'I have served my time'

Harry Roberts wants out. After nearly 40 years, even his jailers agree the notorious police killer has paid his debt to society. Yet successive Home Secretaries have kept him behind lock and key. In a rare interview, the 68-year-old tells Jason Bennetto the real reason why he is still inside

Tuesday 12 October 2004 00:00 BST

Prisoner 231191 is being closely watched by two guards as he strides across the room towards me. After a broad smile and handshake, he takes his allocated seat in the visitors' hall at Channings Wood jail in Devon. Decades of working out in the gym have helped to preserve the 68-year-old inmate, whose only obvious signs of ageing are his drooping eyelids and whitening hair.

Prisoner 231191 is being closely watched by two guards as he strides across the room towards me. After a broad smile and handshake, he takes his allocated seat in the visitors' hall at Channings Wood jail in Devon. Decades of working out in the gym have helped to preserve the 68-year-old inmate, whose only obvious signs of ageing are his drooping eyelids and whitening hair.

The individual before me has two claims to fame. He has spent the past 37 years behind bars - making him one of Britain's longest-serving prisoners - and he is the country's most notorious police killer. But after spending almost four decades behind bars, he feels he has finally paid his debt to society.

In 1966, Harry Roberts and his two fellow robbers were given life sentences for shooting dead three unarmed policemen on a London street. Roberts always knew that he would have to spend most of his life locked up for such a crime.

He had been looking forward to being given parole and released back into the community after the 30-year tariff set by the court expired in 1996. These hopes were shattered when, in 2001, a recommendation for parole was rejected after he was accused of unspecified criminal behaviour.

In an unprecedented move, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has insisted that the allegations of his wrongdoing must remain a secret to both the accused and his lawyers, in order to protect the safety of an informer. This has led to a series of failed legal challenges against the Home Secretary and the Parole Board, which has raised the prospect of Roberts staying in jail until he dies.

Roberts and his legal team believe he is the victim of a campaign by the Police Federation and the media, who have made the killer's release from prison a highly contentious - and politically damaging - decision for any Home Secretary.

Roberts says he wants to put his past behind him. "I don't want to be Harry Roberts the cop killer. The media talk as if the shootings were yesterday: this keeps alive this image of me as a 30-year-old cop killer. I'm not that person any more. The Home Secretary is just responding to the media hype about me. When does punishment becomes vengeance? I feel my treatment has turned into institutionalised vengeance."

Despite his protests, there are many people, particularly among the relatives of his victims and within the police, who believe this man should never be freed. His crime and the three-month manhunt that followed, with its combination of brutality and suspense, shocked and gripped Sixties Britain.

On the afternoon of 12 August 1966, three police officers - Detective Constable David Wombwell, 25, Detective Sergeant Christopher Head, 30 and PC Geoffrey Fox, 41 - stopped a van in Braybrook Street, Shepherd's Bush in west London. The Standard Vanguard was being driven by Jack Witney, then 36, who was accompanied by fellow armed robbers Harry Roberts, 30 at the time, and John Duddy, a 37-year-old Scot - and an arsenal of loaded guns.

As two of the officers started to search the van, Roberts drew a 9mm Luger pistol and shot DC Wombwell through the left eye, and then shot DS Head in the back as he tried to flee. As the dying officer staggered away Roberts tried to shoot him in the head, but his gun jammed twice.

PC Fox had remained in the police car. Duddy fired a revolver at the officer twice from close range through the passenger window. Both bullets missed, but a third shot hit him in the left temple. The shot caused the policeman's foot to push down on the accelerator and the car jumped forward, running over the body of DS Head and getting stuck there, with smoke pouring from its rear wheels. All three Metropolitan Police officers died from the gunshot wounds.

"It was all over in 30 seconds," recalls Roberts. "Jack [Witney] said, 'Let him have it,' and I just reacted automatically. I went on to autopilot." But he also admits: "I accept if you carry a gun that you know that at some time you will have to use it."

Witney was arrested within three days via a tip-off. He gave the names and addresses of the other two, and Duddy was captured in Glasgow two days later. Roberts went on the run, and it took 96 days before he was caught after one of the biggest manhunts the British police had mounted. Nearly 40 years on, he now believes he has served his time for those terrible events.

Having spent his first 21 years in high-security jails, he is currently held at a low-security Category C training jail. This type of institution has the lowest level of security at a closed jail, where inmates are considered to lack the skills or the desire to escape, so they are deemed a minimal threat to the public.

