Pressure on police to find Wimbledon killer put wrong man in frame

Despite being acquitted, Colin Stagg was pursued by the media up until Napper's conviction

In its awful way, it had all the ingredients of the classic media murder story: the beautiful blonde victim, the lyrical summer setting, the child witness, the murderous stranger at large - and all taking place in Greater London. Inevitably, the police were under enormous and immediate pressure to capture the killer of someone whose face smiled out of the front pages of every newspaper.

"Someone out there must know who did this," said Detective Superintendent John Bassett as he made the first of what were to be many appeals. "He had to be covered in blood so I would think that some mother, wife, lover, sister or even boyfriend must know who perpetrated this crime."

The pace of arrests and the quantity of information given to the police led most of us to imagine that a murder charge would follow swiftly. Within a day of the murder, more than 500 calls had come in, many of them giving information about the many men who liked to expose themselves on Wimbledon Common or who had made approaches to women in the area.

A man was in custody within 24 hours. But that "golden hour" after a crime, when often the vital clues become apparent, had passed with nothing conclusive and, looking back at it now, even at this early stage, there were hints of desperation in the appeals. The police, it seemed, knew that they might have a very long haul in front of them. None of them and none of the reporters who covered the case could have imagined then that it would be more than 16 years before Rachel Nickell's murderer was finally jailed at the Old Bailey.

At the time, the police in Britain were under scrutiny over their conduct in a number of other investigations. The murder coincided with the successful appeal of the two Darvell brothers, Wayne and Paul, wrongly convicted of the murder in 1985 of Sandra Philips in Swansea and their case had led to uncomplimentary coverage that week about police methods. The inquiry into corruption at Stoke Newington police station, north London, was just starting to kick off. And the Met had just issued a handbook for officers in which they were told not to call their female colleagues Doris or Plonk. It all seems like a long time ago now.

It was clear that this would be a high-profile investigation. Perhaps only two cases since have attracted a similar type of coverage: the murder of Jill Dando and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. All three shared the characteristics of a photogenic victim and "stranger danger". While the police would always deny that such blanket media coverage affects the way they work, there is no doubt that the 54 detectives working on the case felt the pressure to find the murderer.

Almost as soon as one suspect was released, another was held. Within a month, 13 men had been arrested. Any hints that the perpetrator had been caught were greeted with near hysteria. After three weeks, a photography student was arrested following a tip-off to a newspaper. He was almost immediately eliminated from the inquiry but not before mobs had bayed outside his house and his wife had to leave their home.

A year on, the number was up to 32 men arrested out of a total of 540 suspects and the police were admitting then that they still had another 148 to interview. At an anniversary press conference, Bassett was saying that the police needed "that little bit of luck".

Number 27 of those arrested was an unemployed man who lived locally called Colin Stagg. At last, it appeared that the police had got their man. But gradually the case against him began to unravel. Thirteen months later, he was formally cleared. Even then the police were reluctant to acknowledge how badly wrong the inquiry had gone.

In September 1994, just after Stagg's acquittal, Sir Paul Condon, then Met commissioner, called a press conference to defend the inquiry at which he said that it would not be reopened unless fresh evidence came to light. Asked if he felt that Stagg deserved an apology, Condon said: "I think the people we should apologise to are the people we have apologised to: the family of Rachel Nickell , who acted with such dignity and understanding throughout."

It was clear that some newspapers still believed that Stagg was guilty and he was to find himself pursued until the arrest that fully cleared his name. What none of us realised at the time was that it would be a case with so many victims.


Duncan Campbell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Police errors allowed Nickell murder

Forensics reveal DNA flaws may have left serious criminals at large in at least 15 other cases

Sandra Laville, crime correspondent

19, Dec, 2008 @12:01 AM

Article image
IPCC orders police to apologise over Rachel Nickell murderer
Scotland Yard told to apologise for decisions relating to Robert Napper, who killed mother and daughter after Nickell

Vikram Dodd

03, Jun, 2010 @9:32 AM

Article image
Duncan Campbell: Trial by tabloid ensured there was another victim in the Rachel Nickell case

Duncan Campbell: Trial by tabloid and police errors framed Colin Stagg for the murder of Rachel Nickell, while Robert Napper went free

Duncan Campbell

18, Dec, 2008 @1:35 PM

Eight missed opportunities to stop Robert Napper from committing further sex attacks

Robert Napper left a trail of evidence linking him to a series of attacks, including the murder of Rachel Nikell

19, Dec, 2008 @12:01 AM

Rachel Nickell: a case history

Trace the eventful history of the murder inquiry, including the collapse of the trial of Colin Stagg

Matthew Weaver

18, Dec, 2008 @1:05 PM

Article image
'My son was in danger. So was I'
He left Britain after his girlfriend Rachel Nickell was murdered 17 years ago, to escape the trauma and the press. This week André Hanscombe returned – to force the police to face their mistakes

Aida Edemariam

21, Nov, 2009 @12:05 AM

Detectives to question Nickell killer about series of unsolved crimes

Napper's psychiatrist tells court he now has insight into his illness, giving police hope he may talk to them

Sandra Laville, crime correspondent

20, Dec, 2008 @12:01 AM

Article image
Madeleine McCann police review to take years and cost millions
MPs criticise PM's ordering of lengthy and costly Scotland Yard review of police investigation into child's disappearance

Sandra Laville, Crime correspondent

13, May, 2011 @2:46 PM

Article image
Phone-hacking: Colin Stagg targeted by News of the World

Man wrongly accused of murdering Rachel Nickell in 1993 says he will fight back aggressively through courts

James Robinson

04, Jul, 2011 @11:55 PM

Article image
Deceit review – Rachel Nickell drama probes the ethics of entrapment
Niamh Algar puts in a phenomenal performance in this four-parter about the controversial undercover police operation which followed Nickell’s death, and events that beggar belief

Lucy Mangan

13, Aug, 2021 @9:00 PM