‘She had over 40 stabs to her body. It was a scene out of a horror movie.’ Ted Hynds, Journalist
Rachel Jane Nickell is born to Andrew, an army officer, and Monica on 23rd November 1968. She is brought up in the Essex village of Great Totham, near Colchester. Rachel’s naturally charitable and she helps out with both the old folk and disabled children in the area. Aged 11 she goes to Colchester High School for Girls and in her spare time she tries her hand at acting, singing and dancing at the Essex Dance Theatre. Her teachers think she’s a natural but rather than immediately pursue the arts, she continues her academic studies with an English and History degree.
Rachel supports herself by working as a lifeguard in a pool in Richmond, London. In 1988, while working there, she meets Andre Hanscombe, a motorbike courier and a year later, they have a son, Alex. They move in together in Balham, South London.
She puts Alex before her degree and isn’t interested when she’s offered modelling work. Instead, she hopes to make it as a children’s television presenter. She’s a natural on camera as seen in one home video, taken on a cold, misty day, where she runs towards the lens laughing.
15 JULY 1992
It’s a warm Wednesday morning in July as Rachel, now 23, readies her son for a walk on Wimbledon Common. Within two hours, she will be dead, murdered in a popular beauty spot.
Across London, on the tough Alton estate in Roehampton, 31-year-old Colin Stagg wakes early and prepares his dog for a walk. Colin’s lived on the estate since childhood, but, now unemployed, his daily concerns rotate around making sure his pet is fed, and that he’s got enough money for cigarettes. On this particular morning he’s got a really bad headache. His usual long walk is shortened to just going around the Scio Pond (the nearest pond to his home) and back. At 9:25am, with his headache still hurting, he takes painkillers and tries to sleep it off on the sofa.
As Colin rests, Rachel and Alex walk their pet Labrador Molly along a much used path. They’re enjoying the gentle breeze and the early summer sun and are just 200 yards from many other parents also walking with their children. But Rachel and Alex are being stalked. The time is around 10:20am.
They’re laughing as they stroll along. Alex will be three in a month’s time and it’s possible he’s thinking about his upcoming birthday.
Alex picks up the bank notes that have scattered from her mother’s pocket and tries to give them back to her. He places one on her blood stained face, almost like a plaster. A woman comes across the blood soaked boy next to his mother’s body under a silver birch tree. The police flood the area trying to contain a crime scene of over 1000 acres and with potentially 500 witnesses.
Colin Stagg is unaware of any of this, and with his headache calming down and the day warming up, he changes his clothes and decides to take his dog for a longer walk. This decision will affect the rest of his life. He walks through the underpass of Putney Vale cemetery and then meets a uniformed officer who says he can’t go onto the Common because they’ve found a body. Colin volunteers the fact that he’s been on the Common already that morning and helpfully gives his name and address. Unable, yet again, to do his intended walk, Colin returns home.
1986: Robert Napper is fined and given a conditional discharge after being found in possession of an airgun.
March 1992: Napper tries to rape a 17-year-old girl. Eight days later, he sexually assaults another teenage girl at knifepoint.
May 1992: Napper grabs a 22-year-old mother pushing her two-year-old daughter in a buggy along the Green Chain Walk in broad daylight. He strangles, batters and rapes her.
July 1992: Napper murders Rachel Jane Nickell. The only witness is her two-year-old son.
August 1993: Police interview Napper after a couple complain about him spying on a young blonde in her flat. The officers’ notes read "Subject strange, abnormal, should be considered as a possible rapist, indecency type suspect."
September 1993: Police first arrest Colin Stagg.
November 1993: Robert Napper rapes and murders 28-year-old Samantha Bisset, and Jazmine, her four-year-old daughter.
May 1994: Napper is placed under police surveillance.
September 1994: The case against Colin Stagg collapses as Mr Justice Ognall condemns the "honey trap" as "deceptive conduct of the grossest kind".
October 1995: Napper admits manslaughter due to diminished responsibility.
1998: ‘Lizzie James’, the undercover detective, now 33, takes early retirement.
2001: ‘Lizzie James’, the undercover detective receives £125,000 from the Met in an out of court settlement. Alex Hanscombe, Rachel’s son, receives just £90,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority
September 2003: New DNA profiling matches Napper to the Nickell killing
Summer 2007: Colin Stagg receives a record compensation payment of £700,000 from the Home Office
December 2008: Robert Napper pleads guilty to Nickell’s murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility. For the first time, the Met police apologise to Colin Stagg when assistant commissioner John Yates writes to him and makes a public statement of regret.
June 2009: The Independent Police Complaints Commission release a damning report concluding that the Met had missed many opportunities to stop Napper before he killed Rachel.
2010: Andre and Alex Hanscombe lodge a complaint over the Met’s failure to capture Napper with the European Court of Human Rights.
2011: Alex Hanscombe gives his first ever interview to the press. The little boy whose earliest memories are of seeing his mother murdered, and who has spent the rest of his life abroad as a result, comes across as a young man remarkably lacking in self pity, bitterness, or the need for revenge.
