Arresting News of (Dis)organised Crime and Corruption
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.”
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.”