……and her killer wash the blood from his hands: Son of Wimbledon Common murder victim Rachel Nickell recalls the horror that haunts him still
- Rachel Nickell was killed in front of her son on Wimbledon Common in 1992
- Bungled investigation led to the wrong man, Colin Stagg, being arrested
- It took 16 years before the true killer, Robert Napper, was brought to justice
When young mother Rachel Nickell was stabbed to death in front of her toddler son on Wimbledon Common in 1992, the brutal murder shocked the nation.
A bungled police investigation led to the wrong man, Colin Stagg, being arrested and charged.
His trial collapsed – and it took 16 years before the true killer, Robert Napper, was finally brought to justice.
Here, as the 25th anniversary of his mother’s death approaches, her son Alex, now 27 and the only witness to the crime, talks for the first time of the day that changed his life for ever.
Get up, Mummy!’ She didn’t respond. ‘Get up, Mummy!’ I said louder. Why didn’t she move or answer? ‘Get up, Mummy!’ I shouted with all my strength.
The moment I watched my mother’s soul leave her body is one I will never forget. Even today, almost 25 years later, I can still see the film running inside my mind.
I was less than a month away from my third birthday. In our flat in Balham, South London, my father Andre bent down to kiss me before he left for work as a motorcycle dispatch rider. ‘See you later, Alex. Have fun!’ he said, before hugging my mother and kissing her goodbye.
Torn apart: Alex on a beach holiday with his mother. Rachel Nickell was stabbed to death in front of her toddler son on Wimbledon Common in 1992
My mother and I spent every day together. She was 23 and truly beautiful – tall and athletic with long, golden hair and a smile that lit up her face. When I remember her, though, it’s not in details like these. Instead I recall the feeling of being loved and of loving in return.
Fast forward and we are walking on Wimbledon Common, which my parents felt was safer than our local park. The midsummer sun warmed our skin while our labrador-greyhound cross Molly ran in circles around us.
As my mother and I carried on down a path, it was dark but I could see blue sky through the leaves. All of a sudden we both turned our heads to the right as a man with a black bag over his shoulder came lurching out of the undergrowth.
There was no time to respond. I was grabbed and thrown to the ground and my face forced into the mud. Seconds later my mother collapsed next to me. There were no screams. Everything was so silent that for years to come the memories of those moments would play out like an old film, without sound.
I saw the stranger’s blank face, the clothes he wore and the knife he took from his bag. I picked myself up from the ground as fast as I could. I felt unsteady and my face was hurting.
I caught sight of the man a few yards away, kneeling to wash his hands in the stream. A moment later he rose and headed rapidly off through the trees, his black bag still over his shoulder.
As the 25th anniversary of his mother’s death approaches, her son Alex (pictured), now 27 and the only witness to the crime, talks for the first time of the day that changed his life for ever
I looked down at my mother lying on the ground beside me. She looked peaceful, as if pretending to be asleep, like in one of our imaginary games, ready to wake up at any moment and gaze adoringly into my eyes.
I noticed a piece of paper on the ground nearby, which had fallen from her pocket, and reached down to pick it up, holding it out to her. In a split second, life seemed to come to a standstill. She was gone.
I was very young, yet at that moment I knew she was never coming back. My heart was completely broken.
She was never going to get up and play with me again. I would never look into her loving eyes and see her adoring smile again.
I would never hear her soft voice again, telling me how much she loved me.
I reached down and placed the piece of paper – a receipt from a cash machine, I later learned – delicately on her forehead so it would be with her wherever she was.
Around me, the woodland was silent. I ran out of the woods up on to the grassy slope from which we had come. Strangers ran towards me. They must have noticed my battered face and the blood splattered across my clothes. They were kind and somehow I knew I could trust them. But it felt inside like I was floating somewhere far away.
I heard the sirens wailing in the background. I heard people talking to me, but the words no longer registered. In the distance the first flashing blue lights of police cars appeared and when the ambulance arrived I was rushed inside, sedated by doctors and drifted off into a deep sleep.
How much time passed I don’t know. But eventually one of the hospital nurses led me by the hand to where my father stood waiting. He lifted me into his arms and gave me a crushing hug. I gazed intensely into his eyes. They were red and raw and tears were running down his cheeks.
