10 April 1999
When Linda Watson's husband was gunned down outside their West Sussex home, she expected the police, three minutes away, to apprehend and detain his killer. Instead, she faced a harrowing interrogation, months of suspicion and, with her daughter Amanda, a charge of murder. Why were the police so reluctant to pursue other suspects, asks Bob Woffinden
On December 10, 1996, businessman Richard Watson was murdered as he arrived home from work. The killer - ruthless, efficient, dressed in balaclava and jogging bottoms - shot him twice and then ran off. He was assumed to have been a professional hitman. In business, Watson had sometimes courted trouble.
The case attracted considerable attention. Media interest leapt several notches, however, when the arrests were made. Linda Watson, Richard's wife, was a former model and one-time Miss Scotland runner-up. On July 17, 1997, she was detained at Gatwick airport. Simultaneously, her 21-year-old daughter, Amanda London-Williams, was arrested walking down Old Steine in Brighton. They were jointly charged with murder. It was alleged that they had commissioned the crime and then concealed the gunman on the first-floor balcony, from where Richard could be shot.
The trial was set for Monday, June 8, 1998, at the Old Bailey. However, at 5.35pm on the Friday beforehand, a fax arrived at the offices of Knights, Amanda's solicitors in Tunbridge Wells. It read: "No evidence will be offered by the Crown in the case against your client." The trial was formally abandoned. Of course, the women were relieved. They were also very angry. From the moment of the murder, they had suffered a lengthy and harrowing ordeal. Now, they were suddenly deprived of their day in court, and their chance to rebut the innuendo. In fact, they realised that almost no one knew the full story.
This is their explanation of what happened. EastEnders was just starting at 7.30pm on that December day in 1996 when the telephone rang at Larches Farm House, Holtye Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex. Amanda turned the sound down and went to take the call. Robert Gater, her boyfriend, was calling from their flat in Chelmsford, asking how to cook mussels. Amanda wasn't sure, but said her father would be home imminently and he would be sure to know.
When she returned to the sitting room, she heard the distinctive engine of her father's TVR Chimera sports car. She heard him stop, open the five-bar gate and then drive down to the garage. She heard his footsteps along the path towards the front door. Then she heard something awful, "a loud sound, which I can only describe as being like a firecracker" - and her father's voice, "No, no, not again!"
There was another loud bang. She pulled back the curtains and saw, clearly illuminated by the security lights, a man wearing a black balaclava and holding a shotgun. Fearing that she would be seen, she dropped the curtain and ran to the phone, crying, "Oh, Mummy, something is terribly wrong, there's a man outside with a gun."
Linda, preparing dinner in the kitchen, had not heard her husband return home. Amanda dialled 999 and asked urgently for an ambulance. In their instantaneous panic and anxiety, the women failed to make themselves properly understood to each other, let alone to the emergency services. They became exasperated by what appeared to be the obtuseness of the operator, demanding to know what precisely was wrong. Linda, who had quickly seized the phone, did not actually know.
After some minutes, Amanda unlocked the French windows and went out on to the balcony. She saw Watson lying motionless on the ground. Having lost patience with the emergency services, Linda was calling friends. She rang Jane Daniels ("I could tell from the tone in her voice that Linda was terrified") and asked her husband, Colin, to come over. Having despatched Colin, Jane herself rang 999. She was told the police were already aware of the incident.
Colin arrived to find the telephone in continual use, with Linda shouting into it, "Why aren't you here?" He took the phone, and explained that they urgently needed police and an ambulance.
Robert's father, Ian Gater, having been summoned by Amanda, got there next, at six minutes past eight. He expressed disbelief that no emergency vehicles had arrived. "There's a police car parked just down the road." Gater drove back, only for the officer to tell him that the police were aware of the incident, but he was under orders not to leave his position. When he returned, Linda, utterly distraught, said, "Please go and help Richard." He went to the body, saw the gaping wounds, and knew nothing could be done. He briefly consoled Linda, before walking to the top of the drive to try to hasten the arrival of the police and ambulance.
The next car, however, brought his wife, Bernadette, and daughter, Sally. They, too, found it incredible that no official help had arrived; they had just passed two police cars and an ambulance parked nearby, along Holtye Road. Bernadette used her mobile to make yet another 999 call.
At last, a doctor's emergency car pulled into the drive. "We beckoned him in," said Gater, "but he immediately reversed out and drove off." Colin called them all back in to the house to help Linda and Amanda. Linda was saying, "Is he still there? Is he in the ambulance? Oh, please God, cover him up." Gater went outside to cover the body with a duvet. Finally, the police arrived.
