Today I am delighted to publish a guest blog from my friend Paul, who will be better known to you all as True Crime Enthusiast. Follow him on twitter @tc_enthusiast and take a look at his fantastic blog, where using his excellent research skills and writing ability he expertly covers little known UK crimes, truecrimeenthusiast.wordpress.com
If you would like to hear the podcast of this story (also researched and written by Paul), please head to our podcast page, episode 16. Enjoy!
The Bogus Gasman
One of the most successful television programmes to have ever been broadcast on UK television is Crimewatch UK, a live show that is now entering its 33rd year of broadcasting. although the presenters have changed over the years, the format of the show has not. Its format is to show televised reconstructions, CCTV and general appeals of crimes UK wide that police are drawing a blank at solving, and invites viewers to call in with any information they may have concerning the crime. The aim of the programme is not for people to offer their own wild theories as armchair detectives, but to call in if they can genuinely help by providing information on a crime featured. Perhaps someone watching may just see a face that they recognise, details of a vehicle they know, or a sequence of events featured on that reconstruction. They then telephone in their information, either to the studio number or to the separate police incident room number dealing with the case in question.
In its long run, Crimewatch UK has been responsible for the successful detection of hundreds of crimes. Some of the most serious and high-profile crimes in British criminal history, crimes such as the notorious murder of Liverpool toddler James Bulger, the arrest and imprisonment of Michael Sams for the 1992 murder of Julie Dart and kidnapping of estate agent Stephanie Slater, and the apprehension of Kenneth Noye for the 1996 “M25 Road Rage” murder of Stephen Cameron have all been solved as a direct result of information stemming from a Crimewatch UK appeal. With such a successful track record, nowadays police forces across the UK willingly jump at the chance to have their appeals broadcast to a nationwide audience. But back in its early years, it didn’t always have this, Crimewatch often had to make its own appeals and sell itself, offering its help to detectives investigating crimes. One of its earliest success stories was such a case, one that highlighted just how fruitful a nationwide televised appeal could be – even from any part of the country, perhaps hundreds of miles away. This was the 1985 case of the “Bogus Gasman of Bristol”.
Thursday 18th July, 1985
Roy Page was sixty one years old in 1985 and had run a corner tobacconist and sweetshop in Bedminster since 1975. The shop was quite dilapidated by 1985, with chipped and peeling paint, swing doors cutting an angle across the corner, and the name PAGE set in peeling lettering across the shop window. Roy had been a widower since 1982, and lived alone at the back of the shop. He was popular and well liked in the area, known as a friendly and devoted family man who always had time for a chat with friends and neighbours who dropped in for cigarettes or groceries.
Ever since Roy’s wife Joan had died, Roy’s family had worried about him and had rallied around to care for him somewhat more, with his 86 year old mother cooking his daily meals, and his sister Shirley cleaning up and doing chores for him. Thursday July 18th 1985 was no different. Shirley had been around to clean up for Roy, and noticed that he had left the safe door open and that money had been left lying around. Shirley closed the safe and reminded him to be more careful, then left at about 4:15pm. About ninety minutes later, a friend and neighbour of Roy’s, Tom Coles, called at the shop to buy cigarettes and to have a chat, but found the shop door locked. When ten minutes had passed with still no sign of Roy, Tom began to feel uncomfortable. He knew that Roy was a diabetic and worried that he was perhaps ill. With his worry steadily increasing, Tom returned home and tried to telephone Roy, but got no answer. By now thoroughly alarmed, Tom returned to Roy’s shop with another neighbour. By now quite a crowd of worried people were outside the shop, and several people hammered on the door and shouted through the letterbox for Roy, but with no response. A few minutes later, Roy’s son Brian and his friend Stephen had arrived, and Stephen climbed over the rear wall to see if he could get in through the back door. He was back a couple of minutes later to report that the back door was locked, all of the windows were closed, and the curtains drawn. Knowing that his father never drew the curtains, Sensing that something was seriously wrong, Brian flagged down a passing police patrol car.
