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James Hanratty: The A6 Murder

Crime Files
James Hanratty: The A6 Murder

“I’m dying tomorrow. But I’m innocent. Clear my name.” James Hanratty speaking to his family on 3 April 1962 James and Mary Hanratty had their first son in 1936.Taking his father’s name, James was the oldest of four brothers. “...war seems to me to play an important role in his childhood, and in the development of the man he was to become.His father is in the army, often absent from the home. And then in 1944, when London is being bombarded by doodlebugs, James, and his younger brother, Michael, are evacuated to Barrow in Furness in Cumberland.” David Wilson, Criminologist Hitler’s new flying bomb first hit London in June 1944. The intensification in the bombing campaign lead to a child exodus from London.James was just one of 800,000 child evacuees from Britain’s towns and cities. The fostering of these little refugees was often haphazard and occasionally callous: “James is in a large hall with his brother Michael and a couple come up. And they choose James without his brother.James refuses to go, and instead says; ‘I won’t go unless my brother can come with me.’ ...his childhood is dominated by war, dominated by an absent father, and dominated by being evacuated and building up a relationship with his younger brother.”

A year later, in 1952, Hanratty had an accident. He fell off his bike and was unconscious for ten hours: “When he awakes from this accident, his behaviour is odd. For example he takes the family’s ration book with his younger brother, Michael, and goes and buys sweets, gives all of the sweets to Michael, and then disappears.He simply doesn’t turn up at home. His parents clearly are very worried about him, and they eventually discover him some four weeks later.He’s been living in Brighton.He has been loading logs onto a lorry to try and make ends meet. But he’s in a very bad shape. He’s suffering from exposure. He’s taken to hospital... they do certain exploratory operations...They aren’t able to discover any brain injuries...all that we know from that medical examination is they described him as mentally defective.”David Wilson James returned home to Wembley. But he didn’t return to the job he hated. Instead, now aged 18, he started thieving. He stole a motorbike. He was caught and given a conditional discharge. Having not even passed his driving test, he was banned from driving.This inauspicious start to his criminal career was a portent of things to come. Two months later, in November 1954, James had his National Service medical. He failed. He was classed Grade Three Unfit. He was illiterate. Being only marginally less of a failure as a criminal, James returned to his illegal activities. His petty thievery ranged from robbing houses to stealing cars.The latter meant he had to be able to drive off any type of a car at a moment’s notice. James’ criminal career earned him a living but also, in 1955, his first custodial sentence. Prison is often considered an occupational hazard for the professional criminal but James couldn’t cope inside. Soon after entering, he slashed his wrists. As with most things, he failed in his suicide attempt.

He served two years in prison. In 1961, James, now 24, was released from Strangeways. The last seven years had been a revolving door of prisons. He vowed never to return. “...he started worked with my father. He got a window cleaning business going, and he thought that would please Jimmy...and Jimmy was over the moon – he was laughing, he had a tan; you know he was well into it.Then my father went on holiday with my other younger brothers...and he left Jimmy to run the window cleaning business...Jimmy got bored, and away he went.” Michael Hanratty, James’ brother Window cleaning in Wembley didn’t compare to the West End’s bright lights and glitz and glamour.It’s burgeoning bars and nightclubs welcomed criminals, like the Kray Twins, as they gave a certain frisson to their establishments. But whereas Ronnie had Reggie, James had Charles France. His partner in crime helped him fence stolen goods but, like James, Charles was no criminal mastermind. Charles’ daughter did help dye James’ distinctly red hair black but his testimony would later prove damning:“Charles France provides us with a piece of information which is very important in relation to the Hanratty story...he advises the police later that Hanratty had said that the best place to dispose of any particular stolen goods, or any material that...could connect him to a crime, was by hiding it under...the back seat of a bus. And that piece of information will come back later in this jump between committing property crime into relation to the crime of murder.”David Wilson, Criminologist“I am convinced, 100%, that my brother Jimmy didn’t do this. The man who done this was a monster, and Jimmy was no monster.”Michael Hanratty


22/8/1961: A6 murders takes place 24/8/1961: Gun found at the back of 36A bus in London 11/10/1961: Hanratty caught and arrested while fleeing to Blackpool 22/1/1962: Trial of Hanratty begins at Bedford 4/4/1962: Hanratty hanged at Bedford Prison

The Aftermath

The wrong man?

