Great Britain

TV drama Deceit tells story of WPC told to seduce Rachel Nickell’s ‘killer’ and how it left her traumatised

THE shocking murder of Rachel Nickell – stabbed 49 times while holding her two-year-old son – prompted a public outcry that saw cops use extreme measures to try to catch her killer.

Police used a female undercover officer, codenamed Lizzie James, to try to make prime suspect Colin Stagg fall for her and admit to attacking the young mum on Wimbledon Common, South London in 1992.

But they had the wrong man and the controversial methods only ended with the case sensationally collapsing. Meanwhile the real killer, Robert Napper, claimed two more victims before he was caught.

New Channel 4 thriller Deceit looks at the human cost of the case, this time from the viewpoint of Lizzie — known as Sadie Byrne in the drama — who was traumatised by effectively “seducing” a murderer.

Niamh Algar, the Irish actor who plays the undercover cop, said: “I felt a huge amount of sympathy for Lizzie, to be a woman in that situation.

“The enormity of the pressure she was under, making sure that she got it right . . . I had so much admiration for how brave she was.

“I was given the opportunity to speak to real-life detectives and one woman I was talking to said that building the backstory for someone you’re going to go undercover as, is kind of like being an actor.

‘Wake up, Mummy’

“She said, ‘The difference is, if you drop a line, you get to go for another take. If I slip up, I could potentially die’.”

In the four-part drama, which starts next Friday, Sadie is seen trying to get closer to Colin, even though she believes there is a high chance she could be his next victim.

It’s a dramatisation of the true story of Lizzie, who went undercover following the killing of Rachel on July 15, 1992 near her home in Wimbledon.

The horrific attack was made all the worse by the fact her toddler son, Alexander, witnessed the whole incident in which she was stabbed and slashed, then sexually assaulted.

A passer-by found Rachel, with the young boy clinging to her body, saying: “Wake up, Mummy.”

After the crime, concern grew that police were failing to make progress, despite interviewing 32 men. But they did have one suspect — local oddball Colin.

So the gaffer in the case, Det Insp Keith Pedder — played in the drama by Harry Treadaway — worked with criminal psychologist Professor Paul Britton, played by Eddie Marsan, to draw up a profile of the man.

The drama sees Lizzie claim to have murdered someone and taken part in a satanic ritual, because it was believed this would appeal to his unusual sexual perversions

Then they enlisted Lizzie, an experienced undercover policewoman from the Metropolitan Police Special Operations Group (SO10) to be the honeytrap at the heart of Operation Ezdell.

She got in touch with Colin, then spent five months in a fake relationship with him, hoping he would say something to incriminate himself.

The drama sees Lizzie claim to have murdered someone and taken part in a satanic ritual, because it was believed this would appeal to his unusual sexual perversions and he would confess to Rachel’s murder.

Niamh said: “I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for the real her. I’ve played characters for six months through some heavy material.

“She lived and breathed this character for over a year, going home every evening, supposedly feeling like she had a direct phone line to who she felt was the killer. That must be terrifying.

“She’s living with this all the time — she can’t shut it off and at any moment Pedder can ask her to go on another date or make a call to Stagg. 

“In the story we show she doesn’t have family around her so she can’t be herself and, by the end of it, she’s forgotten who Sadie is.”

The drama sees Sadie sink further into the dark world of their shared fantasies which sees her grow increasingly isolated and obsessed. Niamh said: “The recruitment of women wasn’t as high as it is now, and women weren’t able to be promoted into senior positions.

“Sadie is given a massive opportunity, to be the centre of the biggest Met operation in history, so she’s putting everything into it, having dedicated her life to protecting the public and women in particular.

“We’re looking at what was being asked of women, and how they were being treated, more clearly now, but at the time, if you’re in it all the time, how do you know any different? She has to keep it all in her head. They didn’t have the psychological support that they have now, where they have compulsory meetings with counsellors. 

“In our Sadie’s mind, talking to a counsellor would make her appear weak, and she never wanted that. I think she always wanted to appear as tough and capable as any of the guys.”

The police believed Colin had made remarks which incriminated him, but when the case went to the Old Bailey in 1994 it collapsed.

The judge, Mr Justice Ognall, ruled that the police had shown “excessive zeal” and had tried to incriminate Colin by “deceptive conduct of the grossest kind”.

But suspicion continued to linger around Colin, played in the drama by Sion Daniel Young, until in 2006 Robert Napper was interviewed at Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire about Rachel’s death.

Damages and apology

Napper, then 40, was a paranoid schizophrenic with Asperger’s syndrome who was already detained after being convicted of the murder of Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine — 16 months after Rachel was killed. Two years later he pleaded guilty to Rachel’s manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and is unlikely ever to be released. 

Alex, the little boy who witnessed his mum Rachel’s murder, is now 31 and the author of a book, Letting Go, in which he recalls a disturbing amount of detail about the attack.

He and his dad, Rachel’s partner Andre Hanscombe, left the UK months after the murder and now live in Barcelona, and have learned to live with the traumatic experience.

Alex said: “I was the ‘tragic tot’ but we’d both got through. Everyone has challenges and obstacles and fears. My message is: ‘There’s light at the end of the tunnel’.”

Colin received damages and an apology from the Met for the 14 months he spent in custody around his trial.

Lizzie also sued the force but received just £125,000. But after the psychological trauma she had suffered in Operation Ezdell, she was also given early retirement and granted life-long anonymity.

Although the real-life “Lizzie” has not been involved in the drama, Colin worked with the production team in a bid to further clear his name.

Executive producer David Nath said: “Colin Stagg spent 16 years as the subject of innuendo, suspicion and vilification.

“Talk to people now and mention the name Colin Stagg and a lot of people will say he was convicted for Rachel’s murder. He wasn’t.

“So we had to be very mindful with this series that we were not reinforcing some of the misinformation that exists about Colin already.

“It’s one of the reasons Colin collaborated with us, because he wanted the definitive story out there that tells the world he is and was an innocent man.”

Rachel Nickell murder accused Colin Stagg reveals moment police arrested him after neighbours said he looked like Crimewatch suspect

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