How Murdoch’s Sunday newspaper tracked down a murderer, put him behind bars and cleared an innocent dad
MURDOCH’S PAPERS have long been demonised for committing industrial scale organised crime, mass fabrication of stories and corrupting public officials – but, says one journalist, occasionally they got it right, and got villains put behind bars.
In the fourth part of our series from a News of the World whistleblower, Byline Investigates reveals that not all of the paper’s reporters were bent – and, in fact, many were talented, highly qualified and very experienced.
Behind each journalist, there was also a powerful institution with many strengths, not least its huge reach direct to the heart of an army of loyal and resourceful readers, who were quick to rally against injustice. Like a giant aircraft carrier of news, the paper also had ability to scare important people into action, to impose its will on organisations such as the police and governments to cut-through red tape. Probably its most useful competitive advantage was money – unlimited budgets were able to fund long-running and messy investigations, which rivals or broadcast media couldn’t match. Risk taking was part of the corporate culture. The newsroom also had capacity – a large pool of staff reporters, specialists and photographers to rely on, and access to freelancers all over the country, and across the world.
In other words, the paper could get things done if there was a will.
Here is one example.
Catching a Killer
If you’ve been reading this series, you may be wondering why I stayed at the News of the World for so long, given the constant internal battle I was fighting. I’ve alluded to how I became institutionalised; of how the lifestyle could be glamorous and seductive; of the power of the paper to right wrongs. Thus far, due coverage hasn’t been given to the last of these points: how the paper could be a force for good. To illustrate this, I describe here how we caught a killer.
Not long after starting at the paper, I was tasked with doing a series of pieces on serious unsolved crimes, where police investigations had stalled. I was never a crime reporter, but with an MPhil in criminology and the author of a book on serial killers, I sometimes had a different perspective to offer.
One unsolved case that I covered involved a mother-of-three who had vanished over a year before. Initially it was thought that she had taken some ‘out’ time for herself, as it was the anniversary of the death of her baby. However, two weeks later, when she failed to come for her son’s birthday, her sister knew that there was something ‘desperately wrong’.
Six weeks after disappearing, her dismembered body was found scattered across an 18-hole golf course. By then it was so decomposed that the cause of death could not be determined, and it took police two weeks to identify her. All the gruesome details were described in the original articles in the paper and it would be gratuitous to repeat them here. Safe to say, however, that this homicide was a particularly disturbing and macabre one, even for hard-bitten murder squad detectives.
When I approached the police, over a year after the murder, the investigation was still officially open and ongoing, but not active. So I set about gathering as much detail as I could. I interviewed the victim’s husband, two of her sisters, the course ranger, and the officer in charge (OIC) of the case. I also visited the golf course with murder squad detectives, where they identified multiple areas where the victim’s body parts had been found, and a snapper photographed the scene.
The OIC told me that, at the time of her death, the victim had been living (amicably) apart from her husband and children. However, on the night before she disappeared, she had visited her husband, distraught about the anniversary of the passing of their baby. He comforted her, and later dropped her home. When he went to check on her the next morning she was gone.
Although newspapers will have you believe otherwise, stranger murders are very rare. Around 90% of women are killed by someone they know, with about half this number being partners or ex-partners. So, it was inevitable that suspicion would lie close to home in this case. Given that the victim and her husband were separated, that he was the last person to see her alive, and there were inconsistencies in his statements, not long after her body was found he was arrested on suspicion of murder.
Although released after 36 hours without charge, mud sticks. The local community turned against him, and his children were bullied at school. Even his sister-in-law initially suspected him, asking him point blank at the funeral whether he had killed her. ‘No. I didn’t,’ he replied. Feeling ‘guilty without a trial’ he made the tough decision – harder still as he was disabled – to move him and his children across the country to start a new life. He had lost everything: his wife, his home, his reputation.
When I spoke to police officers, they remained unconvinced of his innocence. However, they did have another lead: a sighting of a man with black hair and sideburns coming out of the victim’s home the week before she disappeared, and another of a similar looking man carrying black bin bags across the golf course after her disappearance. I included this information in the piece, saying that the police were very keen to speak to the man, and quoting the OIC appealing for ‘information, not silence’.