Channings Wood prison is set in the beautiful South Hams countryside, about four miles from the market town of Newton Abbot. The jail is reached via a twisting hedge-lined road past a signpost for the hedgehog hospital at Prickly Ball Farm. The entrance has views of nearby hills and a field of grazing horses. To gain access, you have to provide photographic identity before going through an airlocked room with automatic doors, monitored by surveillance cameras. There then follows a series of body searches by prison guards, aided by sniffer dogs searching for drugs.

Once inside, the visitors' room resembles a village hall, with tea and cakes for sale from a makeshift canteen. During a two-hour conversation, Roberts, sipping mugs of milky tea, reveals details of his criminal past: the killings, his time spent on the run, and his growing frustration at his chance of freedom seemingly ebbing away. For someone who has spent so long in prison, he does not appear to be institutionalised. Articulate and intelligent, he keeps up with world affairs through reading and watching the TV he has in his cell.

Despite his desire to shed the label of "infamous cop killer", the name of Harry Roberts is still inextricably linked to that savage deed. He's not helped by his case featuring in the recent best-selling novel He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott - a book he described as "rubbish", and which he said he discarded after reading a few chapters. Football hooligans still use his name to taunt police with chants of "Harry Roberts, he's our friend, he's our friend, he's our friend, he kills coppers... Let him out to kill some more, kill some more..."

He was introduced to crime at an early age. Brought up by his mother, Dorothy, he helped her to act as a fence selling goods on the black market from the family's café in north London. "She was selling on mostly food - tea and sugar - and sometimes ration books. Anything she could get her hands on."

Before long, he was earning good money from his illegal activities, and he ended up in borstal. On leaving jail, he joined the Army for his National Service and was posted to the jungles of Malaya. It was here that he learnt how to kill. "I was a sergeant and we used to go out on ambushes in the jungle. I would fire the first shot and then everyone would blast away," he recalls. He says his men must have killed up to 40 people during the operations, and that he personally killed at least four.

"When I returned to Britain, I took up my old life as a criminal. I teamed up with Witney and we did dozens of armed robberies together - on betting shops, post offices. The most I earned was £1,000 from a single job. Witney was the eldest, the boss: he knew the best places to rob. Duddy joined us later."

Duddy, a long-distance lorry driver, had stayed out of trouble with the police since 1948. He had started drinking heavily and had met up with the other two in a London club. "After the shooting, the pair of them grassed me up and made out that it was all my plan," Roberts says.

After the murders, Roberts hid out for several days in London with his girlfriend, Lilly Perry. Despite public appeals, he went shopping for camping equipment at King's Cross. He revealed that in one extraordinary incident he stood next to his own photograph on a "wanted for murder" poster as a police officer went by.

Using his Army jungle training, he moved to Epping Forest, Essex, were he set up several camps in the woods. The police were swamped with information as more than 6,000 false sightings were reported. "I was only caught because I was stupid. I had been trying to break open a safe at a * * factory and was late getting back to my camp. I had to cross a main road and had a blue holdall with me - no one in the country had a bag like that."

As he crossed the road, he was spotted by an officer with a dog. Although Roberts moved about a mile away to another camp in a disused hangar in Natham's Wood near Bishop's Stortford, he was tracked down hiding in some straw bales and arrested.

It took an Old Bailey jury only 30 minutes to find all three men guilty of the three murders, which were described by the judge, Mr Justice Glyn-Jones, as "the most heinous crime to have been committed in this country for a generation or more". Fortunately for the killers, they escaped the hangman because capital punishment had been abolished a year earlier. Handing down life sentences, the judge recommended that the three serve a minimum of 30 years each. When they began their sentences, the England football team was basking in World Cup glory and Harold Wilson had been re-elected prime minister.

Duddy died in the hospital at Parkhurst Prison in February 1981, and Witney, who was released on licence in 1991, was found dead in 1999 at home in Bristol. He had been bludgeoned with a hammer by his flatmate, a heroin addict. "I couldn't believe it when Witney was released. He was supposed to serve the same as me," Roberts says.

For his first two decades inside, Roberts tried to fight the system, making 22 escape attempts. "It was like a hobby for me. I knew I wasn't coming out for a long time, so I had nothing to lose." In one attempt, his mother smuggled in a pair of bolt cutters in her bra. "We cut through part of the fence, but there wasn't time to finish the job, so we planned to go back the next night. What we didn't know was that there was an informer in the team who grassed us up before I could escape."