The murder of Roy Page
The police officer, Brian and Stephen forced open the shop doors and were immediately met with the overpowering smell of gas. Inside, they found Roy lying slumped half in and half out of the hall cupboard under the stairs. Clearly dead, Roy been beaten severely around the head and had had a gag forced brutally down his throat. After making Brian and Stephen leave the house, both for safety and scene preservation, the police officer went to turn off the gas. Every gas appliance in the house had been turned on, and by some miracle, the pilot light on the gas cooker had gone out – if it hadn’t, there would have been a tremendous explosion. Making his way out, the police officer requested assistance to the scene.
The investigation begins
Very soon an ambulance arrived, followed by detectives, scene of crime officers, forensic experts, and squads of police officers who began to undertake house to house enquiries. An incident room run from Broadbury Road police station was opened, and command of the investigation was given to Detective Superintendent Lew Clark and his deputy, Detective Inspector Bryan Saunders of Avon and Somerset Police. It was soon established that robbery had been the motive for Roy’s murder, as some £2000 had been taken. But Roy’s killer had been careless, leaving behind two vital clues at the crime scene. The first was a grey sponge earpiece from a type of headphones used to listen to a Walkman or a transistor radio, but the second clue was much more damning. Some unidentified fingerprints were found on an empty chemist’s bag in the kitchen that had contained a prescription for Roy, and it was possible that the killer had touched the bag when he picked up the cloth that had been forced down Roy’s throat.
A conspicious killer
As the investigation progressed, with house to house enquiries expanding to other areas of Bristol, further evidence came to light. Several people spoken to gave accounts of seeing a man that police soon became convinced was Roy’s killer. He had been far from inconspicuous on the day of the murder and had seen and spoken to several people throughout that day. He was described as being tall, dark haired and heavily built, wearing headphones and carrying a Walkman or possibly a calculator – some witnesses simply described it as being a black box. He was dressed in dark blue overalls, and some witnesses described him as wearing spectacles attached to his head with elastic bands, while others mentioned him wearing a brown woollen hat. But what was unanimous amongst all who had spoken to the man was that he claimed to be a gas official looking for gas leaks in the area – and he had a very rich, very strong Welsh accent.
Mrs Perkins and the blue-lined underpants
The man had seemed to focus his attention upon tobacconists and sweetshops throughout the city, being noticed in at least three on the morning of the murder in the Horfield area of north Bristol. By the afternoon he had moved down to the Bedminster area. Crucially, he was spotted several times outside or very near Roy Page’s shop. Maureen and Elizabeth Gerrish were two elderly sisters who lived in nearby Hill Avenue, and at about 4:00pm that afternoon their doorbell rang. They opened the door to the bogus gasman, who enquired if they had any gas leaks. As they talked, Elizabeth noticed that the man’s overalls had come undone and that he was wearing white underpants with thin blue piping along the waistband. They had no leaks, but a friend of theirs had – and so they directed the man to a Mrs Perkins a few doors away down towards the junction of Hill Avenue and Almorah Road.
Mrs Perkins had indeed been concerned about a possible gas leak in her kitchen, and when he arrived at once invited the man inside to investigate. He did find a leak, but this seemed to cause him problems because he had no repair equipment. Suddenly, and this was to become crucial later on in the investigation, he began to sweat profusely and gasp for breath. He leaned on the kitchen sink as though he was going to pass out and needed to support himself, and asked for a glass of water. Mrs Perkins, concerned, tried persuading him to stay, but the man made excuses, gulped his water, and hurriedly left. Roy Page’s shop was on the corner of Almorah Road and St John’s Lane, so the bogus gasman must have gone straight there. He was seen sometime between 4:30pm and 5:00pm by two paperboys who were convinced that he was arguing with Roy outside the building. Shortly after 5:00pm a woman walking opposite the shop saw the man follow Roy into the shop. And at 6:15pm, a man walking home from work saw someone coming out of the side door to the shop. The description matched all of the others – heavily built, dark hair, wearing glasses – but this time, he was without overalls and was carrying a jacket in his hand.
