for libel for. The Wensley Lodge fire, in which eleven people had died, was however, concluded to have been accidental following a public enquiry in 1983. Lee’s 11 convictions for manslaughter in this case were quashed as a result – yet he has never ceased to accept his responsibility for the fire.

Following the result of this public enquiry, the question was raised – how much reliance could be given to Lee’s confessions? Apart from the forensic evidence that supported his confession to the Hastie fire, there was little physical evidence apart from Lee’s confessions in each remaining case, and although he was convincing in his accounts of the fires, there were no witnesses who could place him at the scene at the time. There was also the fact that although Lee had used paraffin in all of his fires, only the Hastie fire was suspected from the start as arson. Lee was not a sophisticated arsonist, he would just simple squirt paraffin around and light it. Would experienced fire investigators have missed evidence of arson in each case, it was argued? Yet this may be harsh criticism. The areas in which Lee set his fires were poor areas, where open fires were still commonplace in houses. Smoke alarms were nowhere as commonplace as they are nowadays, and the furniture in said households was often made from cheap, highly flammable material. As a result, house fires were quite common, and it is easy to see how Lee was able to hide his crimes, albeit with some luck also.

It was not in doubt that Lee was a pyromaniac, indeed, he told Ronald Sagar initially just how devoted he was. He loved fires and if there was a fire burning somewhere, Lee would inevitably be there as an onlooker. It is therefore possible that Lee could have learned the dates and locations of the fires he confessed to (which he was indeed vague about the date and chronology of) and elaborated an account of how he caused them. Was it all attention seeking, and Lee did not necessarily set the fires that he confessed to? Yet, even when his defence team appealed against his convictions, Lee remained adamant that he had been the cause of every fire he confessed to, claims which he adheres to to this day. There has always been a lack of publicity concerning this case, perhaps because the convictions were for manslaughter rather than murder; perhaps of Lee’s relative youth and mental health at the time of his conviction; and perhaps that not only was his trial short due to his guilty plea, but because it was overshadowed by the arrest of the Yorkshire Ripper in the same month. Perhaps because of this, Lee is often overlooked in a list of Britain’s most prolific killers.

What then, were Lee’s motives? It can be argued that they were mixed. On  one hand, Lee set fires purely because of his love and fascination for them, and the fact that anyone died in the fires was immaterial – Lee wouldn’t have cared if anyone was in the buildings or not. Yet on the other hand, the victims who died in the fires were all unable to flee – either because they were asleep, infirm or disabled, or physically unable to due to age. Lee had also had clashes with a number of the victims – were they perhaps targeted as a result of a grudge, and had Lee targeted people who he classed as victims like himself? Lee was to admit to Ronald Sagar that he hated people and that “fire is my master”, and that he especially hated people who had a home – because he claimed he had never really had one. Speculation aside, it remains that for whatever reason, Lee confessed to many fires and was almost proud of his handiwork. He evolved as an offender and is a rarity amongst most serial arsonists in that he would actually enter the structure he was setting fire to to set the fire. From carrying a can of petrol around, he evolved and refined his favoured choice of accelerant to paraffin, making sure he was able to carry it around in a container that was easily concealable and safer to himself to use as an accelerant. His favoured method was to create a pool of paraffin, then leave a trail leading away from it and to then make a smaller pool – giving himself time to light it, then get to safety and to be able to observe his handiwork. He was able to avoid detection and suspicion in each case, and although he was considered by people as being an odd loner, tragically he was never considered by anyone as being potentially dangerous. Ronald Sagar was to write a critically acclaimed book about the case upon his retirement, Hull, Hell and Fire, and echoed this:

“He wasn’t seen, because he was a pathetic, insignificant man. It was a dreadful state of affairs. I didn’t show him sympathy, but I feel sorry for him as a human being. Sorry that in this day and age you could have a youngster who no-one cared for, who could be in such a terrible state.”

Lee’s is a name that rarely appears in the press, only appearing twice of note in the years since his incarceration. In 2005 it was reported that he had been allowed to marry another patient in Rampton Hospital, Anne-Marie Davis. He had met her at a disco organised for the residents, and they had developed a relationship of sorts. This news caused uproar amongst the families of Lee’s victims, but they were somewhat appeased when authorities swiftly pointed out that inmates, whilst allowed to marry, are not allowed to consummate their union.