In 1967 Peter Alphon allegedly confessed to the A6 murder. However, he later ‘protested his innocence.’CAUSE CELEBREJohn Lennon and Yoko Ono met with Hanratty’s parents. They gave their celebrity backing to the growing campaign for James to be exonerated.“I have been involved in a lot of injustice cases...Birmingham 6, Guildford 4...and really everything that comes out in the Hanratty case just simply proves what went on in all of those cases. The same old story, that certainty, the certainty of having the suspects and bending the evidence to fit the suspects. This is exactly what’s happened in this case.”Paul Foot, Author, ‘Who Killed Hanratty?’

INNOCENT?Did the wrong man hang?Mary Lanz of the Old Station Inn, Taplow, where Michael Gregsten and Valerie Storie had last been seen before they parked in the cornfield, was later able to identify Peter Alphon, the original suspect, as having also been there.A group of people called the 'A6 Defence Committee' was set up to assist Hanratty in his posthumous defence. Twelve years after the execution, the A6 Committee found the original statement made by Valerie Storie had not been referred to during the trial or the appeal. Storie had originally stated that the man who abducted her was in his 30s. In her second statement she changed this to 'mid 20s'. Hanratty was 25, but Alphon was 31.In 1968, the A6 Committee found six substantial witnesses to show that the defendant had in fact been to the north Wales coast town of Rhyl. A fairground worker called Terry Evans also admitted to letting Hanratty stay at his house early in 1961, and to fencing a stolen watch for Hanratty.Another man, Trevor Dutton, had just made a payment into his bank account and consequently his bank book was stamped with the correct date, 23 August, when minutes later he was approached by a man with a ‘cockney accent’ in a smart suit, trying to sell a gold watch.Richard Hanratty, the youngest of the brothers, said that his parents visited the Home Secretary in 1973. He is believed to have said that he could have freed their son if he was in prison and had not been hanged.In 1997, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) conducted its own inquiry into the original investigation. The CCRC multi-million pound investigation discovered enough serious flaws in the original police inquiry to justify re-opening the case.This led to a re-examination using forensic testing.Document specialist David Baxendale focused on two crucial police interviews with Hanratty. Using something called the ESDA test he established that pages were missing from both of these. Hanratty had always denied making the statements recorded by the police and that there were things missing.In fact, further investigations found ‘two or three thousand undisclosed statements’.The two main police in charge of the interviews and the original investigation, Detective Superintendent Acott and his deputy Kenneth Oxford were found to have withheld crucial evidence, including witness sightings and the car log book of the murder car.When James’ family discovered the extent to which the police had influenced the investigation, their response was both emphatic and emotive:“Alcott and Oxford murdered my brother.”Michael HanrattyJames’ mother and brother provided DNA samples to enable comparisons with the surviving evidence in order to clear their loved one.

GUILTY?But scientists found a familial match to exhibits used in the original trial. These were Miss Storie’s underwear, exhibit 26, and the handkerchief wrapped round the 38. Calibre pistol.Lawyers for the Crown said the DNA was two and a half million times more likely to belong to Hanratty than anyone else.To put it beyond doubt, an exhumation was ordered. DNA was now taken from James’ teeth.In 2002, after matches were made, appeal court judges said the tests put James’ guilt "beyond doubt".BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT?But many question the quality of the DNA where it is so degraded, of poor quality and is in such a small quantity. And the exhibits used were stored two decades before the technique of genetic profiling was invented. Clothing from Hanratty and Valerie Storie were transported to and from the court in the same cardboard boxes.“...those exhibits had been kept in custody for forty years. Contamination is possible.”John Eddleston, AuthorThe argument against this is that there is only one profile on Valerie’s clothing. If there was contamination, there would be expected to be evidence of Hanratty and another unknown. There wasn’t.In the hope of settling the matter once and for all, in December 2010 it was announced that a third appeal would be launched. The challenge will focus on doubts about the DNA tests used by Appeal Court Judges to uphold his conviction. The family’s long-standing solicitor, Sir Geoffrey Bindman confirmed he would be spearheading another attempt.But no matter what the verdict, James’ brothers will never give up.“My parents went to their graves broken-hearted over James.”Richard Hanratty

