The Met Undercover Cop Spat Out After Rachel Nickell Fiasco
Before going undercover during the Rachel Nickell murder inquiry – an operation that would ruin her police career and mental health – the officer known as ‘Lizzie James’ had proved her courage infiltrating violent gangsters terrorising publicans in London’s east end, The Upsetter can reveal.
Pub protection rackets did not disappear with the jailing of the Krays in the late 1960’s.
It was still a serious problem two decades later with violent thugs extorting money from publicans while helping themselves to drinks and anything else that took their fancy.
In 1989, a group of east London detectives decided to do something about it and got authority to form a pub protection squad led by DI Peter Wiggins.
“It was a tough gig, involving lots of violence from lots of savages and incredibly difficult to get evidence,” said John, then a detective sergeant on the new squad.
Their novel idea, he explained, was to use undercover officers (UCs) to run pubs and gather secretly recorded evidence from the thugs’ own mouths.
The sheer size of the Nagra tape recorders, which were fitted to a UC’s lower back, compared to today’s nano-technology, required brave and confident officers to pull it off.
Lizzie joined the Met with her then boyfriend in 1980. “I remember them coming back to Hendon training school one day and she was dressed as a punk,” recalled ‘Will’, a UC who joined at the same time and later worked with Lizzie on the pub protection squad.
The Yard was the first force to set up an undercover unit in 1986. A handful of officers were specially trained for deep and cold infiltrations of organised crime and taught how to maintain a “legend” or backstory as drug dealers, hitmen, money launderers, fraudsters and even paedophiles.
Lizzie passed the difficult induction course to the elite SO10 unit to become one of only around eighty ‘Level One’ undercover officers operating in the UK in the late 1980s.
“Back then SO10 tried to recruit girls quite early on in their career. It was very much a male dominated world and girls were used more in supporting roles like being in the bath and looking good for a drug deal in a hotel room for example,” said Will.
SO10 also used Lizzie to train other recruits. “She stooged on my course,” recalled Liam Thomas, a former UC who is now an actor and writer.
“She’d really come on to you to try and embarrass you during training exercises. She was very confident. And if acting is reacting then that is what we have to do. Yes you have a script or legend but your first cue may be totally off script and you have to react.”
Swimming With Sharks
Lizzie would need all these skills when in July 1989 she was asked to pose as the barmaid at the Cauliflower Pub in Rainham, Essex. It had gone through five licensees in 18 months before the pub protection squad was on the case.
The hand-selected team of hard east London detectives were buoyed from recent success running an undercover pub operation codenamed Shark against a gang of thugs led by Frank Salmon, 34, who modelled himself on the Krays and used ammonia and a sawn-off shotgun to persuade publicans to pay up.
Lizzie was recruited to the new operation codenamed Swordfish at the Cauliflower pub along with two male UCs posing as the landlord and licensee. Their target was a violent gang led by Len Sherwood 24, and Donald Hoey, 41, who were associates of Salmon but operated independently.
Sherwood took a shine to Lizzie and invited her to an Acid House rave. “We were watching. He tried to get off with her,” recalled Will, who praised Lizzie’s ability to spurn the advance but remain on good terms so Sherwood kept coming to the pub and talking about his exploits.
“She did a great job. You’ve got to be brave enough to be there, go out with them and live another existence and then give evidence,” said Will.
Operation Swordfish went on for six weeks before Sherwood’s gang were arrested and subsequently jailed in July 1990.
Two years later, Rachel Nickell’s body was found on Wimbledon Common after a frenzied knife attack in front of her two-year-old son.
Once again, Lizzie found herself being deployed in another novel operation against the Met’s prime suspect Colin Stagg. But this time it would be her undoing.
Lizzie befriended Stagg through carefully crafted letters and phone calls directed by psychologist Paul Britton and murder squad detective chief inspector Mick Wickerson and detective inspector Keith Pedder.
“She was an incredibly professional UC [who] impressed me tremendously with her attitude from the outset,” Pedder told The Upsetter.
