The demonisation of an innocent man over lurid sex fantasies and the belief that there is no smoke without fire – a cautionary tale.
Murder, like every other aspect of life, is far from equal. There are some crimes that seize the imagination of the British press – and so, by their relentless coverage, the public – more than others. Some victims are seen as more tragic by virtue of an unwritten set of rules that mostly – though not always – see white, middle class and attractive young women as more worthy of relentless coverage than other, lesser people. These are the cases that will hog the headlines for weeks, if not months, while other murders are barely reported at all.
The police seem to take their cues as to how important a murder case is from the press just as much as the public do. Not only will these high profile cases have far more resources thrown at them, but there will be an increased pressure to solve them as soon as possible. Such pressure often leads to short cuts and desperation, with numerous arrests made with unseemly haste and little evidence in the hope that somehow, one of the arrested persons will crack and confess, or that some evidence – any evidence at all, frankly – will emerge to link them, however tenuously, to the crime. These arrests will often be highly publicised. The arrestee will be named, shamed and essentially convicted by the media – especially if the arrest leads to a charge. Just ask Christopher Jeffries, who was demonised in the press after being arrested in connection with the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010. Jeffries was her landlord and looked a bit odd, and so must have been guilty according to the tabloids (and not just the tabloids, though both the TV broadcasters and the more serious newspapers were quick to forget their own part in this media circus) who poured over every aspect of his life. Jeffries was released without charge after two days, but by then he’d been hung, drawn and quartered by the media. Yeates was, in fact, killed by her next-door-neighbour; Jeffries was entirely innocent. But mud sticks, and had the real killer not been caught relatively quickly, there is no saying what his life would have been like.
Well, actually there is. We can look at the case of Colin Stagg to see just how suspicion and the sense that ‘he must have done it’ lingers over someone, even after they have been acquitted in court.
In 1992, Rachel Nickell and her two-year-old son Alexander were walking the family dog on Wimbledon Common, when an assailant struck as they passed through a secluded area. Rachel was stabbed to death and sexually assaulted in a frenzied attack; Alexander was left unharmed, and passersby later discovered him next to his mother’s body, saying “wake up, mummy” over and over. It’s as tragic and heartbreaking a scenario as you could imagine.
The media inevitably went large on the story. Well, of course they did. It had everything they wanted: a 23-year-old attractive blonde woman and former model, murdered while out on a family walk, leaving behind a bewildered and distressed child. If we step back and look at these things dispassionately, then as awful as it was, her murder was actually no more awful than many other killings that barely make the news at all – robberies gone bad, brutal muggings, gangland killings and so on. In all those circumstances, lives are lost. But Rachel Nickell fitted the profile of the ‘innocent victim’, and just as the press a decade or so earlier had only started to really pay attention to the Yorkshire Ripper murders when the victims were not prostitutes, so the senseless killing of someone middle-class and relatable seemed more important than others. The presence of her child just made everything seem all the more awful.
When the press goes big on a case, desperation sets in with the police, corners are cut and straws are clutched at. The killing of Rachel Nickell also suggested that there was a violent sex offender on the loose, and such people rarely stop after just one murder. Time was of the essence, the press were demanding results and someone – anyone – had to be caught.
There’s a peculiar mindset amongst many police officers, and it is this: once they set their sights on someone as the person that they are looking for, nothing will sway them from that belief – no lack of evidence, no lack of confession, nothing. There is a strange reluctance in the police to admit that they might ever be wrong, even when it is proven beyond any doubt that they were. In the case of Rachel Nickell, the police quickly identified a target, and at that point, all other lines of enquiry seemed to grind to a halt. They had their man, and that man was Colin Stagg.
Colin Stagg was known to walk his dog in the same area that Rachel was killed in – by which we mean Wimbledon Common, a large expanse of land used for recreation by thousands of people. Stagg attracted the attention of the police because he was a bit of a weirdo. A ‘loner’, as we are told all murderers are by their neighbours and workmates after the fact. Four people called Crimewatch to say that he looked like the photofit of a man that no one had seen committing the crime, and so he was arrested. In his house, the police found an altar, occult books, a knife and gloves. Ooh-er. Sadly for them, this was not enough to charge him with murder over. He had also been fined £200 after sunbathing nude on the Common. So they knew he had ‘unusual’ tastes and was a ‘sex criminal’, and that would colour the rest of their investigation.
Things got worse for Stagg when Julie Pines contacted the police after his arrest was made public, to say that she had corresponded with him after making contact through a lonely hearts ad. His third letter had ‘disgusted’ her with its lurid and violent sexual fantasies. Well.
