British cops relentlessly hunt wrong man for mom’s 1992 sex slay

It was a perfect morning for a walk in the park.

Rachel Nickell, a pretty young mother with hair the color of sunshine, gathered up her toddler son, Alex, and headed out for Wimbledon Common.

The rustic park rambles over 1,140 acres of suburban London, larger by a third than New York’s Central Park, it teems with people exploring its bog, heathland and historic windmill. Others come to jog, golf or ride its 16 miles of bridal paths. The courtly home of the Wimbledon tennis championships is a five-minute stroll away.

At 10:30 that morning, a dog-walker happened upon what seemed to be a nude woman sunbathing at the foot of a silver birch tree in a grove off the beaten path.

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As he eased closer, the passerby realized that the woman was not sunbathing. She was dead.

And, incredibly, a little boy clung to the body, pleading, “Get up, mummy. Get up.”

It was Nickell, her jeans and panties at her ankles. She had been stabbed and cut 49 times, raped and sexually mutilated.

Investigators tried to pin the crime on Colin Stagg, despite having nothing to go on.

Investigators tried to pin the crime on Colin Stagg, despite having nothing to go on.

(Kieran Doherty)

“It’s horrific,” police inspector Mike Wickerson told the press that day. “She was just an innocent young mother walking her little boy in a public park.”

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The murder happened 25 years ago, July 15, 1992, but it still haunts the U.K. — not only because of the dreadful crime itself, but also for the preposterous frame-job investigation that left an indelible smudge on the lustrous reputation of Scotland Yard.

A team of 40 investigators, directed by the highly regarded Detective Superintendent John Bassett, was stymied by the crime.

As months passed, the squawky British tabloids demanded an arrest — so Scotland Yard generated a suspect, an oddball named Colin Stagg.

Stagg, 29, lived at Alton Estate, a public housing project adjacent to Wimbledon Common. He had been seen in the park by police after the murder and was questioned, but dismissed as a suspect.

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But as one lead after another unraveled, Stagg became the focal point of the police magnifying glass.

FILE PHOTO

Copes search the dense undergrowth in Wimbledon Common in the months following Nickell’s murder.

(Adam Butler/PA Wire)

Unmarried, unemployed, porn-craving and chronically lovelorn, Stagg lived on the dole while desperately pursuing companionship through lonely-hearts ads.

He dabbled in the occult, decorating his apartment with old Anglo-Saxon pagan symbols. His door was painted with a provocative warning: “Christians Keep Away: A Pagan Dwells Here.”

Police had nothing but proximity to connect Stagg to the murder. So they enlisted Paul Britton, who billed himself as the U.K.’s first “forensic psychologist,” to create a profile of the killer.

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Using psycho-sorcery that has since been discredited, Britton conjured a profile that fit Stagg like a death mask — a lonely man with a porn trove and an interest in witchery who lived near the park.

To complete the portrait, cops needed to show that Stagg — a virgin — was a conniving sexual sadist. A fetching woman cop, posing as the lovesick Lizzie James, spent months baiting Stagg with clumsy come-ons devised by Britton to reveal the mark’s dark side.

James presented herself as a kinky deviant who panted for humiliating rough sex. She wrote to Stagg, “I’m sure your fantasies hold no bounds and you are as broadminded and uninhibited as me.”

Robert Napper was ultimately linked to the killing and pleaded guilty in 2008.

Robert Napper was ultimately linked to the killing and pleaded guilty in 2008.

(Metropolitan Police/PA Wire)

He replied mostly with cuddly notes about love, long walks on the beach and his favorite songs.

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When they finally met, the bait cop flirted pitilessly with the head-over-heels Stagg. She suggested in one stunning recorded conversation that she was a sadist and that Stagg would qualify to sample her sexual fruits if he leaned in the same direction.

“Please explain, as I live a quiet life,” he pleaded. “If I have disappointed you, please don’t dump me.”

She tried to spring the trap later in the same chat.

“If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder,” James said, “if only you had killed her, it would be all right.”

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The doe-eyed Stagg muttered, “I’m terribly sorry, but I haven’t.”

Stagg (seen with wife Diane in 1995) was paid nearly $  1 million for Scotland Yard’s “inconceivable" errors.

Stagg (seen with wife Diane in 1995) was paid nearly $ 1 million for Scotland Yard’s “inconceivable” errors.

(Str Old)

Nonetheless, he was arrested and charged with the crime in August 1993, 13 months after Rachel Nickell was killed.

The case didn’t stand a chance when it reached the Old Bailey courtroom of Justice Harry Ognall. He excluded the love-bait evidence as “deceptive conduct of the grossest kind.” The prosecution folded and Stagg was acquitted, although police for years after mulishly insisted Stagg was their man.

That changed in 2002, when DNA testing on stored evidence pointed toward a convicted sex killer and serial rapist named Robert Napper as Nickell’s killer.

He confessed a few years later, while locked up for an unrelated double murder.

Napper, who lived near the park, had been rejected by cops as a suspect because, at 6-feet-2, he was taller than the description given by the victim’s son, who was not yet 3 years old.

An official review described Scotland Yard’s errors as “inconceivable.”

Stagg described his compensation package as "like winning the lottery."

Stagg described his compensation package as “like winning the lottery.”

(Johnny Green/PA Wire/PA Photos)

The government paid Stagg nearly $ 1 million for his troubles. He told the British press last week that he was broke after he and a girlfriend — at last — spent the money “like there was no tomorrow.”

The policewoman who served as the honey trap won a $ 150,000 settlement after suing for psychiatric damage.

Nickell’s son Alex and her boyfriend André Hanscombe, Alex’s dad, fled to France shortly after the murder.

Alex, now 27, published a memoir earlier this year.

“That’s what I remember most, the particular moment I knew she was gone,” he told the Guardian recently.

“That feeling of losing someone you love, how everything can change in a matter of seconds.”

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