“I’m someone who makes mistakes” – Dawn French talks failure
When Jill Dando was shot in broad daylight on the doorstep of her home in Fulham, London, nearly a quarter of a century ago, it would have seemed inconceivable we would still be no closer to knowing who had killed the woman many viewed as “TV’s Princess Diana” – not least because of the uncanny resemblance.
Theories have abounded as to why the BBC’s Crimewatch frontwoman, whose career was in the ascendance, was targeted in a hit that April morning in 1999.
Barry George, a loner with a low IQ who once falsely claimed to be related to Queen singer Freddie Mercury, was convicted of her murder in 2001 before being acquitted in 2008, following a review of the evidence against him. Since then, there have been no more arrests in what is now considered a “cold case”, as the Metropolitan Police appears to have given up hope of a conviction for the killing. However, a new Netflix series, which rakes over all aspects of this baffling case, is set to revive interest in the unsolved murder, which left the entire nation reeling in 1999.
Among those interviewed for the three-parter are Barry George himself, who is now living in Ireland, as well as Jill’s agent Jon Roseman, and her brother, Nigel Dando.
Speaking to us ahead of the broadcast, Nigel, 71, a retired journalist who lives in Portishead, Somerset, with his wife, Vanessa, 72, explained that he agreed to take part in the hope it would lead to a breakthrough in the case.
“We need somebody to come forward with something of substance for there to be a review,” says Nigel, who was nine years Jill’s senior and whose footsteps she followed into journalism.
“My belief is that if this murder is going to be solved it’ll be done by somebody picking up the phone and talking to a police officer, or walking into a police station and saying, ‘Look, I think you might want to know this.’”
How likely, after 24 years, does Nigel think that is? “You have to keep hold of hope,” he says. “Certainly, as the years go by, that hope is fading, but somebody did it and that person, if they’re still alive, knows they did it. And if they are still alive, there’s a fair chance that somebody they know, knows they did it.”
Nigel was working in the newsroom at the Bristol Evening Post on 26 April 1999 and, sickeningly, found out from a TV news bulletin that his sister was dead. A call from a colleague on a national newspaper had alerted him to the fact she had been injured but the newsflash was aired before her family, including her 81-year-old father Jack, had been notified.
“My first thoughts were to see whether Dad knew and, if not, to break the news to him,” Nigel recalls. “It turned out he did know, because a neighbour had told him after seeing it on the news. She was sitting with him and I needed to get there, so a colleague drove me from Bristol to Dad’s house in Weston-Super-Mare.”
Nigel says neither he nor his father are inclined towards big emotional outpourings, but were equally committed to “wanting to know why it had happened and who had done it”. Sadly, Jack died ten years later, the answers still undiscovered.
Seeing coverage in recent years of the torment inflicted by crazed stalkers on high-profile women – including former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis, ex-BBC Breakfast host Louise Minchin and current frontwoman Sally Nugent – has solidified Nigel’s belief that his sister was similarly targeted.
He thinks some unstable people make the mistake of believing they have a close bond with presenters because they are regularly beamed into our homes, via TV screens.
“I think it was something like that, probably, that happened to Jill,” he says. “There’s no evidence that she had a stalker, but she and her agent received a number of crank letters.”
That agent, Jon Roseman, like all those closest to Jill, was investigated – in most homicide cases the killer is known to the victim – and ruled out as a suspect by police in the immediate aftermath of her death. He was one of the only people who knew the star was returning to her home, at 29 Gowan Avenue, that morning.
At the time of her murder, Jill was engaged to gynaecologist Alan Farthing – who went on to be employed by the royal household – and had been spending most of her time at his house in west London. She had nipped home to pick up some faxes, sent by Roseman’s office, on her way to a lunch appointment when she was shot at 11.30am. Extensive examination of CCTV footage on the route she took indicated she was not followed, suggesting the gunman was lying in wait. None of the neighbours heard a shot being fired, indicating a silencer may have been used.
“The ballistics expert told me it was a single shot to the left side of her head, like a professional execution, and the bullet and casing on the doorstep were from a nine-millimetre calibre weapon,” the now retired detective chief superintendent Hamish Campbell, who led the case, reveals.
Despite an extensive search of the area, no weapon was found and, based on the few eyewitness reports from the time, police pursued three lines of enquiry, all of which failed to result in arrests.
A postman reported seeing a “Mediterranean looking guy” at just after 10am opposite Jill’s house, witnesses told of a “sweating man” running across the road to a bus stop, and a traffic warden was just about to write a ticket for a blue Range Rover when the driver “brushed her off and drove away”.
While the “Mediterranean man” was never identified, an e-fit of the “sweating man” was released and James Shackleton, an undertaker, came forward to say it looked like him and that he’d been running that day. He was later ruled out as a suspect.
Meanwhile, appeals were made and CCTV cameras checked for drivers of blue Range Rovers, all to no avail.
“We spent months eliminating witnesses,” Campbell adds. “There were only 16 detectives on my murder team at the start of that investigation and 16 people were never going to complete all I needed completing.”
The case took a darker turn when a letter was sent to Roseman’s office, and then a call made to the BBC, claiming Jill, who had put out an appeal for Kosovan refugees and victims of war, had been targeted by a hitman in revenge for Nato bombing a Serbian news station at the height of the war in the Balkans.
“We had explored this Serbian issue by asking the security services and there is no evidence at all which suggests the Serbians or the Nato conflict was responsible,” insists Campbell.
The other chilling theory is that Jill was singled out by an underworld hitman due to her work bringing criminals to justice on Crimewatch. Among the documentary’s interviewees is an ex-con who was in Belmarsh prison at the time of Jill’s death.
“I don’t want to say, for my own safety, but there are rumours in the criminal world about who done it and it’s not Barry George,” he says. “It was a professional hit.” When pressed for information on a motive, he adds: “If I tell you why, you’d know who done it.”
With rumours swirling about the expert way in which the execution was conducted, it’s little wonder many were perplexed when George was charged – and later convicted. Aided by BBC Panorama reporter Raphael Rowe, George’s barrister Michael Mansfield was able to show that a particle of gunshot residue found in the pocket of his client’s coat – the basis of his conviction – was insignificant, and a retrial was ordered, at which George was acquitted.
Despite the lack of arrests in the 15 years since, participants in the documentary hope new intelligence may be forthcoming.
“There have been a number of stories over the years suggesting that perhaps this or that had something to do with Jill’s murder,” says Nigel. “It’ll be a big story for 24 hours, and then it goes away. I just shrug my shoulders as they don’t have legs and then they’re forgotten about. Still, you live in hope.”
Who Killed Jill Dando? is on Netflix from September 26
Written by Helen Carroll