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Lee is pictured on a day release in 2016

What caused arguably more uproar was the report in local and UK national press in July 2016 that Lee had been allowed out on day release, albeit supervised, into the community surrounding the lower security facility in the Home Counties that he had been moved to  in 1996. The Sunday Mirror newspaper reported that Lee had been seen repeatedly out in the community on day release, laughing and joking with staff. His face was pixellated to retain his anonymity, and the picture is reproduced above:

Ronald Sagar, who died a few years ago now, was to say of Lee that he wished one day that he may be freed and allowed to rejoin society, to make good on the pre-trial promise that Lee made him of:

“I’ll never set fire to another house as long as i live”

But it is unlikely Lee will ever be released  to put this to the test. He is now in his 36th year of incarceration, having spent nearly his entire adult life in a secure institution. He is arguably institutionalized now, and there is also the small matter of the magnitude of his monstrous crimes and the feeling that they still provoke to this day. The areas in which Lee started his fires were poor areas of Hull, but strong community spirited areas – and people have never forgotten the horrors that Lee inflicted, unnoticed, during his years of terror. Rosamund Fenton, who was severely injured and suffered a miscarriage in one of Lee’s fires, summed up the feeling when discussing Lee potentially being released:

“I still suffer flashbacks of that night, he ruined me, ruined me for my daughter. She couldn’t even look at me and wouldn’t let me touch her, claiming “You’re not my mummy, where’s my mummy” because i looked so badly burnt. ‘The police always said we’d be kept informed of what was happening with him at every stage, but we’ve heard nothing about this. He’s a danger to society. The thought of him walking about near kids sickens me.

He should never be allowed out”
It remains to be seen whether Lee will, or will not, ever be considered safe to be released.

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

The Hull Arsonist (Part 1)

The name of Peter Sutcliffe will almost be a household name amongst those with an interest in crime and the macabre, and there will be scant few who do not know of the terror that the “Yorkshire Ripper” brought to the North of England during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. When he was finally caught – just two days into the new -year in January 1981, his arrest brought to an end one of the most high profile, horrific and prolific killing sprees in British criminal history. Coverage of Sutcliffe’s arrest, and revelations about his life and confessions dominated the British press at the time – and because they so dominated, another killer who was put away for his crimes just 18 days after Sutcliffe’s arrest went largely un-noticed. It is a worthy case to recount, for the person in question is one of the most unique figures in British criminal history, is arguably as prolific a killer as Sutcliffe, and he too, struck in Yorkshire.

“A FAMILY OF FUCKING RUBBISH, WE ALL HATE YOU. YOU SHOULD ALL LIVE ON AN ISLAND (DEVIL’S ISLAND). BUT IM NOT KIDDING BUT I PROMISED YOU A BOMB AND BY HELL I’M NOT KIDDING. WHY DON’T YOU JUST FLIT WHILE YOU’VE GOT THE CHANCE. IF WE CANT GET YOU OUT NORMALLY THEN WE’LL BASTARD WELL BOMB YOU OUT, AND THAT’S TOO GOOD FOR YOU”

The above missive was a warning scrawled on a piece of cardboard taken from a Cornflakes packet, and it summed up how by 1979, the name “Hastie” was infamous to the residents of Selby Street, in Hull, East Yorkshire. The Hastie family lived at no 12 Selby Street, and consisted of parents Tommy and Edith Hastie, and their seven children – four sons and three daughters. Tommy Hastie was a habitual criminal with a long criminal record, and the entire Hastie family seemed destined to follow in his footsteps, being involved in vandalism and theft and having many run ins with the neighbours throughout the 1970’s. They were commonly known as a “problem family” throughout the local area and were feared and detested in equal measure, as is evident by the anonymous missive that was received by the family in late November 1979. By the beginning of December 1979, Tommy Hastie was in the midst of serving his latest prison sentence for burglary of a local sports club, so Edith and the rest of the Hastie’s were home alone.

On the night of 04 December 1979 all of the Hastie daughters were staying with nearby relatives, leaving just Edith and the four boys – Charlie aged 15; Paul aged 12; Thomas aged 9, and Peter aged 8. It was just approaching midnight and the entire Hastie family were asleep, when someone crept up to the house, poured paraffin over the porch and through the letterbox, and set it alight.

The house was soon an inferno, and although Edith and Thomas Hastie managed to get out to safety, the fire was ultimately to claim the lives of Charlie, Paul and Peter Hastie. All three suffered horrific burns over 75-80 percent of their bodies in the fire, and were all to die over the following few days in the burns unit of Wakefield’s Pinderfields Hospital. Police were summoned when fire service investigators at the scene were able to determine almost instantly that the fire had not been an accident. There were spent matches found on the porch, and an overwhelming smell of paraffin, as well as a pool of paraffin nearby where someone had set a can down. But the resulting murder investigation, led by Detective Superintendent Ronald Sagar, faced an uphill battle from the start. The Hastie family were hated and feared by all in the area, and there seemed to be no shortage of suspects as to who could have wished them harm. Sagar was to comment at the time:

“Never before have I encountered such hatred and dislike for a family”

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12 Selby Street, scene of the Hastie fire

Police focused at first upon the theory that the author of the “devil’s island” note had made good on their threat against the family, and as a result handwriting samples were taken from hundreds of people living in the area. A match was quickly found, but the author was ultimately ruled out. It transpired that the author was a frail old lady who had been constantly terrorised and had property damaged by the Hastie boys. She was a churchgoer, and thought that writing a letter filled with swear words “would be the only type of language they would understand”. She had used cardboard from a Cornflakes packet to save on the cost of a stamp.