“She took it all in her stride. Let’s face it, we were embarking on uncharted waters with Britton’s operation but she seemed unfazed by its unconventional nature. She was prepared to accept and act upon what must have sounded like the plot from a bad psychological thriller. It was a huge responsibility and must have impacted on her personal life as she was very recently married.”
However, the contact with Stagg, including two ‘dates’, one of which involved a visit to his flat, was lambasted as “thoroughly reprehensible” by the trial judge, who threw out the case in September 1994. Stagg later received £706,000 in damages.
Lizzie left the Met on ill health grounds. She sued the force and won £125,000 in an out of court settlement.
“She was an attractive and complete straight-goer who loved her work,” said John. “Then I saw her after the Stagg case with some other SO10 people and she was a shadow of her former self.”
Pedder supported Lizzie’s legal claim. He also left the force suffering from depression while claiming his superiors had scapegoated him.
Like Britton, the former detective wrote a book about the Nickell case. Lizzie, however, has remained in the shadows.
She did not co-operate with the programme makers behind ‘Deceit’, a 4-part Channel 4 drama about her undercover role, which begins today.
Pedder, who has assisted the drama, said:
“We, that’s me, Wickerson and Britton, were always aware of the stress that [Lizzie] was under, however all enquiries as to her wellbeing were played down by her. She was always positive and enthusiastic. Her incredible efforts and attitude were the reason that I supported her lawsuit against the Met when the hierarchy treated her so badly in the aftermath of the collapse of the trial. Which was, in my view, an entirely unacceptable way to treat a brave and exceptionally talented officer.”
THE RIDDLE OF POLLARDS HILL
A Dead Cop, A Missed Gun, A Magic Bullet and A Loyal Watchdog
A bombshell tape recording has emerged showing “collusion” between the watchdog and Metropolitan police during a probe into the bizarre circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting of sergeant Matt Ratana last year.
The Upsetter can reveal that the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) has been passing intelligence to the Met that it gleaned from private discussions with the family of Louis de Zoysa, who was also shot inside Croydon police station.
An IOPC manager is recorded revealing that in addition the Met decides what information the watchdog can give to the family about its own supposedly independent investigation into the shooting incident on 25 September.
As well as controlling the flow of information from the watchdog, the family say the Met also threatened to withhold access to their hospitalised son if they talked to the media.
The death of sergeant Ratana is embarrassing for the Met because officers failed to find the gun allegedly used in the shooting when they arrested de Zoysa for possession of ammunition.
The IOPC is supposed to independently examine such police failings when a member of the public is shot or dies in custody and to keep the family informed.
But last November, an IOPC email shows how the watchdog rushed to exonerate officers involved in de Zoysa’s arrest and detention before all the evidence was gathered.
Last month, the 23-year-old data analyst, who remains hospitalised, was charged with the murder of sergeant Ratana and possession of a gun and ammunition. He is yet to enter a plea.
The revelation of collusion in the Ratana case comes as an 8-year independent inquiry last month severely criticised the police watchdog and branded the Met “institutionally corrupt” for putting the protection of its reputation above a duty of candour to the public.
“There can be no confidence in the integrity of policing without confidence in the police watchdog … questions remain about its ability to hold the police to account … I am therefore announcing bringing forward the next periodic review of the Independent Office of Police Conduct to start this summer. This will include an assessment of the IOPC’s effectiveness and efficiency.”
Since the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan, families and the public have been repeatedly failed and betrayed by collusion between the police and its supposed regulator.
The IOPC is a revised Home Office response to recommendations by the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, which called for a truly independent police complaints system.
Instead, the Home Office allowed recently retired senior Met detectives with highly questionable records to set up the Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2004 and shape its investigation arm and ethos.
Poor, partial and perverted inquiries into high profile cases – including deaths – led to a rebranding and the emergence of the IOPC in 2018 with a £70m per annum budget to ensure greater accountability to the public.
However, the main purpose of the regulator is not, as many imagine, to independently investigate the police, but to improve the ability of forces to investigate and discipline themselves.
The result has been predictable.
