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One Of The Most Talked-About Murder Cases
In British Legal History

On Tuesday, 22nd August, 1961, Michael Gregsten, 36, a research physicist, called at the address of his estranged wife at Sabine House, Abbots Langley, and after taking his 9-year old son, Simon, to play in Cassiobury Park, Watford, he collected his girlfriend, Valerie Storie, 22, from work, and he and Storie went in Gregsten’s Morris Minor to the Old Station Inn, Taplow, near Slough. Watford Observer: James Hanratty There followed a string of events culminating in one of the most talked-about crimes ever: in the case known as the A6 Murder, Michael Gregsten was shot dead, and Valerie Storie was raped and left for dead by a lone gunman.

The man police arrested and charged was James Francis Hanratty, 24, from Wembley. Hanratty was a ‘persistent offender’, with ‘form’ for car theft and housebreak¬ing. He ‘never wore gloves’, a reason, perhaps, for his being repeatedly captured. But did he kill Michael Gregsten? And did he rape and attempt to kill Valerie Storie?

To return a ‘guilty’ verdict, a case must be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. In my opinion, based on the evidence given at Hanratty’s trial at Bedford Assizes, the case was not proven to this degree – at the time of the trial. Hanratty was hanged nevertheless, giving rise to the question: is the death penalty appropriate when redress, if applicable, cannot be made? The circumstances of the crime, evidence of identification and to some extent the conduct of the prosecution, and subsequent events by those campaigning on Hanratty’s behalf, cannot be thoroughly examined here. Perhaps, though, the overall picture can be presented. If so, we should begin with events of the late evening of 22nd August, when Gregsten and Storie left the Old Station Inn, and travelled to a nearby cornfield where they ‘parked up’.

To analyse events that followed we must reply almost entirely on the testimony of Valerie Storie, for Gregsten was shot dead and James Hanratty always maintained he was not the gunman. The gunman, whoever he was, got into the back seat of the car and told Gregsten to drive off, first around the cornfield, when Gregsten was forced to hand over his money; then, near midnight through north-west London, Watford, Aldenham, St Albans and up the A6.

The gunman ordered Gregsten to stop at a lay-by at the ironically-named Deadman’s Hill, near Maulden, Bedford¬shire. There, he shot Gregsten twice in the back of the head, and forced Storie to sit in the back of the car with him where he raped her. He forced Storie to help him remove Gregsten’s body from the car, whereupon he shot her, and she feigned death as he fired several times more. Somehow, Valerie Storie survived, though for the rest of her life she was disabled.

The gunman fled, taking the car. Events that followed seem muddled in a labyrinth of identification of the car and the man, mistaken or otherwise. Whatever, the car was found abandoned in East London, and the following evening the murder weapon, wrapped in a handkerchief, and 60 rounds of ammunition were found hidden under the back seat of a number 36A London bus.

A description, was circulated, together with a photofit of the man driving the car, which had been seen in various locations being driven erratically. One feature of the description given by Valerie Storie was the gunman’s ‘icy-blue, large saucer-like eyes’. As was custom at that time, a senior detective from New Scotland Yard was assigned to the case. He was Detective Superintendent Bob Acott.

It was not an easy case: an abduction in Berkshire, a murder and rape in Bedfordshire, the car abandoned in London, the murder weapon and ammunition found hidden on a bus. But things took a turn, seemingly for the better, when two spent cartridge cases found in the Vienna Hotel, Maida Vale, by the hotel manager, Robert Crocker. They were identified as coming from the murder weapon.

Mr Crocker had sacked a member of staff, Mr Nudds, for reporting sick, then appearing on television at a horse race meeting. Crocker checked the hotel rooms, and in Room 24 discovered the cartridges, apparently secreted in the upholstery of a chair. The police had already made contact with the hotel regarding a guest named Frederick Durrant, real name Peter Alphon, who had been booked in on the night of the murder. Alphon had not stayed in Room 24, which had been occupied by another man, a Mr Ryan.

For a variety of reasons, police sought to interview Alphon in connection with the murder, and even appealed for help on television to find him. Alphon responded by presenting himself to the Yard. He stood on an identification parade, in which Valerie Storie mistakenly picked out an airman. Belatedly, police turned their attention to the man known as Mr Ryan.