"I saw the caps come over the wall," he recalled. "They were armed, they yelled at me to get into the house." It was, by then, 8.35, 50 minutes after the first 999 call was made. The police station was two or three minutes away from Larches Farm; the hospital was slightly nearer. "The police were there before us," explained Gater, "but, apparently, the risk was too great for them. They told us they didn't want another Hungerford. But they allowed us, the public, through."
The first CID officer to arrive asked, almost casually, "Is that the landlord lying outside?" Amanda recalled. "Mummy just screamed at him, 'No, that's my husband, her father.' The eyes rolled to the back of his head, and he said, 'Oh, shit'." Later, under armed escort, Linda and Amanda were taken to the nearby Copthorne Hotel. They were joined there by other family members. They all stayed together in one room. It was a long and miserable night.
Linda Millar was born in Glasgow in 1954. She achieved a measure of fame, becoming Miss Arbroath, and then runner-up as Miss Scotland. She became a model and, in 1973, married a well-known cabaret singer, Brian London-Williams. Both were local celebrities. Amanda was born in 1975, and the family moved south, but in 1979 the marriage fell apart, and London-Williams went to live and work in America. Linda knew of a dance school for Amanda in East Grinstead, so they moved there. At school, Amanda made friends with Emma and Catherine Watson, so enabling Richard and Linda to be introduced through their children.
Within ten days of their meeting, they were talking of marriage. Richard Watson was born in Surrey, in December 1941. He attended Caterham School, but his talents were practical rather than academic. His first love was motor cars. Having passed his driving test the day after his 17th birthday, he went to work for Ford's at Dagenham.
He subsequently became interested in computers, and worked for a company that was absorbed into Memorex. There, he rose to become managing director of sales. He enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle, and moored his cabin cruiser in Chichester harbour. He had two children, Julian and Charlotte, by his first marriage, which was dissolved in 1969. In 1970, Watson married his second wife, Sue. They had two daughters: Emma, born in 1975, and Catherine, in 1978. In 1982, they bought Larches Farm House. When Sue went off with another man, Richard obtained a Care And Control Order for his daughters.
The reception for his third wedding, to Linda, was held at the Gatwick Hilton on December 6, 1986. Larches Farm became a lively family home: of Richard and Linda's five children, only Charlotte never lived there. Julian moved out and qualified as a solicitor, Emma went to college, Catherine to university in Coventry and Amanda completed a course with Ballet Rambert.
In 1987, Richard was made redundant; however, the redundancy package enabled him to set up his own company, Trafalgar, to build and renovate mainframe computer systems. The first few years, in the teeth of the recession, were hard work but, with the support of all the family, Richard turned the business around. By 1993, he had several international contacts and was making a £1 million annual turnover.
Although their friends all attested that the marriage was solid, there were ups and downs. "Dad and Linda had fall-outs like any normal couple," explained Julian, "but I think they loved each other very much." In 1991 there was a major row, which prompted Linda to see a solicitor about a divorce. Almost exactly five years later, in June 1996, there was another, which led to Linda seeing the same solicitor about the same issue.
The marriage was under strain in two respects. First, Richard's sex-drive had waned. Second, Linda had become concerned about the estate. She had been told, by an indelicate financial adviser, that, legally, she didn't own a penny herself.
She realised that, should Richard die suddenly, not only would her own financial position be precarious, but the legacies for all the children would be very muddled.
The difficulties were soon resolved. Linda believed that all who had contributed to the success of the company should benefit in the event of Richard's death.
He agreed to make a will, and also to seek medical advice over his lack of libido.
Although he did seek medical advice, he never did make a will. "Somehow, it appeared not to matter so much," explained Jane Daniels, "once Linda had received Richard's assurance about how much she meant to him." On July 17, Linda wrote to the solicitor, explaining that the problems had been resolved. Arrangements for the will were agreed in principle but, at Linda's suggestion, deferred and pencilled in to sort out in the New Year.
Linda had booked a trip on the Orient Express as a surprise for Richard's birthday on December 14. At the beginning of the month, they had a few days together in Paris. Amanda agreed to stay at their house on the night of her parents' return; she would help out the following day with the weekly ballet class that Linda ran, and with wrapping the Christmas presents. In the evening, Amanda bought her supper from a local Chinese restaurant and, during the night, was violently ill and ended up staying at Larches Farm while she recovered. Without that Chinese takeaway, she wouldn't have been there the night that Richard was murdered.