With choreographed precision, the Met and IOPC have drip fed details of what it wants the public to know about the unusual events that unfolded in the early hours of 25 September 2020.
According to the agreed official version:
Louis De Zoysa caught a bus to Croydon from his home in Banstead and then walked almost three miles in the direction of his family home in Norbury before he was stopped outside a block of flats on Pollards Hill at roughly 1.30am.
Met officers arrested the mixed race man for possession of cannabis and, crucially, possession of ammunition.
Unless de Zoysa, who is autistic, voluntarily gave up the drugs and bullets, the police likely found them following a body search.
But, to this day, the Met and IOPC refuse to provide details of any search before de Zoysa was transported to the custody centre, including how many officers were involved and their level of experience.
The Met does however confirm that de Zoysa’s arrest was not based on any prior intelligence about drugs and guns. He was simply stopped by a routine patrol and, at an unspecified point, handcuffed behind his back.
To date, there has been no suggestion that de Zoysa was anything other than compliant as he was driven to the custody centre about a mile away in central Croydon, south London.
Yet, in the forty-five minutes between his arrest and arrival at the custody centre, in other words sometime between 1.30am and 2.15am, sergeant Matt Ratana was shot in the chest and de Zoysa shot in the neck.
The Met has given conflicting accounts of the exact time Ratana was shot. The London Ambulance Service says it received an emergency call from the police at 2.16am.
Initially a police spokesperson said the shooting occurred at 2.09am. When asked to explain why it took seven minutes to call an ambulance, the spokesperson said the shooting actually happened at 2.15am.
Paramedics were at the custody centre within minutes because the ambulance station is nearby. Ratana and de Zoysa were taken in separate ambulances to St George’s Hospital in Tooting. But at 4.10am, the police sergeant died.
The Directorate of Professional Standards, the Met’s internal affairs department, will not explain why it took 90 minutes from the time of the shooting before contacting the IOPC at 3.40am.
The watchdog, which must be called in when a civilian is killed or seriously injured in police custody, says its investigators arrived at the custody centre “shortly after 5am.”
This means the police had full and unfettered control of the crime scene – police and civilian witnesses, CCTV and other vital evidence – for three hours.
At 9am IOPC Regional Director Sal Naseem put out the first statement:
“Our deepest sympathies go out to all those affected by this terrible event. We were notified by the MPS of the shooting incident at Croydon Custody Centre early this morning. We understand a police officer has since sadly died and a man is in a critical condition in hospital. A murder investigation by the force is under way. Our investigators are at the scene and police post incident procedure to begin our independent enquiries.”
Throughout the morning, crime reporters worked contacts trying to understand what had happened. The death in custody of an detained person is not unusual. The fatal shooting of a police officer inside a custody centre is.
At 2pm, Met commissioner Dame Cressida Dick made a statement that insulated the force from any blame. Not only had a much-loved cop been shot, she said “early indications” were that the detained suspect then “shot himself”.
This was the first time a suicide theory had been floated publicly. In the same breath, Dick warned the media against speculating until the full facts were known and reminded the public what a difficult job the police do keeping them safe.
There followed a series of solemn photo opportunities with the two people Dick answered to – home secretary, Priti Patel, and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
One of the key questions left hanging was whether de Zoysa had smuggled a gun into the custody centre?
If that was true, and it looked that way, then there had been a massive police failure to search him on Pollards Hill, which in turn meant Ratana’s death could have been avoided.
And if that was true, then the Met were not only exposed to public and political criticism, but also a potential compensation claim from Ratana’s family.
There were also unanswered questions about what had happened inside the custody centre. For example, was de Zoysa in handcuffs throughout? Could he have fired while handcuffed behind his back? Had there been a struggle?
The answers to most of these questions would come from the CCTV and police body cams – as long as they were working, pointing in the right direction and made available to the watchdog’s investigators.
At 7.30pm, after twelve hours on the ground, the IOPC released an unusually long statement which it claimed was based on viewing some CCTV.