Crimewatch reconstructs the crime
At this point in the investigation, Crimewatch UK stepped in. A show researcher had seen appeals about Roy’s murder mentioned in local press, and a Crimewatch film director contacted the murder incident room offering the programme’s help, to which police jumped at the chance. A few days later, after Roy’s family had given permission, filming on a full scale televised reconstruction began. On August 29th 1985, just six weeks after Roy’s murder, twelve million people nationwide watched the reconstruction and heard Lew Clark appeal for information.
But Lew Clark was left disappointed. By the end of the evening there had been surprisingly few calls, with only one of significance. The caller lived in Bedminster but had been away on holiday at the time that the case had been publicised, but had called to say that at about 5:15pm on the day of the murder she had visited Roy’s shop to buy sweets for her daughter. She found the shop closed, and peering through the glass doors of the shop suddenly saw a man appear near the counter, whose description matched that of the bogus gasman. The man had placed his hands against his cheek and mouthed the words, “He’s asleep”. The woman had then left. Although this was important fresh evidence, because the woman had seen the killer at the crime scene, it brought police no nearer to catching him. It looked as though Crimewatch UK was going to be a white elephant, and Lew Clark was faced with the only line of enquiry left to him, a painstaking search of fingerprints on index cards that may have taken months.
Events progress to Portsmouth
But a week after the Crimewatch programme was broadcast, there was a new turn of events. On Friday September 6th, the bogus gasman took a day trip down to the south coast of England, to Portsmouth. Seemingly unaware that millions of people had seen him portrayed in a TV reconstruction just one week before, he began to behave much the same way as he had in Bedminster on the day of Roy’s murder. He was dressed the same, and repeated the pattern of visiting small shops in the city’s Fratton district.Here he disturbed one woman serving in a local SPAR supermarket so much that she thought he had escaped from the local mental hospital. He wandered around the shop in Chichester Road for a while, eventually buying a frozen steak meal but instead of leaving lingered by the door, acting strangely. However, he eventually left when other customers came into the shop.
A goose chase
Thirty minutes later he was seen further down Chichester Road loitering outside a small newsagents. The witness who saw him, Stephen Harfield, was driving past and stopped the car to watch the man’s behaviour in the car wing mirror. The man was acting strangely outside the shop, as though debating whether to go in or not. Stephen had seen the Crimewatch reconstruction, and after watching the suspicious behaviour for a few minutes decided to call police from a nearby public telephone box. He was one of six people in Portsmouth that day to ring police and report the bogus gasman acting suspiciously, but each time police followed up the call the man had disappeared.
He was then seen about 45 minutes later strolling into a park, by another viewer of the Crimewatch reconstruction. Colin Weaver was looking after his nieces the night of the programme, and the children had been playing with the TV remote, changing the channels whilst it was airing. Although he had seen little of the reconstruction, something triggered Colin’s memory.Following his instincts, Colin followed the man into the park. Trailing him from a distance, Colin watched the bogus gasman wander over to a mound at the side of a playground, sit down and lay back basking in the warm September sun. Thinking that the man would stay there for a while, Colin went to the nearest telephone box and called police. Police Constable Peter Green had responded already that afternoon to several calls about this man, but every time arrived too late. He was determined that the suspect would not get away this time, and headed to the park with added impetus. When he arrived, the man was still there, reclining on the grass verge with shoes beside him without a care in the world. He didn’t seem fazed at all by being approached by PC Green.