The Trial

Lengthy Trial

The trial of James Hanratty at Bedford Assizes was to last 21 days. At the time, this would make it the longest in British legal history.Hanratty is put on trial for the murder of Michael Gregsten. The procedure at the time is to prosecute someone for the most serious of his or her offences. So he doesn’t stand trial for the rape and attempted murder of Valerie Storie. But Valerie is the key witness of the prosecution and upon whom the entire prosecution depends.Among the prosecution team is Geoffrey Lane who would go onto to become Lord Chief Justice.The defence for Hanratty initially appears sound as they claim their client was 200 miles away in Liverpool on the day of the murder.But for some unknown reason, on the third day, Hanratty then claims he was in a bed and breakfast in Rhyl, North Wales:“He remembered staying in the attic room. He gave an exact layout of the hotel, and he remembers that the bathroom had...a green bathroom suite. The hotel was traced. The landlady recalled a man fitting Hanratty’s description coming on the night of the murder. The hotel plan that Hanratty had constructed matched exactly. There was even a green bathroom suite. But, of course, by this time, he’d cut his own throat – he’d changed his alibi mid-stream.”John Eddleston

“He was not a man whose first thought was to tell the truth.”Sir Geoffrey Bindman, Hanratty family lawyer and campaigner of 40 yearsThis change of alibi and Valerie’s positive identification doubly damns Hanratty.Valerie is the key witness against him, Valerie Storie, is brought into court on a stretcher. She gives her evidence from a wheelchair. The jury are sympathetic to everything she says. But the facts are that she picked out the wrong man on the first identity parade and could only have seen the killer for the briefest of moments in the worst of all conditions.And Hanratty is a convicted criminal - a petty criminal with a baby face demeanour admittedly - but still a criminal.And on top of Valerie’s identification, James Trower and John Skillet swear on oath they’d seen Hanratty driving Michael Gregsten’s car.“The witness may be perfectly honest, absolutely convinced that he or she has identified the right man or woman and you’re not going to be able to cross-examine them to show that they’re lying because they’re not lying. They’re telling the truth as they see it.”Michael Sherrard, Defence, interviewed in 2002

There was no forensic evidence against Hanratty save that of his blood group being the same as the murderer. But it was a common blood group shared by millions. Nothing linked Hanratty to the scene of the crime. He didn’t know the two victims and had no logical motive for abducting them.MEAT, SALAD, PEACHES AND CREAMAt 11:22am on 17 February 1962, the jury file out to consider their verdict.The judge refuses their request for a transcript of the proceedings. But he does give them a list of the witnesses and the 136 exhibits in the case.The jury eat cold meat and salad and peaches and cream for their lunch as they chewed over whether Hanratty should live or die.After six hours the jury return to ask the judge for a definition of ‘reasonable doubt’.At ten past nine that evening, Hanratty watches anxiously as the jury comes back into the main courtroom.They pronounce James Hanratty guilty of murder.They have taken just ten hours to reach that verdict.The judge asks Hanratty if he has anything to say:“I’m innocent my Lord. I will appeal.”With that the judge dons the black cloth and condemns Hanratty to death.“Sherrard come down, and he was as white as a sheet, and he said to me mother, ‘Sorry – he’s been found guilty.’ So Mother collapsed, father was...It’s just like, if something’s blew’d been in a, in a room with a bomb in it...for about 15, 20 minutes, you didn’t know where you were.”Michael Hanratty, James’ brotherThe defence puts forward an appeal and a petition gathers more than 90,000 signatures.The appeal is dismissed on 9 March.“Honestly, dad – I had nothing to do with it...They set me up.”Hanratty to his father“Mick, I want you to carry on with this...the truth will come out one day.”Hanratty to his brotherJames’ youngest brother Richard is only 15 and so had been considered too young to attend the trial. He is now not even allowed to say goodbye before James goes to the gallows.END LEGAL MURDERPlacard of protestor outside Bedford PrisonJust six weeks after being sentenced, at 8am on 4 April 1962, 25-year-old James Hanratty is hanged.“ was dreadful – like a nightmare. I mean, it’s bad enough, if you believed he’d done it, but when you believe he didn’t do it, that makes it twice as hard.”Michael HanrattyJames is one of the last people to be executed by the state before the abolition of capital punishment.The decision by MPs to abolish the death penalty in 1965 is said to have been influenced by concerns over whether Hanratty should have died.

