Murder of Rachel Nickell
Rachel Jane Nickell
23 November 1968
|Died||15 July 1992 (aged 23)|
Wimbledon Common, London, England
|Cause of death||Murder|
Rachel Jane Nickell (23 November 1968 – 15 July 1992) was a British woman who was murdered on Wimbledon Common, in South-West London on 15 July 1992. The subsequent initial police investigation of the crime resulted in the arrest in controversial circumstances of an innocent man, who was subsequently acquitted. The perpetrator of the murder was successfully identified by a later police investigation, which secured a conviction in 2008.
Nickell was walking with her young child on Wimbledon Common when she was attacked and murdered by an assailant at that time unknown. A lengthy police investigation to find the perpetrator followed, during which a wrong suspect was charged and acquitted before the case went cold.
In 2002, with more advanced forensic techniques, Scotland Yard reopened the case, and on 18 December 2008 Robert Napper pleaded guilty to Nickell's manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Napper, who was already incarcerated for life at that time for a 1993 double-murder, was sentenced at a court trial to indefinite detention at Broadmoor High Security hospital for the criminally insane.
At the time of her death, Nickell was living near Wimbledon Common with boyfriend André Hanscombe, and their son, Alexander Louis, who was born in 1989. Nickell at the time of her death was a 23 year old full-time mother. On the morning of 15 July 1992, she and her then two-year-old son, were walking with the family's dog on Wimbledon Common. Whilst passing through a secluded area of the common Nickell was attacked by an assailant who sexually assaulted her and murdered her by repeatedly stabbing and slashing her with a knife, who afterwards fled the scene, leaving Alexander physically unharmed in the near vicinity. A passer-by subsequently found Alexander clinging to his mother's body repeating the words, "Wake up, Mummy".
Officers of the Metropolitan Police undertook the investigation, under pressure to find the perpetrator from public outrage at the circumstances of the murder and press coverage. Although 32 men were eventually questioned in connection with the murder, the investigation quickly targeted Colin Stagg, an unemployed man from Roehampton who was known to walk his dog on the Common. As there was no forensic evidence linking Stagg to the scene, the police asked a criminal psychologist to create an offender profile of the killer. They decided that Stagg fitted the profile and asked the psychologist to assist with designing a covert operation, code-named "Operation Ezdell", to see whether Stagg would eliminate or implicate himself. This operation was later criticised by the media and Stagg's trial judge, as in effect a "honeytrap".
An undercover policewoman from the Metropolitan Police's Special Operations Group (SO10) contacted Stagg, posing as a friend of a woman with whom he used to be in contact via a lonely hearts' column. Over a period of five months, she attempted to obtain information from him by feigning a romantic interest, meeting him, speaking to him on the telephone and exchanging letters containing sexual fantasies. During a meeting in Hyde Park, they spoke about the Nickell murder, but Stagg later claimed that he had only played along with the topic because he wanted to pursue the romance. Profiler Paul Britton later said that he disagreed with use of the fantasy-filled letters and knew nothing of them until after they had been sent.
The undercover female police officer won Stagg's confidence and drew out his violent fantasies, but Stagg did not admit to the murder. Police released a taped conversation between the police-officer and Stagg in which she claimed to enjoy hurting people, to which Stagg mumbled: "Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before." When she went on to say, "If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right," Stagg replied: "I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't." Believing, on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service, that there was sufficient evidence to secure a conviction of Stagg in a court trial for the Nickell murder, police arrested and charged him on 17 August 1993 with Nickell's murder.
When the case reached the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Ognall ruled that the police had shown "excessive zeal" and had tried to incriminate a suspect by "deceptive conduct of the grossest kind". He excluded the entrapment evidence and the prosecution withdrew its case. Stagg was formally acquitted in September 1994.
Reinvestigation and conviction
Cold case review
Scotland Yard annually came under pressure for progress on the anniversary of the murder. Under new management, they began to collate evidence and files related to the case from 2000.
In 2002, ten years after the murder, Scotland Yard used a cold case review team, which used refined DNA techniques only recently made available. A small team of officers and retired veteran investigators analysed statements from witnesses, reassessed files on a number of potential suspects, and examined the possibility that the case was linked to other crimes. Officers compared the injuries suffered by Nickell with other attacks and consulted forensic scientists about improvements in DNA matching. In July 2003, reports surfaced that, after 18 months of tests on Nickell's clothes, police had found a male DNA sample which did not match her boyfriend or son. The sample at the time was insufficient to confirm an identity, but was large enough to rule out suspects.