The funeral of the Hastie children took place on 4th January 1980, with a procession led down Selby Street. There were many onlookers to the procession, but a distinct lack of mourners and a very apparent lack of sympathy, believing that however extreme, the family had only got what had been deserved. Local television cameras were there to capture the moment when a hysterical Edith Hastie was to shout to the crowd:

“Which one of you fucking murdering bastards did this? It was one of you!”

Six months later, police enquiries had drawn a blank. Almost every different theory and line of enquiry possible had been explored and ruled out, including the theory that Edith or one of the Hastie daughters themselves had started the fire, and the possibility that the real target of the fire was the next door house – which was a known drug den. Ron Sagar and his team were under pressure – the enquiry was going nowhere and manpower needed to be redirected, and after six months the enquiry team were left with just one unexplored line of enquiry. Enquiries about the Hastie boys had revealed rumours that the eldest boy, Charlie, was involved in the local “rent boy” scene, and was said to behave indecently with local homosexual men for money  – perhaps the reason behind the horrific fire stemmed from this?

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Charlie Hastie

Local homosexuals were questioned in an attempt to establish the truth of these rumours, and in June 1980, a local 19 year old labourer who was questioned named Bruce Lee confirmed that not only did he know Charlie Hastie, but he had indeed been involved in “indecent sexual behaviour” with him. When pressed as to what this meant, Lee retorted “you know, mucking about, wanking and that”. Lee was not charged with any offence stemming from these revelations, and was released. After learning that the rumours about Charlie Hastie were true and he was indeed involved in the “rent boy” scene, Sagar decided to adopt a different tack: he decided to bring in known homosexuals for questioning, and accuse each in turn of setting the Selby Street fire, hoping that the real killer would break down and confess. This was a desperate strategy, but it was all that Sagar had left that he could do.

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Bruce George Peter Lee

The nineteenth such of these interviewees that police questioned was Bruce Lee, and Sagar said to him:

“Bruce, I’ll be quite blunt with you. I think that you started that fire at the Hastie family’s house, and that indecency with Charlie is probably the cause of it all somehow”

To Sagar’s surprise, Lee replied:

“I didn’t mean to kill them”

It transpired that Lee knew the Hastie family well, and he claimed that the fire was set “to teach Charlie a lesson”. Charlie, Lee claimed, had been threatening him and extorting money from him after the pair had indulged in mutual masturbation, with Charlie threatening to go to the police because he was after all a minor. Lee also claimed he felt a grudge against the family because he had constantly asked 16 year old Angie Hastie to be his girlfriend – and had been mocked and refused each time. In fact, he was constantly mocked and ridiculed by the Hastie family as a favourite target for bullying.

On 04 December 1979, Lee claimed he had gone to the Hastie house late at night, watching first from the shadows created by the opposite motorway flyover “for a good time until it went real quiet”. He described in detail approaching the door and pouring paraffin through the letterbox, then struggling to light the fire with matches. On the third attempt, he managed to ignite a newspaper and pushed it through the letterbox, then retreated back to the shadows he had been watching from to watch his handiwork. Lee was able to give investigators such correct intimate detail of the scene of the fire, and how it had been ignited, that there was little doubt he was responsible for the fire –  only the arsonist and the investigators themselves knew the exact forensics.

What kind of person, and what must occur in a life to set a person on the road to committing such heinous actions? It suggests a disturbed mind, unhappiness, anger and bitterness at the world, and someone with a very poor and sad life in general. Bruce Lee had all of these. He was born Peter George Dinsdale in Manchester on 31st July 1960, the unwanted child of a prostitute named Doreen and a father that the child never was to meet. Doreen had little if no love for the child, cruelly referring to him as “the freak” because young Peter had been born with epilepsy, a deformed right arm and congenital spastic hemiplegia in his right limbs. Between the ages of six months old and three years old, young Peter was cared for by his maternal grandmother as his mother didn’t want him around.  Even his grandmother tired of him by this time, and the boy spent the rest of his childhood living periodically in various care homes, periodically back with his mother and her common law husband, who Dinsdale got on reasonably well with. He attended a special school until he was 16, but suffered with what are now classed as learning difficulties and left school with no qualifications and an IQ measuring just 68. He was sporadically employed after leaving school, working such menial roles as labouring, assisting at the local Speedway track and at the gate for Hull Kingston Rovers on match days, and at a local pig farm. Co workers at the establishments Lee was employed at remember him as a sad character, quiet and unassuming and often mocked by those who knew him. Yet he never used to stand up for himself, he would just say nothing.

