The manner of his demise betrayed killer's deadly guile

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The Independent Online

To some it felt like justice, to others an evasion of the decades behind bars that were the very least he deserved. In the early hours of yesterday, Harold Shipman climbed from his bed, removed the sheets, pulled back the sliding window in his single cell, tied the sheets to the bars outside and apparently killed himself.

His apparent suicide involved much of the guile which had allowed him to kill 179 men and 44 women over 23 years. At some time after 5.20am, Shipman waited in his bed for a prison officer to open the observation panel in his cell door, switch on the red light designed not to wake prisoners and make the hourly check on him. After the light was extinguished, he made his move.

In the months before his death, Shipman had succeeded in convincing staff at the Category A Wakefield Prison that he posed no suicide risk. He had been on suicide watch during his spells at HMP Manchester, while on remand, and at HMP Frankland, in Co Durham. But after psychiatric assessment following his routine transfer from Frankland to Wakefield on 18 June last year, he was immediately consigned to a normal routine.

A month later, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, decreed that he should never be released, but he still seemed to constitute no suicide risk. In a monthly behaviour review before Christmas, Shipman was displaying all the arrogant disdain of authority that has been his hallmark since his arrest, six years ago. His incentives and earned privileges (IEPs) were subsequently reduced from standard to basic level.

That meant he lost access to television in his cell, was locked up from Monday to Friday at 6.30pm rather than 8pm, had only £3 a week private cash rather than £12.50, and had to wear prison uniform rather than his own clothes.

"It wasn't because of one particular incident," a prison source said. "It was just because of his attitude. He has got such an offensive, obnoxious attitude to everyone and that came across in the interview."

Last Thursday, as a result of improved behaviour, Shipman returned to standard IEPs. His daily routine at Wakefield was tedious. It started with a 7.45am "unlock" (the prison wake-up call) and breakfast followed by work or education from 8.15am until 11.15am (in Shipman's case, making clothes in the prison textile shop).

After a midday lunch, he was locked up until 1.15pm, worked until a one-hour lock-up at 4.30pm, ate at 5.30pm and was locked up for the night at 8pm after several hours of gym or "association" with other inmates.

Shipman, who was notorious for boring inmates at Frankland with stories of his innocence, had also received paperwork in recent days from a Court of Appeal case which, according to his solicitor, Giovanni di Stefano, set a legal precedent that would assist his own appeal case.

Mr di Stefano said the only sign of a change in Shipman's behaviour was his failure to reply to letters to him from inmates at Frankland Prison. "There was no response," Mr di Stefano said. "It was strange, very strange."

If the absence of letters was a sign of strain, it was a rare instance of Shipman's guard dropping. After his conviction on 31 January, 2000, Greater Manchester Police detectives visited him hoping to get confessions. They got none.

Shipman also refused to appear before the Manchester public inquiry into his crimes, and he irritated other prisoners and staff at Frankland with his constant protestations of innocence.

"He bores the shit out of people telling them he's innocent," one former Frankland prisoner said. "The guys in there are all doing serious time and, once convicted, most of them will stop that talk. He keeps going on."

In 2001, when West Yorkshire Police reopened the investigation into a possible 19 murders in Todmorden, Detective Superintendent Chris Gregg had Shipman driven to the town in the hope of provoking a reaction.

Photographs of the alleged victims, their houses and streets were placed before him in an interview room at Halifax police station.

Shipman turned his chair away from his interviewers and when they walked around the table to place them before him, he lowered his face and screwed his eyes tight shut.

One aspect of his psyche he could not disguise was his enduring dependence on his wife, Primrose, who moved to North Yorkshire to be near Frankland and was even closer to him when he moved to Wakefield. Letters by Shipman written before and during his trial that were obtained by The Sunday Telegraph after it ended showed his emotional dependence on her.

In the months before his death, Shipman also fooled staff at the Category A Wakefield Prison into thinking that he posed no suicide risk. The recorded telephone call he reportedly took from his wife on Monday night did nothing to change the perception that he was no risk.

Shipman, who was visited by his wife until his death, had not enjoyed good health during his time in prison. He was taken to hospital at least twice with eye problems, one of them, a detached retina.

Documentary-maker Clive Enthwhistle, who has worked on the Shipman story, said the suicide may be linked to the GP's denial of his crimes.

"He never admitted to himself that he committed the offences and to spend the rest of his life in jail for them was unbearable," he said.

Dame Janet Smith, chair of the inquiry which has spent three years investigating Shipman, also believed he would go to the grave convinced of his own innocence.

"I don't think we will see any remorse," she said18 months ago. "[Ours] is the most complete account of his criminality that I believe will ever be possible."