James Hanratty 1961
The Murder of Michael Gregsten and the rape and shooting of Valerie Storie began a train of events that were to involve John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the reporter Paul Foot and the Stevonia Fish and Chip Shop on Blackpool’s Central Drive.
Michael Gregsten (36) and Valerie Storie (23) were having an affair. On the 22 August 1962 at 9.30pm they were in a cornfield when a well-dressed gunman abducted them After driving for 60 miles and pulling up a layby on Deadman’s Hill on the A6, the gunman shot Michael Gregsten dead and raped and shot Valerie Storie who survived by pretending to be dead. She was paralysed from the waist down.
An initial suspect was Peter Alphon. Peter Alphon and James Hanratty were staying at the Vienna Hotel before the murder was committed. The confusion around the case was increased by the fact that the hotel manager, called William Nudds, was an extraordinarily villainous criminal of stratospheric unreliablility. If William Nudds ever told the truth it was by accident.
Spent cartridges from the murder weapon were discovered in a sofa in the hotel room two days after the murder. However these cartridges must have been there before the murder.
The gun was found hidden in the back seat of a 36a bus. Helpfully William Nudds later recalled that James Hanratty had asked him the way to the 36a bus route.
Peter Alphon was named as a suspect. He rather made himself a suspect by attacking a woman and saying: “I am the A6 murderer.” Peter Alphon was a drifter, a Hitler admiring occultist, a gambler. In an identification parade Valerie Storie did not identify him and identified an innocent person. It is interesting to think that if she had identified Peter Alphon he would probably have been hanged. Attention focused on James Hanratty who had been staying at the Vienna Hotel under the name Ryan. James Hanratty came from a tightly knit and loving family. He may have suffered from dyslexia and his parents had been advised to put him in a Special School. They refused. He was remembered as being slow but not at all bad. He left school unable to read. He gave up his first job after falling off his bike and being unconscious for twelve hours. After this accident his behaviour deteriorated and he fell in with an underworld figure called Bill France. He drifted into a world of burglary and car theft at which he was a roaring failure. He was a natty dresser.
When James Hanratty was named as a suspect he went on the run and rang up the investigators and newspapers to deny his guilt. .
On 11 October he travelled from Liverpool to Blackpool. At 11.15 pm he was having a meal in the Stevonia Fish and Chip Restaurant on Central Drive when Detective Constables James Williams and Albert Stillings popped in for a cup of coffee. They said they had been chatting to ladies of the night on Central Drive.
You can still eat at the Stevonia Fish and Chip Shop guessing which table James Hanratty used. You may see ladies of the night patrolling Central Drive.
James Hanratty maintained his innocence but damaged his case by changing his alibi during the trial. His first claim was that he had been in Liverpool at the time of the murder, but he later claimed that he was in Rhyl. He was able to give very convincing details about his visit to Rhyl.
Valerie Storie identified James Hanratty but at the time he had dyed his hair red and stood out. She had hardly seen him and she asked the people in the line-up to say a phrase; “Shut up I’m thinking.” James Hanratty was the only person with a cockney accent.
There were numerous anomalies in the Prosecution Case. Peter Alphon had not got an alibi. The killer appeared a poor driver whereas Hanratty was an experienced driver. Strangest of all how did Hanratty, a town boy, happen to stumble across Gregsten and Storr in a cornfield. How did James Hanratty get there? If he had used a stolen car the car would have been found.
Charles France a former friend of Hanratty, gave evidence that James Hanratty had said that a good place to hide things was under the back seat of a bus. Charles France started getting hate telephone calls, almost certainly from Peter Alphon. He also suffered from depression and he committed suicide before Hanratty’s execution.
Peter Alphon campaigned against the execution and over the years confessed to the crime.
The jury took a long time to reach a verdict. James Hanratty’s change of alibi was probably the critical factor.
James Hanratty was hanged at Bedford Prison. The executioner was Walter Allen who later after he retired as a hangman gave out change on Fleetwood Pier.
There was disquiet at the time. It was felt by many that the evidence was not overwhelming. James Hanratty’s family and especially his father and mother were stoical, dignified working-class people.
The case attracted Paul Foot, the journalist and Private Eye contributor and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Paul Foot and a number of others including many with a legal background set up the A6 Committee.
John Lennon had a traumatic experience in Blackpool at the age of six when his father had taken him to stay with a friend. John’s mother had come to take him back. Eventually John went back with his mother. John Lennon’s first wife had been born in Blackpool. So it may have been this connection with a place he knew well that brought the case to John Lennon’s attention. John also had an experience of terror on Blackpool beach which led him to explore primal screaming as therapy.
The case against the conviction rested on the lack evidence that James Hanratty was guilty. He had not been guilty of violent crimes previously. There were no fingerprints in the car, and James Hanratty did not usually wear gloves. Peter Alphon confessed and had no alibi. Paul Foot managed to examine Peter Alphon’s bank accounts and found that Peter Alphon had received £5000 which he couldn’t account for at the time of the murder.
It looked like the state had hanged an innocent man.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono proclaimed Hanratty innocence at Hyde Park Corner and were supportive of James Hanratty’s parents.
The investigarors had denied information to the defence, most significantly the reported sightings of Hanratty were incompatible with the recorded mileage of the car. This was significant because it was the only evidence apart from Valerie Storie which linked James Hanratty to the car.