‘There’s been a terrible accident,’ he began, his voice breaking as he struggled to find the words. ‘Mummy has been killed and she’s not coming back…’
A police car near the murder scene at Wimbledon Common. A bungled police investigation led to the wrong man, Colin Stagg, being arrested and charged
My parents’ paths had first crossed in 1988 at a water park where my mother, then 19, was working as a lifeguard while studying English literature at university, and my father at 25 was a semi- professional tennis player.
I made my way into the world just after 7am on August 11, 1989. Despite the regular strains that all households suffer, life was happy, and yet for my mother there seemed at times to be a strange sense of foreboding.
On more than one occasion she had asked my father to promise that, if anything ever happened to her, he would find someone else. ‘I’m afraid of being attacked from behind,’ she once told him. On another occasion, she woke in the middle of the night. In her dream someone whose face she couldn’t see was attacking her from behind with a knife.
Now her deepest fears had come true – and I was the only witness.
On the first night without my mother the nightmares began. I sounded like a dying animal. I was trapped inside a horrifying nightmare and my father couldn’t snap me out of it.
My father had once read an article about a man who used some toys to tell his grandson a story in which a nasty character played the role of a villain. Over time the little boy became disturbed by the presence of the threatening figure, until finally his grandfather had no choice but to destroy the toy so that his grandson could regain his sense of security.
Proud parents: Baby Alex Hanscombe with Rachel and Andre. His parents’ paths had first crossed in 1988 at a water park where my mother, then 19, was working as a lifeguard
And so, one morning my father drew a gingerbread man with a knife in his hand.
‘This is the man that killed Mummy,’ he said. ‘He is a bad, bad man and I hate him. This is what I want to do with him!’
He grabbed the piece of paper, scrunched it violently in his hands and slammed it straight into the bin. I squealed with delight and, when he drew it again, I leapt to my feet, pounded the drawing into a little ball, ran away from him into the kitchen and slammed it into the bin with all my strength.
At that moment my father was overcome with pride. It was the first time I’d left his sight since he’d collected me at the hospital 36 hours earlier.
The police drove us to the hospital to see my mother’s body.
‘She has gone now, sweetheart,’ my father explained. ‘What’s left behind is just the shell, it’s just like old clothing. It’s not her any longer.’ Hesitantly I stood, studying him for a few seconds, before reluctantly walking forward and allowing him to lift me up.
I glanced sideways for a moment and then looked away again. Resting on a table, the body lay on its back, wrapped from neck to toe in a robe that left only vague contours visible. There was no sign of any wounds, and her face looked like wax. ‘Can we go now?’ I asked. ‘In a minute,’ he replied. ‘I want to say goodbye.’ Holding me in his arms, he bent over and kissed her forehead.
‘Truly beautiful’: A family snap of Rachel Nickell. Stagg’s trial collapsed – and it took 16 years before the true killer, Robert Napper, was finally brought to justice
Within a few days of my mother’s death, the room where I played had been filled with enough video equipment to make a film. The police didn’t want to miss a word I might say.
There had been more than 500 people on the common on the morning of the attack, but so far there were no firm leads: the police were becoming desperate.
At a visit to a child psychologist, a detective placed a tray in front of me containing household cutlery, a bread knife, several large kitchen knives, a penknife and a hunting knife. I instantly picked out the hunting knife.
Later, it would be confirmed that the blade matched the shape of the murder weapon.
‘What did the bad man do after he had killed Mummy?’ one of the detectives asked. ‘The bad man washed the blood off in the water,’ I said.
In a bid to show me how tough the police were, the detectives took me with my father to see a real, locked cell and encouraged me to see how secure the doors really were. Suddenly a man lurched forward out of the shadows and tried to grab me, scaring the life out of me.
The detectives rushed to throw him back into the cell, slamming the heavy door behind, which had mistakenly been left unlocked.
They were mortified. ‘That was close!’ one of them said under his breath. They bustled us away. I was badly shaken and no longer interested in their games.
I held on to my father’s hand and wanted to leave.
Two months after the murder, BBC’s Crimewatch programme presented an identikit picture of my mother’s assailant based on my description. Several callers identified Colin Stagg, who lived nearby.
Stagg was arrested, but the evidence against him was at best flimsy and he was released without charge. Despite the lack of evidence, the police were so convinced he was the killer that they eventually mounted an undercover ‘honey-trap’ operation to tempt a confession.
He was duly charged, but in the autumn of 1994, when I was five, the trial against him collapsed in a storm of controversy.
My mother’s killer remained at large, free to kill again. As long as that remained the case, my father would be forever looking over his shoulder, fearing for my safety.