In August 2008, Colin Stagg receives record compensation and recognition of the fact that he was always innocent. One of the first things he does is give £5,000 to a wounded veteran’s charity. He still lives in the same council house on the Alton estate, except now, he can afford to buy it. And he still likes to take his dog, Jessie, for a walk.
No one from the police is ever disciplined or sacked as a result of the police’s failings. All charges of professional misconduct were dismissed against Paul Britton in October 2002. However, Scotland Yard dramatically change their tactics and their use of specialists, meaning that some now claim that it is the most effective way of investigating murder anywhere in the world.
THE NICKELL FAMILY
"I can still see the knife in the killer’s hand and my mother covered in blood", says Alex Hanscombe, remembering the murder 18 years later. Alex spent years suffering from nightmares. The trauma is so great, he can’t share them with the police, his psychologists or his father, Andre. To escape the media, Andre takes him to France just a few months after the murder, and then to a small village in Spain, where they settle. Andre hires a female tutor but the lack of a mother is too great and Alex often takes his anger out on Andre.
However, after an understandably troubled adolescence, Alex has settled down.Alex is given what his grandparents consider a "derisory" amount by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for the loss of his mother. His grandparents are further hurt by their grandson’s distance as he is their last living reminder of their daughter. They have not seen him since he was eight.‘…the pain remains with you every minute of every day...We hope the man who committed the crime will spend the rest of his life in prison. That is the sentence he has given us.’ - Monica Nickell
Robert Napper has been remanded in Broadmoor Hospital indefinitely. He is suspected of carrying out 106 rapes, indecent assaults and other sex offences. He refuses to admit to anything for which there is no forensic evidence. His mother has disowned him and has burnt every family photo she had of him.
The public prepare to see Colin Stagg put on trial. He’s spent a year in custody and the police and prosecution are confident of their material. But Colin’s defence team employ specialists who find the case against him littered with mistakes and entrapment. The judge agrees and dismisses it as a "honey trap". After taking 4,500 statements, and spending £3m in the largest murder investigation in British history, they’re left with nothing.
But Colin’s ordeal is far from over. He’s about to face trial by tabloid media. He’s mobbed outside the court with shouts of "Hang him...Guilty, guilty!". The police tell Nickell’s father they will keep the file open but will not pursue anyone else. The implication is clear. Colin Stagg has gotten away with murder. Colin returns to his flat where he will spend the next 14 years as a social pariah.
In October 1995, Napper pleads guilty to the Bissett murders. He also admits to one rape and two attempted rapes of women he’d stalked on the Green Chain Walk. Sentencing him, the judge states: "You present a grave and immediate risk to the public." But when questioned, Napper insists he was at work on the day Nickell was killed. It would be another seven years before there’d be a breakthrough. Forensic scientists find very small paint flecks that they‘re able to match with Napper’s metal toolbox. On 18 December 2008, he’s charged with Rachel Nickell’s murder. Her partner, Andre, travels from Spain to see him sent down.
By focusing on Colin Stagg, the police miss vital clues. In the summer of 1989, there was a brutal rape in Plumstead, South East London. A woman was getting her children ready for school with the back door left open. She turns around after drying her hair to see the offender with a knife threatening her and her kids if she didn’t comply. It was the first of many such attacks by the same man over the next four years.
THE GREEN CHAIN RAPES
In August that year, the rapist, Robert Napper confesses all to his mother. She believes him and rings the police. But her call and the crime are tragically not matched. Robert Clive Napper is one of a very unusual and mercifully small group of sexually sadistic serial killers. His mother was concerned about him from the start and sent him for assessment. He returned and said,"The psychiatrist thinks I’m mad". There’s some suggestion that Robert was abused as a child by someone quite close. (One report alleges he was raped, tellingly, during the day, in the woods near his home.) He also suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and grows up increasingly isolated, though he does manage to secure work as a warehouseman at the Ministry of Defence.
After his first attack on a woman, he often hunts around the Green Chain Walk, a string of leafy pathways linking a lot of South East London. Just weeks before he kills Nickell, he attacks a woman with a child. He jumps out, pushes her to the ground and strangles her as he rapes her in front of her child. The similarities between this and the Nickell murder are obvious, but they’re not connected. Napper’s psychosis means he believes he’s untouchable. Police mistakes mean that for too long a time, this will be the case. When the police release a photofit of the Green Chain rapist, two sets of neighbours positively identify him. On both occasions, he doesn’t turn up at the police station to give blood samples. Incredibly, he’s never pursued.
THE PLUMSTEAD RIPPER
16 months after Nickell’s murder, in November 1993, London is shocked by another vicious killing. Samantha Bisset had adopted the ‘New Age Traveller’ lifestyle in her youth, but had since become a very focused caring mother. Her four-year-old, Jazmine, melts everyone’s hearts. Napper stalks them both. Samantha doesn’t have curtains in her basement flat and has no problem with walking around inside naked. When she thinks she sees a man at the window, her attitude changes. It’s too late. She tries to resist Napper as he enters her home but just one of the knife wounds severs her spinal cord.
