Hanratty! The name which has haunted the British criminal justice system for a generation is about to hit the headlines again. Some time in the next few weeks Baden Henry Skitt, former Scotland Yard Commander and Chief Constable of Hertfordshire, now a chief investigator for the Criminal Cases Review Commission, will draft a public statement on the A6 murder, for which James Hanratty was hanged in 1962. The Commission chairman, Sir Frederick Crawford, has hinted to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that the statement will be sensational.
The Hanratty case has intrigued and obsessed me for almost all my adult life. In 1966, when I was 28, the news editor of the Sunday Telegraph sent me to cover an unusual burial. What were purported to be the remains of James Hanratty had been packed into a coffin at Bedford prison and brought to North London. Capital punishment had been abolished the previous year. The Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, had decreed that convicted murderers, whose bodies had by ancient barbarian law been consigned to quicklime in the prison yard, could be buried in consecrated ground. ‘There may be trouble there,’ the news editor beamed. ‘This chap Alphon may cause a fuss.’ I had no idea who Alphon was, and after the burial in Wembley, I was none the wiser. There was nothing to report, so I gladly accepted the invitation of James and Mary Hanratty to join the wake for their son in their council house in Kingsbury. The Hanrattys were warm, gentle, determined people, unlikely parents of a man who had been convicted of shooting Michael Gregsten dead in a lay-by off the A6, raping his girlfriend Valerie Storie and then shooting her, leaving her for dead before driving off in the couple’s car. Among the guests at the wake were Jean Justice, who told me he was a (rather elderly) law student, and his friend, a barrister called Jeremy Fox. I listened entranced to their assurances not only that Jimmy Hanratty had nothing to do with the A6 murder, but that they had been on intimate terms with the real killer: Peter Alphon.
I was hooked on the case that gloomy February afternoon and, nearly 32 years later, I still am. Bob Woffinden’s new book[*] has revived the intoxicating mixture of anguish and curiosity with which Jean Justice inspired me all those years ago. Since that time I have been, as I still am, quite certain that Hanratty was in Rhyl when the couple were shot near Bedford 250 miles away. A few months after the Wembley burial, I went with Jo Mennel, who was directing a film on the A6 case for BBC’s Panorama (editor, Jeremy Isaacs), to the guest-house in Rhyl where Hanratty said he’d stayed. The landlady, Mrs Grace Jones, was not at all diverted by the pulverising she’d got from the prosecution at the trial. She was more sure than ever that Hanratty had stayed in her house on the night of the murder, 22 August 1961. She was backed up by Terry Evans, whom Hanratty had met in Rhyl some months before the murder. Evans had not been in Rhyl on 22 August but he had heard later from several people that a young Londoner had been looking for him that night. Could he find any of these people, we asked? Yes, he would try. The following week Jo Mennel and John Morgan, the reporter, went back to interview the Rhyl witnesses on camera. Over a cup of tea in a café, Terry Evans gave them the disappointing news that he could not find the main man he was looking for, a newspaper-seller called Charlie Jones. As the journalists stared morosely into their tea, Charlie Jones came into the café. When questioned about Hanratty, Jones remembered at once the smartly-dressed young Londoner who had come off a bus and asked the way to the fairground. The reporters recorded the newspaper-seller, and the ‘new witness’ to the Rhyl alibi was Panorama’s big scoop.
Not very big, you might think, and you would be right, but as so often in these cases, television publicity about a small matter shook the tree, and big plums started to fall. Lots of other people had seen Hanratty in Rhyl, in much more convincing circumstances. Margaret Walker, who lived in the street behind the guest-house, had made a statement to the police during the trial but had not been called to give evidence. She was absolutely certain that on the evening of 22 August a young man looking like Hanratty had come to her house hoping to find lodgings. Christopher Larman had gone to the police when he saw Hanratty’s picture in the paper, certain that this was the man he had directed to Mrs Jones’s on a summer evening in 1961, the night before he left for London. When I finally tracked Larman down in Southall in September 1968, he produced an old diary in which he had jotted down the day he had left for London, 23 August 1961.
I became completely certain of the Rhyl alibi over the Whitsun weekend of 1968, when the newly-formed A6 Murder Committee, consisting of Justice, Fox, James and Mary Hanratty, their son Michael and me, booked in (at Fox’s considerable expense) to the Westminster Hotel, Rhyl. We had advertised in the local press for new witnesses. Trevor Dutton, a farmer from Abergele, came to see us. He said he had come into Rhyl to go to the bank in August 1961, and had been approached in the street by a young man wearing a herringbone suit who tried to sell him a gold watch. Hanratty had said he had gone to Rhyl to try to sell a gold watch, wearing his herringbone suit. When Trevor Dutton produced his bank book, and showed us the stamped date on the counterfoil, 23.8.1961, it suddenly seemed impossible that all these new witnesses could be confirming Hanratty’s story so precisely unless he had been there. Yet two secret police inquiries under a Manchester detective chief superintendent managed to conclude that the alibi was a fake. The Labour Home Office Ministers, Jenkins and Dick Taverne, dismissed the case.
In 1969, I got a call at Private Eye from a man who said he was John Lennon. I was busy, and snapped away at the caller until I realised he was John Lennon. I met him in a Soho restaurant, the staff visibly swooning. He said he was worried about the growing demand for a return to capital punishment, and wanted to publicise the Hanratty case. For a time he financed the campaign of the A6 Murder Committee. Every Sunday, old Jim Hanratty mounted his platform in Hyde Park. ‘My son said to me: “Dad, I didn’t do it.” That was enough for me.’ We held huge meetings, filmed at John Lennon’s expense, in Watford, Bedford and Wembley.
