Written by Allan Hall
Tabloid newspapers liked, in the pre-Leveson days, to think themselves above the law. And as well as flouting it on a daily basis, they also liked to play the policeman when it came to particular whodunnit? crimes. So when a beautiful 23-year-old woman called Rachel Jane Nickell was murdered on Wimbledon Common in South-West London on 15 July 1992 it was of course a tragedy – and a perfect tabloid storm.
The victim was walking with her young child when she was attacked and murdered by an assailant at that time unknown. A lengthy police investigation to find the perpetrator followed, during which a wrong suspect was charged and acquitted before the trail went cold.
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In 2002, with more advanced forensic techniques, Scotland Yard reopened the case, and on 18 December 2008 Robert Napper pleaded guilty to Nickell’s manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Napper, who was already incarcerated for life at that time for a 1993 double-murder, was sentenced at a court trial to indefinite detention at Broadmoor High Security hospital for the criminally insane.
But that was later. At the time of the Nickell murder I was in America for The Sun – the biggest, brashest tabloid bully on the block – and it got it into its head to fly in to London the man who wrote the rulebook when it came to serial killers.
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So it was that I found myself on a sunny Sunday afternoon trawling around a suburb of the American capital looking for former FBI agent Robert Ressler. Ressler had helped found the FBI’s Behavioural Sciences Unit devoted to profiling serial killers and rapists. He worked on the notorious Jefferey Dahmer cannibal case and the Ted Bundy rapist-killer murders. In 1992 he penned a book entitled ‘Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI.’ It was the Sun’s features editor, seeing this at the Frankfurt Book Fair, who got the notion that the paper should fly him into London and get him to solve that which was baffling Scotland Yard.
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Tracking down an ex-FBI man whose telephone was unlisted was somewhat complicated. But after a lot of door knocking, and with the aid of a private eye,, I managed to locate him in Spotsylvania County, Virginia.
Ressler, who passed on to that great crime scene in the sky six years ago, was taciturn and pompous in equal measure. A bit of a God botherer, more than a little dull, he seemed unimpressed at the offer of business class flights to London, an all-expenses paid stay at a Park Lane hotel and a fat fee to boot. I saw the numerous chances for fine dining and wining ebbing away fast….
But then he made a telephone call to an old Yard contact of his in London and asked him if he thought it a sound idea to jet off into the tabloid stratosphere. Whatever the old British bogie said to him, Ressler changed his tune fast and agreed to come fly with me the next morning from Washington to London. He didn’t want to come to dinner though, saying his wife had prepared meatloaf. I wasn’t invited.
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Spotsylvania County is not Paris when it comes to restaurants. The best I managed to find was a strange hybrid somehwere between Sicilian and Cretan. I feared the worst, but serendipity intervened and I dined royally. The following was served over orzo, the tiny Greek pasta beads resembling rice grains. I find it better with spaghetti.
The next dish was the Cretan side of the schizophrenic menu. It is best described as a kind of pork pie with cheese and herbs. I enjoyed it greatly but was unable to wrest the recipe from the chef as he spoke no English. The best approximation is a Wiltshire pork pie which I have made several times since from a recipe given to me by my wife – who makes it better than I do.
The next day found us aboard the iron bird to London. I expected fascinating stories from Ressler about human monsters he had tracked, the darkest sides of the human psyche he had seen. But not even the plentiful supplies delivered from the business class aluminium cart could jolly him along. I found solace in plentiful gulps of British Airways red wine. Ressler – well, honestly, he was as stimulating as a Frinton caravan park. In winter.
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A car was waiting for us to take us to the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane – not a bad address to rest one’s head. It was darkening in the late evening by the time we arrived but I managed to coax the reluctant detective to accompany me to dinner in Soho at a small Italian eatery off of Dean Street.
I ordered the most expensive Chianti I could find and was overjoyed that Ressler restricted himself to one half glass. And no aperitifs, And no digestifs. God, it seemed this would be a long week. That morning The Sun had a wipe-out front page reading; ‘Sun Flies in Silence of Lambs Man’ to solve the Nickell murder. I had my doubts.
I no longer remember what he had to eat but I tried the restaurant’s take on chicken cacciatore, a classic Italian dish. It was excellent and served over buttery mash potatoes. Here’s what you have to do to replicate it.
The next day, after we both enjoyed a 25 pound plate of bacon and eggs in the dining room of the Grosvenor, we departed for Wimbledon Common where Ressler wandered about, silently musing on the crime scene, occasionally pausing to write something in a a notebook. I penned a load of old guff for the next day’s paper accompanying a photo of the Poirot of the FBI meandering across the greensward.
Luckily he didn’t want to go to dinner later on, so I amused myself at Daphne’s in Draycott Avenue, haunt of such celebrities as Joan Collins and assorted TV glitterati. Pretending, naturally, that I was taking the eternally thirsty Ressler to dinner I managed to polish off a half bottle of Sicilian white wine with some spaghetti and clams, followed by a handsome bottle or Sagrantino red. The meatballs weren’t half bad either – and this is my take on them.
The meatballs at Daphne’s were pork. But one day at home I found myself with a surplus of turkey breast which I used for escalopes. It is an interesting and delicious alternative.
Friday took a long while coming around. The powers-that-be had decided that Ressler should spill all to us in time for a double-page spread on Saturday when The Sun would inform the public about who was suspect number one in the killing of Rachel Nickell.
Together with another reporter and a photographer we agreed to meet Ressler as a restaurant in Mayfair. Notebooks opened and pens poised, I said to him; “So, Bob, what’s the result? What kind of killer are you looking for?”
“Excuse me?” he said as if bewildered by the question. I repeated it, asking him again what his days of research had unearthed.
“I can’t tell you,” he said straightfaced.
“Am I missing something here Bob?,” I asked, desperately trying to contain my rising temper. “Has it escaped your notice that you have been flown here at considerable expense, been put up in one of London’t finest hotels, been ferried about and are receiving a fat fee for your troubles? Did you think The Sun brought you here so you could keep your findings to yourself?”
“Not myself,” he said. “I am going to give them to Scotland Yard. They must solve the case.” He left the restaurant amid a flurry of expletives.
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It is a maxim of newspapers that if a job goes well, someone in the office in a shiny suit will take credit for it. If it goes pear shaped, it is always the fault of the man (or woman) on the road.
“Right,” I said to my colleagues. “Let’s rescue this now.”
It was a beautiful sunny day and we repaired to the grass in Hyde Park where we concocted 1500 fabulous words from nothing. Drawing on all the usual cliches of serial killers – young men, unable to form stable relationships, living alone, either shift workers or unemployed, frightened of intimacy, obsessed with knives, not breast fed long enough as babies – we formed a perfect picture of Ressler’s supposed findings.
It all went in to the paper as written, all credited to Ressler. He returned alone to Washington, I to New York, our paths never to cross again. But when they did finally nail Napper for the crime, his psychological profile was pretty close to the fantasy concocted on the grass of the London park.
His? I meant MINE.