In July 2006, the Scotland Yard team interviewed convicted murderer Robert Napper for two days at Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire. Napper, 40 years of age at that time, had been diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia and Asperger syndrome, and had been held at the secure institution for more than ten years. He had been convicted of the murder of Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine in November 1993, 16 months after Nickell's murder. On 28 November 2007, Napper was charged with Nickell's murder. He appeared at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on 4 December 2007, where he was remanded until another hearing on 20 December 2007. On 24 January 2008, he pleaded not guilty to Nickell's murder, and faced a prosecution trial for the murder of Rachel Nickell in November 2008. On 18 December 2008, at the Old Bailey, Napper pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Rachel Nickell on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Mr Justice Griffith Williams said that Napper would be held indefinitely at Broadmoor Hospital because he was "a very dangerous man". (At the same time, Colin Stagg received a public apology from the Metropolitan Police for their previous involvement and prosecution of him in regard the Nickell murder investigation).
An internal review estimated that the pursuit of Stagg had cost the public £3 million and that vital scientific information had been missed. Stagg decided to sue the police for damages totalling £1 million following the 14 months he spent in custody. Stagg has co-written and published two books about the case, Who Really Killed Rachel? and, more recently, Pariah (with journalist Ted Hynds), the latter appearing on the same day as the real culprit Robert Napper's appearance in court to enter a plea.
The undercover female police officer involved in the attempt to obtain evidence against Stagg in the original investigation by befriending him resigned from the Metropolitan Police force in 1998, taking early retirement. With the support of the Police Federation she too sued the Metropolitan Police for damages arising from the investigation. In 2001, shortly before it was due to be heard, her case was settled out of court and she received £125,000. Her solicitor said: "The willingness of the Metropolitan Police to pay substantial damages must indicate their recognition that she sustained serious psychiatric injury." The payout was widely criticised by various sources, particularly as Nickell's son had been granted £22,000 (less than a fifth of the amount paid to the undercover detective) from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.
The criminal psychologist involved with the Stagg investigation was charged with professional misconduct by the British Psychological Society but, in 2002, in lieu of any substantive hearings, further action was dismissed due to the time delay in bringing proceedings. 
André Hanscombe, Nickell's partner, later wrote a book titled The Last Thursday in July, about his life with Nickell, coping with the murder and life with their son afterwards. In 1996 Hanscombe moved with their child to France, driven abroad, according to notes in his book, by media intrusion. "Callous, mercenary, unfeeling ... cowardly, snivelling scum" is how he described some of the reporters who tracked him and his son down to his "sanctuary" in the French countryside.
In January 2007, the Home Office confirmed that Stagg would receive compensation for wrongful prosecution, with the amount to be set by an independent assessor. On 13 August 2008, Stagg's solicitor announced that the compensation, was £706,000.
Following an investigation, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) released a report, dated 3 June 2010, into the actions of the Metropolitan Police Force and their handling of the murder investigation. It described a "catalogue of bad decisions and errors" by the Metropolitan Police which had resulted in Napper being free to kill Nickell. It said that officers missed a series of opportunities to take the violent psychopath off the streets and suggested the lives of Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine would also have been saved if police had acted on tip-offs, including one by Napper's mother.
Rachel Cerfontyne, of the IPCC, said that police failed to investigate the 1989 report that he attacked a woman on Plumstead Common, in London, and no record of the telephone call can be found. She said: "It is clear that throughout the investigations into the 'Green Chain' rapes and Rachel Nickell's death there was a catalogue of bad decisions and errors made by the Metropolitan Police. The police failed to sufficiently investigate after Napper's mother called police to report that he had confessed to her that he had raped a woman and, inconceivably, they eliminated Napper from inquiries into the Green Chain rapes because he was over 6ft tall. Without these errors, Robert Napper could have been off the streets before he killed Rachel Nickell and the Bissets, and before numerous women suffered violent sexual attacks at his hands." Detectives had decided to exclude anyone over 6' based on the description of a 5' 7" rapist, however there were conflicting witness reports of the rapist's height and Napper walked with a stoop.   The IPCC said no police officer would face disciplinary action because they have all retired, and one key senior detective had died. Criminal prosecutions were not considered.
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