The statement said:
“What we have established is that the man was arrested for possession of Class B drugs with intent to supply and possession of ammunition. The man was handcuffed to the rear before being transported to Croydon Custody Suite in a police vehicle where he was escorted into the building. He remained handcuffed to the rear and seated in a holding area in the custody suite. His handcuffs remained in place while officers prepared to search him using a metal detector. It is at this point that shots were fired resulting in the fatal injuries to the officer and critical injuries to the man. A non-police issue firearm, which appears to be a revolver, has been recovered from the scene. Further ballistic work will be required.”
Reference to “a non-police issue firearm” left the intended inference that de Zoysa had smuggled the gun into the custody centre and fired at Ratana while handcuffed from behind.
And although the IOPC statement was noticeably silent on how the “revolver” had got into the police station in the first place, nevertheless, it could only mean that officers on Pollards Hill had missed the weapon when they arrested de Zoysa for possession of drugs and ammunition.
However, to explicitly state this would dramatically change the conversation and highlight police responsibility for the death of a 54-year-old colleague and father who was just weeks away from retiring and had become a totemic figure for public sympathy alongside NHS staff on the frontline of the Covid pandemic.
The Ratana case was being monitored at the highest level by a flailing government. Within days, the police sergeant’s death had been marked by a personal address from prime minister Boris Johnson.
There was also a minute’s silence in Parliament – a show of respect not once extended to the 271 members of the public who’ve died in Met police custody since 1990.
It is also not inconsequential that the death of Ratana while on duty came as the widow of another dead police officer, Andrew Harper, was, with the police establishment’s full support, lobbying the home secretary for a mandatory minimum sentence for cop killers.
While De Zoysa lay in hospital under permanent police guard, murder detectives built their case against him.
The IOPC had already made it clear in the long statement on 25 September that they would make sure their own investigation did not “impact” on the murder squad’s work.
Detectives couldn’t interview de Zoysa because he’d had a stroke the day after the shooting incident that left him paralysed down the right side. He’d also been operated on to relieve pressure on his brain and was in a coma for a while.
De Zoysa was being held incommunicado from his parents Elizabeth, a translator, and Channa, an electronics engineer and yoga teacher originally from Sri Lanka.
The watchdog has a duty to keep the family updated but was failing even in that simple task.
Then, two months later in November, de Zoysa’s parents, who still hadn’t seen their son, were shocked to receive an email from the IOPC saying it was going to exonerate the officers involved in his arrest and detention.
The email on 24 November claimed the watchdog had made “significant progress” and went on:
“We now have detailed statements from the five officers who were involved in the arrest and detention of the 23-year-old man and other police officers and custody staff who were present at the time of this tragic incident. All relevant body worn video footage, CCTV and radio transmissions have been gathered. This is being analysed and where necessary sent for digital audio and visual enhancement. Forensic examinations of relevant items taken from the scene are taking place and there is on going detailed ballistic work being carried out on a non-police issue firearm recovered. It is important we independently establish the sequence of events providing a comprehensive picture of how this incident occurred. Work is on going to identify whether it is appropriate to issue any early learning recommendations as a result of this incident.”
The IOPC said it had decided to issue a press statement the next day in the following terms:
“When a member of the public dies or is seriously injured while in police custody the IOPC’s role is to independently investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident. At this stage in our investigation we have no indication that any officer may have acted in a way that would justify misconduct proceedings. On the contrary, what is very clear is that the arresting officers who were present in the room when Sergeant Matt Ratana was fatally shot acted immediately and with real bravery to disarm the man.”
From this it could reasonably be inferred the watchdog was not disputing that a gun had been smuggled into the custody centre and therefore there had been a failure to search de Zoysa on Pollards Hill.
So why the rush to exonerate the officers involved?
After all, the IOPC was explicitly admitting that CCTV, body worn video and radio transmissions had yet to be analysed and forensic and ballistic work was still on-going.
The timing of the intended press release was also curious. The Met had recently buried Ratana at a well-publicised ceremony in which Commissioner Dick gave a rousing speech promising her fallen officer’s family to “take it from here.”