On another occasion, while Roberts was at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, his mother tried to bring in bolt cutters again, but they were discovered hidden in a toilet. His last attempted escape was in 1976, and from then on he stayed out of trouble, becoming a model prisoner. "I decided that the best way to get out was to stay clean and do my time." He was transferred in 1999 to open prison, from where he was allowed out each day to work unsupervised at the St Bernard's Animal Sanctuary in Alfreton, Derbyshire.

Then, on 1 October 2001, he was recalled to closed prison conditions. He was placed in solitary confinement in Lincoln Prison and told that he was being punished following allegations of involvement in "drug dealing and in bringing in contraband into the prison". The next month, newspapers reported that off-duty police officers had seen Roberts mixing with known criminals in London.

There followed a series of accusations made against him, including taking driving lessons in contravention of his licence and celebrating his birthday at a TGI Friday's restaurant with Kate Kray, the widow of the East End gangster Ronnie Kray, while in Sheffield.

Roberts is very open about mixing with former criminals: he says a regular visitor to see him in prison is one of the men who took part in the so-called Great Train Robbery, in which £2.6m was stolen. "Most of my friends are former criminals - who else do you expect me to know? I've been inside 37 years, and before that I was knocking around with armed robbers. But most of my friends are like me, old-age pensioners."

And that birthday meal? "There was nothing wrong with celebrating my birthday while on release, but I wouldn't eat at that restaurant again, the food was awful." He says he had permission to take the driving lessons, and that the prison service has never mentioned the drug and contraband allegations again.

But, far more seriously for Roberts, it later emerged that there were fresh allegations against him that were considered so sensitive that neither he nor his lawyers were allowed to know what they were, or who made them. Using powers introduced to prevent the disclosure of information relating to national security issues, David Blunkett argued that only the Parole Board should be given the "sensitive material" that contained the allegations against Roberts.

In an unprecedented move, the Parole Board ruled that a special advocate - an independent barrister - rather than Roberts's lawyer should deal with evidence linked to the allegations. An attempt to have this ruling overturned by the Court of Appeal has failed, and Roberts's last chance is to try to have the case heard by the House of Lords in the new year.

If the Parole Board believes the allegations to be true, it is unlikely ever to release Roberts. But, despite their opposition to the advocate system, Roberts and his legal team have agreed for it to go ahead and are still awaiting a date.

His solicitor, Simon Creighton, of the firm Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, says: "How can we possibly defend Mr Roberts if we do not know what he has been accused of, and by whom? The secret evidence could mean that he will never be released. That's a very likely consequence, because he will never be able to address the allegations."

He continues: "Mr Roberts had gone through his period at the open prison with glowing reports. It had all been perfect - until 1 October 2001, when I got a call saying he had been taken out of prison and there was a series of serious allegations.

"I've never really believed in the idea of conspiracy theories until this case. I feel there is a concerted effort to prevent Harry Roberts from ever leaving prison. It's a problem we had with the previous home secretaries - Michael Howard, Jack Straw and now David Blunkett."

The reason for keeping secret the identity of the person making the allegations is apparently a question of personal safety. On this issue, Roberts responds: "People have said that they have to keep the identity of the informer a secret in case I kill him. That's nonsense. I'm not going to go and kill anybody, I'm an old-age pensioner - and what would be the point anyway?"

So what is this top secret information? Only a handful of people know the details, but it is understood to allege that Roberts is still an active criminal and uses underworld contacts and friends to gain money illegally. This could be by running alleged protection rackets and handling stolen goods outside prison.

The Parole Board's refusal to disclose the information has drawn criticism from some surprising places. Terry Waite, the former hostage, and Sir David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, have both spoken out against it. Waite said: "The principles of fairness and justice should be applied equally in a democratic society, however heinous the crime or the criminal."

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of Roberts being released has been greeted with anger by relatives of the dead policemen. The Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, has also pledged to oppose any move to free the killer.

David Wombwell's mother, Daphne van der Scoot, has previously said: "Roberts is an evil man and has been all his life. I wish he had been hanged. David was my only child, and his murder devastated me. It was as if a blanket came down on my life."

DC Wombwell's widow, Gillian, told a newspaper that she could not face the thought of Roberts being released. "Too much care and sympathy goes with the criminal but not enough with the widows and children," she said. "The man is and was a criminal."

In response, Roberts says: "Of course I regret what happened and I wish I could turn the clock back, but I can't. It's something that happened in a few seconds, but has changed so many people's lives."

It has been 37 years since prisoner 231191 was a free man. That's four decades of working out in the gym, writing letters, watching television, reading, wearing a uniform, being told what to do, slopping out, and sitting alone in a cell.

The question remains whether the authorities - and society - believe that 37 years is enough, and whether Roberts is now just a harmless old man.

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