In the wake of Richard's murder, it was not difficult for the family to suggest possible lines of inquiry. There had been a number of suspicious incidents over recent months. In November 1995, a car with two men in it had pulled in at the top of the drive. The men stared towards the house. Richard went out, spoke to them, and then the car drove off. When Richard returned, he'd said the men had "just broken down".
Then, there were two break-ins at Trafalgar's offices in East Grinstead. Some months after that, Watson, looking out of the office window, noticed a man acting suspiciously, walking up and down, talking into his mobile phone and apparently taking in car registrations. He seemed to jot down Richard's distinctive number-plate [P30 TVR]. He then got into a Transit van and drove away.
On November 18, 1996, as Richard was locking up, he was attacked from behind with a stun gun by two men in balaclavas, who knocked him to the ground. Although carrying a large amount of cash, he was not robbed. Local people chased the men off. Watson tried to pass it off with feigned bravado, but it clearly disturbed him.
"I know the stun-gun attack shook him up more than he admitted," said Linda.
There were, initially, three theories about why Richard had been killed. The first concerned Russia. Watson won a contract to supply the computer library system of the Moscow telephone exchange. Negotiations were not easy. Richard and Linda went to Moscow and were escorted everywhere by armed guards. They, in turn, entertained their Russian clients at Larches Farm. Richard sent out engineers to install the equipment. He inserted a chip in the computer that would enable him, in the event of the full payment not being made, to disable the system from England. At the time of the murder, there was about £40,000 outstanding on the deal, and he was pressing them for payment. In the current anarchy of corporate transactions in Moscow, businessmen have been killed for far less.
Richard had also invested £100,000 as an unsecured loan in a high-risk speculative project. He was thrilled at the idea of moving into venture capital, and told all his friends about his investment. The idea was to produce electricity from chicken litter. The Government encouraged the production of energy from renewable sources, and accordingly offered attractive inducements. If the scheme worked, the resulting electricity would be sold to the national grid at a favourable price.
Unfortunately, there seemed little possibility of this scheme working - mostly because of the dishonesty of Watson's contacts. Documentary evidence now available proves that Richard's investment was not used as capital for the business. Sixty per cent went to pay off accumulated debts; the rest was transferred, within three days, into two personal bank accounts.
Although Watson never knew this, he had learned that the company's assets (basically, the intellectual property in the scheme itself) had been transferred to a second company. The original company was then put into administration. He was effectively cut out of the deal. However, if the original company went into receivership, not only would the fraud come to light, but the whole enterprise would be scotched - and with it any chance of profit, or benefit from the millions of pounds' worth of subsidy from the Department of Energy. Richard contacted the administrators, and let it be known that at the next opportunity he would be pulling the plug on the whole affair. The next opportunity was a court hearing scheduled for Thursday December 12. So what, in the event, kept the venture afloat was Richard's murder 36 hours earlier.
The third theory of a motive for the murder concerned the break-ins at Trafalgar, as a result of which an East Grinstead man was arrested. He was due to stand trial in January 1997. Richard, of course, was a central witness against him. The man was an obvious suspect for the murder. Indeed, the police even went to his flat on the night of the murder. There, they found trainers, jogging bottoms and also a balaclava. He had no alibi, he refused to answer any questions, and his clothes were in the washing-machine. He had convictions for possession of firearms.
So the police had an unusually rich array of possible leads. But they concentrated on none of these. Instead, they focused their enquiries on the murdered man's widow and her 21-year-old daughter.
On the day after the murder, at the Copthorne Hotel, Linda was interviewed.
"I think that 12 hours of questioning directly after your husband's murder is excessive," she said, "but I was so anxious to help and find Richard's killer that I went along with it." Her main concern was for her daughter. "When I did see her, she was like a zombie. She couldn't talk. The police couldn't understand why I was so angry because of the way they were treating Mandy."
The incipient tension between the two bereaved women and the police was undoubtedly exacerbated by Linda's forthright manner. She believed that if the force had responded to the emergency more promptly, the family would have been spared some of their subsequent trauma and the gunman could have been apprehended. She was equally disparaging, vociferously so, about the way the investigation was pursued from then on. "I came unstuck with the police straightaway," conceded Linda, "because I criticised them. I know now that they don't like criticism, and they don't like strong women, so I was unpopular on both counts."