A statement from the watchdog not just clearing Met officers but praising their bravery would have been most welcome on the two-month anniversary of Ratana’s death.
The de Zoysa family, however, would not play ball and complained to the IOPC that such a statement was not only premature but also prejudicial. Just eleven days earlier their son had been arrested on suspicion of murder.
De Zoysa’s arrest on 13 November was announced by Dick who called it “an important milestone” in a case still closely watched by a locked down public and politicians who had lost their grip on the pandemic but wanted to appear tough on crime.
“Basically, Louis was hung drawn and quartered by this press release,” Elizabeth told The Upsetter. “As Louis’ family, we want justice but we want the truth more than anything, truth and reconciliation. People aren’t thinking the police have done something wrong.”
Remarkably, the IOPC immediately backed down when she complained and the exoneration statement was never put out.
But what the episode revealed was on the one hand the watchdog’s weakness, and on the other, its willingness to dance to the Met’s tune whilst professing to be independent.
There was worse to come.
Buried in the IOPC’s November email to the de Zoysa family was a significant revelation that was easy to miss.
The watchdog said the same officers involved in the arrest on Pollards Hill had also tried to “disarm” de Zoysa inside the custody centre.
For the first time, the IOPC was saying there had been some sort of struggle over the smuggled gun. This in turn raised the possibility of accidental discharge, at least when it came to the bullet that hit de Zoysa on the left side of his neck.
The location is significant given the police view that de Zoysa shot himself in a suicide bid while handcuffed behind his back.
It turned out that none of the officers involved in the disarming of de Zoysa were interviewed until weeks after the shooting – the IOPC said they were too traumatised – and, remarkably, the police only photographed de Zoysa’s injuries on 11 November, over six weeks after the shooting.
A medical source who examined de Zoysa on the day of the shooting recalls the trajectory of the bullet being downwards, which raises questions about how he was able to lift his arms high enough to shoot himself while handcuffed behind his back.
The IOPC refuse to say whether the trajectory of the bullet in de Zoysa’s neck was upwards or downwards.
Bob Milne, a retired veteran Met police forensic scientist, said the officers involved in disarming de Zoysa should have been swabbed for firearm residue on the night.
Turning to de Zoysa, Milne said he too should have been swabbed at the hospital, his injuries photographed and clothes forensicated to determine where and how the shots were fired.
Both the Met and IOPC refuse to comment on the delay. Nor will they say if any of those involved in the arrest and detention of de Zoysa were swabbed on the night.
On 21 December the BBC awarded Sgt Ratana the unsung hero Sports Personality of the Year for the New Zealander’s commitment to rugby coaching.
By coincidence, Elizabeth de Zoysa had her first hospital visit with her son that day, but with police officers within earshot.
Louis de Zoysa struggled to talk but earlier in the month had drawn a picture of what he believed happened. It showed “two police officers and a gun”, but detectives seized it before he could give it to his lawyer, his mother said.
“[Louis] drew a picture of what happened because he’s been very, very anxious about the police presence, and the police took it. [The drawing] was unprompted. He showed it to his consultant. Louis hasn’t been able to sleep very well and the consultant speculated it was because of the police presence this triggered something in [him].”
By January 2021, de Zoysa’s parents were feeling “fobbed off” by the IOPC but didn’t know what they were entitled to ask under the belatedly disclosed terms of reference.
The Upsetter helped the family draft twenty-five detailed questions designed to get at the truth. But once again, the watchdog’s written response on 28 January was evasive or vague.
The IOPC wouldn’t say, for example, if its investigators had seen CCTV of the entire shooting incident before making the statement on 25 September; how de Zoysa came to be shot in the neck; the trajectory of the bullet; why his injuries weren’t photographed for over six weeks; and, whether any of the IOPC investigators were ex-Met or law enforcement.
Some questions about the search and detention of de Zoysa couldn’t be answered because they were still being investigated, the IOPC said, which made a mockery of its decision in November to exonerate the officers involved.
More so given the IOPC revealed for the first time that de Zoysa had asked for an appropriate adult to be present when he was interviewed at the custody centre.
