It's a Guy Thing

Murder He Wrote

Normalizing the abnormal

By Ian Kirke

Twitter @ianjkirke

As a rookie cop, there were many times when I felt vulnerable. Pub fights, large scale public disorder and high-speed pursuits were the usual suspects. The first couple of events rarely had any rules and I was always mindful that an errant punch could deprive me of my prominent, but nonetheless cherished, front teeth.

Having been mistakenly deployed to the miners’ strike in the early eighties, when the Kirke without an ‘e’ should have gone instead, as a wet behind the ears twenty-one-year-old I can still remember the picket lines of men as old as my dad baying for our blood. ‘Maggie’s Stormtroopers’ was a label that was snarled virtually every time I left the protected carrier, a modified 3-litre Ford transit.

Pursuits, or annoyingly referred to as ‘follows’ by the control room, were OK if I was driving but as a passenger, it was a completely different experience, as my arse would chew the seat at every bend in the road and howling through a red light was often like a game of chicken.

Then there was the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) office. The home of the seasoned detectives who could smell the blood of a raw recruit woodentop from miles away. Truly terrifying! Even after a few promotions, the CID office was still a daunting place to enter as a uniformed officer. The next step up was the shock and awe of an Incident Room which would be occupied by the crème de la crème of the detective breed, very often investigating a murder.

Murder can evoke several emotional reactions: horror, intrigue, and despair to name but a few. Media is dominated by the characterization of the perpetrators, classification of their mental states and the timelines of their offending. 

The classic whodunnit has entertained the masses for generations. Murderers become household names and they can very often become the only headline feature. Gruesome icons who commit the ultimate crime. Yet in reality, of the murderers I met when they were locked up in the police cells pre-charge or on remand being ferried to and from court, none of them could be considered as displaying any notable dark charisma. Indeed, they were ordinary-looking and very often pathetic creatures. However, my fascination, distilled over many years after I left the police, centered upon those special human beings who brought these vile specimens to justice. Especially as I had yet to reconcile the professional admiration I had for those colleagues that were still wrapped up in a lattice of emotional discourse, which had festered for decades. 

The typical media characterization of a murder squad detective ranged from, at one extreme, Inspector Clouseau to the hard as nails Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, played so convincingly by Helen Mirren. In order to settle the debate in my head, I needed to understand where a real-life murder detective was on that continuum. My early presumptions had interfered with my understanding of what human traits it took to be a murder squad detective. The contradictions that may exist, for example, between hope (that a missing person may be found) and the hopelessness (when experience suggests otherwise)? How the hell could they close their eyes and get a good night’s sleep? The questions came thick and fast. There was only one way to allay these thoughts although as I mapped out the gaps in my knowledge it became abundantly clear that my own criminal justice background was bound to thwart the inquiry. Try as I could, process questions dominated at the expense of those, pardon the pun, killer questions that would eke out the human being. The one behind the, no doubt, bogus portrayals of chain-smoking, whisky gargling loners in shabby raincoats, engulfed in chaotic private lives yet with the ability to wrap up a complex murder investigation like a skilled violinist. So, I appealed to a sample group of my Facebook friends who I knew had no policing background whatsoever and enquired of them what questions they would choose to ask a murder squad detective. This approach provided me with the much needed dispassionate innocence that would help me portray the real life of a murder squad detective and help me better understand a role that I never truly discovered even though I was often working within the same building.

@Ian Kirke

I am indebted to a special human being who collaborated with my journey; without him this commentary would have lacked any form of depth, direction, or distinction. Holding the police rank that has become synonymous with the investigation, detection and conviction of murderers cross the country: Detective Inspector, or colloquially and with immediate respect by every warranted officer: DI.

A man of character who not only opened up his notebook, his personality and passion but the same one who framed the title: Murder he wrote: Detective Inspector John Finch.

What career path led you to being head of the murder squad? It was something I had always wanted to do. Formally I was an engineer living in Manchester after leaving University there, and I wasn’t enjoying the challenges.

One of the guys in the office was a special (volunteer police officer) with Greater Manchester Police, and he seemed to be having fun so I applied to join the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) that covers the majority of London; for me the obvious choice as I was a southerner with a lot of friends still down there, and also the opportunities the MPS offered given it’s the biggest service in the country. I joined in 1995 and moved to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) as quickly as I could. It was incredibly competitive back then and not like today where we have a massive shortage of detectives. From the CID I went to the Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS) dealing with deaths in custody, police shootings, and any other deaths where there was police involvement, for example, police vehicle pursuits. Here I trained as an exhibits officer going to all of the post-mortems to find the cause of death, and seek forensic opportunities.

I was one of the exhibit officers following the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes (mistakenly shot by police after he was wrongly identified as a member of a terrorist cell involved in failed bombing attempts two-weeks after the London bombings of July 7th 2005), and went to his post-mortem, a pretty unforgettable experience. I also trained as a Family liaison officer, and did a number of Home Office Large Major Enquiry System (affectionally known as HOLMES after the famous Conan Doyle detective) computer-based courses. From there I was promoted onto the murder review unit as a Detective Sergeant reviewing unsolved murders, and making new recommendations to solve them.