Armed with all this damning information, Stagg was positively identified as their man by Paul Britton, self-described as “Britain’s foremost criminal psychologist” and “the real-life Cracker“ (after the popular forensic TV series of the time). The job of a criminal profiler is to put together a picture of the sort of person likely to have committed a crime, not to actually identify or even confirm a suspect, but Britton was nothing if not confident in his own infallibility. Stagg, he informed the police, was definitely their man. After already arresting thirty-two men in connection with the case, only to get nowhere, the police were glad to know that they had their killer at last.
The problem was that there was no evidence to connect him to the killing. No eye-witnesses, no forensics, nothing. Even the British justice system might find ‘being a bit odd’ as not quite enough evidence to convict someone of murder. Clearly, the police needed a confession, but Stagg was hardly likely to volunteer one. And so a cunning plan was devised. Stagg would be tricked into confessing in what was essentially a honeytrap. An undercover policewoman from the Metropolitan Police Special Operations Group (SO10) made contact with Stagg, claiming to be a more broad-minded friend of Julie Pines who wanted to get to know him because they shared certain tastes. Stagg was a man who had vivid sexual fantasies, but only on a fantasy level – in real life, he was socially awkward and had no sexual experience of even the most vanilla sort. At 31, he was still a virgin. He was therefore very susceptible to the advances of a woman who seemed not only to have the hots for him, but who also shared his sexual proclivities, even if only at fantasy level.
Britton informed the police that Stagg would crack and confess to his new pen friend in a couple of weeks. He was wrong. Over a period of five months, the undercover officer built up a long-distance relationship with Stagg by letter and phone. Using the name ‘Lizzie James’, the policewoman’s correspondence and phone calls became more and more extreme and manipulative, as she urged Stagg to say anything, admit to any sexual desire no matter how depraved: “my fantasies hold no bounds and my imagination runs riot” she told him.
The months went by, but Stagg was refusing to take the bait. There was no voluntary confession of murder, and so the thumbscrews were tightened. ‘Lizzie James’ told Stagg that she had taken part in a Satanic murder of a young woman and her child, and that she could only give herself to someone who had done the same. By any standards, this was a psychotic turn of events, trying to make Stagg confess to a killing just to get laid. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that anyone even cared if his confession would be true or not. True to form, Stagg ‘confessed’, but not to the thing they wanted – he instead laid claim to a twenty-year-old murder. It was a false confession, of course; the police duly investigated and found it to be nonsense. And in any case, this wasn’t what they needed. Seeing things going nowhere, any pretence that the honeytrap was simply to get Stagg to incriminate himself was thrown out of the window, and ‘Lizzie James’ openly invited him to say that he killed Rachel Nickell:
“I don’t believe the New Forest story . . . If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder; if only you had killed her it would be all right.”
To which Stagg – admirably, given how utterly sexually frustrated he must have been by this point – replied “I’m terribly sorry but I haven’t”. In another letter, Stagg seemed pathetically desperate about the fact that his dream woman is possibly too extreme for his reality:
“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. I need you, Lizzie. Please, please tell me what you want in every detail.”
At this stage, you might have expected the penny to have dropped even with the most myopic of police investigators. Maybe, just maybe, we have the wrong man. Maybe he’s just a harmless weirdo. If he isn’t going to confess even to get laid for the first time in his lonely life, perhaps he’s innocent after all. But no. The police, encouraged and guided by Britton, stuck with their belief that Stagg was their man. A confession would have only been the icing on the cake anyway – as evidence, it would have been inadmissible as a legal statement. Rather, the aim was to build up a picture of Stagg as a violent sexual pervert, exactly the sort of person identified in Britton’s profile of the likely murderer. Juries like criminal profiles – they’ve all seen those TV shows after all. And Paul Britton was the UK’s most famous profiler. The fact that he hadn’t published any academic papers and was treated with contempt by other psychologists didn’t matter – who cares about jealous colleagues, after all? The police respected him (he offered to work for free on any case they invited him to investigate) and juries believed him. If Britton got up in court and said that Stagg fitted the profile – even if it was because he’d been browbeaten into doing so – then a conviction was a good possibility.
With all this in mind, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service decided to charge Stagg anyway. On the basis of being someone with unsavoury sexual fantasies, he faced a double-life sentence, with all the additional pleasures that are meted out to sex offenders in prison.
Britton would later claim that he knew nothing about the ‘Lizzie James’ letters, but in court, the prosecutor John Nutting stated that “the whole operation was conducted under his guidance”. The evidence against Stagg was breathtaking in its non-existence, yet there seemed a very real chance of conviction – juries in high-profile murder cases are all too often just as keen as the press and the police to see someone convicted, and will be blinded by emotion and the claims of media-savvy experts to see the holes in a case.
The prosecution case hinged on the highly questionable claim that violent sex fantasies involving knives are “very rare indeed” – because otherwise, what was there about Stagg’s fantasies that made him stand out from hundreds of other fantasists and actual sex offenders? What would be so unique about the murder that only Stagg could have conceived of it?