When my father had first announced to our family that we would be leaving the country, it caused a great deal of upset. My mother’s father stopped talking to him and her mother told him that he was causing them a second bereavement. Bringing me up in France without my mother in our new home was lonely and hard for my father. Eventually, we were tracked down by the press – and if they could find us, so could the killer. We fled secretly to Spain.
Alex in France aged three after her death. Two months after the murder, BBC’s Crimewatch programme presented an identikit picture of Alex’s mother’s assailant based on his description
The years that followed were rocky. Once, during a heated argument, I threatened my father with a large kitchen knife.
When I was 13, on an exchange trip to France. I was caught smoking a joint in a toilet, and also had several run-ins with the police. Eventually, I was forced to look at myself. There had been all sorts of claims made about what would happen to me in the wake of the attack: that I would never talk again, end up living under a bridge or even repeat the violence I had witnessed.
I began to seriously question why some people consistently stumbled into difficulties while others were able to glide through life.
Was there a reason for my mother’s death that went deeper than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time? I wondered about her fear of being attacked and came to understand that, if we focus more on the things we don’t want rather than those we want, we inevitably draw them into our lives.
I promised myself that I would strive to leave all negativity behind and make a new start. I was certain I had seen the depths of darkness and was determined to learn the lessons life had handed me.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I forgave my mother’s killer.
For me it was a process that happened gradually over time. Just as the nightmares faded when I was a child. I was no longer the little boy who screwed up paper cutouts representing ‘the bad man’ and pounded them into the rubbish bin. I forgave him long before he even had a name…
In September 2004, a month after my 15th birthday, my father was given a shocking piece of information from a senior police officer that threw everything we’d been led to believe out of the window.
A cold case review team had used new DNA techniques on samples from the scene of my mother’s murder. They had found a match, not to Colin Stagg, but to a man called Robert Napper.
In 1989, Napper had raped a woman near Plumstead Common in South London. Napper, consumed with guilt, confessed to his mother and she told police, but he was never even questioned.
His arrest would have stopped him from committing a string of further crimes.
In May 1994, Napper was finally arrested and charged with the brutal murders of a young mother called Samantha Bisset and her daughter Jazmine.
He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, also pleading guilty to two counts of attempted rape and one of rape relating to attacks in South London where a staggering series of violent sexual attacks on more than 80 women took place between 1989 and 1994. He was sent to Broadmoor indefinitely.
In December 2008, 16 years after the attack, Napper was convicted of the manslaughter of my mother on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
Two years later, a damning report was published by the Independent Police Complaints Commission concluding that, without the police’s mistakes my mother’s murder and attacks on countless other women could have been avoided.
Finally we received our first apology from the Metropolitan Police. It was signed by Cressida Dick, then assistant commissioner (now commissioner).
In 1994 my family had received £97,000 from the Criminal Injuries Board for the loss of my mother. Given that Colin Stagg received £700,000 for spending ten months in prison on remand, it appeared that being wrongly accused was calculated to be of much greater significance than my mother’s life.
There had already been other occasions where the police had used taxpayers’ money to compensate victims of crime for their incompetence. Stephen Lawrence’s family had been paid £320,000 in recognition of the seven-year delay in apprehending his assailants.
Why, then, would the police refuse to even reimburse our legal costs? In my mother’s case, not only had the failure of the police to apprehend Napper led to her murder, but their lack of professionalism led to a delay of 16 years before his conviction.
Many argued that the underlying reason behind the payment in the Lawrence case was because the police were being condemned as ‘institutionally racist’ and the payment would help clean up their public image.
Numerous women suffered at the hands of Napper because of the direct mistakes of the police. I believe Scotland Yard feared that making any kind of payment to us would set a precedent – with expensive repercussions.
I returned to Wimbledon Common, 23 years after my mother’s murder. I reached the spot where the attack took place and knelt down on the soft earth.
I placed my hands together in prayer and closed my eyes, thanking my mother for everything she gave me.
‘Molly, Molly!’ Suddenly I was brought back to the moment. Was I dreaming? I stood up and turned. Yards away I spotted a man calling his dog. I was certain.
A higher power was watching over me, making sure everything was perfect and letting me know by sending a sign.
In the blink of an eye, I saw my life’s journey flash before me.
