Rachel Nickell's killer finally brought to justice

Rachel Nickell's killer was finally brought to justice today 16 years after she was brutally stabbed and assaulted in front of her young son.

Convicted sex killer Robert Napper admitted carrying out the attack on Wimbledon Common which shocked the nation and triggered one of the biggest manhunts in recent police history.

Broadmoor patient Napper, 42, pleaded guilty to manslaughter at the Old Bailey today and his plea was accepted on the grounds of his diminished responsibility.

Telling him he would be held in Broadmoor top security hospital indefinitely, Mr Justice Griffiths Williams said: "You are on any view a very dangerous man."

The plea means one of the most high-profile crimes ever dealt with by Scotland Yard has finally been solved.

But it is unlikely to bring an end to controversy surrounding the case with questions marks still hanging over the original investigation and the missed opportunities to catch Napper, who went on to kill another young mother and her daughter.

A senior officer admitted today that Napper could have been arrested before the Wimbledon Common killing after his mother reported an earlier rape.

Miss Nickell, 23, was stabbed 49 times at the south London beauty spot in a ferocious attack witnessed by her two-year-old son Alex.

Police became convinced local loner Colin Stagg was the killer and relied too heavily on a profiler during the inquiry.

Napper was questioned about the killing in December 1995 but denied involvement.

He had been sent to Broadmoor secure hospital two months earlier for killing Samantha Bissett, 27, and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine in a savage attack in south London November 1993.

He had admitted manslaughter on the grounds of mental illness. He also pleaded guilty to rape and two attempted rapes.

Rachel Nickell's murder became one of the longest and most controversial unsolved homicides inquiries, costing an estimated £3 million.

A tiny particle of Napper's DNA was picked up when Miss Nickell's body was swabbed using tape soon after her death.

But it was too small to be analysed until recent advances made it possible. A match to Napper was confirmed in 2004.

The former warehouseman, who lived near Miss Bissett in Plumstead, south London, was interviewed again in Broadmoor in 2006, but again he did not own up to the crime.

Original suspect Mr Stagg was freed by an Old Bailey judge in September 1994 who criticised police for using a "honey-trap" undercover policewoman to try to make him confess.

Mr Stagg, 45, spent 13 months in custody and endured more than a decade of speculation that he was the killer of Miss Nickell.

This year, he was awarded £706,000 compensation from the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police is expected to make a public apology to him later today.

Miss Nickell, a former model, was attacked as she and Alex took their dog for a walk on a sunny summer morning.

Despite the common being popular with walkers and pet owners, no one saw the savage attack.

But he was spotted washing his hands in a stream after the killing. Witnesses were used to make an artist's impression of the man seen on the common.

The image shows a clear resemblance to Napper who at the time had some facial similarities to Mr Stagg.

Miss Nickell, who lived in south London with Alex and her partner Andre Hanscombe, was described as being full of life and having everything to live for.

The murder of a young mother out with her son brought fear to other women and there was pressure on police to make an arrest.

Miss Nickell's body was found with her son clinging onto her. A piece of paper had been placed on her forehead by Alex to form a plaster.

Alex, a month short of his third birthday, was thrown aside and had to watch his mother's brutal killing.

He was found clinging to her blood-soaked body and pleading: 'Get up, mummy'.

The boy was later given counselling and was eventually taken to live in France by his father in an attempt to give him a fresh start.

Alex is now 19, 6ft tall and lives in Spain with his father.

Miss Nickell's parents, Andrew and Monica, from Bedfordshire, kept a close watch on the police inquiry, which saw 34 arrests with only Mr Stagg being charged before Napper.

Earlier this year, Napper pleaded not guilty to Miss Nickell's murder via a videolink from Broadmoor.

Police investigators admit that a series of failings meant Napper was not caught sooner.

Officers failed to question him after his mother rang a local police station in 1989 to say he had confessed to a rape.

The officer she spoke to could not match up details of the offence with any rape which had been reported.

As a result Napper's DNA was not taken, his house was not searched and he was not arrested.

Police admit that it was a missed opportunity which could have saved Miss Nickell and the other victims.

Outside court, Commander Simon Foy said: "If it had been followed up Rachel could be alive now."

Napper was questioned about a series of sex attacks in 1992 but was wrongly eliminated.

Mr Foy added: "These opportunities in 1992 and 1993 were after he killed Rachel.

"If all or any of these opportunities had been taken, it is probable that he would have been in custody and would not have murdered Samantha and Jazmine.

"We have been absolutely honest about this to their family and we have told them that we deeply regret that this happened and have apologised to them."

In court today balding Napper, wearing a check shirt, was asked by the clerk to enter a plea to the charge that he murdered Miss Nickell on July 15 1992.