Elizabeth said she had previously advised her son to do this because of his autism. He also suffers from dyspraxia, a developmental co-ordination disorder that affects nerve signals from the brain to the body leading to clumsiness and grip problems.
“He’s very, very intelligent but he can’t put two and two together. People with autism in some social situations they can’t put two and two together,” she explained.
The IOPC confirmed that the police had assured de Zoysa an appropriate adult would be made available but the watchdog declined to say if the request was ever referred to Sergeant Ratana before the prisoner arrived at the custody centre.
Had Ratana known about the appropriate adult request he could have looked up de Zoysa on the police computer to get a sense of his incoming prisoner.
“There will be numerous safeguarding reports shared between the local police and social services,” said Elizabeth. “We’ve had social workers in our lives for the last 10 years.”
The news about her son’s request for an appropriate adult troubled Elizabeth for another reason: it didn’t square with what detectives had told her on the day of the shooting when the police raided the family home at around 8am.
Sitting on the sofa with her husband, both handcuffed behind their backs, Elizabeth recalled being told that her son had shot Ratana and then “turned the gun on himself”. Commissioner Dick would advance the same suicide theory in a statement to the press hours later.
Elizabeth wondered how had her son gone from asking for an appropriate adult to suicidal in the space of 45 minutes?
She wanted the IOPC to finally explain the riddle of Pollards Hill.
Little is known about the IOPC team doing the Ratana investigation as they won’t disclose their pasts or experience.
Emma Nicolls is the lead investigator, whose boss, Cath Hall, set the terms of reference with interim regional director for London, Sal Naseem – who we do know has experience as a management consultant.
Joanna Beatham is a lead investigator acting as IOPC family liaison manager. It was agreed she would call Elizabeth and Channa de Zoysa on 1 February.
Elizabeth got straight to the point:
“I’m quite concerned that the IOPC hasn’t followed up on how the police have conducted the investigation … We are coming at this as a police failing that not only failed our son but the police sergeant … We believe there were five arresting officers we want to know their involvement at each stage of the process, the involvement of Matt Ratana, at what stage of the process he was involved … Of massive concern to us is this narrative about Louis trying to commit suicide. We spoke to the consultant this morning and he said this information had been relayed by the police.”
Beatham did her best to stand up for the IOPC. But instead dropped a bombshell admission:
“In respect of this investigation, we basically have a process in place with the Metropolitan police service murder investigation team whereby it’s been agreed that effectively any information we’ve passed on to you, the family, is shared with them. Not because we need permission from them to provide information to you but just as a courtesy to ensure that any information we are providing isn’t jeopardizing the criminal investigation that they are running. So we are honouring that process so that means there are sometimes slight delays in getting back to you.”
Elizabeth was shocked that private and intimate discussions with the IOPC were being fed back to the Met, who were then vetting the watchdog’s responses.
“It could look from the outside that the IOPC are colluding with the Met by sharing information like this,” she told Beatham, before ending the call.
“I know its not going to help Louis, an investigation into the IOPC, but as a citizen I am concerned there were faults in what the police did and no one wants that to happen again,” she told The Upsetter.
While Louis de Zoysa was detained in hospital under permanent police guard, the Met controlled the access his mother could have to him – whether through visits, video calls or letters.
On 6 February, the family abruptly cut contact with The Upsetter . They only got back in touch on 29 June, the day their son was charged with Ratana’s murder and possession of ammunition and a gun.
Channa de Zoysa, 56, explained that the Met had warned them that access to their son could be withdrawn if they talked to reporters.
Now that Louis de Zoysa has been charged he is under the control of the prison system, his father said, and the fear of police repercussions has lessened.
Channa accuses the Met of failing his and Matt Ratana’s family and the IOPC of failing to hold the Met to account.
A spokesperson for the IOPC said:
“We have independently established the sequence of events, providing a comprehensive picture of how this incident occurred and have compiled our report. When we have concluded our findings we will share those, and the report, with the Metropolitan Police.”
And so it goes.