The Suspects

Guns in the basement

Peter Louis Alphon is ‘a bit of a Del Boy character’. He admits he hasn’t been out of his hotel room for several days but says he’s not been involved in the A6 murder. He says that on the night of the killing he was staying at a different hotel – ‘a Maida Vale dosshouse’ - The Vienna Hotel.On 11 September, a hotel worker at the Vienna Hotel, William Nudds, finds two gun cartridges in a basement guest room.The cartridges are tested. Ballistics match them to the murder weapon.The hotel manager confirms Alphon had stayed at the Vienna.

ACOTT & OXFORDSuperintendent Robert Acott and Detective Sergeant Oxford are in charge of the case. Their prime suspect, Peter Louis Alphon, fits the profile.But he has an alibi…Alphon says he was with his mother. The police put him in an identity parade.The paralysed Valerie Storie fails to pick him out. In fact, she goes straight past him and picks an innocent airman who was there just to make up the numbers.So the police focus on the occupant in the Vienna Hotel before Alpon. The register lists him as ‘Mr J.Ryan.’The details of J. Ryan are published in the newspapers. A nationwide search is launched. Then a man from Ireland rings to say he’s had a man staying with him called J. Ryan. As this J.Ryan wasn’t a good writer, he’d asked the man to write some postcards for him. One was for the man’s mother: Mary Hanratty.Aware that he’s now a wanted man, Hanratty rings the police three times to tell them they’re after the wrong person.Like Alphon, he says he has an alibi: He was in Liverpool on the night of the murder.“Acott and Oxford come round to my house, and said to my mother and father that Jimmy was wanted for car thieving, some cock and bull story, like that. And then, next time he come, I thought, it’s something bigger than that...then he said it – we want to enquire about the A6 murder.”Michael Hanratty, James’ brother“The A6 murder was a sensational murder. It went to the heart of post-war England. ...we’re not talking about the late which time the Krays and everybody are well-known in popular culture. We’re talking about 1961. And here is a cold-blooded murder, nearly a double murder. A gun has been used at a time when gun violence was almost unheard of...the police were under a great deal of pressure.” David Wilson 

On 11 October, Hanratty is arrested in Blackpool.In London, Alcott and Oxford interrogate him. Hanratty says he has an alibi. He was in Liverpool with three friends. But he won’t name them.So the police ask Valerie Storie to do another identity parade.Hanratty has since tried to disguise himself by dying his hair again:“he didn’t do a very good job of it and it came out bright orange. He actually looked like a Belisha beacon. And in the identity parade, the police themselves at one stage thought, this is unfair. We have to give them all skull caps or hats, so that he doesn’t stand out like this. But they didn’t.”John EddlestonThe suspect all have to repeat the phrase used by the killer; “I’m thinking”. Hanratty has a Cockney accent, like the killer had, and so pronounces it as “I’m finking.”One of the two gentlemen cut up by the Morris Minor also identifies Hanratty as the driver.With two positive identifications, six months after the murder, Hanratty is charged with murder.

The Discovery

John Kerr: “Are you alright?”Valerie Storie: “No. I’ve been shot.”

At 6:45am a farm labourer sees Valerie and alerts John Kerr, an Oxford student carrying out a road census.He finds Valerie. She’s not only still alive, she’s talking. Valerie asks John to tell her parents he’s found her. She’s worried they’ll be concerned that she didn’t return home.He flags down a car that rings for an ambulance and returns to her:

“ seemed to me the right thing to do was to ask her questions straight away, and find out what had happened, just in case...she didn’t last.”John Kerr

Valerie tells John everything from the .38 gun the man used to a description of the killer:

“She said that he was a bit taller than she was, and she said, ‘I’m 5’ 3’, and he had large, staring eyes, and light, fairish hair.”