Taken to the police station
Questioned as to his identity and business, the man identified himself as Clive Richards, adding that he was a professor. Firstly he came from London, and then Reading in the next breath. He claimed that he was a professor of Nonetology and Totetology, employed by the Department of Environment doing a top secret conservation study. He claimed that he had been in London surveying the homeless population, and was visiting Portsmouth that day to continue his studies. That was why, he claimed, that he was dressed like he was – to blend in amongst that community. Richard’s rambling and confusing story didn’t seem to sit right with the officer, and coupled with the fact that he strongly matched the description of the bogus gasman – even down to the strong Welsh accent – he asked Richards to accompany him to the police station for further questioning. Richards was more than willing, only concerned that he was back in time to catch his evening train. He was assured that he would be delivered to the platform personally, and the two men set off for Kingston Crescent police station.
Detectives from Bristol summoned
Upon arrival at the police station, PC Green decided to search Richards’ bag, and removed several items that enflamed his suspicions further. In the bag were several bottles of pop, some rubber gloves, a Walkman, and a pair of white underpants with blue piping around the waistband. There was also a heavy iron bar, and a sheath knife. Richards was unabashed when asked why he was carrying such weapons, claiming that these were for protection whilst he was carrying out his surveys. Referring to a telex that had been circulated by Crimewatch UK following the reconstruction that had a full description of the bogus gasman, PC Green was by this time convinced that they had the right man sat in front of them, and telephoned the Bristol incident room to inform them. The murder investigating team receiving the call were euphoric, and told PC Green to keep his man there at all costs. Detectives were immediately despatched to Portsmouth.
Charged with murder
The investigating team deputy senior investigating officer, Detective Inspector Bryan Saunders, journeyed down on a three hour drive from Bristol to Portsmouth, all the while thinking, “Is this too good to be true? This man matches the descriptions we already have from witnesses perfectly”. Upon arrival, he was first struck by the array of items removed from Richards’ bag – especially the underpants that matched the description given by the Gerrish sisters. When he went into the interview room, he was instantly struck by how perfect a match physically that Richards was to the witnesses descriptions of the bogus gasman. Even down to his strong Welsh accent. But for Bryan Saunders, the moment he became convinced that he had his killer in front of him was when he identified himself to Richards as a detective from Avon and Somerset Constabulary. DI Saunders told Richards that he was arresting him on suspicion of the murder of Roy Page – and Richards immediately began to sweat profusely and ask for water. Exactly as Mrs Perkins had described the bogus gasman as doing. Richards kept gulping from a bottle of water all the way back to Bristol, denying that he had killed Roy Page and maintaining that he hadn’t even been in Bristol on the day Roy Page was murdered. The following morning, after Richards had spent the night in a cell at Broadbury Road Police station, his fingerprints were taken. They perfectly matched the fingerprints that had been taken from the paper chemist’s bag that had been found in Roy Page’s shop. Richards was also placed on identity parades at a separate police station, where eight out of ten witnesses who had seen the bogus gasman picked him out unhesitatingly. As he was taken back to Broadbury Road police station, Detective Inspector Saunders deliberately drove past Roy Page’s shop to see Richards’ reactiont. When asked if he had ever been there, Richards replied that he never had. Upon returning to Broadbury Road, Richards was charged with the murder of Roy Page, and remanded in custody awaiting trial.
Who was Clive Richards?
Whilst Richards was on remand awaiting trial, detectives worked through the evidence they had obtained and came to know a vast amount about his life. He seemed to be an extraordinary man, one who lived in a world that was largely make-believe. Indeed, it was difficult to work out to what extent Richards himself believed in the fabricated stories that he created. He was born in Port Talbot in Wales in 1950, and although he had an extremely high IQ, had left school without qualifications. Remaining at home with his parents, brother and sister, he had driven the mobile shop that was the major part of his families ice cream and confectionary business. Encouraged by his parents to branch out the business, he expanded the range of stock in the shop and bought a fleet of six more vehicles. In doing so, however, the business was left badly into debt, eventually owing more that £10,000 and leaving Richards in desperate need of capital. Here, his Walter Mitty type character kicked in, and he invented a host of acquaintances, colleagues, business contacts, friends and job offers in an effort to convince his father that he was successful and able enough to repay back the money. In reality, he was sinking deeper into debt, and was hiding from bailiffs and repossession companies – so the option he chose was retreat into his fantasy world. Richards told his family the tall tale that he was earning extra cash as a professor working for a secret society in the field of “nenetics”, and it may even be the case that Richards himself truly believed that he was a professor studying Nonetology and Totetology – but there are no such subjects. They were complete figments of Richards’s imagination.
