How life changed for the grieving relatives and blundering police

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The Independent Online

The Hanscombes

Of all the gruesome and shocking details of Rachel Nickell's death, one was particularly heartbreaking. After watching his mother being killed and sexually assaulted, two-year-old Alex Hanscombe climbed on top of his her corpse and pleaded for her to get up. When police arrived they found a piece of paper stuck to Ms Nickell's forehead. It was originally thought to be a calling card, placed there by the killer. But it later transpired that it was a crude attempt at a plaster, placed there by Alex in a futile attempt to make his mummy better.

Agonisingly Alex, just one month before his third birthday, was the only witness to his mother's death, but was too young to communicate to detectives what he saw. That is not to say he didn't realise what had happened. In the 24 hours that followed the little boy was literally struck dumb with shock.

This year Alex Hanscombe turned 19. He now lives in Spain with his father. In the aftermath of his mother's death, during his teenage years, he became a "brooding, moody teenager" and was in trouble with the police and at school. Now neighbours in his Mediterranean village describe him as "Courteous and good-natured – quiet, polite, dignified, a real gentleman." He is training to be a tennis coach, like his father, Andre Hanscombe, was at the time of Ms Nickell's killing.

Mr Hanscombe had met Ms Nickell at a party and within months moved into a flat in Balham, south London. She fell pregnant with Alex three years later. Following her murder he fell out with Ms Nickell's parents, Andrew and Monica, after an argument over who got custody of Alex.

The dispute began just days after Rachel's murder when, according to Mr Hanscombe, Mrs Nickell confided in his own mother that she could take Alex away from his father at any time and bring him up herself.

Mr Hanscombe confronted them over the remark. Both denied it had ever been said, but the seeds of the rift were sown and he went to the High Court to get a parental responsibility order giving him sole custody of Alex until he turned 18.

Mr and Mrs Nickell continued to see Alex until Mr Hanscombe accused them of putting back the youngster's recovery from the trauma of seeing his mother killed by cutting his hair and making him look like "the village idiot". He also criticised the couple for allowing Alex to sleep in their bed.

Since then Mr Hanscombe has not spoken to them in more than a decade. Yesterday he sat just five yards from them in the courtroom.

He has spoken only fleetingly in the media about Ms Nickell's murder and has been fiercely protective of his and his son's privacy, moving to the south of France and then to Spain to escape overzealous reporters. In his book The Last Thursday in July, which was published in 1996, he described the journalists who tracked him down to his "sanctuary" as "callous, mercenary and unfeeling scum".

Mr and Mrs Nickell also expressed concern about journalists' interest in the case. They used their victim impact statement to explain how their lives had been "trampled on by the media", as well as to say how hurt they were that Mr Hanscombe had moved abroad and stopped them from seeing their grandson.

Outside court yesterday, Mr Nickell said: "This is the last time Monica or I will ever give an interview. Please leave us alone to grieve and regain out anonymity."

Conrad Ellam

The partner of Samantha Bissett said that detectives had refused to connect the death of his girlfriend with the attack on Rachel Nickell, and that they should have caught Napper at least a year earlier.

Conrad Ellam, below, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, says he feels no bitterness about what may be police failings, but believes Samantha and Jazmine's deaths could have been avoided. "Because it happened shortly after Rachel's killing, I asked police if they thought there was any connection," Mr Ellam, an environmental consultant, told the BBC yesterday.

"They said there were too many differences. But at the time they had Colin Stagg under surveillance and they were putting all their resources into that. Their deaths could have been avoided, but there's no point me feeling bitter. It's very sad but I just accept it.

"I was more upset about Jazmine. She was so young, that's much more tragic.

"She would be 19 now. When I see children who were her age I wonder what she would have been like.

"I loved Jazmine as if she were my own. She was the only child I have ever bonded with. She was a happy child, very easy to get on with. I would take her to the swings and she would think it was brilliant, like Christmas. I really did love her.

"It's left a void in my life."

Mr Ellam described how he is still haunted by the moment when he discovered the bodies the following day.

"The first thing I saw was a stain on the carpet, which turned out to be Sam's blood," he said. "I couldn't tell so I thought Jazmine had knocked paint over.

"I went into the kitchen to find something to clean it up with and found the floor was covered in Sam's clothes. I thought there had been a burglary.

"I walked into the front room and saw Sam. It was a pile of clothes and blankets with her arms and legs sticking out.

"It took me a while to realise what had happened. I went to phone the police and suddenly thought, 'What about Jazmine?' I looked in the bedroom and I could see she was in her bed with a duvet pulled over her.

"I couldn't really understand it all. I don't know how you're supposed to react to something like that."

Colin Stagg

In the weeks, months and years following Rachel Nickell's murder, the police identified more than 6,000 potential suspects and made 34 arrests. However, one man was pursued with more vigour than any other.

Colin Stagg first came to the attention of police in 1992 after he was charged and fined £200 for an offence of indecent exposure on Wimbledon Common – where Ms Nickell was killed. Almost exactly a year later, in August 1993, he found himself charged with the part-time model's murder.

The police decided to charge Mr Stagg after making him the subject of a honey-trap operation. An undercover officer, using the pseudonym Lizzie James, got in touch with him via a lonely hearts column and tried to entice him into confessing to the crime.

During a phone call Lizzie James fantasised about sex sessions involving knives and claimed to enjoy hurting people. In the conversation, which was taped and released by police, Stagg replied: "Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before." Lizzie went on to say: "If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right." Stagg replied: "I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't."

When the case came to trial in September 1994, the Old Bailey judge, Mr Justice Ognall, ruled that the police evidence was inadmissible. He said the police were guilty of a "blatant attempt to incriminate a suspect".

A jury was never sworn in and, with no other evidence, the prosecution withdrew before the trial began and Stagg was freed. He had spent a year on remand.

Earlier this year he was finally compensated. In August he was awarded £706,000 by the Home Office. And yesterday he finally got an apology from the police and, unexpectedly, from Robert Napper.

The Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates said: "I apologise to him for the mistakes that were made in the early 1990s and we also recognise the huge and lasting impact that this has had on his life."

David Fisher, QC, said that Napper had also asked him to make an apology. He said: "At the time of these events, the arrest and the preliminary trial of that man, this defendant was not in a satisfactory mental state to appreciate what was going on. He is now."

The investigators

The police doctor: Paul Britton

Dr Britton, 62, was the psychologist who helped profile the man they were hunting. He claimed he told the police early on that the man who killed Rachel Nickell and the man who killed Samantha Bissett were the same person. But the police disagree.

The honeytrap: Lizzie James

The undercover police officer tasked with entrapping Stagg had 18 months off work because of stress and then took early retirement in 2001. She won £125,000 damages from the Met.

The police chief: Ian Johnston

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Johnson was in overall charge of the Nickell case and authorised the honeytrap. He is now chief constable of the British Transport Police.

The police inspector: Keith Pedder

Mr Pedder was in day-to-day charge of the investigation. He left the Met and wrote a book on the case but then faced corruption charges which were dropped. He accused the Met of setting him up because of concerns about the book's contents.