Bizarre life of a fantasist caught in the wrong place at the wrong time

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The Independent Online

He was the "local nutter", the loner who stalked women, had a personality disorder, convictions for sex offences, an obsession with guns and an equally unhealthy fixation with celebrities.

When detectives investigating Jill Dando's murder came across Barry George, he must have seemed too good a suspect to be true. And that is exactly what a jury decided yesterday.

The irony of his second trial was that, in many ways, the very evidence used to portray Mr George as a killer echoed the facts employed in his defence. The Crown insisted that his obsessive behaviour proved he was Ms Dando's murderer but his supporters were equally adamant such failings pointed to a man incapable of carrying out an efficient, cold-blooded murder.

His sister, Michelle Diskin, insisted he was simply a "vulnerable, naive" eccentric, and a psychiatrist called by the defence said his ability to plan and organise tasks was abnormally low, in the bottom 1 per cent of the country.

The prosecution conceded from the start of the retrial that they were relying on circumstantial evidence after the forensics used against him in the first trial were dismissed. The case focused on who Mr George was and how he had behaved in the years leading up to 26 April 1999, the day Ms Dando died.

Barry George must be one of the most bizarre defendants ever to stand in the dock of the Old Bailey's Court No 1. His life lurched from the pathetic to the ridiculous, the laughable to the sinister. He claimed to be everything from the cousin of the Queen singer Freddie Mercury to a police officer and a stuntman.

He stole the names of men as different as the shamed rock star Gary Glitter and the SAS Iranian siege hero Thomas Palmer. He conned a local newspaper into printing a piece about his fantasy triumph at a karate championship, persuaded a promoter to set up his disastrous attempt to roller-jump over a string of buses and, at one point, could be seen directing traffic near his west London home.

But the comic was laced with the brutal. On two occasions, his pestering of women led to sexual assaults, and he was convicted of attempted rape. His life was marked out by his strange attempts to gain approval by adopting endless different identities and – from everyone bar his mother and older sister – almost universal rejection. A handwritten note in his chaotic flat read: "I have difficulty handling rejection."

Born on 15 April 1960 in Hammersmith, west London, he was the third child of Margaret Bourke, who had moved to London from Ireland as a teenager, and Alfred, a civilian police driver and special constable. He had two older sisters, Susan, who would die of epilepsy at 28, and Michelle, who would fight for him throughout his long years in jail. When he was seven, his father walked out and, in his mother's words, "shunned" the children.

With an IQ of just 75, it was not long before he was diagnosed with learning difficulties and, at 12, sent to Heather Mount, Ascot, Berkshire, then a residential school for children with emotional and behavioural disorders. Memories of him there span those who recall a "lost lamb" or a misfit to those who claim he was a bully. But already his obsession with celebrity was forming and for now, Glitter was the target of his admiration. Leaving with no qualifications, he eventually managed to get his first and only job, as a BBC messenger. It lasted just five months but led to a fixation with the corporation which meant that years later he was still collecting copies of the in-house magazine Ariel.

He went on to apply for a job as a police officer and used the letterhead of a rejection letter to make a fake ID card. In the summer of 1980, he turned up at court wearing a sequined jacket, claimed to be a musician, but was fined £25 for impersonating a police officer.

On one occasion, by now calling himself Paul Gadd, the real name of his hero Glitter, he convinced a local paper that he had won the British karate championships, breaking 47 tiles with his feet. On another he used the name Steve Majors, merging the actor Lee Majors and his character in the Bionic Man Steve Austin character to con promoters into letting him leap four double-decker buses on roller skates.

In 1981, he joined the 10 Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, Territorial Army. He learnt to use a rifle but never completed his basic training and was discharged in November 1982. That year, he joined the Kensington and Chelsea Pistol Club as a probationary member but his application for full status was rejected. Defiantly, he took the name of the Thomas Palmer, one of the SAS team in the 1980 Iranian embassy siege.

In the same year, he was given a suspended sentence after being found guilty of indecently assaulting a civil servant, whom he grabbed in a car park. Middlesex Crown Court heard he had a "considerable personality disorder". He also had epilepsy.

In January 1983, he was caught in the grounds of Kensington Palace carrying a 50ft rope and a hunting knife. Within weeks of being released without charge, he was identified as a man who had attacked a modern languages student. In March, under the name Steve Majors, and then 22, he was jailed for 33 months after admitting attempted rape. He had met the student at a Tube station, followed her home and forced her to the ground then panicked, said he was ashamed and ran away.

Living on benefits and minor frauds, he became increasingly fixated with the military. Police searching his home found countless military magazines as well as a photograph of Mr George brandishing a Bruni blank-firing pistol. The prosecution insisted it was the same type of gun used to kill Ms Dando and a firearms expert, David Pryor, gave evidence that it appeared to have been modified to fire live rounds

Mr George was adamant: it was never converted to fire bullets. But in the 1980s, friends claimed, he had shown them various firearms. On one occasion in 1986, David Dobbins said Mr George burst into his home wearing a balaclava and shooting a blank-firing pistol.

He would also stalk women, pestering them in parks, carrying flowers and a hunting knife. He harassed language students and had a particular fascination with Asian women. On 2 May 1989, he married a Japanese student, Itsuko Toide, 35, at Fulham register office. It would be a short-lived marriage. She said he could be kind and gentle, but had repeatedly raped her. In 1990, he was arrested for assaulting her but she did not pursue the allegation and returned to Japan.

A new obsession began and he changed his name to Barry Bulsara, the real surname of Freddie Mercury, whom he claimed was a cousin. He plastered his flat with Queen posters, played their music at full volume and, on the anniversary of the singer's death in 1991, turned up at his house in a white limousine, dressed like his idol.

Barry George was a lonely fantasist and a compulsive liar. But yesterday, in the most important claim of his life, that he did not kill Jill Dando, the jury decided he was telling the truth.

Adjusting to life on the outside

Barry George, who had a fragile mental state before prison, now faces the daunting task of trying to readjust to life as an innocent man. He has had to have medical help in three prisons. A psychologist, Robert Forde, who has worked with many long-term prisoners, says Mr George's reintroduction into society must be done very slowly. "Many prisoners can simply be bewildered by the stimulation of the modern world," he said. "The noise, the lights and the commotion can be too much if they are presented with it too quickly. Even everyday activities, such as using public transport, can cause great anxiety." The change from the rigid regime of prison life, where all decisions were taken for him and his daily routine taken care of, could also come as a shock."For Mr George, who had led a disorganised life before prison, it can be easy to be overawed by the new freedom he has and the daily decisions demanded of him," Dr Forde said. "Life in prison is much simpler and far less demanding than life outside. And too much media attention could be dangerous for a man in Mr George's position, because it can be invasive at a sensitive time."

Michael Savage