Clive Richards entered a not guilty plea at his trial for the murder of Roy Page in April 1986, and listened attentively to the numerous witnesses called throughout the eight day trial. Various witnesses who had seen him in Bristol that day, and subsequently identified Richards from identity parades were called and gave evidence for the prosecution as to what they had seen. The investigating officers gave evidence as to the circumstances of Richards’ arrest, and the evidence placing him at the scene of the crime was outlined. Scribbling furiously on a notebook he had by his side, he at times shook his head in denial or disbelief whilst witnesses were giving evidence. A psychiatrist from Broadmoor Secure Hospital gave evidence that Richards’ fantasies for working in the field of “nonetics” were the results of a mental illness. Dr Harvey Gordon had examined Richards during his time on remand, and said of Richards:
“On balance, I think he is suffering from severe mental illness, normally known as chronic schizophrenia” – Dr Harvey Gordon
Richards did not plead insanity, and nor was one entered on his behalf. But evidence of his flair for a fantasy life came when he took the stand in his own defence. For over five hours whilst in the witness box, Richards spoke articulately and claimed he was not guilty throughout, but each time he was presented with evidence that contradicted this claim, launched into stories that were so complex and bizarre that they became incredulous to believe and impossible to follow. At points throughout the proceedings, it sometimes became difficult to envisage that the man in the dock was nothing more than a fantasist and was incapable of being a brutal killer. But ultimately the jury saw through the fantasy and found the wealth of evidence proving Richards’ culpability overwhelming. On 7th May 1986, Clive Richards was found guilty of the murder of Roy Page unanimously by the jury. The presiding judge, Mr Justice Rose, passed a sentence of life imprisonment upon him and pronounced this considered view of Richards’ crime:
“You are a clever, arrogant and dangerous man. Had it not been for the observation and prompt action of a number of inhabitants of Portsmouth I fear you would have committed other very grave offences which you had already planned” – Mr Justice Rose
He was then taken down to start his life sentence. Lew Clark, the officer who led the hunt for Roy’s killer, was in agreement with Mr Justice Rose: After Richards’ sentencing, Mr Clark said:
“I quite agree with the judge’s remarks there. Think of the way he was armed when he was arrested. He had a heavy iron bar and a sheath knife in his bag – why did he have that lot? I haven’t any doubt myself that he was out to commit robbery at least that day. And if opposed, he would have used as much violence as necessary to achieve his ends. That’s my opinion. That will always be my opinion” – Det Supt (Ret’d) Lew Clark
It is impossible to pinpoint why Clive Richards went to Bristol that day in July 1985, and why he targeted Roy Page’s shop. Why he chose to make himself so inconspicuous whilst in the area, and why a strong man of thirty five years of age felt the need to use such violence against an elderly man remains a mystery known only to Richards himself. He never admitted why, instead constantly denied his guilt despite the overwhelming evidence. Perhaps admitting and accepting guilt does not fit in too well within the fantasy worlds that the Walter Mitty character in him likes to live in. Would Richards have committed a similar crime in Portsmouth that day if he hadn’t been apprehended? It seems very likely that he would have done if it hadn’t been for the actions of some sharp eyed viewers that had tuned in to a fledgling television programme. It was a major success for the programme and one that helped cement its future as not only a staple of British television, but as a proven useful detective tool also.
Long may it continue.
The True Crime Enthusiast.