The Bent copper and the Stockwell Six
In July 2021, three black men who’d been framed by a white, corrupt police officer almost half a century previously were finally vindicated by the Court of Appeal. By this point in their 60s, Courtney Harriot, Cleveland Davidson and Paul Green were part of the Stockwell Six, so-called because they and three other friends had been arrested on the London Underground after getting on at Stockwell station in 1972. The man who arrested them was DS Derek Ridgewell, an undercover officer who claimed the six young black men had tried to rob him.
At the trial of the Stockwell Six, Ridgewell claimed Courtney Harriot had snapped his fingers, pulled out a knife and demanded money. Ridgewell had then allegedly struck him with a concealed truncheon before arresting the men with the aid of other officers who’d come into the train carriage. All six friends pleaded not guilty, and all but one were convicted and sent to prison or borstal. Just a year later, the BBC’s Nationwide programme looked into the case and showed there was no way that Ridgewell’s stated sequence of events would have time to play out in the alleged timeframe.
Nevertheless, almost five decades would elapse before Harriot, Green and Davidson had their convictions overturned and their names cleared. ‘It’s vindication that we were innocent at the time,’ Davidson said after the Court of Appeal’s ruling. ‘We were only young then, we did nothing. It was a total stitch-up, it was a frame-up for nothing.’ Since then, a fourth member of the Stockwell Six – Texo Johnson – has begun proceedings to clear his name.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the case is that this was far from Derek Ridgewell’s only infraction. He was a notoriously crooked copper with an established MO of accusing innocent people of crimes. In fact, just a short while before the clearing of half of the Stockwell Six, another group of black men known as the Oval Four had their convictions overturned.
Winston Trew, George Griffiths, Sterling Christie and Omar Boucher had been arrested in 1972 at Oval station, on suspicion of stealing handbags. One of the officers applied so much pressure to Trew’s neck that he felt he was being strangled. An eyewitness would later testify during the trial that Trew’s ‘eyes seemed to be coming out of his head and his mouth was open as if he was choking to death.’
The officer who’d led the arrests of the Oval Four was Derek Ridgewell. The four were eventually given prison sentences for the alleged crime and would have to wait until 2019 and 2020 to have all their convictions quashed. In Rot at the Core, a book he co-wrote about Ridgewell, Trew movingly described the feeling of gross injustice which dogged him during the decades between conviction and vindication: ‘Before long, it became a feature in my dreams-cum-nightmares and had a recurring theme: I was trapped in a place from which I could not escape.’
It was only when Ridgewell arrested a pair of innocent young Jesuit students at Tottenham Court Road underground station in 1973 that his warped MO began to raise eyebrows. The judge at the Tottenham Court Road Two’s trial halted proceedings, saying ‘I find it terrible that here in London people using public transport should be pounced upon by police officers without a word.’
Yet Ridgewell’s corruption continued unabated. Moved to another section to investigate mailbag theft, he targeted three young friends in 1975, who were arrested on suspicion of stealing mailbags. One of them, Stephen Simmons, was sent to borstal the following year, and it wasn’t until 2018 that the Court of Appeal threw out the conviction. Speaking afterwards, Simmons said, ‘One of the hardest things for me was that my parents did not believe me because they were of the generation that believed that the police could not lie.’
Ridgewell finally became unstuck when he went into cahoots with criminals to split the profits from stolen mailbags. Exposed and convicted, he was given a seven-year sentence in 1980 and died in jail from apparently natural causes aged just 37. When asked by one prison governor what led him to become one of the most corrupt officers in living memory, his answer was blunt: ‘I just went bent.’
The men he’d stitched up had to live for decades with the knowledge that they were regarded as criminals in the eyes of the law. Stephen Simmons later told the press that the false convictions had caused him ill-health and led one of his friends to become an alcoholic. Cleveland Davidson of the Stockwell Six described how ‘for 50 years, it affected me… I haven’t been the same. My family didn’t believe me, no one believed me because they thought “well, you must’ve done something”.’
Perhaps the most damning words of all on the subject of Ridgewell were pronounced by former DS Graham Satchwell, who co-wrote Rot to the Core with Oval Four member Winston Trew. ‘The story of Ridgewell and how he got away with it for so long is as close to a Line of Duty story as anything else I have come across in real life,’ he said ‘Good men stood by and did nothing.’