Deceit: The real-life story behind Channel 4’s new crime drama

As a new series about the investigation into the 1992 murder of Rachel Nickell arrives on screens, here’s a reminder of what happened in the case and the controversial honey trap at its centre

Ellie Harrison
Tuesday 10 August 2021 14:49
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Channel 4 trailer for drama Deceit

On the morning of 15 July, 1992, Rachel Nickell was walking her dog on Wimbledon Common with her two-year-old son. Whilst passing through a woodland area, Nickell was stabbed to death. Her killer fled, leaving the young boy alone with his mother.

Desperate to catch the murderer, police recruited an undercover officer, codenamed “Lizzie James”, and used her as sexual bait for their prime suspect.

The infamous case is being dramatised in Deceit, a new, four-part series on Channel 4 starring Niamh Algar as Lizzie James, Harry Treadaway as Detective Inspector Keith Pedder and Eddie Marsan as the nation’s most famous criminal profiler at the time, Paul Britton.

Ahead of the show’s launch, find out about the true story of what happened, here…

The murder

Nickell was 23 years old when she died, in what became one of the most high profile murders of the past three decades. Her son, who was found standing next to his mother’s body and repeatedly saying “Wake up, Mummy”, later wrote a book about the loss.

Rachel Nickell

“It’s not like it happens in the movies,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “It was so quick, and everything was silent. There was this strange polarity – even though it was hectic and violent and there was blood, at the same time, there was this big feeling of peace and tranquillity. To me, my mother just looked like she was lying there, ready to wake any moment, like in the imaginary games we used to play.”

The investigation

The Metropolitan Police, under immense pressure to find the perpetrator, interviewed 500 suspects in connection with the killing. Investigators quickly homed in on a man from Roehampton called Colin Stagg who was known to walk his dog on the Common. He had been there the morning of the stabbing and had previously revealed a sexual fantasy that was reported to the police after Nickell’s death.

As there was no forensic evidence linking Stagg to the scene, the police asked Paul Britton, a criminal psychologist, to create a profile of the killer. They decided that Stagg fitted the profile and asked Britton to assist them in their covert operation, code-named Operation Ezdell, to see whether they could elicit a confession from him.

Operation Ezdell saw an undercover policewoman, “Lizzie James”, write letters of a sexual nature to Stagg. The pair met several times and she gained his trust. She managed to draw out fantasies from Stagg that Britton interpreted as “violent”, but Stagg did not admit to killing Nickell.

Niamh Algar as ‘Lizzie James’ in Deceit

Stagg was charged with the murder but the trial against him later collapsed, with the judge condemning the police honey trap as “deceptive conduct of the grossest kind”.

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The real killer

While the police were focussing all their attention on the wrong man, the actual murderer was left free to kill again. Some eighteen months after Nickell was killed, Robert Napper murdered 27-year-old Samantha Bisset in her home and sexually assaulted then suffocated her four-year-old daughter, Jazmine.

Napper, who was a victim of rape as a child himself and has paranoid schizophrenia, is serving a life sentence at the specialist high-security psychiatric hospital Broadmoor.

Aftermath

Stagg eventually received £700,000 compensation from the police and James medically retired in 1998 with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was also given £125,000 in compensation for psychiatric injury.

Stagg fought for years for Britton to face a disciplinary hearing over his alleged misconduct. His lawyers submitted a complaint about Britton to his professional body, the British Psychological Society, and Britton was represented at the 2002 hearing by Keir Starmer QC (the current leader of the Labour Party) who successfully argued that the charges should be dropped because of the eight-year delay.

Frustrated by the delay in proceedings, Stagg, who had been there to give evidence, stormed out of the hearing, yelling “pervert” as he bumped into Britton.

Deceit begins on Channel 4 at 9pm on Friday 13 August.

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