Murder on the tourist trail - and a killer with a death wish

John Martin Scripps faces sentence in Singapore today. He may go down as the most reckless murderer in history. Stephen Vines reports

Today, John Martin Scripps, a 35-year-old Briton, will be told whether or not he will hang for murdering and dismembering the body of a South African tourist in Singapore. He has been on trial for just this one murder, but he is a suspect in a remarkably similar double murder, committed only days later in Thailand. He has also been accused of two murders in Mexico. In all cases the murderer carefully picked the victims: travellers in a strange country carrying money, who were killed and their bodies dissected and dumped.

Was the murderer the tall, boyish-looking Scripps, who changed his name to John Martin? Watching him in the austere surroundings of Singapore's Supreme Court, it is hard to tell whether he is a pathological serial killer or simply a loser with a death wish of his own.

Most of the evidence in the trial was supplied by Scripps himself, who went to the trouble of carrying the murder weapon, the dissecting knife and the documents of the deceased from Singapore to Thailand and back to Singapore, where he was arrested. The items of evidence spilled out from two large cardboard boxes, which were dragged back and forth from the court room by a harassed-looking police officer.

If Scripps had been actively seeking arrest, he could not have done more to help police. Yet he spent days in the witness box trying to explain away the obvious. Faced with difficult questions, he slipped into a set theatrical routine of leaning forward in the witness box and placing his head against the knuckles of his left hand, shutting his eyes and frowning deeply as if waiting for the answer from somewhere out of the ether.

The court heard how he was visited by a computer salesman, Danny Teo, in the hotel room where, the night before, Scripps had assaulted and killed Gerrard George Lowe, 32, with a mallet-type hammer. The salesman had met Scripps earlier in the day and was keen to get him to buy five notebook computers.

Scripps, who does not deny killing Mr Lowe but claims it was an accident after he repelled a homosexual advance, was alleged to have been chopping up the body and placing it in black plastic bags before carting the pieces outside the hotel and throwing them in the river. Afterwards he was said to be quietly sitting in the murder room, weighing up the pros and cons of the computers before deciding not to buy them, not because he felt awkward about having Teo in the room where the murder took place but because he found Teo guilty of "what we call in England, oversell".

Teo departed and, according to a bill bearing his signature, Scripps made his way to the hotel coffee shop for a fillet steak and glass of white wine. In court, he denied consuming the dinner on the grounds that he always drank red wine with red meat. This, he said, was proof that he had not been eating the meal.

Earlier in the day he had gone out with Mr Lowe's credit card to withdraw money from the bank, buy a video recorder for his sister, training shoes for himself and tickets for an evening of classical music with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Scripps's background is an almost textbook chronicle of petty criminality graduating to serious crime. He started with a small burglary that landed him in Highgate Juvenile Court, London, at the age of 15, and was given a conditional discharge. Seven months later he was back on another burglary charge. By that time he had left school without being able to read or write. He was dyslexic, "people were making fun of me", he said.

Scripps made two more appearances at Highgate before being sent to jail at the age of 23. On his release, after a series of dead-end jobs in factories, he finally got a job selling antiques, which he liked a lot more. He also acquired a taste for travel, inherited from his father, who had died when he was young.

Crime, however, was the only means he had to finance his wanderlust. The academy of advanced criminal education, otherwise known as the British prison system, equipped him with the skills and the contacts he needed to make a career of it. The way Scripps described his life, everything seemed to follow a perfectly natural progression. By the age of 29 he was in jail for drug trafficking: 2kg of heroin were recovered when he and an accomplice were arrested.

The court listened intently as he casually described how to remove signatures from credit cards, gave advice on the best method of fraudulently cashing travellers cheques, and solemnly informed the judge that most frequent travellers take a couple of passports with them. It soon became clear that his sort of foreign traveller was not exactly the run-of-the-mill tourist.

Within the space of just six years he had become, as he freely admitted, a hardened criminal: "ninety-nine per cent of the people I know have been in prison at one time or another", he told Mr Justice TS Sinnathuray, who warned him not to continue incriminating himself.

He fell in with some heavy-duty drug dealers. The gang leader, whose real name Scripps refused to give to the court, was apparently known as "Bad John". This man was alleged by Scripps to have disposed of Mr Lowe's body, stolen the credit cards and other possessions of the murdered people in Thailand and always conveniently been there to do the dirty work. It seems likely that Scripps was in touch with a criminal associate in both Thailand and Singapore but unlikely that this man was responsible for the crimes.

Everything Scripps touched seemed to turn to dust. Before coming to Singapore he had absconded from prison for the third or fourth time, apparently travelling with ease to France and then, via Spain, to Mexico where he was trying to patch up his relationship or, as he put it, "start a new life", with his Mexican common-law wife and nine-year-old child.

He had promised his mother to get out of the drugs trade, he said, and he was on the run. None of his drug-running friends would help him, he claimed, because he refused to work for them.

In the warped and desperate world inhabited by Scripps, murder and theft may have been seen as the only way out. If so, he was shrewd in his choice of victims. They were all far from home, all carrying a fair amount of cash and several credit cards, and all apparently susceptible to the casual friendship of this evidently well travelled Englishman.

In finding victims and killing them, Scripps is said to have shown a kind of warped talent, but in every other respect he almost seemed to be crying out for arrest. How else can one explain his carrying the murder weapon from one country to another and back? Why did he keep every single identifying document of the victims, the notepad on which he practised forging their signatures and even some of the clothes stripped from the bodies of the corpses? At one point he claimed he wanted to give the clothes to Oxfam, a statement so bizarre that it mystified the counsel who was cross-examining him.

Yet he had his wits sufficiently about him to disguise the identity and whereabouts of "Bad John", although the names and telephone numbers of other criminal friends were carefully recorded on a small card.

In the days that followed the murders in Singapore and Thailand, Scripps alleged that he was in a drunken and drugged stupour. He did, however, manage to go on a day trip to the holiday island of Phuket, and return with a souvenir plate containing a picture of the happy tourist glazed into the centre - Scripps is seen peering sheepishly into the camera, looking slightly out of place.

It was much how he looked in court: at times the obstinate schoolboy unwilling to answer questions, at times eager to please and at times apparently lost in a world of his own.

That world will probably come to an end in a few months, around dawn on a Friday morning - the hanging time in Singapore's Changi Jail.

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