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Peter Dinsdale in his teens

As a result of such a chaotic and sad life, Dinsdale was often penniless, poorly clothed, and had few friends. It was whilst living in the various care homes that he was introduced to homosexuality, which he would partake in, and became involved in the local rent boy scene – where he met Charlie Hastie amongst others. He would often have to resort to sleeping with men just to earn money to eat, but it is possible that this was also as a need for affection in whatever form he could get it. Perhaps what sums up what a tragic figure Lee had become due to his haphazard life was the fact that he was known by all who knew him as “Daft Peter”, and was considered by all who knew him as an odd loner. Odd, but not dangerous. Perhaps in what was an attempt to overcome this and to transform himself, by age 19 he changed his name legally by deed poll to Bruce George Peter Lee, in adoration of the kung-fu star that he idolized. But this was after all, just a name change. He was still the same mocked and ridiculed youth, even with a “tough guy” name, and the impression he gave to people didn’t change. Ronald Sagar was to describe his first impressions of Lee as follows:

“He was…..not a normal young man, he was deformed, his right arm and right leg were deformed, he had a limp, he had a habit of holding his right arm across his chest. He was poorly dressed, he was clearly undernourished, and on first impressions one had to feel sorry for him”

Lee admitted to the detective that he had started hundreds of fires over the years, and that his first fire had been in 1969 when he was aged just 9. He had burnt a shopping centre to the ground, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. He enjoyed the thrill of setting fires, and explained that he favoured paraffin as an accelerant. He would break into premises, or sometimes just squirt paraffin through any gaps or letterboxes he could find. He would then strike a match and retreat to watch his handiwork. He claimed that he would travel around, either on foot or by pushbike, always armed with a washing up liquid bottle of paraffin, and would set fires “when I began to feel a tingling in my fingers”. Lee was able to hide in plain sight amongst the confusion of his fires, and enjoyed being in the crowds of onlookers, watching the emergency services dealing with the destruction he had caused. He admitted to Sagar:

“I like fires I do. I like fires. Fire is my master. I am devoted to fire and despise people”

Following his confession to being responsible for the Hastie fire, Lee was charged with three counts of murder and a count of arson, and remanded to Hull prison awaiting trial. That may have been the end of the investigation, but when the local papers reported that a person had been arrested for the Hastie fire murders, and a picture of Bruce Lee published, it opened a new chapter – and the floodgates.

On the night of 21st June 1979, nearly six months before the Hastie fire, Rosabell Fenton was preparing for bed when she saw a figure of a man stood by her front door. The figure moved away when he became aware that he had been seen. She was convinced it was “Daft Peter”, who she knew and had shouted at earlier that day as he was loitering on her porch acting suspiciously. Thinking no more about it, Rosabell went to bed but was awakened shortly later by neighbours shouting “FIRE”, as her house was ablaze. Rosabell immediately went to the bedroom of her 7 year old daughter to try to get her out to safety, but the fire was too fierce and both mother and daughter had to take shelter in the corner of the sitting room. They were eventually rescued in time, but both Rosabell and her daughter were badly injured in this fire. Rosabell was heavily pregnant at the time, and sadly suffered a miscarriage. She also had to spend eleven months recovering in hospital and had to have plastic surgery. The cause of the fire at the time was blamed on a discarded cigarette dropped by a neighbour who had left the house shortly before Rosabell had gone to bed – but Rosabell remained convinced that this was wrong and that the fire had been deliberately set. More so, she was convinced that it had been set by “Daft Peter”. It was only a year later when a picture of “Bruce Lee” appeared in the local press following developments in the Selby Street fire did she recognise both him and “Daft Peter” as being the same person, and voiced her suspicions to the police.

Detective Sagar visited Lee whilst he was on remand to question him about this fire, and when this was put to him, Lee readily confessed to breaking into the house and setting this fire also, saying:

“I just did it. Someone I knew didn’t like her and, well, I just did it”

Knowing that he was already dealing with a self confessed pyromaniac, Sagar pressed Lee further, asking Lee if there was the possibility that any of the other fires that he had started in the past may have caused injury – or worse, even death. Sagar wasn’t expecting any confessions, but what Lee had to say chilled Sagar to the bone and was the start of a tale so shocking that it was to eventually lead to the name Bruce George Peter Lee being ranked in the Guinness Book of Records as one of Britain’s worst ever multiple killers. Pausing for a long time, Lee replied:

“Yes, you are right. I killed a little baby once”

To be continued.

 

The True Crime Enthusiast