Murder of Rachel Nickell

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Rachel Nickell
Rachel Jane Nickell

(1968-11-23)23 November 1968
Died15 July 1992(1992-07-15) (aged 23)
Wimbledon Common, London, England
Cause of deathMurder

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 initial police investigation of the crime resulted in the arrest in controversial circumstances of an innocent man, who was acquitted. The perpetrator of the murder was 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. 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.[1] Nickell was a 23 year old full-time mother at the time of her death. On the morning of 15 July 1992, she and her two-year-old son were walking the dog on Wimbledon Common. Whilst passing through a secluded area of the common Nickell was attacked. An assailant murdered her by repeatedly stabbing and slashing her with a knife then sexually assaulted her. The assailant fled the scene, leaving Alexander physically unharmed in the vicinity. A passer-by 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. Thirty-two men were 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".

Operation Ezdell[edit]

An undercover policewoman from the Metropolitan Police 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 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.[2] 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.[3]

The undercover female police officer won Stagg's confidence and drew out violent fantasies from him 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".[4] Believing, on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service, that there was sufficient evidence to secure a conviction against Stagg for the Nickell murder, police arrested and charged him on 17 August 1993.


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[edit]

Cold case review[edit]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] The sample at the time was insufficient to confirm an identity, but was large enough to rule out suspects.

Robert Napper[edit]

In July 2006, the Scotland Yard team interviewed convicted murderer Robert Napper for two days at Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire.[8] 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.[9][10] 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.[11] 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.[12][13] On 24 January 2008, he pleaded not guilty to Nickell's murder and faced prosecution for the murder of Rachel Nickell in November 2008.[14] 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).[15][16]


An internal review estimated that the pursuit of Stagg had cost the public £3 million and that vital scientific information had been missed.[17] Stagg sued 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? (with novelist David Kessler) and more recently, Pariah (with journalist Ted Hynds), the latter being published on the same day as the real culprit Robert Napper's appearance in court to enter a plea.

An episode of the TV comedy series Bottom, entitled "Bottom's Out", due to be broadcast around the time of the murder, was postponed for two and a half years as it was set on Wimbledon Common.[18]

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.[19] 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".[20] 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.[21]

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.[22] [23][24]

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.[20]

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.[25]

IPCC findings[edit]

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.[26] [27] The IPCC said no police officer would face disciplinary action because they had all retired and one key senior detective had died. Criminal prosecutions were not considered.[28]