One of the leading investigators was Kenneth Oxford, who later advised Mrs Thatcher after the Hillsborough disaster when 96 football fans died. He was a man with a strong attachment to the Establishment, possibly stronger than his attachment to the truth.
At this stage almost everybody thought that James Hanratty was innocent. The Home Secretary and Senior Policemen investigating the case thought that James was innocent. It only remained for an Appeal to overturn the trial verdict.
There was a DNA test which which involved disinterring James Hanratty’s body and evidence from Valerie Storie’s underwear. This test proved positive. The Appeal upheld the original conviction.
By this time John Lennon had himself been murdered and James Hanratty’s father had died and his mother was suffering from dementia. Paul Foot continued to believe that the evidence had been contaminated.
We are left with a strange situation. James Hanratty was guilty but on the evidence available at his trial he would not be convicted nowadays. His family continue to believe in his innocence.
The defenders of Hanratty cling to the fact that the kind of DNA test, called Low Count DNA relied on very small samples and that items of James Hanratty and Valerie Storr had been together in a cardboard box. This box had been lost for some time so its forensic integrity was compromised. In the box there was an empty phial. It may have contained a sample from James Hanratty and leaked over the contents of the box. Otherwise why store an empty phial? The FBI do not accept the kind of DNA test used as evidence. Similar evidence has been disregarded in other UK trials.
I used to believe that James Hanratty was innocent but now I believe he was probably guilty but I will not feel totally convinced until the kind of DNA test used is validated. This kind of test is not accepted in any other jurisdiction and similar evidence has been dismissed in the UK.
The case involves a number of coincidences.
The astonishing fact that the original prime suspect and the later suspect were staying in the same hotel. This Hitchcockian confusion is increased by uncertainty who was staying in the room where the cartridges were found. Peter Alphon was obsessed with the case even before he was a suspect. How likely is it that a person obsessed with a murder case would be staying in the same hotel as the murderer?
(A formidable problem for those who see Peter Alphon as the murderer scenario is this: who in their right minds would pay a nutter like Peter Alphon £5000 to frighten Michael Gregsten when London was full of villains who would do a good job for £100. An unaccountable £5000 did appear in Peter Alphon’s bank account. This would have bought you a nice house in London in those days.)
The proprietor of the Old Station Inn at Taplow, Maria Lanz, where William Gregsten and Valerie Storr had a drink before they were kidnapped saw Peter Alphon at the Hotel while William and Valerie were there.
Six witnesses confirmed that Hanratty was at Rhyl. One could confirm the exact day because he had just visited the bank and so had documentary evidence. He said that a smartly dressed man with a cockney accent tried to sell him a watch. One Rhyl witness was so convinced that he tried to ring up the Home Secretary on the morning of the execution.
Michael Gregsten’s widow later went on to have an affair with her brother in law William Ewer, who left his wife. This would be of no interest except for possibly the oddest coincidence in the case. In some accounts of the case Janet Gregsten instigated the investigation into James Hanratty by a psychic experience. This reported by Tom Foot, Paul Foot’s son. William Ewer was looking after Janet Gregsten after the murder. She was at his shop in Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, when she saw James Hanratty going into a florist’s shop. She said to William Ewer:”He fits the description… I’ve got an overpowering feeling that it’s him.” William Ewer phoned Scotland Yard. On some accounts that is how the investigators connected the false name that Hanratty was using, ” Ryan” with James Hanratty. James Hanratty sent flowers for his mother’s birthday and through that investigators discovered the real identity of Ryan. Does Scotland Yard solve murder cases through psychic intervention?
Charles France came to visit William Ewer who had a shop is Swiss Cottage. Charles France was distraught and apologised. What was he apologising for? One possibility is that he supplied James Hanratty with the murder weapon. What pressure did the investigators use persuade Charles France to give evidence against James Hanratty who was a close friend? Shortly after his visit and before James Hanratty’s execution Charles France committed suicide. Before his suicide Charles France had hate telephone calls almost certainly from Peter Alphon. How did Charles France know that William Ewer was connected with Michael Gregsten?
The weirdness of the A6 murder continues to tease. Part of the puzzle is the feeling that there is some part of the story that we don’t know. Another suspicion is that the Appeal was rigged. It was well known that most people believed that James Hanratty was innocent and the Appeal went ahead because the Establishment was convinced that they had irrefutable evidence. The Establishment could have avoided an appeal by revealing the DNA evidence. They wanted the Appeal to take place and fail. The defence was taken by surprise by the DNA evidence and unable to formulate a plausible response.
There is the possiblity that James Hanratty committed the crime randomly. We would feel more convinced if the form of DNA evidence used in the appeal was accepted as reliable in other cases.
As with so many things we only know a part of the truth. If that.
There are a number of books.
Who killed Hanratty by Paul Foot. A splendid summary of the case against conviction.
Shadows of Deadmans Hill by Leonard Miller makes the case for Hanratty’s guilt.
There is an article by Paul Foot’s son Tom in the Islington Tribune 13 January 2013 which summarises Janet Gregsten’s revelation.
There is a splendid online discussion forum:forum.casebook.org which explores every aspect of this intriguing case.