Linda sold the house where the murder had happened and moved into a new home. Almost immediately, on March 5, she and her daughter were arrested (by a total of 14 officers). At this point, they were able to get legal advice. Jeff Hide met his client, Amanda, in custody at Haywards Heath.
"I saw this 21-year-old girl in a state of near collapse. Throughout the five days of interviewing, the doctor had to be called on at least three occasions - she was having nosebleeds, she was shaking uncontrollably, unable to stop crying. Yet she insisted on answering questions because she wanted the police to find her father's murderer."
When Chris Lewis arrived at East Grinstead to see his client, Linda Watson, he was waylaid by the police. "They briefed me for a couple of hours, giving me a run-down of why they'd arrested Linda, which was essentially differing accounts between her and Amanda, the 999 calls and the trajectory of the shots. They also showed me Polaroid photographs of the body. Having digested all that, I went down to see Linda in the cells. She just struck me as a terrified, innocent woman. She was absolutely confused about why on Earth it was her who was under arrest in a police station."
She was questioned over three days. "It was all about the marriage, the family background and the business," said Lewis.
"It wasn't getting us anywhere in terms of a murder enquiry, but she was content to answer the questions. She had nothing to hide." Any innuendo, however malicious, had to be answered. It was put to Linda that she was having an affair at the time of her husband's death. She vigorously denied it. It was suggested to Amanda that if she'd acted differently on the night, her father could possibly have been saved. She was informed that the marriage of her mother and father was a total sham. She was told: "In the light of the knowledge that your father was having a relationship with another woman…"
There was no such "knowledge".
The two women were released without charge. Finally, the body was released for cremation. "I knew that in Scotland if there's been a death in suspicious circumstances, you're not allowed to cremate the body," said Linda. "So I asked the police, 'Is it all right?' and they said, 'Yes, go ahead.'" Richard Watson's funeral was held on May 24, 1997.
The next month, Cosmopolitan magazine carried a feature entitled Prime Suspects, about tearful relatives making televised appeals who turn out to be guilty themselves. It gave four examples of those awaiting trial - one was Linda Watson, who was not awaiting trial for anything. Then, she and Amanda were suddenly re-arrested.
It became clear that, having released them three months earlier, the police had continued to regard them as their quarry - indeed, had been keeping them under surveillance. In light of this, Linda and Amanda now regarded the release of Richard's body for cremation as a prosecution dirty trick. They had believed enquiries were concluded. A key point of any trial would concern where Richard was shot from, and the angle of penetration of the gunshot. Once his body was cremated, there was no opportunity for the defence to gather evidence via its own postmortem.
Following their arrests, the two women were remanded to Holloway prison. After two weeks, they were granted bail, but the terms were bizarre. The women could communicate neither with each other nor with potential witnesses (which included all their family and friends). Further, they were to live a considerable distance from the area and from each other, they had to report to the local police station each day, and they could not go out before 8am and had to return by 8pm. The two were finally freed - Linda to go to an aunt in Bournemouth, and Amanda to her grandmother's sister-in-law in Bolton.
The crux of the prosecution case was that Watson was shot from the balcony of the family home. Accordingly, the murderer must have acted with the support, and at the instigation, of the two women in the house. There was, however, no evidence that a gunman had either been admitted to the house or lain in wait on the balcony. Watson suffered two gunshot wounds, both severe; the first to the neck, and the second down into the chest. It was, unfortunately, impossible to determine which shot was fired first. Nor, as Dr Philip Alexander, the forensic scientist, pointed out, was it possible to say where each shot was fired from, as "it would depend on the position and posture of the victim at the moment of discharge". Further, another forensic scientist was asked to look for gunshot residue on the balcony, and reported back that there wasn't any.
Some months later, the police commissioned fresh reports from a different forensic scientist and a different pathologist. Dr Franco Tomei, the forensic scientist, agreed that the victim could have been shot from the balcony. Dr Peter Jerreat, the new pathologist, went further: "The most likely scenario was of the victim being shot from the balcony." It was after the latter had conducted the second postmortem, on May 19, that the body was released for cremation.
Significantly, Jerreat qualified his assessment by stating, "assuming that the range was acceptable"; he also added, "I would consider any other possibilities which might be put to me." For the moment, these caveats were ignored and, on the basis of these new opinions, the prosecution went ahead.