I was invited back to the DPS, and carried on investigating the same incidents before being asked to head up the enquiry into the mishandling of the corporate American Express card by police officers. Over £2M was unaccounted for, and over a hundred police officers were investigated with several being sent to prison for theft and fraud. I was subsequently promoted onto the murder squad as a Detective Inspector in 2009, and spent a little over five incredible years managing investigations into around thirty murders.

What are your easiest and most difficult cases to date? There were several straightforward investigations where the suspect had been arrested shortly after, and had admitted to killing the victim but they were usually where the suspect claimed to have some form of mental illness and were therefore only guilty of manslaughter (a lesser sentence). They were easier insofar that we didn’t have a killer walking the streets of London, but we still had to present the evidence and ensure that we had a watertight case.

As for the trickiest, I will cite the murder of Geeta Aulakh, November 2009, in Greenford. An awful case that took us over a year of just working on this case to get all four defendants to court, including the husband who had given himself a solid yet contrived alibi.

When there are absolutely no clues to a suspect where do you start your investigation? There is always somewhere to start. If we look at the victim and how they led their life that will usually provide some detail into how they died. This approach is called victimology. Also, who found them, what does the victims phone tell us; has the victim got a criminal history; what do their family and friends tell us; what do the neighbors say?

What’s the most unusual case you’ve had? The murder of William John Saunderson Smith in 2012. He was a recluse with no friends and no family who made millions by developing properties to rent to antipodeans. He would rip off the tenants and the builders, was extremely mysterious, and at the time of his death had sixty-eight mobile phones in his house that he would use for a few weeks to deceive tenants or builders, and then discard them. When he was killed we recovered over £440,000 in cash lying about his house in uncounted bundles. Needless to say, we had significant motives, and eventually we found one mobile record that showed a flicker of emotion to a text message since it finished with an ‘X’.

When we looked at who that text was sent to it was a polish builder named Dawid Rymar who had been working for him and he had left the country within a few hours of John’s death. We looked into Dawid and it all came together and two of his friends were also implicated. Dawid was invited back to the UK, and such was his arrogance that he returned and was subsequently arrested. Dawid and his two friends were each sentenced to life imprisonment, the mandatory sentence, with a minimum sentence of 30 years. He’ll not get any time off for good behavior, and won’t be eligible for release until he has served the full sentence.

How much do the murder detective TV shows and films run true to real-life murder investigations? You can tell the ones that have had an input from a police officer who has worked on a murder team. Usually in the TV shows there is a board with suspects faces on and maps, etc, but this just isn’t the case in real life; it’s just an office with lots of paperwork scattered about the place and a few computers dotted about. Usually we have several murders being investigated simultaneously and having these bits and pieces on boards would just be confusing. Personally, Silent Witness is the worst offender. It’s great television but bares no relation to reality at all.

Typically, a pathologist will give a cause of death, if you’re incredibly lucky, and a huge invoice before leaving, and heading onto their next case! On occasions, I’ve shown them knives that we have found when we haven’t got any workable fingerprints or DNA, and asked them if they think it’s the murder weapon but often they aren’t certain and their reports use words such as ‘could’, and ‘might’ which isn’t great when you’re trying to prove a case beyond all reasonable doubt. They certainly don’t direct investigation teams, although I’m sure that one or two of them would like to!

How do you sleep at night? Great question! It depends; In the early days of a murder investigation, very poorly as my head is spinning with a multitude of things to do. I used to sleep with a pad and pen next to me so I could write things down. This was a strategy they never taught me at Detective school but got handed down by my predecessors, and it worked for me.

I used to do a week on-call every seven weeks for any murder that happened across London; that was usually a very busy week with very little sleep, not because of the number of murders but because I would get called a lot for advice with the underlying hope that our team would take it on. It is madness that in London if there is a murder you get a team of twenty to twenty-five detectives whose only job it is to find the killer, yet if that same person was to survive through the wonders of medical science, they just get one or two local Detectives to investigate along with their other workload.

How do you prevent your work life bleeding into your personal life? I’m lucky, my wife is great, and extraordinarily supportive. She can be curious, and I’ll summarize events for her and try and make light of things as best I can and never go into the full detail. Policing and the things I’ve seen and done has definitely changed me as a person and made me a bit numb to some of the things that sadly go on and I don’t want to expose her to this madness that we have to confront

Would a woman going through menopause get a lighter sentence? Possibly. If they managed to persuade the jury that they killed due to diminished responsibility caused by the menopause, and this was supported by expert evidence then they would be convicted of manslaughter, not murder. The benefit to this is that a suspect would only serve half of their sentence under current Criminal Justice guidelines, so even if you were sentenced to ten years for manslaughter you would only serve five. Also deducted from this would be any time spent on remand as an un-convicted prisoner which is doubled. In summary, if you were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years imprisonment, but had spent six months on remand you could be out of prison in four years.

