Rachel Nickell’s son reveals he forgives killer who butchered his mum

Rachel Nickell’s son reveals he forgives killer who butchered his mum

Cradling her baby son as he giggled, smiled and gurgled in her lap in this never seen before picture, Rachel Nickell must have been excited for her future.

The young mum had given birth to healthy tot Alex just six months earlier and was enjoying the start of family life in her south London home with boyfriend André Hanscombe.

But less than three years later, in a crime which horrified the nation and led to one of the most controversial investigations in Metropolitan Police history, Rachel’s promising future was snatched away.

On a mid-July morning in 1992, she was sexually assaulted and stabbed 49 times while walking with Alex and their rescue dog Molly through leafy Wimbledon Common.

What followed only intensified the grief, anger and torment for André, who was forced to raise his toddler son – the only witness to an unthinkable crime – alone.

For 16 years, the pair only endured more and more pain instead of the justice they rightly deserved.

First, police lured loner Colin Stagg, who frequented the common, into a honeytrap after becoming convinced he was the killer.

Then, as Stagg spent a year languishing in jail for a crime he did not commit, Rachel’s real killer Robert Napper lay unnoticed, going on to slaughter another young mother and her child.

It is ten years ago this month that André sat opposite Napper, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, in court as he finally confessed to the killing, and was sentenced to be held in Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital, in Berkshire, indefinitely.

Incredibly André can now calmly say he forgives Napper – and even seems to show some sympathy for him.

“There is forgiveness of course,” says the 55 year-old.

“He was a poor mistreated child at some time, he was in care and foster homes, and some people respond one way, and others respond in another way. That allows you to feel some kind of compassion.”

I meet André and Alex, now 29, for a rare joint father-and-son interview, in a hotel bar in Barcelona, where they have lived for two years after moving to France following Rachel’s death.

Looking back on that day in the Old Bailey a decade ago, André says he doesn’t feel any rage towards the man who murdered his girlfriend in front of his baby son as he remembers seeing him in court.

“It was a surreal experience, it was extremely intense,” André remembers.

“He didn’t look at me, he was probably heavily medicated. You could see that this was very dysfunctional and distressed person.

“I always knew that anyone who could commit an act like this was an extremely troubled person, the frenzy of it is not the act of someone having a bad day or losing their temper.

“It’s a process. We were victims. We were victims of an attack, we were victims of a police failure.

“But it gets to the stage where you think: ‘Am I going to do this forever?’ We didn’t want to be victims.”

Alex nods.

“Forgiveness for us is that if you don’t forgive the person who caused you harm, then you become that person in time,” he says.

Maybe this merciful attitude comes from André and Alex having already exhausted their grief and anger on the wrong man.

In September 1994, Stagg was formally cleared and awarded £750,000 in compensation for the bungled police operation.

Then the case lay cold until 2004, when advancements in DNA evidence led police to Napper, who confessed to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

He was already in Broadmoor for murdering photographic model Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter, Jazmine.

André, originally convinced that the police had got the right man, wrote Stagg a letter apologising for thinking he had killed Rachel.

“I was a lot more angry with Colin Stagg, it was a lot more raw then,” he explains.

Like so many father-son relationships, mostly in much less appalling circumstances, André and Alex have had their ups and downs and had fights when Alex was a teenager.

Alex moved back to London to study music but eventually returned to Barcelona to live with his father, and the pair went travelling together for four years around Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, where Alex studied yoga.

Alex displays his deeply spiritual side throughout our conversation and it has clearly helped him come to terms with his experiences, saying: “The nature of human existence is from darkness to light so, for me, my mother’s killer represents the darkness of human existence.”

Father and son now share an unbreakable bond, mirroring each other’s expressions as they sit together, and are working on a series of children’s books based on Alex’s childhood – with Molly taking a starring role – and self-help books based on their trauma.

English literature student Rachel was just 19 when she met semi-professional tennis player André at a swimming pool where she was working as a lifeguard.

It was a whirlwind romance, and she was pregnant with Alex within months.

Another never seen before picture shows André and a four-months-pregnant Rachel grinning as she cuddles up to her boyfriend, the pair look like any other young couple in love.

André still smiles now, nearly 30 years on, at the thought of her.

“Rachel has had a huge influence on the way things turned out,” he tells me.

“She made it clear that if anything happened to her that she wanted me to bring Alex up in the best way possible.

“She lavished so much attention on Alex in the three years they were together, that she imbued him with that strength and independence.”

On that terrible summer day, July 15 1992, a passer-by found Alex – less than a month away from his third birthday – clinging onto Rachel’s blood-soaked body repeatedly crying “wake up, mummy”.

In Alex’s autobiography about his experiences – written nearly 25 years after his mother’s death – he recalls that day with alarming clarity, despite his young age, remembering: “In less than a split second, life seemed to have come to a standstill. She was gone.”

But now he tells me: “I never think about it.”

Instead he remembers the happiness they enjoyed during their short time together.

“I have memories of that day, but fortunately for me I also have memories of us all being together, of loving and being loved in return.”

One painful memory for André is the fear he carried for years after the murder, as the police triggered one of its biggest-ever manhunts.

“I was in fear of Alex´s life,” he tells me.

“I was the only witness to my mother’s murder, and there was always the chance the killer could come back,” Alex says.

“That was something the police were whispering in my father’s ear all the time.”

André, originally from London, adds: “There was the possibility he could find us. I felt safer abroad.”

Now, the ten-year anniversary of Napper’s confession holds little significance for the pair.

Alex tells me “life had moved on” before Napper’s admission.

“We had to find closure away from that,” he says.

“If a person is found guilty and then you find out it was another … it’s a rollercoaster.

“We had to live with the fact this case might never be solved, we had to find a way of finding peace and stability.”

André agrees that the chaotic nature of the case means even knowing Rachel’s real killer has been caught for ten years provides little closure.

“From day one, it was an open affair,” he says.

“There was no closure. There were so many years that went by with no closure. Colin Stagg, Robert Napper… it was just a continuation of the same old story.

“I just had to do what I had to do to make sure Alex was ok, that was my number one responsibility.

“Who it was who killed Rachel was something I could never actually rely on because mistakes had been made before about the identity. The police swore it was Colin Stagg, and then you find yourself a decade later in the same situation.”

Of course they had one other close connection with Rachel, Labrador-greyhound cross dog Molly who André and Alex kept until she died at the age of 13, with Alex affectionately seeing the pup as his “little sister”.

“Rachel used to say we were her ‘little pack’,” André smiles.

“She really instilled that in us.

“She had such an infectious smile. She was an old soul, someone you don’t forget.”

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