How many more did Shipman kill?

Inquiry could uncover dozens more murders that, left to the police, might never have come to light, writes Ian Herbert
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The Independent Online

Until the advent of the Shipman inquiry, the two-year investigation of the serial killer, which reconvened after a three-month break yesterday, it was a matter of public record that Joe Bardsley died suddenly in his sitting-room after finishing a lunch of chicken sandwiches and scones.

Mr Bardsley was in his eighties, so Harold Shipman's conclusion on his death certificate – that he died of old age after an afternoon spent watching television – was not altogether eye-catching. Then the public inquiry's team of four solicitors began studying every Shipman patient's death – including the files of 2,500 cases reported to the South Manchester coroner between October 1977 and August 1998, in which Shipman had a professional interest – and Mr Bardsley's case was clearly a source of suspicion.

Shipman knew Mr Bardsley's warden well enough to secure unhindered access to his home, and was there before he died. Curiously, Mr Bardsley had not pulled his emergency cord when he fell ill. Nor was the position he was found in consistent with his having died of old age. By next January, Dame Janet Smith, chairman of the inquiry, will have adjudicated on whether he was murdered.

In a sense, Mr Bardsley's case is unremarkable – common currency among slightly more than 400 patients of Britain's most prolific killer, whose deaths will have been examined by December – but it does demonstrate the reputation that the inquiry is quietly establishing for itself of investigating cases that did not appear on police lists of possible deaths. Never before has a public inquiry, rather than police officers, gathered the evidence that may prove a murder – albeit by a civil level of proof, the balance of probabilities.

There will be others. The inquiry, which first opened in June with 459 open files – a number reduced to 401 by yesterday – and is now certain to provide murder "verdicts" in cases that would otherwise never have been known to or investigated by the police.

The inquiry has also established a far fuller – and potentially embarrassing – picture of Shipman's apparently charmed capacity to evade detectives than had been previously known. Its solicitors have procured Home Office papers that show that he attracted the attention of a West Yorkshire Police drug squad and Home Office inspectors in 1975 by his practice of obtaining the painkiller pethidine. A subsequent police report demonstrated that he was "held in some esteem... efficient and confident", and found no wrongdoing. It was after a second complaint to police had come to nothing that he was finally confronted.

An examination of why authorities consistently let Shipman off the hook – encompassing the Greater Manchester Police investigation, which concluded that there was no case to answer as recently as March 1998 – must wait until the second phase of the inquiry, next year. But some highly illuminating evidence of yet more undiscovered patient deaths in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, which police forces had ruled unworthy of investigation until the last 12 months, will form the most fascinating element during the inquiry's next three months.

It is understood that nine of the Todmorden cases are now looking highly suspicious, despite initial police conclusions that the passage of time would have left inadequate evidence to investigate them. Solicitors to the inquiry are delighted with the work of a West Yorkshire Police detective superintendent, Chris Gregg, who was selected to lead an investigation into 22 West Yorkshire cases, launched in January amid strenuous campaigning from a local paper, the Todmorden News, and the town's MP.

"This has become something of a mission for Gregg," said one source. "He doesn't want Shipman to confess to the lot in 20 years' time and find that much was missed."

Six of the suspicious Todmorden cases have surfaced from 22 death certificates that Shipman signed in the town – including those of three people who died on the same day – 21 January 1975. Relatives of Lily Crossley, Robert Lingard and Elizabeth Pearce have all told Det Supt Gregg that they died suddenly after bedside visits from Shipman. A further three cases have emerged from 130 cases in which Shipman was involved extraneously.

The number of deaths under examination by the inquiry is still not finite. Its work during a three-month summer recess has included a focus on 30-year-old cases, with advertisements placed in local and national newspapers last month, urging the relatives of 82 possible victims whose medical certificates were signed by Shipman to come forward. The final death-toll is expected to be established by the conclusion of the inquiry's first phase, at the end of the year. Then a second phase may illuminate why the full extent of the killing was not established earlier.

Ann Alexander, joint senior partner of Alexander Harris, which represents 200 relatives, believes Greater Manchester Police (GMP) was more committed to securing Shipman's conviction than a full picture of his killing. "I think – we all think – that they got a series of cases together, enough cases together, and after the conviction, they didn't need any more," she said.

But GMP will have much to say about its own resources. Its Shipman team, which numbered 50 at times, operated from a small annexe at Ashton-under-Lyne police station, near Hyde, and was swamped by alarmed families after Shipman was sentenced to 15 life terms in January last year. The force continued to examine cases after the DPP ruled that Shipman would not find a fair trial on further charges, though its investigation was confined only to those suspicious deaths to which it was alerted – a little-reported fact.

The opportunity to investigate the full extent of the GP's activities was still nearly missed when the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, decreed that the Shipman inquiry be held in private, with initial scope to consider just 38 deaths. It was left to the Alexander Harris families to get the decision judicial-reviewed and overturned in July last year. After this success, the firm's Shipman client-list increased from 110 to 200.

The process gained further impetus soon after Dame Janet Smith took over from Lord Laming, the former chief inspector of social services who was to have chaired the narrower inquiry, when an analysis of Shipman's clinical practice by Leicester University's Professor Richard Baker for the chief medical officer revealed that 330 people may have died. Apparently, no patient was safe: the inquiry was broadened to encompass all Shipman patients.

Dame Janet's touch with the bewildered relatives who have subsequently trooped through the inquiry chamber at Manchester town hall, is much remarked upon – and no doubt helped by her background as a Bolton Grammar schoolgirl, and barrister and judge on northern circuits, who still lives in Bolton, Greater Manchester.

Ann Alexander observes that some of the Hyde people in the inquiry witness-box had never even set foot in Manchester before. "To be faced with this aura of gravitas, mass of technology and a senior judge could have phased them. They have liked Dame Janet from the beginning and seen her as a kindly person, insistent on thoroughness."

Dame Janet comforted Olive Gardner, the daughter of Shipman's patient Elizabeth Battersby, yesterday, as her case was given an oral hearing. Though on a police C-list of deaths that couldn't be proven, it was as puzzling as Mr Bardsley's. Mrs Gardner wept as she testified: "There was never a problem with my mother's health."