The police identified, correctly, Mr Ryan to be James Hanratty. How they did so remains a mystery to this day. ‘On information’, one supposes. As for Hanratty being ‘the man’, one can hardly place credibility on a reported ‘sighting’ by Mr Ewer, none other than Janet Gregsten’s brother-in-law, who reported seeing a man in a florists, and identified him as the gunman solely on description. Still less on Janet Gregsten herself, who identified ‘the man’ by ‘sixth sense’. Both sightings, it seems, were supposedly of James Hanratty, based on his ‘staring eyes’.

It should be mentioned that none of the fingerprints found in Gregsten’s Morris Minor were Hanratty’s (he ‘never wore gloves’), who was arrested in a café in Blackpool. Hanratty took part in two identification parades. On the first he was picked out by some, not all, witnesses; on the second, the injured Valerie Storie picked him out, identifying not his appearance, but his voice. It would hardly be surprising if she could not recognise his face; at the time of the abduction the gunman sat behind her in the car, and it was in the black of night when he raped her. Hanratty was charged with murder.

The evidence, it seemed, comprised the recovery of the two spent cartridges from the Vienna Hotel, and identification by witnesses. On the first point, no-one knows how long the cartridges were secreted in the chair’s upholstery (these cartridges must have been discharged before the murder). On the second, identification is not always reliable; although several witnesses picked Hanratty out, the most important, Storie, did so only after ‘identifying’ another man (the airman) first. Still, if Hanratty had an alibi – which he would if he was innocent – then he could quickly discredit the evidence.

At first, Hanratty said he was in Liverpool at the time of the murder. He had met three friends, he said, whom he would not name as all were of the ‘criminal fraternity’. His reticence placed his ‘alibi’ in serious doubt, not least because his life depended on it. Then he changed his story, saying he was in Liverpool on the Monday, and in Rhyl, North Wales, on the Tuesday. If true, he could not have abducted Gregsten and Storie on the Tuesday night. In the Rhyl alibi, Hanratty maintained he could produce independent witnesses, for he had sought bed and breakfast in the town. One must ask, as the jury must have asked, why he did not mention Rhyl in the first place.

Enquiries into Hanratty’s alibi were never conclusive. Witnesses were seen, and seen again, even years after he was hanged. I believe withhold¬ing information on his alibis caused more damage to Hanratty’s defence than anything. Quite simply, the jury did not believe a man who, under threat of death, would not tell the truth without hesitation.

Did Hanratty receive a fair trial? I do not think he did. Nevertheless, Hanratty was found guilty and hanged at Bedford gaol on 4th April, 1962. His body was interred within the prison, but in 1966 his remains were moved to Carpenders Park cemetery, Watford. Over the years many other killers, facing death, have confessed their crime. Hanratty maintained his innocence to the last.

* * *

Many people favour capital punishment. ‘An eye for an eye’. Maybe they are right. The trouble being that if there is a mistake there can be no bringing back an innocent man or woman. I do not say Hanratty was innocent; I do say that, in 1962, given the evidence, there was doubt of his alleged guilt. There can be no wonder at the efforts of his family and others to clear his name.

Today – DNA evidence aside – Hanratty would not have been convicted. First, the evidence of identification would have been disallowed. Following the guidelines of the ‘Turnbull’ case (1977), the judge would have warned the jury about identification: ‘how far away, in what light’, etc. Valerie Storie picked out two different men, after all.

The police took many statements, which were not shown to the defence. They produced only witnesses to prove their case, no-one who might prove otherwise. Today, rightly, all statements go to the defence. Justice is not served by ‘choosing’ evidence, but by considering all the evidence.

There are many other aspects of this epic story, not least Peter Alphon who, after Hanratty was hanged, ‘confessed’ to the murder – to Hanratty’s parents, the press, and even the Home Secretary. He was dismissed as a crank, yet he did stay in the Vienna Hotel, where the spent cartridges were discovered, and he was unable to provide a concrete alibi. Some believe Gregsten was murdered, by someone perhaps jealous of his affair with Storie, and that Hanratty was framed.

And so to DNA.

DNA – genetic fingerprinting – can prove a person’s identification. It cannot in itself provide every answer to every question in a crime enquiry. However, in 2000 Hanratty’s body was exhumed and DNA samples were taken from it. These matched DNA tests on semen samples found on Miss Storie’s underwear, retained in the police lab since 1961, and DNA tests on nasal mucus found on the handkerchief in which the murder weapon was wrapped. These matches, if accurate, appear to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Hanratty murdered Michael Gresgsten and raped and shot Valerie Storie.