But why would Linda have wanted to arrange the murder of her husband? The amount that Linda would receive from Watson's death was far less than she could have got from a divorce settlement. And there was no motive at all for Amanda to have been involved; while Richard was intestate, she was not a beneficiary.
There were, amazingly, only two statements from local people relating to the time of the murder. One local woman said she heard what could have been a shot; she wasn't sure of the time, but said that EastEnders had started. Second, a woman who worked as an artificial inseminator was driving along the Holtye Road when she noticed a blonde girl standing on the footpath. Then she saw a man in a balaclava, carrying a sports holdall, jogging in her direction. Could the girl have been Amanda, waiting to rendezvous with the killer?
Jeff Hide located the woman who had made this statement. Even better, he found the blonde girl herself. She was not Amanda and she had nothing to do with the case - she was waiting for her boyfriend. Nor had she even noticed the man in the balaclava. The police, in fact, had already taken a statement from her, and hence knew all this. Yet the artificial inseminator's statement remained part of the prosecution bundle. She was listed as a Crown witness.
The prosecution had already carried out a series of reconstructions of the crime at the house. With the trial about to start, they carried out another, with the aid of two ballistics experts. It was then confirmed that, if the shots had been fired from the balcony, the distance would have been at least 50 per cent greater than the range originally postulated by Dr Alexander. The results of this reconstruction were explained to Crown counsel at 5pm. Within 30 minutes, the Crown case was aborted, apparently on the advice of its leading counsel, Julian Bevan QC. So the case was dropped on the basis of information that had been available to the prosecution from January 24, 1997.
On June 8, family and friends, all wearing white roses in their buttonholes to mark the innocence of the two women, attended the Old Bailey to witness the formal collapse of the case. The Daily Telegraph reported that the case had been dropped, despite the "strong disagreement" of the police. In court, Judge Michael Hyam, asked by the defence about costs, granted them "carte blanche". He said that the two women could leave court without a stain on their character.
"It was very scary," admitted Amanda. "We were very lucky with our defence team; and I think that Julian Bevan was courageous to do what he did. Another barrister may well have proceeded with the trial, and let the jury make up their minds."
What did happen? The most likely scenario is that the gunman hid by the front door. He confronted Watson, who tried to make an escape down the grass bank, shouted and was shot. If the second shot was fired as Watson was already falling to the ground, that would explain the downwards trajectory.
The story is by no means concluded. In the months since their acquittal, Linda and Amanda have been taking advice on possible legal action. "It's hard enough to have to cope with the death of somebody, especially in the way that it happened," said Linda, "but on top of that, to be put under such pressure by the police, and never to be shown any compassion, and for them to do that at the most vulnerable time in anybody's life, it was absolutely horrendous. That's the damage that will stay with us."
The affair highlights two issues: the shortcomings of the operational response of the police on the evening of the murder, and the inadequacy of their investigation of the murder. In the Stephen Lawrence affair, attention has focused on the in-built police racism in their response. What the Watson inquiry illustrates is a flawed investigative approach of the police that can affect any case. A "tunnel vision" mentality can develop where all energies are focused in one direction, and potentially fruitful avenues of inquiry are neglected. In murder cases where the police initially assume a "family" connection, too little account may be taken of the traumatised state of the newly-bereaved.
With regard to the entire case, a spokesman for Sussex police said, "There was certainly an issue about our response on the evening of the murder. There were problems. We would readily accept that not all was as it might have been. There were only two witnesses available to us in the immediate aftermath of the murder - the wife and the stepdaughter. There is an urgent need, in terms of the inquiry and ultimate justice, to gain whatever evidence is available at the earliest possible stage. It is a difficult, distressing, unpleasant fact that that's the police role. The case itself is open, as it always was. There is still an investigation to be brought to a conclusion."
"I appreciate they have a job to do," said Linda, "but to do what they did to Mandy and I, they should have had some evidence. If someone had arranged a murder, and paid for a hitman, would they actually give themselves no alibi and be at the scene? Would I have arranged everything to the extent of booking the trip on the Orient Express and wrapping his Christmas presents, but not have arranged an alibi? And not have arranged that the will was drawn up and signed? That's the whole stupidity of it."
On April 22, the inquest into the death of Richard Watson will be heard at Haywards Heath. Linda found out about it when it was reported in the local paper; no one had told her. She and the family are now pressing the coroner for a full inquest. "So many questions have been left unanswered," said Linda. "We need to have a full account of what happened that evening, we don't want it all swept under the carpet in five minutes."