South Yorkshire Police are to be quizzed over a suggestion that they plotted to shift blame for the Hillsborough disaster from senior officers on to a lowly "scapegoat" from the ranks, just four days after the fatal crush which cost the lives of 96 Liverpool fans.
Peter Hayes, deputy chief constable of the force at the time of the disaster in 1989, discussed with senior colleagues whether a "terrified" junior "Officer X" might come forward and admit responsibility for opening the gates at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium – a move identified as a major cause of the catastrophe.
He raised the possibility during a meeting with lawyers and insurers on 19 April 1989, documents published by the Hillsborough Independent Panel revealed.
The suggestion came after Mr Hayes acknowledged that two senior officers, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and Superintendent Roger Marshall, were responsible for the fateful decision to open the gates, and were "in a very exposed position" as a result. Critics last night claimed the document proved senior officers, who wrongly blamed Liverpool fans for the disaster, had been prepared to sacrifice one of their own junior colleagues.
The Independent on Sunday understands the abortive proposal to shift blame on to "Officer X" will now be investigated by two fresh inquiries into Hillsborough, announced last week. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will carry out the biggest-ever investigation into police wrongdoing before, during and after the Liverpool-Nottingham match, while the Director of Public Prosecutions will review all the evidence received by the panel to see if charges can be bought.
Up to 200 police officers could be examined and may be prosecuted for crimes ranging from manslaughter to perjury. In addition to revelations that officers conspired to produce sanitised statements that hid the truth for 23 years, the IPCC is investigating claims by a number of officers that "amended statements were put forward in their name which they had not signed or agreed".
Minutes published by the Hillsborough Independent Panel show that Mr Hayes held a meeting "to discuss insurance and legal implications" with officials from his force, their solicitors Hammonds Suddards and insurers Municipal Mutual in his office on 19 April 1989.
An unnamed representative from Municipal Mutual warned at the start of the meeting: "All of us are going to be under a lot of pressure short term."
During a later discussion about legal representation, Mr Hayes stated: "We have two senior officers, one who is the divisional commander, Ch Supt Duckenfield, and the other is the deputy divisional commander, Supt Marshall – who is the man who made the decision to open the gate.
"Those two people are in a very exposed position."
Yet despite this admission, Mr Hayes went on to suggest that the pair could be exonerated if another officer appeared to accept responsibility: "Just to clarify that, if it emerges that the opening of the gates at this particular time was clearly significant to the tragedy that occurred, and these two senior officers could say, 'Well, I was never asked about the opening of that gate, I never authorised the opening of that gate, I was not there when the gate was opened'.
"[If] officer 'X' appeared who says, 'Well, I saw the wall moving, I was terrified and I opened the gate', then he might be one of the individuals who might become the Duckenfield/Marshall extension."
David Watts, MP for St Helens, who lost a friend at Hillsborough, reacted angrily to the revelation yesterday: "This fits in with everything else we know about how senior officers were covering their own backs while attempting to push blame elsewhere.
"This reads like a callous attempt to make sure that senior people were not held to account for the decisions that they made."
The panel report last month confirmed that Supt Marshall had radioed an urgent request for the exit gates to be opened to allow fans into the ground, warning that "there was a real possibility of fatalities if relief was not immediate". It added: "In the Police Control Box … Ch Supt Duckenfield authorised opening the exit gates." Mr Duckenfield, who later claimed fans had broken into the stadium, retired on medical grounds in 1992. Disciplinary proceedings against him were abandoned. He later faced a private prosecution, alongside his deputy Supt Bernard Murray, but the jury failed to reach a verdict.
The IPCC investigation announced on Friday will focus on officers from South Yorkshire and the West Midlands Constabulary, the force that investigated how South Yorkshire had handled the disaster.
Sir Norman Bettison, currently West Yorkshire's Chief Constable, is one of the most senior officers under investigation. He was accused in the Hillsborough Independent Panel report of playing a key role in shifting blame away from the police after the disaster. Sir Norman recently announced that he will take early retirement next year. Maria Eagle, a Merseyside MP, insisted yesterday that, regardless of his announcement, he should be suspended.
Who they might have blamed
Opening the three huge exit gates at the Leppings Lane end was meant to relieve congestion outside, but it has since been identified as a key factor in the fatal crush. Documents published by the Hillsborough Independent Panel identify two junior officers who, on orders from above, opened the gates, yet could have found themselves carrying the can.
PC Keith Levick
Reported that he was at Gate A, when a police sergeant "stated Ground Control had ordered the gate to be opened". PC Levick "advised the gentleman to stand near to the wall, and that I would pull open the door as I feared he would be crushed. The crowd surged into the ground and all I could do was assist them in keeping on their feet as they moved forward."
PC Keith Smith
A statement on the constable's behalf said he had been forced to open Gate B himself after a steward refused. He said: "There was an influx of people for a few seconds. The pressure eased and the gates were shut by PC Smith and one other."