Stranger in the shadows

Regular

Hey Max, how’s it going? Read this wicked book recently – it’s called The Jigsaw Man (produces it and hands it over). It’s by this guy, Paul Britton, he’s like a psychologist and he gets into the heads of serial killers so’s he can catch them. It’s really good.

Me

What about Rachel Nickell?

Regular

The woman who was killed on Wimbledon Common, back in ’92?

Me

That’s her. Paul Britton was the psychologist in that case.

Regular

Yeah, and he caught the guy who did it, that Colin Stagg –

Me

Well, no. Fact is, there was no evidence against Stagg apart from the fact that he matched Britton’s offender profile.

Regular

Offender profiling… is that where you make up a psychological profile of the killer and then find someone who matches the profile?

Me

That’s it exactly. Britton made up a profile of a weird, lonely outsider type. The problem he had was that there are loads of weird, lonely outsiders in the country, and few of them are murderers. Stagg fit the profile but then so did hundreds of other guys.

Regular

So why did the police arrest Colin Stagg?

Me

Because Britton encouraged them to do a honeytrap operation in which a female police officer would write to Stagg posing as a potential lover and saying things like: ‘[M]y fantasies hold no bounds and my imagination runs riot. If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right’.

Regular

And what did Stagg say?

Me

He just said: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I haven’t.’

Regular

And they still charged him?

Me

Yeah, and he was on remand for over a year.

Regular

Fuck. (Pause, looks at book) Well I’ve not seen any mention of that in here.

The above is a composite of several conversations I’ve had in pubs – it’s astonishing how many people love celebrity psychologist Paul Britton. Since those conversations took place Robert Napper has been named by DNA evidence as Nickell’s killer. As Nick Cohen says, when you condemn an innocent man you acquit a guilty one, and the perception that Stagg was the culprit left Napper free to kill and rape until he was sentenced indefinitely to Broadmoor in 1995 for murdering a woman in her twenties and her young daughter. Although Stagg sought and received an apology and compensation, he has never had a bad word to say about the police.

Thomas Harris wrote a fantastic novel, Red Dragon, about a consultant FBI agent with a troubling ability to see through his suspects’ eyes. But in the real world you need cold hard evidence rather than psychological conjecture. Cohen saw through Britton’s bullshit straight away and there’s a great analysis of the case in his first collection, Cruel Brittania. Today he points out that Britton had reduced offender profiling to something like phrenology:

Britton would never have impressed detectives if he had said that Stagg was a bit of a weirdo. When he dressed up that same thought in psychological language and talked of ‘deviant interests’ and ‘sexual dysfunctions’, he sounded fatally convincing.

I think this case taps into a deep popular distrust of the lone individual. A man who reads alone in a pub is a freak. But a man who puts on a Ben Sherman shirt and rampages through town with twelve other morons is normal. And this when statistically you’re more likely to be killed by someone you know than someone you don’t. And yet we fear above all others the stranger in the shadows.

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