Sunday, 18 February 2018

Why didn't the police catch the Hammersmith Nude Murders killer?

Identikit image of the killer
In my previous post, I described some of the background to the mid-'60s Jack the Stripper West London murders, based on Robin Jarossi's intriguing book, The Hunt for the 60s Ripper. What I found particularly fascinating were the author's speculations as to why the police's vast manhunt not only failed to identify the killer, but didn't actually throw up a single convincing suspect. Some of Jarossi's points are obvious - but at least one of them surprised me. Here's a selection:

(1) The British police in the 1960s hadn't had much experience of hunting serial killers. There had been very few such cases since the Whitechapel Murders - there wasn't a single one in Britain between 1915 and 1943 - so the authorities didn't have a blueprint to follow when faced with the Nude Murders.  (The term "serial killer" didn't even exist in 1964 - the FBI agent Bob Ressler is credited with introducing it in in the '70s.)

(2) A number of key crimefighting tools hadn't been invented yet: there was no CCTV footage, no DNA evidence, and no mobile phones (so no mobile phoned tracking).
The Man in Charge: Chief Superintendent John Du Rose
(3) No proper criminal profiling - the senior detectives on a case would dream up a possible motive for the killings and run with it for a bit. The FBI's Behavioural Sciences Unit didn't invent psychological profiling, but they would develop and standardise this technique for narrowing down a list of suspects in serial murder and rape cases from the '70s onwards. It doesn't always work, but it's frequently vital in pointing an investigation in the right direction. As Jarossi puts it, the team leading the hunt for Jack the Stripper "didn't know where to look, so they looked everywhere." He goes on to list eight different theories regarding the criminal's motives entertained by the manhunt team during the investigation - and not less than 18 different types of possible offender (including a kerb-crawler's vengeful wife, a mortuary assistant, a dental surgeon and figures involved in the Stephen Ward case).
(5) No geographic profiling, based on Crime Pattern Theory, which has become routine since the mid-'90s. Serial criminals tend to commit crimes close to their comfort zone, i.e. where they live or work. The further a criminal travels from home, the less likely he is to offend ("distance decay"). At the same time, the criminal will be reluctant to commit a crime right on his doorstep, so the area around his residence is known as the "buffer zone".  Most serial crimes are committed between the buffer zone and the point at which distance decay sets in. It's also apparently the case that criminals dump their victims' bodies further away from their comfort zone than the place where they encountered them. Criminal mapping establishes a centre of gravity for the locations of a series of crimes. Retroactive geographic profiling (all done by entering a range of information into a software application) has identified two so-called "hot spots" for the '60s Ripper - one covering roughly one square mile, the other 1.6 square miles - where the killer is likely to have lived or worked  (one is close to me, starting about half-a-mile to the East - Abinger Road, for those who know the area - while the other straddles Holland Park Avenue). Again, this isn't an exact science, but it helps detectives decide where to concentrate resources.

(6) The "no stone unturned" fallacy. The phrase was used by senior detectives several times during the ever-expanding Nude Murders manhunt - just as it was, endlessly, during the disastrously confused hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper over a decade later. The problem with the blanket approach was that it produced unimaginably vast amounts of information - most of which was never examined or collated, because there were no computers to feed it all into. The whole point of a criminal investigation of this sort is to decide which stones are worth turning over, otherwise the data you've gathered acts as a huge and totally useless security blanket.

I think most true crime fans - let alone professional crimefighters - could have compiled that list. The one that surprised me was:

John Du Rose & Bill Baldock
(7) The tradition of murder hunts being led by "star" detectives, and the basic command structure of the investigation, simply didn't work for this sort of case. The hunt was initially conducted by Detective Superintendent Bill Baldock, but, when the body count mounted, Chief Superintendent John Du Rose of Scotland Yard, noted for his ability to solve murder cases within four days, was helicoptered in (Baldock stayed on as his deputy). The top team consisted of a handful of senior officers who were, in effect, the only ones to have an overview of the case, and the only ones to know what was going on - members of the wider team, which would eventually number in the hundreds, were generally kept in the dark. The only officers who were privy to the mass of information the rest of the team were collecting - and, therefore, the only ones who could spotted any significant clues it might hold - were the coterie at the top...who wouldn't have had the time to study more than a fraction of the available data. The top team - or, to be more precise, John du Rose - decided who they were looking for, i.e. "You know what struck me this morning, Super? I bet Chummy's a 4ft 6ins Polish tooth fetishist." "You could be right - let's get the team to identify and interrogate every tiny Pole in London." There's no suggestion that the police leading the investigation were incompetent - the two lead men boasted an impressive track record: they were just hand-on, experience-based coppers who found themselves hunting a type of criminal they hadn't previously encountered, with barely any of the technological tools, techniques and accumulated knowledge later generations of detectives would have at their disposal.

