Would You Believe ... ‘CSI Bournemouth’ ?

George Orwell once wrote a famous essay about the English public’s (or at least the media’s) fascination with ‘the English murder’, with the newspapers’ covering them as ongoing serials ending with the trial verdict. He said this dated back to the Dr Crippen case in 1910, one that has local links including the fact it was a "first" for the use of electronic communications (Marconi conducted 'morse' tests locally). The ‘English murder’ here is a premeditated and carefully planned killing – an attempt at the perfect crime, by people who ought to know better. (A variant is the elaborate disguising of the crime scene after an unplanned murder.) English detective fiction has also built on this scenario from the work of Agatha Christie on. It’s a fact of life nowadays that major crimes are media events. During real-life cases, the media often play a major role as middle-men, with each side, hunter and hunted, trying to control or influence the public disclosure of information.
     Today, crime dramas have come to dominate TV schedules. British TV schedulers now tend to use holiday weekends to show commemorative crime-drama programming specials and strands. There was an ITV 20th-anniversary Inspector Morse and then an Inspector Wexford weekend, with special interview and behind-the-scenes documentaries. Another weekend was used to commemorate “the planet’s most successful TV programme franchise,” CSI, on the work of America’s Crime Scene Investigators. (The British equivalent are Scenes Of Crime Officers or ‘SOCOs’.) In the most unrealistic aspect of the US series, these CSIs are armed lab techs who detain and question suspects. “CSI - The Inside Story” had interviews with the show’s main director and executive producer, Danny Cannon, who turned out to be British, as did the writer interviewed. (The 3 series' theme tunes are also British – all songs by The Who.) The producers and stars described how it had gone from being a hit series, set in Las Vegas, to being a programming franchise, with two other series up and running: CSI: NY, and CSI: Miami. All 3 series now run here on FreeView - up to five times a night. The point of local interest here was that the producers are contemplating setting a 4th series set in England. “We’d love to do a ‘CSI Bournemouth’ ” said one.
     At first this might seem a joke, but whether it was or not, the suggestion may not be as frivolous as it first sounds. Every other distinctive corner of Britain seems to have had its own mystery series already: Bergerac on Jersey, Wycliffe in Cornwall, Morse in Oxford etc. London has certainly been ‘done’ for forensic detective drama, with Prime Suspect etc. We already have CSI-type shows, set elsewhere, notably BBC's long-running Silent Witness. Logistically, London is expensive, and difficult to find the necessary parking spaces. BBC productions have long used Bournemouth as a locations centre as [a] it has a variety of architecture and [b] the parking is easier. Nor has Bournemouth yet had its own tv-detective series.
     Bournemouth is a relatively young, purpose-built town like Las Vegas and Miami. It’s also part if what has been called the largest non-industrial conurbation in Europe, adjoining the older market towns and ports of Poole and Christchurch. But would it work as a ‘CSI’ story setting? Well, it might seem that most local deaths would be simply due to old age, to those who only know the town and its so-called 'bathchair' image from the two 1990s BBC sitcoms set and/or partly filmed here, One Foot In The Grave and Waiting For God. (The latter title comes from a pun on the play Waiting For Godot and the nickname for Bournemouth as a retirement haven – “God’s Waiting Room.”)
This aspect could certainly be worked in, with cases involving flashbacks to when protagonists were young, creating a story framework that was both contemporary and 'period'. Youthful follies proving to have long-term or belated consequences today is an idea that would fit the moralistic side of the detective mystery, where justice is, finally, done, and the world set to rights (till next week). Other detective series have certainly mined this vein, with stories of belated revenge killings elaborately disguised with esoteric clues from the past. This aspect also suggests a potential series theme song, The Who’s ‘My Generation,’ which was about the young not trusting the older generation, composed by those who themselves are now of pensionable age.
     Most people know Bournemouth as a seaside resort. This now includes a youth-oriented ‘surfer’ scene, something younger mainstream American audiences could relate to. The summer-holiday aspect provides potential variety for plot setups - both the Las Vegas CSI series and CSI Miami plots often build stories around visitors who are there to party. The Las Vegas series is set during the night shift and focuses on night life, whereas the Miami series is set mainly in bright sunlight. Bournemouth could offer both aspects, for as well as its beach scene, its new club scene has earned it the nickname Sin City, with the downtown core referred to as Clubland after dark. (A recent nightclub shooting revealed there were undercover officers in the crowd on an another, drug-related case.)
The club scene overlaps with its resort aspect, the town having a reputation as the British equivalent of the Greek club-resort of Faliraki where the objects of an evening out are drinking and sex, leading to many different kinds of trauma and casualties. Many such incidents of non-fatal assaults, robberies and other crimes occur are not reported in the press. The “vics” (to use CSI parlance) or victims of head injuries often wake up with partial amnesia.
     The town is also a venue every autumn for political Party Conferences (what Americans call conventions), so there could also be security and terrorism-related scenarios involving bomb or mass-poisoning plots. (The budget per show is $3 million, enough for large-scale scenes.) Bournemouth has had real-life IRA bomb attacks and associated scares. The behind-the-scenes CSI documentary also said plots are often inspired by real cases, and of course there was a local real-life bomb plot which would make a suitable pilot episode. It had all the usual elements – advance warnings of mayhem to come, the police racing against time to prevent it, a ‘perfect’ crime plot spoiled by a fatal error, massive police surveillance operation, forensic analysis of clues, a cat-and-mouse game involving coded messages in newspaper personal ads, the innocent ‘red herring’ suspect, a special bank account set up for the ransom, and that favourite of crime writers, the dawning realisation this was a ‘copycat’ crime …..