Hanratty’s hair at that time was dyed black. John took notes of everything she told him on the back of the census forms on his clipboard.When the police arrive a man with a peaked cap approaches John:

“He said, ‘What did you do?, and I said, ‘Well, I talked to her, and made some notes.’ ‘Oh’, he said, ‘have you got them?’; I said, ‘Yes, they’re here.’ He said, ‘Well, you’d better let me have them.’ So I unpinned them from the clipboard...and gave them to him.”

The notes are never presented as evidence in the subsequent trial. Their whereabouts are still a mystery.

Valerie’s transferred to an intensive care ward. Her blood stained clothes are given to a police exhibits officer. A piece of her underwear is marked as Exhibit 26.

Valerie survives. But she is paralysed from the waist down.Michael Gregsten’s mother has to identify her son in situ at the crime scene.His face has ‘been blown off’.

The Morris Minor used as a getaway vehicle is seen later that day:

“It was seen by two gentlemen...being driven at speed and erratically and very badly...when the car cut them up...they pulled up next to it at the traffic lights, and got a good look at the driver. I think they shouted a fair bit of abuse at him as well!”John Eddleston

And later that evening Michael’s Gregsten’s 1956 Morris Minor was found abandoned behind Redbridge Tube station in London.

“The police had also discovered a gun wrapped in a soiled handkerchief in the back seat of a bus...the gun was loaded...(the) ammunition matched the type of bullet that had been used in the A6 murder. So within 48 hours, the police have got the Morris Minor, and they’ve also the murder weapon.”David Wilson

But both the car and the .38 Enfield revolver have been wiped clean of prints.

“The police put out an appeal, through the newspapers mainly, to ask hotel keepers, boarding house keepers, people who do bed and breakfast, if they’ve had anyone staying with them about this time who’s been behaving suspiciously. A gentleman comes forward to say he’s had someone staying at his hotel who fits the vague description that’s been published, and hasn’t been out of his hotel room for five days. The police call on this gentleman, and find out that he is Peter Louis Alphon.”John Eddleston

The Crimes

This is a stick up. I’m a desperate man.

Michael Gregsten is a 36-year-old research scientist at the Road Research Laboratory at Langley, near Slough. Michael is married and he and his wife Janet have two boys, Simon, eight, and Anthony, nearly two.But Michael is having an affair with his 22-year-old lab assistant, Valerie Storie. Their relationship started over a mutual love of car rallies, music and theatre. It had quickly stopped being platonic.One Tuesday after work, Michael picks up Valerie in his Morris Minor and drives her to the Old Station Inn for a drink. Later, at around 9pm, the pair drive to a nearby cornfield in Dorney Reach by the Thames in Buckinghamshire. Once they think they’re away from prying eyes, they have sex.It’s not known for how much of the next 45 minutes they are unobserved.

But they abruptly stop when someone taps on the driver’s window. After the sound, comes the sight of a gun. And then a Cockney voice says;“This is a stick up. I’m a desperate man. Open the back door and let me in.”Valerie tries to make Michael drive off, but frightened they couldn’t get away without injury, Michael lets the man in.The man takes the keys from Michael and sits in the back seat. The bottom of his face is covered with a handkerchief. With that, and the darkness, it’s difficult to identify what he looks like. His words are distinct enough though:“If you do as I tell you, you will be all right”His intentions are, however, far from clear. He forces the couple to drive further into the field.They then sit there for about an hour:“Why is he in a field that’s relatively isolated; isolated enough for a courting couple to be able to have sex? I think the most likely suggestion was that he was driven there by someone else or drove there and his car broke down...There were enough isolated houses locally that one might think he was there because he was burglarizing houses...and whoever had brought him there had left without him. There had been some disagreement? Or the car that he personally drove to get there had broken down and he was looking for some other way to get back?But crucially we’ve got some opportunism here. We’ve got some opportunistic criminal behaviour being displayed by someone who was not used to being in control of two people who were at his mercy.“David Wilson, Criminologist