  1. ^ Index to Births. London: General Record Office. 1989.
  2. ^ Campbell, Duncan (22 June 2006). "Police quiz new suspect in Wimbledon Common murder case". Guardian Unlimited. London. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  3. ^ "Police ignored clues that could have led to Rachel Nickell's killer". The Independent on Sunday. Find Articles at Archived from the original on 23 January 2007. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  4. ^ Cohen, Nick (25 June 2006). "With police and tabloids in cahoots, Colin Stagg became a sacrificial lamb". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  5. ^ "House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 3 Apr 2000 (pt 29)".
  6. ^ "DNA profiling and the case that started it all". The Times. London. 21 June 2006. Archived from the original on 24 May 2011. Retrieved 22 May 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  7. ^ Moore, Charles. "The Daily Telegraph homepage". London. Archived from the original on 8 November 2012. Retrieved 25 November 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  8. ^ "Man Questioned over Rachel Nickell Murder". The Epoch Times. Archived from the original on 29 September 2007. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  9. ^ Sean O'Neill and Adam Fresco (18 December 2008). "Inside the mind of Robert Napper". The Times. London.
  10. ^ Tendler, Stewart (21 June 2006). "Broadmoor sex killer questioned over Nickell murder". The Times. London. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  11. ^ "Police ignored clues that could have led to Rachel Nickell's killer". The Independent on Sunday. Archived from the original on 23 January 2007. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  12. ^ "Man charged with Nickell murder". BBC NEWS. 28 November 2007.
  13. ^ "Nickell murder accused in court". BBC News. 4 December 2007. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  14. ^ "Man denies Rachel Nickell murder". England, London: BBC NEWS. 24 January 2008.
  15. ^ "Man admits 1992 Nickell killing". BBC. 18 December 2008. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  16. ^ Laville, Sandra; Siddique, Haroon; Percival, Jenny; Sturcke, James (18 December 2008). "Rachel Nickell killing: Serial rapist Robert Napper pleads guilty". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 6 October 2012.
  17. ^ Bennetto, Jason (22 June 2006). "Police hunting killer of Rachel Nickell question inmate at Broadmoor". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 2 December 2007. Retrieved 22 May 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  18. ^ "British TV Comedy". Retrieved 25 November 2010.
  19. ^ "Rachel Nickell detective quits at 33". BBC News. 12 June 1998. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  20. ^ a b Campbell, Duncan (22 June 2006). "Police quiz new suspect in Wimbledon Common murder case". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  21. ^ "£125,000 for Rachel Nickell officer". BBC News. 6 April 2001. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  22. ^ Gibb, Frances (26 July 2008). "Human rights lawyer Keir Starmer named as new prosecution service chief". The Times. London. Retrieved 4 August 2008.
  23. ^ "Stagg storms out of 'Cracker' hearing". BBC News. 29 October 2002. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  24. ^ Moore, Charles. "The Daily Telegraph homepage". London. Archived from the original on 8 November 2012. Retrieved 25 November 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  25. ^ "Colin Stagg To Get Compensation". Sky News. 13 August 2008. Archived from the original on 20 November 2009. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  26. ^ Edwards, Richard (18 December 2008). "Rachel Nickell: The missed opportunities to catch killer Robert Napper". The Telgraph. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  27. ^ Laville, Sandra (18 December 2008). "Rachel Nickell case: Missed clues that allowed Robert Napper to kill again". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  28. ^ "'Police errors' led to Rachel Nickell killing". BBC News. 3 June 2010. Retrieved 6 October 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Laurence J. Alison, Marie Eyre: Killer in the Shadows: The Monstrous Crimes of Robert Napper. Pennant Books 2009, ISBN 978-1-906015-49-7.
  • Kevin Brewer: Psychology and Crime. Heinemann Educational Publishers 2000, ISBN 978-0-435-80653-8.
  • Paul Britton: The Jigsaw Man. Corgi Books 1998, ISBN 978-0-552-14493-3.
  • Colin Evans: A Question of Evidence: The Casebook of Great Forensic Controversies, from Napoleon to O.J. Wiley 2002, ISBN 978-0-471-44014-7.
  • Mike Fielder: The Murder of Rachel Nickell. John Blake 2000, ISBN 978-1-85782-338-7.
  • Alex Handscombe: Letting Go: A true story of murder, loss and survival by Rachel Nickell’s son. Harper Element 2017, ISBN 978-0008144296.
  • André Handscombe: The Last Thursday in July. Century 1996 / Arrow 1997, ISBN 978-0-09-917512-4.
  • David Kessler: Rachel Nickell, House of Solomon Ltd, 2001, ISBN 978-1-904037-03-3.
  • Keith Pedder: The Rachel Files, John Blake 2002, ISBN 978-1-904034-30-8.
  • Keith Pedder: Murder on the Common: The Secret Story of the Murder That Shocked a Nation. John Blake 2003, ISBN 978-1-84454-057-0.
  • Colin Stagg, David Kessler: Who Really Killed Rachel? Greenzone Publishing 1999, ISBN 978-0-9582027-2-5.
  • Colin Stagg, David Kessler: The Lizzie James Conspiracy. House of Solomon 2001, ISBN 978-1-904037-00-2.
  • Colin Stagg, Ted Hynds: Pariah: Colin Stagg. Pennant Publishing 2007, ISBN 978-1-906015-10-7.
  • Brent E. Turvey: Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis Academic Press 2002, ISBN 978-0-12-705041-6.

External links[edit]