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The unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan

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Image: Unsplash Images

In March of 1987, 37-year-old Daniel Morgan was found axed to death in the car park of a pub in Sydenham, south London. His murder would lead to decades of allegations of police corruption and would become one of the most investigated unsolved murders in the history of the Metropolitan police, costing a whopping £30m.

Daniel Morgan was born in Singapore and grew up in Wales. He had attended agricultural school in South Wales and worked in sales and travel in Denmark before setting up a private investigation business called Southern Investigations in London in 1984. His business specialised in divorces, recovery of hire purchase goods and serving court orders.

He was a married father of two on the 10th of March, 1987, when he was found murdered in the car park of the Golden Lion pub located on Sydenham Road, London. An axe was embedded in the right-hand side of his face and a roll of banknotes – around £1,000 in total – had remained undisturbed in his pocket (Evening Standard, 14 April, 1987 – ‘Private Eye Quizzed’). He had sustained three to four deep wounds to the back of his head and one final blow to the side of his face. The murder weapon was a new Diamond brand axe with strips of sticking plaster wrapped over the handle, most likely to give the killer a better grip as he wielded the weapon.

The initial theories were that Morgan’s murder was connected with cases that he had been investigating or his relationships with clients.

However, just the following month there was a massive twist in the case when it was announced that Morgan’s own business partner in Southern Investigations, Jonathan Rees, was being interviewed in connection with the murder. On the night that Morgan was slain, he and Rees had been together at the Golden Lion pub. According to Rees, he had left the pub at around 9PM, leaving Morgan at the pub alone to finish up some paper work. Around 40 minutes after Rees allegedly left, Morgan was found dead in the car park of the pub, bleeding profusely from a severe head wound. ‘The victim was just a few feet from the door of his BMW when he was attacked from behind,’ said Detective Superintendent Douglas Campbell. ‘We are almost certain it was premeditated (Evening Standard, 14 April, 1987 – ‘Private Eye Quizzed’).

While Rees was considered a person of interest, no arrest ever came. Over the course of the next year, there would be police inquiries into the murder spanning five countries as well as a TV reconstruction on Crimewatch. Nevertheless, no arrests were ever made. According to Morgan’s family, there were a number of red herrings placed in front of the investigation team. They also accused the investigation of being bungled: the crime scene had not been properly sealed off, potential witnesses were not identified and interviewed and leads were not followed up on (The Guardian, 14 June, 2021 – ‘I Have Reached the End’ Brother’s Decades-Long Wait for Justice and Vindication’).

In April of 1988, an inquest was held into Morgan’s death. During the inquest, it was alleged that Rees had told Kevin Lennon, an accountant at Southern Investigations, that he was planning on paying £1,000 to have three police officers from Catford police station in London to kill Morgan. According to Lennon, who testified as a witness, Rees despised Morgan and accused him of being a womaniser who would fly into an abusive rage which he felt was damaging to their business. He testified that Rees had spoken about the murder plot several times in a cold and calculating manner. Lennon stated that the plan was to stage Morgan’s murder in the jurisdiction of Catford police station so that the police officers involved in the plot could be the ones to investigate it. They were to remove any damning evidence and then have any charges dropped (Evening Standard, 11 April, 1988 – ‘Policemen in Plot to Kill Private Eye’s Partner’). Furthermore, he claimed that Rees had already set up Detective Sergeant Sid Fillery, who worked at Catford police station, to replace Morgan as his partner in Southern Investigations. Shortly after Morgan’s murder, Fillery retired from the Metropolitan police, citing medical grounds, and went to work with Rees at Southern Investigations (MyLondon, 22 June, 2020 – ‘Murder in the Car Park: Who Was Suspect Jonathan Rees and how was he Linked to the News of the World?’).

Rees completely denied any involvement in Morgan’s murder. Ultimately, the jury would return with a verdict of unlawful killing. The coroner, Sir Montagu Levine would state that no evidence had been presented which could connect anybody with the murder of Morgan and no charges were ever filed (The Guardian, 26 April, 1988 – ‘Axe Case Killing Unlawful’).

Following the verdict, the Police Complaints Authority launched an inquiry conducted by the Hampshire police. Just the following year, Rees, a second man and woman were charged in connection with the murder of Morgan but they would be released just three months later when no evidence was offered.

Morgan’s murder would lead to decades of persistence from his family who were desperately seeking justice and vindication. They would lobby to politicians and journalists and would hold organized protests and petitions. They truly felt as though the murder case had been bungled and covered-up. They even took police to court so that they could gain access to the reports associated with Morgan’s death (The Observer, 10 September, 2000 – ‘Axe Victim’s Family Sue for Access to Police File’).