The court stood silent as he admitted killing her in a clear but faltering voice, stumbling over the wording of his denial of murder but admission to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.

He said: "I plead not guilty to murder but guilty to diminished responsibility by manslaughter."

The judge told Napper he was "highly unlikely" ever to be released.

He said: "You are on any view a very dangerous man. You still present a very high risk of sexual homicide which can only be managed in a high security hospital.

"You must be returned immediately to Broadmoor."

Victor Temple QC, prosecuting, said two psychiatrists agreed that at the time of the killing Napper suffered from Asperger's syndrome and paranoid schizophrenia.

He said after consultation with police, lawyers and the victim's family it had been decided that it was "proper and appropriate" to accept the plea.

Mr Temple said Mr Hanscombe and Ms Nickell's parents were both in court for today's hearing.

A psychiatrist from Broadmoor, Dr Natalie Pyszora, told the court that Napper was severely mentally ill and should be returned there for treatment.

She said there was a high risk of him committing further sexual offences without treatment, and also a high risk of him committing suicide.

On his admission to Broadmoor in 1995, Napper had a number of delusions and thought people were out to get him.

He also believed he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, had millions in the bank and that he was listed in Who's Who.

At the time he killed Miss Nickell, he would have been irrational and had the feeling that he was almost untouchable.

She added: "The possibility of release is highly unlikely. I could not envisage that happening."

Mr Temple outlined the killing of Rachel Nickell to the judge.

He said Colin Stagg had been formally acquitted in 1994.

Mr Temple added: "It is now accepted that Mr Stagg is wholly innocent of any involvement regarding the murder of Miss Nickell."

Talking of Napper, he said: "The defendant had a propensity to stalk and/or seek out vulnerable young women with a view to rape, arming himself with a knife in order to intimidate or control them.

"As the years went by, starting in 1989, the level of violence against his victims increased."

Napper had bought a number of Commando-style knives and had a tendency to bury his weapons near the scenes of his crimes.

Miss Nickell, her son and the family dog had been seen enjoying a day out on the common at around 10.20am.

A witness then noticed Napper at 10.32am with a bag and washing his hands in a ditch near the area where another walker found the body.

Police were called and arrived to see Miss Nickell's son Alex holding onto her by the arm, crying and saying "Get up mummy".

Mr Temple said an officer described the boy as being covered in blood.

"He was found to have minor abrasions above both eyes and linear abrasions and bruising to both cheeks and mouth.

"In the opinion of the consultant paediatrician who examined him, these injuries were consistent with the child being dragged whilst face down."

Miss Nickell was lying on her left side and had a number of stab wounds.

Her jeans and pants had been pulled down to just above her ankles and there were signs of sexual activity.

Numerous cuts were found seen on the t-shirt and bra. There were 49 stab wounds, mainly to the front and back of the upper body, the court heard.

The judge said: "The killing of Rachel Nickell in broad daylight on Wimbledon Common attracted a great deal of publicity - not only because of the manner of the killing of so pretty a young woman but also because of its circumstances - in front of her young son Alex who was then nearly three.

"You forced her to her knees before stabbing her repeatedly and then moving her to a nearby tree where you continued to stab her before removing her lower clothing and sexually assaulting her.

"You stabbed her a total of 49 times, even when you knew she was dead."

Napper had later explained to a psychiatrist that he was being "excessively aggressive".

"All the while young Alex was there. The marks of injury on his face prove that at some stage you must have dragged him face down almost certainly to get him away from his mother.

"That he was not killed as you were later to kill Jazmine Bissett is almost certainly explained by your anxiety not to be caught by staying too long.

"Now, 16 years or so later, in early adulthood, Alex knows the man who killed his mother has been brought, albeit belatedly, to justice.

"It may be that he can now close a long drawn out chapter in his life as can Mr and Mrs Nickell and Mr Hanscombe, all of whom have had to live with the distress of her killing and the anxiety that her killer had not been brought to justice.

"In each of their cases, their lives have been changed forever."

Miss Nickell's parents and Mr Hanscombe sat behind the barristers in the hushed courtroom as Mr Temple read a victim impact statement from them.

The statement, written by Mr Nickell, made his wife wipe away a tear.

It said: "We have been asked to provide an impact statement to try and describe how Rachel's murder has affected us.

"This is a bit like trying to describe how you felt after being run over by a large truck."

David Fisher QC, defending, said Napper wished to apologise to the victim's then partner and her son, her parents, and her close friends for "the dreadful thing that he did".

He said the killer had also asked him to make an apology to Colin Stagg.

"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 really appreciate what was going on. He is now.

"He realises how dreadful that period of time in Mr Stagg's life must have been," Mr Fisher said.

He accepted that Napper was "highly unlikely ever to be released from detention".

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