My book on the case was published in the spring of 1971. One hundred and forty MPs signed a motion calling for a public inquiry. They were curtly rebuffed by the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling. Three years later, a newly-elected Labour government set up another secret inquiry by a barrister, Lewis Hawser QC. Hawser did for James Hanratty what another barrister, Scott Henderson, had done for Timothy Evans, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of his child. By concentrating on minute differences of detail in witness statements, he managed to dispense with all the people in Rhyl who quite plainly saw James Hanratty on the night of the murder. The Labour Government delightedly accepted the report and washed its hands of the case.
Old Jim Hanratty died of cancer in 1978. On his deathbed, he mourned the failure of the A6 campaign and urged me to continue with it. In truth, though, his death knocked the heart out of the committee. It seemed that every possible effort had been made to right this injustice, without success. Jean Justice kept on chipping away at journalists and lawyers until he, too, died in 1990. That really seemed the end of the matter.
New hope sprang from an unlikely source. In 1992, Bob Woffinden and Ros Franey made a Yorkshire Television programme on the A6 murder to mark the 30th anniversary of Hanratty’s execution. In 1994, Woffinden and the Hanrattys’ lawyer, Geoffrey Bindman, sent a dossier on the case to the Home Office. The outcome seemed depressingly certain: another official brush-off. The man appointed for the whitewash was Det. Chief Supt Roger Matthews of Scotland Yard. Before long Matthews was shocked to discover that a clear case existed for Hanratty’s innocence. His report, to the horror of the Home Secretary Michael Howard, recommended the immediate re-opening of the case. There was only one thing for it: procrastination. After nearly a year’s dither, Howard passed the buck to the newly-formed Criminal Cases Review Commission and ex-Commander Skitt.
Skitt, of course, is concerned only with Hanratty’s guilt. Quite properly, he will have nothing to say about the man who has claimed he did the murder: Peter Alphon. In the years I was preparing my book, I tried to concentrate on the evidence which exculpated Hanratty. I was constantly diverted by interminable phone calls from Peter Alphon. Alphon has many times convincingly confessed to the murder. (‘I killed Gregsten and the establishment murdered Hanratty.’) He has also, less convincingly, retracted his confessions. He is linked to the murder by a long series of coincidences. He was the first police suspect. He was released only after Valerie Storie failed to pick him out in an identity parade (she later identified Hanratty). Alphon has claimed that he was part of a conspiracy, and was assigned to hold up the couple in the car with a gun. His story endlessly shifted. Whenever it seemed that he was going to produce definite proof of his complicity, he veered away. At the end of my book, I said of Alphon: ‘Either he committed the A6 murder, or he has been leading all of us, and me in particular, a fantastic dance. I tend, perhaps naturally, to the former view, but I have not the power to find the facts finally to prove or disprove it.’ Bob Woffinden, by contrast, boldly sets out a scenario which names Alphon as the murderer and explains the conspiracy which led him to the couple in the car, tracing his steps exactly, both in the run-up to the crime and the aftermath. The scenario is tempting, but far from conclusive.
My own feelings about Alphon have changed a little as a result of two recent meetings with him. I arranged the meetings in 1994 when, to my astonishment, I was approached by Janet Gregsten, whose husband was murdered on the A6. I had always assumed that she, perhaps unwittingly, had something to do with the murder, given that her husband was having an affair with Valerie Storie. I had three long meetings with Mrs Gregsten, two of them in Penzance, where she lived. Very quickly she convinced me she had nothing to do with the murder and had no idea who had. She had, however, grown increasingly uncertain about Hanratty’s guilt. I found her impressive, quite unlike the jealous demon of my imagination. In January 1995, while we were still discussing how to take the matter further, she died of a heart attack. My brief relationship with her was a warning against jumping to hasty conclusions, in particular about Peter Alphon.
When I arrived at her Penzance flat on 30 December 1994, she waved contemptuously towards a letter written in the familiar and careful handwriting of Peter Alphon. The letter was an invitation to her to spend a few days with Alphon and Jeremy Fox at a luxury hotel near Dublin. Alphon offered her £2000 if she accepted the invitation. Janet Gregsten was disgusted by the letter. Alphon explained to me later that he wanted to interrogate her about the A6 murder. When I said I had been convinced that she had nothing to do with it, Alphon scoffed: ‘You’ve been duped.’ He was ‘sure’ she had been involved, but not so sure that he could prove it. When I played him part of Mrs Gregsten’s taped conversation with me, Alphon seemed perplexed. It occurred to me, watching him carefully, that he really didn’t know as much as he pretended. He certainly didn’t know what he alleged – that Mrs Gregsten was the prime mover in commissioning the murderer. I started to wonder whether perhaps, if Alphon was the murderer, he had no idea who commissioned him; or even whether he had not done the murder himself, but had become involved in it in some other way.
Fortunately, such speculations are gloriously irrelevant. If James Hanratty is finally cleared of the A6 murder, as we all hope, then Peter Alphon, murderer or not, has, in his own macabre way, helped to keep the case alive all these years.
[*] Hanratty: The Final Verdict (Macmillan, 497 pp., £16.99, 24 October, 0 333 71015 0).