Samantha’s boyfriend is the first to discover the aftermath. He sees a stain on the carpet. Elsewhere, it’s carpeted with clothes. Under some of them, is Samantha. Her body has been cut open from her chest to her genitals. Her rib cage has been pulled back to expose her internal organs, and each one has been stabbed. Someone has attempted to slice off her leg and a piece of her abdomen has been taken as a trophy. The boyfriend enters Jazmine’s room hoping she’s survived. But she too is covered. The murdered four year old has also been raped. A police photographer who later records these scenes is unable to ever work again.
Detective Superintendent Micky Banks leads ‘The Plumstead Ripper’ investigation. And he links it with ‘The Green Chain Rapist’ and the Rachel Nickell murder. Unbelievably, the profiler Paul Britton is on all three cases, but he fails to make this connection. And the Green Chain investigators have already discounted Napper because, at 6ft 2in, he’s too tall for their suspect, and the Nickell squad are convinced that Colin Stagg is their man.
Forensics find Napper’s fingerprints at the Bissett murder scene. Napper’s fingerprints are on record from eight previous police meetings. One, in 1992, saw him arrested for stalking a civilian police employee who lived in Plumstead. At Napper’s flat, they find a book of maps of the London area with several markings around Plumstead and comments about how women should be wrapped in cling film and be abused. They don’t make any links.The Bissett detectives do and place Napper under surveillance on 20th May 1994. They arrest and interview him. Napper remains stone cold calm throughout. A knife found on the Common the previous August, is matched to Napper. But despite a knife with his fingerprints being found, no connection is made to the Nickell case, and the possibility that Colin Stagg is innocent.
The police assemble a crack team but it’s hindered from the start by a lack of evidence. There is a minute speck of what’s considered at the time as organic material. But science in 1992 isn’t advanced enough to look at its DNA. And after a month of investigation, the police can’t even categorically say whether Rachel’s killer was male or female. So they take the unusual step of calling in a profiler, Paul Britton.
Britton is a renowned criminal psychologist, and has helped with the successful return of the abducted estate agent, Stephanie Slater. He provides two profiles.
Demographic: The killer is someone in their 20s or 30s, probably lives on their own, engages only in isolated hobbies, and probably doesn’t live far from the Common.
Sexual Fantasy: The killer will be interested in the occult and knives and will have sexually sadistic fantasies.
These profiles, along with a photo-fit, are featured in a national TV appeal. At least four people call in identifying the suspect as Colin Francis Stagg. Early one morning, Colin hears a knock on the door. Next thing he knows, he’s being interviewed at a police station. Having never been arrested before, Colin finds the experience like being in "a different world".
For the police, Colin is their only remaining lead. After ruling out 548 suspects, and arresting and releasing 32 other men, the fact that Colin has books on the occult seems to be the first piece of the jigsaw matching Britton’s profile. They question him over three days as they search for past matching incidents. Catastrophically, for all concerned, Colin is matched to a complaint by a woman that he exposed himself to her. Colin maintains he was just nude sunbathing in a secluded spot and she came across him. His solicitor advises to take the fine and Colin, desperate to leave, accepts and goes home. The police take this as proof of his sexual deviancy and are further convinced when a female factory worker contacts them. She says she’d exchanged letters with Colin in which he’d fantasised about making love in the open air. The police join the dots between this, and the fact that Nickell was killed in the open air.
Under incredible pressure from the press and their own bosses, the police launch the fantastically misconceived Operation Edzell. An undercover officer, ‘Lizzie James’, under the guidance of Britton, starts writing to Colin. Lizzie says that she knows the female factory worker Colin corresponded with but hints to him that she is much more open minded. Colin, a virgin, is flattered and writes back in hope. His naive innocence is evident. As she writes of risqué fantasies, he responds with dreams of drinking parsnip wine on a veranda. So Lizzie talks of the need to be defenceless and humiliated. Colin, desperate for sex, responds virtually word for word to her fantasies. But desperate not to offend, he always adds that he’s sorry if he’s overstepped the mark, as he’d still really, really like to meet her.
The police decide it’s time. Colin meets his attractive blonde pen friend in a public park swamped by undercover officers. Over lunch, Lizzie claims her former boyfriend was into black magic and they have done a human sacrifice involving a pregnant woman and a baby. Colin first thoughts are that she’s a nutter. His second thoughts are, however, that she is very attractive, and that he still wants to sleep with her. On one of their next meetings, Lizzie says she could only have sex with the man who did the Nickell murder. Colin actually apologises. He says he’s not that man. Despite this, the police arrest Colin in August 1993.
In the interview room, the police read him back his letters and introduce him to ‘Lizzie’. On his solicitor’s advice, he responds "no comment" to every question. The murder squad celebrate that their prime suspect is in jail. In fact, one of the worst killers in British history is spending the autumn preparing for his next brutal rape and murder.
The Key Figures
Rachel Nickell - Victim
Robert Napper - The murderer - currently in Broadmoor prison for murder
Colin Stagg - Accused and then acquitted
Paul Britton - Criminal psychologist
Lizzie James (fake name) - ‘Honey Trap’ policewoman
Mr Justice Ognall - Judge