These days, the senior officers on a murder inquiry have to keep a log of every major decision taken, including an explanation of how they reached it. Lengthy investigations are regularly reviewed by outside officers - often from different forces - whose role is to point out obvious mistakes, and to redirect the investigation if they think it necessary. None of this transparency - these routine checks and balances - existed in the 1960s, and hadn't been introduced by the time of the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry, the case which would finally convince the authorities that a different approach was needed.

I've always wondered why the "star" detective - the intrepid, brilliant, seasoned, tough-as-old-boots manhunter whose very name struck fear into the hearts of villains the length and breadth of the land - has vanished from our media. Where are the likes of Fred Wensley (the founder of the Flying Squad); Bert Wickstead (the gangbuster who harried the villains vying to fill the void left by the Krays);  Bob Fabian (who defused an IRA bomb and went on to lead the Flying Squad); "Nipper" Read, whose team helped bring the Krays to justice; or Jack Capstick, the brilliant thieftaker who was part of the legendary Ghost Squad, set up to tackle the post-WW2 crime wave? Nowadays, we only really get to hear about senior police officers when there's been a cock-up, or when a virtue-signalling chief constable decides to waste his precious resources on some particularly odious example of political correctness that the vast majority of us couldn't give a toss about. Jarossi's book at least offers some explanation as to why, when it comes to the police, the star system no longer operates.

That leaves the question, who the hell was Jack the Stripper? Probably not, as one recent book suggested, the former world light heavyweight champion boxer, Freddie Mills, who committed suicide in his car in an alley behind his Charing Cross Road night-club six months after the body of the last Nude Murders victim was discovered. The secret might lie in a strange encounter described to a friend by the penultimate victim, Frances Brown, shortly before she disappeared in October 1964. A man inveigled her into a grey van, and showed her a black card with "Metropolitan Police" on it - the sort of card police carried at the time. She told him he couldn't arrest her, as it required two officers: he said he could call on a mate just up the road. They discussed the Ripper killings, and he seemed to be aware of some details that a policeman might very well know - but she remained doubtful: the grey van was a mess, with clothes scrunched up in the back (this was several months before 26 officers were given permission to use their own cars for stake-out duty on the Ripper case). The "policeman" told her she had a "laughing face", but he gave her the creeps. and she decided to get out of the van. Before she did so, Van Man managed to delay her long enough to give her £1, even though there hadn't been any sex. Was he a policeman? Did he return a few days later and offer to pay for sex? And, softened up by his earlier gift and the "laughing face" remark, did she decide to ignore her qualms and go with him ("to meet her grisly fate at the choking hands of a fiend in human form", as Edgar Lustgarten would probably have added)?

Several detectives involved in the case suspected that the killer was a fellow copper, possibly close to the investigation, and that suspicion has grown over the years. (A 2002 book even pointed the finger at Superintendent Tommy Butler of the Flying Squad, who died in 1970). It would help explain how the killer managed to snare his victims undetected, even when a massive surveillance blanket had been cast over the area where they were last seen ("snatched from under the very noses of the ever-vigilant and superbly professional Metropolitan Police" - EL). And it might explain why he stopped killing just as the police were about step-up their operation even further, with night observations, house-to-house enquiries and WPCs masquerading as streetwalkers. An involvement with the operation would have provided a perfect opportunity to choose his next victim. There was little sign of violence on any of the bodies, so he must have gained their trust somehow - and then overcome their resistance rapidly, with a minimum of effort, as a policeman would have been trained to do. Not a single clue was found on any of the bodies, suggesting the murderer knew enough to cover his tracks - and the site of the murders, an electrical transformer on the Heron Trading Estate in Acton, was only discovered because the killer left the body of his last victim, Bridget O'Hara, nearby (presumably already having decided she was to be the last one).

Hardly definitive proof, I know - but as good a theory as any of the others mentioned: it's the one favoured by Robin Jarossi.