Do you receive regular counseling? No. It is available to those that want it, but I never did. I have a great wife and a good network of friends outside of the police that keeps me relatively balanced in life.

Is there such a thing as the perfect murder? If there was I wouldn’t know! Looking at the amount of people that go missing every year that are never found, set against the known murder figures suggests that yes there is.

However, to get away with murder you have to either plan it meticulously or be spontaneous and unbelievably lucky. Most murders are impulsive and unplanned, and the killer therefore leaves a ‘footprint’ such as witnesses, phone evidence, forensic evidence, or CCTV. Did you know that London is second only to Beijing in having the most CCTV cameras? Beijing has approximately four-hundred and ninety thousand cameras, whilst London has just over four hundred thousand. The third is Washington DC with thirty thousand. Again, if it’s planned then there will be a behavioral footprint, for example if you switch your mobile phone off, at the time of the murder, then this odd behavior can be used in evidence.

Was there ever a humorous moment in your job? The term gallows humor exists for a reason. There is a lot of fun in the police in general, usually laughing at the misfortune of your colleagues particularly if they vomit at a crime scene which I have seen!

How do you switch off? I don’t think that you do. This is just the job we all do and it’s something we aspire to. It is not a role that you do unwillingly. Often there would be a debrief over a pint or two, but longer-term as I say, I’m lucky with my friends and family.

What percentage of your cases were solved? In London, we had a target of 85% which for me is 15% too low. When I was on the murder teams we ran at about 97% success rate, and luckily for me, we had a great team and collectively we managed to solve all of the ones we were asked to investigate. I often speak to old colleagues who had one that they never solved, and it does get to them, which is a shame.

Were you ever involved in a serial killer case? Although by literal definition John Sweeney wasn’t a serial killer (that is characterized as three or more victims) he was, nonetheless, suspected as meeting this maxim. I came in at the end of that investigation. He killed a woman in the UK and Holland, and probably elsewhere on the continent. A horrible and dangerous man who sketched out what he was going to do and had done. He was a kind of ‘Auf Wiedersehen pet’ character and traveled extensively in Europe. There are more victims I’m sure, but he’ll probably be in prison forever and is one of only forty-two prisoners that have, thus far, been handed a whole life sentence.

What was the most infamous case you ever worked on? The double murder of Tibor Vass and Alice Adams. This was during the London riots of 2011. Tibor was a young man from Hungary and worked at a hotel in Heathrow. Also working there was a slightly older Hungarian man named Attila Ban. They asked to live together as they spoke the same language and got on well.

Ban was gay and took a shine to Tibor, but he had started a relationship with Alice, a young woman who also worked at the hotel. One evening Tibor brought Alice back to the flat he was sharing, and the following day both Tibor and Alice don’t show up for work whilst Ban went missing, although believed still to be in London. Staff entered the flat and found Tibor and Alice dead. We had this investigation passed to us twenty-four hours later as the other team had other ‘early-stage’ murders to investigate and I’ll never forget the crime scene. Alice had been stabbed several times and left in a corner. Tibor had also been stabbed to death and was lying on his back on a double bed. The bath was full of bloodied water with a hairdryer close by, and there were drag marks to the bed.

Whoever had killed them looked as though they had taken a bath with Tibor and used the hairdryer to try and electrocute themselves. This had failed and so they had moved Tibor onto the bed. Given how we harvest the forensic opportunities it was another twenty-four hours before we were able to remove the bodies to the mortuary.

The post-mortems were about to start when I had a telephone call informing me that they had found Ban inside the flat. It transpired that he had hidden himself inside the divan base and had been present the whole time. He had taken a knife and water with him, and only when the bodies had been removed did he surface. Ban got twenty-six years for murder despite claiming to have an ‘abnormality of the mind’. We still don’t know exactly what went on in that flat, and he claimed not to remember in order, I suspect, to help his defense. Reflecting back, I’d not want anybody to have done anything differently. Whilst the laypersons say we should have looked under the bed, he was actually in it with Tibor on top of it. Had we started moving the bed about we could have lost valuable forensics. A truly horrific and bizarre case.

How do you manage to keep an open mind when all the fingers point to the person you are investigating? It’s not personal to us that someone has been killed and so keeping an open mind isn’t as hard as you might think. In the detective world the golden rules are that you ‘go where the evidence takes you’ and the ABC of detective work; namely, Accept nothing, Believe nobody and Challenge everything.

What’s the first thing you do when you find the body? Phone my wife and tell her I’ll be home as soon as I can be! I’m serious!

In wrapping up I wish I hadn’t been so nervous of my CID colleagues, particularly in those early days. Yet one thing I realize is that the role of murder squad detective would never have been for me, given the necessary and continuous intrusions into my family life. I am honored to know a few, and John Finch epitomizes the best in class.

As the anchor of the UK Crimewatch series for many years, Nick Ross would say, “Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.”

© Ian Kirke 2020