© Alex Hanscombe, 2017
- Abridged from Letting Go: A True Story Of Murder, Loss And Survival by Alex Hanscombe, published by Harper Element on Thursday, priced £7.99. Order a copy for £5.99 (25 per cent off) until May 21 at www.mailbookshop. co.uk or call 0844 571 0640.
In the hours after the murder, my dad though about ways of ending our lives
Interview by Sarah Oliver for the Mail On Sunday
Alex, now 27, has every reason to hate Robert Napper, the psychopath who knifed his beautiful, happy and devoted mother
The murder of his mother on Wimbledon Common in 1992 may have been the defining moment of Alex Hanscombe’s life – but since then he has completed a remarkable journey to forgiveness.
Alex, now 27, has every reason to hate Robert Napper, the psychopath who knifed his beautiful, happy and devoted mother, and the Metropolitan Police – whose scandalous errors allowed the killer to roam free for years after the attack. And yet, in an exclusive interview to mark the publication of his new memoir, Alex declares: ‘Accepting all that life has handed me and then forgiving the person responsible has allowed me to let go. Napper being put behind bars brought me no sense of satisfaction. I never harboured resentment.
‘Even as a child, I understood. There was no one magic moment of forgiveness. When I reached adulthood I was able to look back and see I had already let go naturally and gradually.
‘I can take a step back and see where Napper was coming from: a difficult childhood, a violent household, being abused, in psychiatric care. He tried to commit suicide after his first attack. No matter how dysfunctional that may seem to us, it was him reaching out for help.’
It’s a humbling response to the question of justice and revenge. But speaking to Alex, it’s clear that the killing which tore apart his childhood has not corrupted his adult life. Instead, he’s a man at peace with himself. He says: ‘What I have taken away from the experience of losing my mother is the knowledge that I must appreciate every day.’
Even a failed bid to oblige the Metropolitan Police to be more publicly accountable back in 2010 causes him no grief.
‘Police officers are human, so mistakes happen. They are not goodies or baddies, they just belong to an institution that is greater than any person within it.
‘When you have a system of dark corridors, where people are not forced to face the consequences of their actions, you attract those who are prone to mistakes or corruption.
‘What I question is not who made what mistake, it is whether the systems are effective. In our particular case, mistakes led not only to my mother’s death but to violent attacks on over 80 women.
‘Sadly, I don’t think things have changed over the last two decades. The organisation remains bigger than any particular person. Bigger even than Cressida Dick.’ Instead of bearing a grudge against Ms Dick, the new Met Commissioner, who officially apologised to Alex seven years ago for the force’s failings, or pouring his emotional energy into a hatred of Napper, Alex chooses to live a contented life in his adopted home city of Barcelona.
He travels widely, practises yoga for two hours a day, is passionate about jazz and speaks English, French, Spanish and Catalan.
Currently single, he has been in a loving long-term relationship and would one day consider having children to recreate the loving family unit he once enjoyed with his own parents. Rachel Nickell was just 23 when she died on July 15, 1992, leaving her partner, Alex’s father Andre Hanscombe, now 54, to raise their beloved only son. The bungled police investigation which followed focused on innocent loner Colin Stagg, and it was not until 2008 that Napper was convicted of Rachel’s manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
The killing gave Alex just three years with his mother. ‘She wanted a boy, that was her dream, to have a strong son to look after her.
‘She was always grooming me to be that man. I remember her smile, her smell, the sound of her voice. Even though she is in the spiritual realm now, I know she is looking out for me.
‘I feel blessed because in the first three years of my life I had a happiness not everyone enjoys. I would rather have had that experience of love and loss than live without it.’
This equilibrium has been hard won. In the hours after the murder, Alex’s father considered killing both himself and his young son. ‘He could not imagine me wanting to go on without her, so he was thinking about the method he was going to use to end our lives,’ Alex admits. ‘But I knew it was not my time.’
Instead they sought anonymity moving to France and later to Spain, where they still share a home. Alex says: ‘I was able to complete my childhood in private. Now I am ready to talk about it which is why I have written a book which I believe would make my mother proud.’
He and Andre are working on a series of children’s books based on the stories Andre invented to amuse and stimulate Alex in his recovery. They are also considering publishing a self-help book codifying the beliefs that helped them survive.
Alex is proof such a book would be valuable. He’s not angry or embittered but filled instead with courage, optimism and kindness.
‘There are a hundred different what-ifs but I believe everything has played itself out for a reason,’ he says. ‘Those experiences have made me who I am today and there is no one else whose shoes I would rather be standing in.’