Alongside the appeal that Sunday – headlined WHO TOOK MUMMY AWAY? – I wrote a profile of the suspect. Having studied offender profiling both for my master’s dissertation and book, I applied the research in the area to the case. I hypothesized that the suspect was a local male known to the victim, aged over 30, with average or above average intelligence, and forensic awareness. It wasn’t exactly rocket science but it offered a somewhat unique perspective to the piece.
More importantly, however, we offered a £5,000 reward for ‘information resulting in the arrest and conviction’ of the victim’s ‘brutal killer’. Both the number of the news desk and the police incident room were printed. I hoped that the reach of the paper – and, more cynically, the reward – might incentivise someone to come forward with new information or leads. And it did.
The next week, detectives received three calls from members of the public. We hit the jackpot with the third – a controller of a cab firm. One of his drivers had seen a regular customer carrying black bags across the golf course late one night after the victim had disappeared. He hadn’t come forward before because he hadn’t wanted to ‘get involved’. It’s amazing what a financial incentive can do, when a moral duty fails.
Armed with the new information, the police obtained a warrant to search the man’s address; he was the victim’s neighbour. In his flat – or ‘chamber of horrors’ as I dubbed it at the time – the police found everything they needed to build a pretty watertight case to put before the crown prosecution service.
The striation marks on a pellet taken from the victim’s skull matched those on an air rifle found in his flat. The victim’s blood was also on the rifle and in the bathroom. There were knives, hacksaws, and trophies of the crime, including her jewellery and clothing. There was a photo of the suspect holding a machine gun. And there were pornographic magazines with dismemberment lines drawn across the bodies. Some of the images had air pellet holes in them, from where they had been stuck on the wall for target practice. It was a positive goldmine of evidence; the police couldn’t have asked for more.
The suspect was arrested and taken to the police station to be interviewed. Here he gave different stories. He first said that the victim had bumped her head on the doorframe in his flat and died. Then that he had been cleaning his gun and it went off by accident, hitting her in the head. He told officers that, in a panic, he dismembered her body and disposed of it. Ultimately, he was charged with murder a month after my piece came out.
The victim’s husband, who had been under a cloud of suspicion for well over a year, told me of his ‘great relief’ that somebody had been charged. He was also adamant that, when the case came to court, he wanted to be there to see justice done and finally clear his name. However, he didn’t have the financial means to travel across the country, let alone pay for accommodation in London. So I begged and badgered the news desk, who finally agreed that they would pay his expenses. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, you understand, but in return for an interview after the verdict came in.
Nine months later, the trial at the Old Bailey began. I had come to know the police officers on the murder squad pretty well by then, and it felt like we all had a lot invested in the outcome of the case, so I attended every day of the week-long trial. Sitting with the detectives, I listened as the suspect changed his story yet again, and tried to blame the crime on a friend of his. But it didn’t wash with the jury. The evidence against him was overwhelming and he was found guilty.
We were all cock-a-hoop. When the paper stepped in, the case had been going nowhere – worse than that, the main suspect was the wrong man. A man who had been victimised once by the murder of his wife, and then re-victimised: suspected by the police, his community, his friends and family, of committing the very crime that he was a co-victim of.
I think there’s a strong chance that, had we not published the appeal, the killer would have remained undetected. Moreover, he may well have killed again: he had all the marks of a serial predator. There would also forever have been a question mark on the husband’s head. Yet, through appealing to the paper’s wide readership, the killer had been caught and imprisoned. Or, as the headline read: NEWS OF THE WORLD BAGS THE BINLINER BUTCHER: Crime report clinched case.
So, why did I stay at the paper for so long? In part, because stories like this, though rare, made it seem (at least temporarily) worth it. The power of the paper to right wrongs was one of things that had first attracted me to the job. And, while this case was a wrong that could never be made right, I feel like we did the next best thing.