In 2000, Rees would be sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice after he was caught planning to plant cocaine on a woman on behalf of a client who was in the process of a custody battle with her. The purpose was for the woman to be discredited. Meanwhile, Fillery would be convicted of possession of indecent images of children and was ordered to serve a three-year community rehabilitation order.

Then in 2006, the investigation into Morgan’s murder was re-opened with Scotland Yard officer, Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Cook leading the investigation. When this was reported in the media, a number of people came forward with fresh information which eventually led to Rees, two of his in-laws, Garry and Glenn Vian, and James Cook being charged with the murder of Morgan. Fillery was also charged with perverting the course of justice. During this investigation, a new theory would be put forward: that Morgan had a falling out with Rees over the illegal employment of off-duty police officers in Southern Investigations.

Southern Investigations had been asked to provide security for a car auction company in south London; Morgan didn’t want the work but Rees did so he employed his own police contacts to moonlight. The contract then turned sour when Rees personally took the night’s takings, which was £18,280, from the auction to a bank that night as a ‘favour’ only to allegedly find that the night safe had been glued shut. By his own admission, Rees then took the money home but claimed that it was stolen by two masked robbers who sprayed him in the face with ammonia (Who Killed Daniel Morgan? Britain’s Most Investigated Murder by Peter Jukes & Alastair Morgan). The alleged robbery was never solved but it’s believed that it was part of an elaborate scam. Rees had agreed to pay the money back but Morgan refused to pay it from funds from Southern Investigations because he felt as though Rees was responsible for the loss (The Independent, 9 June, 2007 – ‘Twenty Years on, Police Close in on Detective’s Killers’).

Once again, the case would collapse and the handling of the investigation received major criticism. Despite this, the Metropolitan police would come forward and accept that corrupt police officers in the force had protected the killers.

After Rees’ release from jail and after the collapse of the most recent investigation, he would go on to work with News of the World who paid him to provide illegally obtained information about celebrities and people in the public eye, including the Royal family. During his employment, Rees had a network of corrupt police officers who were more than willing to obtain confidential records for him. It would even be alleged that Rees had commissioned burglaries on behalf of journalists. At one point in time, the Metropolitan police were conducting an inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal, which was known as Operation Weeting. The Guardian would question why they had excluded a large portion of Jonathan’s material from the investigation.

Home secretary Theresa May would set up another inquiry into the murder case in 2013. It was originally chaired by Sir Stanley Burnton, who was a former court of appeal judge. However, within just months he would resign over interpretations of the inquiry’s role. The panel on the inquiry were wanting to look into police involvement in the murder as well as what role corruption had to play. Just the following year, Rees, Fillery and the Vian brothers would file a £4 million lawsuit against the Metropolitan police. Fillery would be awarded £25,000 in interim damages while Rees and the Vian brothers would be awarded damages of £414,000.

In June of 2021, the independent inquiry into Morgan’s murder described the Metropolitan police as ‘institutionally corrupt’ and accused them of placing concerns of their reputation above confronting corruption. Lady O’Loan, who was the panel chair, said: ‘We believe the Metropolitan police’s first objective was to protect itself. In so doing, it compounded the suffering and trauma of the family. The Metropolitan police were not honest in their dealings with Daniel Morgan’s family, or the public. The family and the public are owed an apology.’ (The Guardian, 16 June, 2021 – ‘Institutionally Corrupt: Daniel Morgan Inquiry Condemns Met’). The scathing findings of the independent inquiry were a massive victory for Morgan’s family who had been seeking justice for 34 long years. It was a step in the right direction fight for accountability for Morgan and his family who said they felt as though they had been ‘lied to, fobbed off, bullied and degraded’ by the Metropolitan police as well as other institutions they should have been able to rely on (The Guardian, 16 June, 2021 – ‘Institutionally Corrupt: Daniel Morgan Inquiry Condemns Met’).

Within just hours of the findings being publicized, the Metropolitan police rejected the findings.

Despite five police investigations into the murder of Daniel Morgan, the case still remains unsolved. His family are adamant that he was murdered to prevent him going public with information he had uncovered about police corruption. His brother, Alastair Morgan, said: ‘There has been a systematic cover-up from the top of the Met down.’ (Evening Standard, 15 October, 2004 – ‘Battle to Reopen Investigation into Axe Murder’).