Supporting the defence was David Canter, Professor of Psychology at Liverpool University. Canter was a long-standing critic of Britton’s, but also an established psychological profiler himself. This wasn’t some jealous sideline sniper, but someone with more established experience than Britton, and he was saying that his methods and conclusions were wrong. Not just wrong, but dangerous. He pointed out the mistakes in Britton’s own profile when it came to Stagg. The killer was supposed to be a sexual dominant with an interest in anal sex; Stagg was submissive and had no anal leanings. In fact, the seven hundred pages of letters showed Stagg to be a rather sad and pathetic figure, eager to please a dominant woman who is demanding more from him than he is ever able to give. Ironically, had Stagg been the cunning person that the profile claimed him to be, he probably would’ve seen through the entrapment right away; instead, this poor bugger was manipulated and abused for months, led by the nose into revealing fantasies that he probably didn’t even have to begin with, all in the hope of experiencing some sort of relationship for the first time in his life.
It perhaps says something about the state of the police case that the trial never even went before a jury. Weighing up the evidence, Mr Justice Ognall threw the case out in September 1994, and was scathing about the “misconceived, wholly reprehensible” efforts to entrap Stagg by “deceptive conduct of the grossest kind”. As criminal solicitor Mark Stephens would later comment, “this case was so bad even a moron in a hurry could see it could never stand up”.
Yet not only did it almost come before a jury where God knows what might have happened, the accusations against Stagg lingered like a bad smell for years. When the case was thrown out, the police were quick to announce that they weren’t looking for anyone else in connection with the murder – a not-so-subtle coded message to the public and the press saying “we know he did it”. In private briefings, police officers didn’t even offer this level of pretence – he’s guilty, they told friendly journalists; he’s got away with murder. Stagg was guilty by association, his sexual fantasies alone enough evidence that most people needed. For years later, Stagg would be subjected to sneering insinuation in the press, trial by media and abuse on the street. When he was finally awarded compensation for his wrongful arrest, the newspapers were outraged. Stagg was one of the many people whose phones were hacked by the News of the World, presumably hoping for some belated confession even in 2000.
In November 1993, while the police were focusing all their efforts on convicting Colin Stagg, Robert Napper stabbed to death and sexually assaulted Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine. Napper was a serial rapist – no one is quite sure how many women he attacked, but it could number as many as eighty. It might have been a few less if the police were less fixated on Stagg, and if Britton had focused on the similarities between the Nickell case and the rape of a woman near Plumstead Common that had taken place in front of her children in 1990. In contrast to the zeal shown in persecuting Stagg, the police were oddly disinterested in Napper, even when his own mother reported him for the rape. DNA profiling finally revealed Napper as Rachel Nickell’s killer in 2004; faced with the new evidence, he confessed his guilt. Had the police been less single-minded in their investigation into that case in 1992, Samantha Bisset and her daughter might still be alive, and God knows how many women might not have been raped before Napper was convicted of the Bisset murders in 1995 and sent to Broadmoor.
‘Lizzie James’ took early retirement from the police in 1998, and was awarded £125,000 in compensation for her ‘traumatic’ experience in trying to force a false confession from Stagg. In 2020, Channel 4 made a sympathetic drama exploring her terrible ordeal. So far, no TV company has made a film about the story from Stagg’s perspective, and the suggestion that the woman who tried to entrap him is somehow a bigger victim than he is might strike some people as a bit off.
Britton, meanwhile, wrote a self-aggrandising book about his many profiling triumphs, though the Nickell case is somewhat glossed over in it. He was charged with misconduct by the British Psychological Society, but the case was dismissed in 2002. For all his self-belief though, his profile never quite recovered from this case, and from what happened subsequently, but he still pops up as an expert voice – most recently, he appeared on a panel of ‘experts’ promoting the crime series Making a Monster (presumably the irony of that title went over his head) and works as a lecturer at Birmingham University.
The persecution of Colin Stagg came at a time of Satanic Panic and Operation Spanner when an interest in BDSM and unconventional desires were seen as evidence of real-life criminal leanings. Where sharing a kinky, perhaps outrageous fantasy – even of something that you might never dream of doing in real life was seen as proof that you were a sex offender; where thoughtcrime became real crime in the eyes of many, and where consent meant nothing because when it came to sado-masochism, rough sex or degradation, there could never be informed consent, only abuse and manipulation and control by people more powerful than you. It was a world of rumour, accusation, witch-hunting and finger-pointing where people would be convicted in the court of public opinion, regardless of actual legal outcomes, and where the minds of potential juries were poisoned by venomous headlines and a thirst for vengeance.
Thank goodness we don’t live in a world like that any more, eh?
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