They are free, and so is the real killer

WHO KILLED CARL BRIDGEWATER? Vindication of the Bridgewater Three shifts focus to former suspect and corrupt policemen
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The Independent Online
The release of the three men falsely convicted of Carl Bridgewater's murder raises one obvious question: who did kill the 13-year-old newspaper delivery boy? It also raises the issue of responsibility and the conduct of the police inquiry - who caused three men to spend 18 years in jail for a crime they did not commit and a fourth man to die in prison while serving a 10-year stretch?

The case appears to be a classic example of what Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, condemned in 1993 as "noble cause" corruption, in which a small group of detectives were prepared to "massage the evidence" and "bend the rules". Others might be more blunt and say "make up the evidence to fit the crime".

With the vindication of the Bridgewater Three, attention has turned to a former suspect, Hubert Spencer. At one stage he was a key suspect, with several strong links to the newspaper boy's death.

Witnesses recalled seeing a blue Vauxhall Viva driven into Yew Tree Farm, Wordsley, Shropshire, shortly before Carl's murder in September 1978 by a man in a blue uniform. Police found Mr Spencer, an ambulance liaison officer who lived locally, owned such a car and uniform.

At first he did not tell detectives he knew Yew Tree Farm, its owners and Carl, and that he was interested in collecting antiques - which was thought to be the motive for the original burglary. A hospital log which would confirm his movements is missing, although he had an alibi witness - Barbara Riebold, who worked with him at the local Corbett hospital. Mr Spencer, now 56, also used to shoot at the farm.

Shortly after the killing he found a piece of cardboard which cast suspicions of other people in the ambulance service but this was later dismissed as a red herring. Police discovered by the time of their second interview with Mr Spencer that from 1969 to 1974 he had lived in the same street as Carl, who used to play with his daughter.

Further police inquiries suddenly stopped when three West Midlands police officers from Number 4 Regional Crime Squad, who were assisting Staffordshire police in the murder inquiry, achieved the supposed "breakthrough" from the alleged confessions. In the apparent desire to get a result, the police appeared to have ignored other possible leads, however promising.

An even more disturbing event provided a further possible link between Mr Spencer and the Bridgewater case a few weeks after the conviction of the four men. During a Christmas party half a mile from Yew Tree Farm, Mr Spencer loaded a shotgun and shot his friend Hubert Wilkes, 70, in the head as he sat on a sofa. He then attacked and shot at his wife and Mr Wilkes's daughter.

At his trial Mr Spencer was never able to explain what happened. He was convicted of the Wilkes murder in July 1980 and sentenced to life imprisonment. At the first appeal hearing of the Bridgewater case in 1989, the judges ruled they had "no doubt whatever but that Hubert Spencer had nothing whatever to do with the killing of Carl Bridgewater".

He was released on life licence in 1994 after serving 14 years, remarried and moved to the Lincolnshire village of Bicker, 10 miles from Boston.

He said yesterday: "It's incredible they are being released. I expect more pressure will be put on me but my conscience is clear ... If the Hickeys have not done it, it is the right decision to let them out. When people get off on appeal, it always leaves a case unsettled. I'm just surprised that the Crown has dropped the case."

He later told reporters he would only speak for money and had sold his story. "I've been offered pounds 100 a word by someone else. The Hickey family have made a fortune, so you lot can start coughing up. Can you give me a few hundred quid now?"

He may face fresh questioning by Merseyside police, who are continuing an investigation. But questions will equally be asked about the conduct of the West Midlands detectives who, the court heard yesterday, had fabricated evidence. The late Det Con John Perkins, who the court heard yesterday had forged Vincent Hickey's signature on a sham confession designed to provoke Patrick Molloy to confess, was discredited even before the notorious West Midlands serious-crime squad was disbanded in August 1989 amid a torrent of disclosures about malpractice and the disclosure of evidence.

He was involved in 17 of the 97 cases that West Yorkshire police were subsequently called in to examine. He had already been disciplined and fined by his own force for falsifying a statement in a case which failed in court. From the moment the squad was disbanded, attention was focussed on the role of the officers in the Bridgewater affair.

Former Det Con Graham Leake, who Michael Mansfield QC said almost certainly wrote the text of the false Hickey confession, brushed aside questions last night and refused to answer calls at his security firm.