Rachel Nickell: a case history

The sexual assault and killing of Rachel Nickell in front of her young son on Wimbledon Common was one of the most high-profile murder cases of the last 20 years. Trace the eventful history of the case, including the collapse of the trial of Colin Stagg after a discredited police honey trap

15 July 1992

Rachel Nickell murder
Photograph: PA/PA Photograph: PA

Rachel Nickell, a 23-year model from Tooting, south-west London, is stabbed 49 times in a frenzied daylight attack on Wimbledon Common.

Her two-year-old son, Alex, was clinging to her, covered in her blood and asking his mother to wake up.

Police tell the Mail the boy has been "struck dumb" by his ordeal.

The Daily Mail's front page 16 July, 1992 Photograph: Public domain

The murder provokes widespread revulsion and a frantic hunt for Nickell's killer. "Beauty slain by the beast" says the Sun.

The columnist Boris Johnson later summed up the mood:

The awfulness of the killing provoked the press to paroxysms of outrage. So deafening were the calls for retribution that the police were driven quite out of their wits.

12 August 1992

Police arrest 14 men in connection with the murder after interviewing dozens of people. All of the men are later released and police continue to appeal for information.

27 October 1992

After the police speculated that the killer was probably into pornography, an MP uses the case to call for tougher obscenity laws.

Autumn 1992

John Lanchester's book Mr Phillips Photograph: Public domain

The hunt for the killer has an incidental literary spin-off. One of the people on Wimbledon Common at the time of murder was a middle-aged man in a suit who sat on a bench all day unable to tell his family that he had just lost his job. He had no connection to the murder but became the inspiration for John Lanchester's novel Mr Phillips.

Despite a lack of forensic evidence, the police become convinced that Colin Stagg is guilty of the killing. He is an unemployed man from Roehampton who was known to walk his dog on the common.

Police turn to a forensic psychologist, Paul Britton, on whom the TV series Cracker was based. He comes up with a plan to tempt Stagg into a confession using an undercover female police offcer calling herself Lizzie James. She fakes a romantic interest in Stagg and a liking for Satanism, but despite her efforts Stagg does not confess. "He came over as a bewildered weakling rather than a psychopath," Nick Cohen later reports in the Observer.

The Sun's front page 18 August 1993 Photograph: Public domain

February 1993

An inquest reveals Nickell suffered 49 stab wounds to her chest, neck and back and was also sexually assaulted.

August 1993

Colin Stagg is charged with Nickell's murder at Wimbledon magistrates court. More than 500 suspects were interviewed by police, of whom 32 were arrested but released.

3 November 1993

Samantha Bisset, and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine, are murdered in their home in Plumstead.

September 1994

The trial against Stagg collapses. Mr Justice Ognall condemns the police honey trap as "deceptive conduct of the grossest kind". After being formally cleared of Nickell's murder, Stagg announces his intention to sue the police.

The press remained suspicious of Stagg.

The Sun's front page 15 September 1994 Photograph: guardian.co.uk

The case also exposes the limitations of offender profiling.

October 1994

Scotland Yard reopens the Nickell murder investigation, appointing a new team to re-interview witnesses and look in detail at the case. Some police officer, many in the media, and Andre Handscombe, Nickell's widower, continue to believe that Stagg is guilty.

May 1995

Stagg is given 12 months' probation for threatening a man with an axe on Wimbledon Common. He pleaded guilty to threatening behaviour and possessing an offensive weapon. The court hears that Stagg had "lost his sense or reality".

October 1995

Robert Napper admits to killing Samantha and Jazmine Bisset.

November 1996

Stagg passes a televised lie detector test on the Cook Report, but is criticised in the press for refusing to take truth drugs.

July 1997

Scotland Yard announces that the hunt for Nickell's murderer is being wound down.

12 June 1998

The female detective who posed as Lizzie James, takes early retirement, aged 33, on health grounds after her "traumatic" role in the investigation.

April 1999

Stagg demands up to £100,000 for the rights to publish "fresh evidence" that he says clears his name. The claims feature in his book, Who Really Killed Rachel?

September 1999

Keith Pedder, the detective in charge of the first investigation, defends the honey trap as the best way of ruling out Stagg from the inquiry. He tells the Mirror: "He is innocent in the eyes of the law. I respect that decision." He later goes on to write two books about the case: Murder on the Common and The Rachel Files.

October 2002

Britton, the criminal psychologist involved in the initial honey trap investigation, criticises his professional body after a disciplinary case against him collapses.

November 2004

A new prime suspect for the murder is named as Napper, a serial rapist and inmate at Broadmoor, the secure psychiatric hospital.

November 2007

Napper is charged with Nickell's murder after an extensive re-investigation of the case by Scotland Yard. "Is Rachel's killer finally caught?" asks the Sun. "Finally people are going to have to believe I didn't do it," Stagg says in a TV interview.

December 2007

Stagg explains in an email why he never wants to talk to the media again and hopes to return to the anonymous life he led before he was arrested.

January 2008

Napper pleads not guilty to Nickell's murder during a hearing at the Old Bailey.

13 August 2008

Stagg is awarded £706,000 compensation.

9 November 2008

Nickell's son, Alex, now 19, is tracked down by the News of the World. He is photographed walking the family dog near his home in northern Spain.

29 November 2008

Stagg is to receive an apology from Scotland Yard, according to the Mail.

18 December 2008

Napper admits to the manslaughter of Nickell on the ground of diminished responsibility. The judge said he would be held in Broadmoor indefinitely.

The police issue a full apology to Stagg, but rule out a fresh inquiry.


Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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