The Bournemouth Bomber Blackmail Plot – A Real-Life Local ‘CSI’ Case

The case that seems most suitable for a ‘CSI Bournemouth’ pilot episode was a parcel bomb campaign self-publicized by the criminal to put political pressure on the police into paying the ransom. The case ran from 2000-2001 but turned out to have roots in earlier crimes, this being used to help create a profile of the bomber.
     In autumn 2000 a suburban Bournemouth branch of Tesco’s supermarket received a demand for ransom to avoid a letter-bomb campaign that would target their customers, which would destroy public confidence in shopping there. The ransom would be £1000 a day and was to be paid by Tesco via loyalty cards that could be used in cash machines. This was to circumvent the most vulnerable point in any blackmail plan, the need to get hold of the money without the police being able to get hold of the blackmailer. The letter writer planned to exploit the fact some “store” cards were also debit cards via a magnetic strip that could work in bank ATM cashpoint machines. Tesco were told they would have to issue, on a date given them, a run of such ‘dummy’ store loyalty debit cards in a newspaper supplement. Only the blackmailer would be given the PIN and be able to draw on the account. The limit was to be £1000 a day, with no end date given: payment would be ongoing.
     The police noticed the envelope and letter had burn or singe marks. Was this deliberate symbolism, or something that had happened to the letter in transit? The police checked with the Post Office: there had been one such fire, at a suburban postbox not far from the Tesco’s branch. Then the police got their first break: the blackmailer had left the original of his blackmail letter in a photocopier at a newsagent’s in north Bournemouth. The fire could have been "routine" vandalism, but police now theorised that when he had discovered his mistake, the bomber had fire-bombed the postbox to destroy the letter. (He may have got muddled between original and photocopy.) He also thought the fire had destroyed the posted version for he sent another, and the police ended up with three versions.
     Yet forensic examination yielded no fingerprints, and the crime lab had no luck getting DNA from the back of this particular stamp. The blackmailer was obviously using rubber or latex gloves to handle the paperwork, and was not licking the stamps but using tap water. The use of a photocopy had evidently been just paranoia, in case his precautions were inadequate. What his muddle over the letters did accomplish was to establish a ‘matrix’ of locations: Tesco’s branch, photocopier, and burnt postbox. These narrowed down the potential surveillance area to the Ferndown/Ensbury Park/Castle Lane-Bradpole Road vicinity. This was a considerable advantage, for having too wide an area makes surveillance impractical. The firebombed postbox was actually just outside a Post Office, allowing a hidden camera to be planted overlooking it. But for three months no blackmail letters were posted from that box, though the CID theory was that everyone has a comfort zone, and sooner or later the bomber would return there as a familiar location. This theory would eventually prove correct: in January 2001, the post office CCTV camera would capture him posting a blackmail letter, though at this stage he was just one face among several dozen, and the CCTV provided only poor quality images.
     The search and surveillance area was still large, and Dorset police began to assemble the biggest CID team in their history for “Operation Hornbill”. No bombs had as yet exploded, but there were other reasons to be concerned. One was that the Tesco customer database might have been hacked into if customers’ home addresses were being obtained, as implied by the threat to send them letter bombs. Another was the potential economic loss to Tesco if shoppers began to stay away out of fear. Tesco, as one of Britain’s largest enterprises – controlling much of the food chain – gets kid-glove treatment from MI5 as well as the police, and was able to suggest this was the work of a 'political' ie grass-roots campaign organisation, like the RSPB.
There had been an earlier such threat to the supermarket trade. This previous case had proved ruinously expensive - not to the supermarket trade, but to the police authority and the taxpayer, as it lasted over three years and involved hundreds of police officers. This was the case of the London ‘Mardi Gras Bomber’, referred to by the Daily Telegraph, who were intermediaries in the case, as “Britain's equivalent to America's Unabomber.”