  1. Fascinating post.
    In February 1942 Gordon Cummins murdered at least four women in a short 'spree.'
    Nowadays the term 'serial' would be used. He was known as the Blackout Ripper.

    1. Cummins doesn't quite make the grade. The criteria for calling someone a serial killer differs from country to country, but while four murders would qualify Cummins as a serial killer anywhere in the world, the normal definition stipulates that the murders have to have taken place over the course of a least a month, with a significant time-gap between the killings. Cummins murdered four women in six days, which, I suppose, makes him a spree killer (again, the criteria vary). He was interrupted by a delivery boy during an attack on a woman in a doorway near Piccadilly Circus: she escaped and Cummins ran away - leaving his RAF-issued gas mask case behind, which had his service number on it.

    2. First and second lines. The criteria “differ”, not “differs”! A criterion is what might differ, being singular. Ah! I see what you did there! It’s a link to your other post about grammatical errors to see who spots the solecism first. Clever!

  2. There was Neville Heath. Brought up in Wimbledon [Merton Hall Road SW 19] he joined the RAF in 1937. He was a very brave pilot who served with 180 Sq and during a raid on the bridge at Venlo in Belgium in Oct 1944 he saved his crew by keeping his badly damaged B-25 airborne while his crew bailed out. Your father was on the same raid and apparently knew him.

    In June 1946 he murdered Margery Gardner at a hotel in Notting Hill Gate and then in July he repeated the deed on Doreen Marshall at Bournemouth. Both bodies were horribly mutilated. The police tracked him down very quickly and he was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint in October 1946. As he was about to go to the gallows the governor offered him the final drink of Whiskey. "Thank you, sir. While you are about it could you make that a double?"

    Interesting character. See the book "Handsome Brute" by Sean O'Brien which I have recommended before. That era provided some great subjects for film.

    1. Patrick Hamilton supposedly used Heath as the model for the psychopathic anti-hero Edmund Ralph Gorse, who appears in three of his novels, and who was played by Nigel Havers in the TV serial, The Charmer. Barry Foster said he based his characterisation of the killer in Hitchcock's "Frenzy" on Heath - and there's a suggestion he was the model for Dennis Price's role as a killer looking for his next victim at a Butlin's-style holiday camp in a 1947 comedy called Holiday Camp - I've just watched the first nine minutes of it on YouTube, and Price indeed plays a charmingly raffish former RAF officer.

  3. Two very interesting posts, and I can remember the furore over Jack the Stripper, and a real sense of frustration over the announcement by the Police that their suspect had forestalled them by committing suicide. It was hard to believe, though I realise we now have so much more help in terms of DNA, computers etc. I am sure we can all remember the shots of the detectives in the Yorkshire Ripper case, with their revolving cache of hundreds of index cards.

    Which led me to wonder why it is that, in my experience and the observation of others, we seem in our more senior years to be drawn to crime: detective stories, murder, true crime stories. My Latin class regularly swaps detective stories, my own favourites being Donna Leon and Scandi Noir. These usually end well, so is it that we still have the desire to see Right triumph - which in many cases does not happen in real life?

    In the area of truth rather than imagination I have recently finished reading "Lethal Witness", by Andrew Rose, which is an evaluation of the work of a hitherto "sainted" pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury. The material is often, as it must be, unpleasant, but Mr Rose's style is very readable and he shows a keen sense of humour. I recommend it.

    1. I haven't read "Lethal Witness", but "Medical Detectives: The Lives & Cases of Britain's Forensic Five" by Robin Odell made the point that, while Spilsbury practically invented modern forensics, he did make mistakes, and occasionally misused his formidable reputation to ensure certain defendants who might otherwise have got off were found guilty on the basis of forensic evidence that was far flimsier than he made it sound.

  4. I hope the Wiltshire Constabulary CID aren't reading this blog as there is a real possibility, based on the police identikit photo, that a famous spud-faced Liverpudlian footballer might shortly be helping them with their enquiries.

    1. Now you mention it, Ex-KCS... Of course, he wouldn't have been alive at the time - but, given their track record, that probably won't stop Wiltshire CID from destroying his reputation (such as it is).

    2. That’s a detail, Guv, I reckon his De Lorean has a flux capacitor on it, so we can get him banged to rights on our way to 1965 and pick up Ted Heath on the way back.