The gunman then orders Michael to drive to London:“He said he was hungry – he knew a place where he could get some food... They had to stop at a milk bar...They had to stop for more petrol. And the ride took them all over the place, with this man chatting all the time. He said he’d...just done a five-year stretch in prison - he’d been on the run for four months - he hadn’t eaten for two days. And this carried on for a number of hours, until eventually he said;‘I need a kip. I’m tired – I need to kip.’And he repeated the phrase two or three times.”John Eddleston, AuthorHe orders them off the main road - and then back onto it.DEADMAN’S HILLThe couple try to offer him money. But he won’t leave them.At around 1.30am they’re driving south on the A6. He orders Michael to pull into a lay-by at Deadman’s Hill:“The gunman is clearly wondering what he should do with these two people that in effect he’s kidnapped...So he decides that he’s going to tie up Valerie Storie. He asks for Michael Gregsten’s tie, and for some rope, which is in the boot...There’s enough to tie up Valerie Storie’s arms, but not enough rope to tie up Michael Gregsten.”David WilsonBut then the man notices a bag in the car:“...he asked Gregsten to pass it over. Gregsten made the move towards the bag to pass it over - and two shots rang out.”John Eddleston, AuthorTwo bullets rip through the back of Michael Gregsten’s head killing him instantly:“This, for me, reveals a lack of understanding, a lack of insight. That kind of spontaneous behaviour that often you find with some offenders who aren’t particularly skilled or sophisticated.”David Wilson“The first thing Valerie said was,‘You’ve shot him, you b******! – Why have you done that?’He replied;‘He moved too quickly. He spooked me, he frightened me. It was an accident – I didn’t mean to do it.’He then said, a couple of times; ‘Be quiet – I’m thinking’ – but he pronounced the word, ‘finking’, as a Cockney would, so twice;‘Be quiet, I’m finking; be quiet, I’m finking.’John Eddleston 

Valerie is now trapped in a car with a killer. She tries to build a rapport with him. She hopes to avoid the fate of her lover. The man tells her to call him ‘Jim’.“He then – again...the opportunism – he then decides that he would like to kiss Valerie Storie. She refuses. He uses the gun to threaten her.And he rapes her.These are very opportunistic behaviours. These aren’t planned behaviours. Nothing about the A6 murder seems to me to be characterised by planning and organisation.”David WilsonA passing car’s headlights illuminate the man’s face. Does he notice she’s seen him clearly? Is ‘Jim’ worried she’s could identify him as the murderer?He orders her to drag Michael’s body out of the car. She begs not to but at gunpoint, she does.Michael’s body is dumped by the side of the road:“Surprisingly...he asked Valerie to show him how the car worked: How the gears worked; what the pedals were for; how to start the car - which is strange - because later on, of course, Hanratty’s name comes in the frame. He’s an accomplished car driver and car thief.”John EddlestonIndeed, when the engine cuts out, ‘Jim’ has to ask Valerie to show him how to get it going all over again.Valerie is just 22-years-old. She has seen her married lover, her boss, shot dead in front of her. She has been raped by his killer.She has then been forced to give him driving lessons.She just wants it all to be over.And then he fires.Valerie feels the first two shots. She falls to the ground.She lies motionless. Still he shoots another three times.“She has the foresight to stay lying perfectly still, and the assailant believes that she’s dead. He gets into the car, and he drives off. But as he does, the gears are screaming and screeching – he’s not accustomed to driving, certainly this particular model, a Morris Minor.”John EddlestonValerie lies in shock. She’s been shot through the chest and the spine.She’s been through six hours of hell.Now she’ll lie bleeding in a lay-by for another three.


The Key Figures

Michael Gregsten (killed on 22/8/1961)Valerie Storie (raped and shot on 22/8/1961)Geoffrey Lane (for the prosecution. Later Chief Justice)Peter Alphon (original suspect)William Nudds (owner of ‘Vienna’ hotel, Maida Vale)Grace Jones (landlady of hotel in Rhyl, North Wales)