The ‘Mardi Gra’ Bomber
In Bournemouth, police were concerned because aspects of the blackmail setup mirrored that of the ‘Mardi Gra’ Bomber, who police hunted from 1994 to 1998. The bomber-blackmailer, Edgar Pearce, signed himself "Mardine Graham" after his trademark name The Mardi Gra Experience [sic]. He initially sent bombs inside gift-wrapped videocassettes identified by a sticker saying Welcome To The Mardi Gra Experience, along with a poster in the style of those depicting the Kray Twins - in sunglasses, with black suits, also reminiscent of the Blues Brothers, or more recently of Reservoir Dogs. (The mis-spelt name Mardi Gras – French for “fat Tuesday” - turned out to be based on the fact the first letters were sent out on a Tuesday, with the misspelling an attempt to create a unique ‘brand’, the bomber having worked earlier in advertising.) Two of his bombs exploded when opened, one injuring a bank worker. He wanted £2,000 a day from Barclays, demanding they set up a BarclayCard debit account he could use to make untraceable cash withdrawals from cashpoints. They were to communicate the PIN number via the personal columns of the Daily Telegraph.
     Barclays were busy investigating their own staff lists – they had recently sacked 500 people, and feared it was a reprisal plot. When Barclays failed to pay up, the ‘Mardi Gra’ Bomber sent a total of three dozen parcel bombs, using six different bomb designs, to branches or bank officials. Later, he also left bombs in phone booths or in bins, and wounded a number of passers-by. The former advertising man also wrote to the national press saying he was improving his devices. Barclays announced they would close branches, and never paid him a penny. He then targeted Sainsbury’s supermarket customers, demanding £10,000 a day. He planted boobytrapped plastic videocassette boxes with ‘£5 Reward’ stickers near their supermarkets around London, and also sent letter bombs to random addresses around Southeast England. He stalked and photographed women carrying Sainsbury’s shopping bags, sending the photos to the Daily Mail. He announced he would also kill or maim customers with a special crossbow he had designed. Sainsbury’s brought in Ian Fraser, the psychological profiler and ‘forensic consultant’ who worked on – and perhaps helped inspire - ITV’s hit drama series Cracker (the basis of the US copycat series Fitz). The store chain also decided not to pay up.
     Frustrated by Sainsbury’s lack of cooperation, he then came up with a plan to blackmail the police direct into paying him off, again via cash machines. He told them to issue apparently fake promotional-item debit ‘swipe’ cards, from Nationwide Bank, on the cover of Computer Shopper magazine. These would appear to be dummy cards, but police were to issue him a new PIN number via a personals ad in the Daily Telegraph so he could withdraw cash from any Nationwide cashpoint. Over twenty coded messages were exchanged in the Personal columns as communications fell into confusion. The FBI expert who had helped profile the Unabomber in the USA now helped do a psychological profile of “Britain's equivalent to America's Unabomber”, saying he was dangerous as he craved attention more than cash. ‘Geographical profiling’ narrowed the search area down to the bomber’s home neighbourhood in London W4, making surveillance more viable. They issued the PIN to the blackmailer, but had special software installed at the cashpoints which would trigger an alarm when the PIN was entered.
     Home Secretary Jack Straw authorized an unlimited budget to catch the bomber, and “Operation Heath” assigned a thousand officers to watch Nationwide’s London cashpoints. In April 1998 Pearce was arrested, along with his older brother, as he withdrew money at a cashpoint, vainly trying to hide his face from the surveillance camera using a clipboard and a disguise. In fact, Pearce had already become a suspect: an off-duty officer had been in a cashpoint lineup with Pearce a few days before and – suspicious about his obvious disguise – followed him home, and technical officers had planted a bug in Pearce’s car. Police discovered they had also had caught Pearce on a cashpoint surveillance cam, but the quality had been so poor they couldn’t use it further. The Telegraph reported that at his home, “detectives found two incendiary devices, a revolver with silencer, a sub-machine gun, rounds of .762 rifle ammunition, 12-bore and .410 shotgun cartridges, springs and nails. There were also a large number of photographs of women shoppers as if they had become his major target.” There were also parts for two crossbows, “one of which was mounted inside a Sainsbury’s carrier bag with a hole in the bottom.”
     His older brother refused to confess or plead guilty, instead trying to sell his story to the media. He was quietly released after a year on remand. Pearce himself confessed in detail (the profiler had been right he craved attention). He pleaded guilty to 20 charges, though his lawyer argued for diminished responsibility. The Telegraph received a letter claiming all the evidence was ‘planted’ and his confession was inadmissible due to his ‘brain damage’ - part of his brain was missing from a rare disease. According to the BBC report at the time, “He received four 21-year terms, two for firearms and two for explosives offences; 12 years for each of nine counts of blackmail; 12 years for an explosives offence and an additional six jail terms, ranging for one to six years, for unlawful wounding, causing actual bodily harm and possession of a prohibited weapon,” but the 61-year old was allowed to serve these concurrently instead of consecutively – 21 years versus 224. The police year-end report called it “the most sophisticated extortion campaign British Police have had to face” and noted:

A police video of Pearce planting the final device before he was caught showed all too clearly the threat that he posed. This was an improvised shotgun mounted on a concrete base and concealed in a bin bag. The barrel was pointing at a bus stop. It was sheer luck that no one was standing in the line of fire when it went off at midday on a weekday in the busy Eltham High Street. A child in a wheelchair had been pushed past the device just three minutes before the device was activated by a kitchen timer. Operation Heath was world-class in terms of sophistication, use of technology, co-operation with companies and the dedication of officers.

The Dorset Police were now worried because all this criminal modus operandi was documented in a 1999 book, Welcome To The Mardi Gra Experience by journalist Simon Cooper. The Bournemouth Bomber (whom the local press called the Tesco Bomber) had evidently read up on this case, for he was already reusing certain motifs, such as sending letters saying the bombs would get bigger, wanting to use disguised cashpoint cards and payments that were to be ongoing - a private ‘pension’ to retire on. What was equally worrying was that the Mardi Gra case was itself a copycat version of another, even earlier case documented in the same book - that of The ‘Baby Food Blackmailer.’ This was an even more insidious case from the detectives’ viewpoint, and not only because it involved the threat of baby food contamination. After the Bournemouth Bomber was arrested, it would turn out he had got his idea for the "perfect crime" from a Reader's Digest article he saw in a doctor's waiting room, called "How To Catch A Blackmailer", which told the story of the ‘Baby Food Blackmailer.’

The ‘Baby Food Blackmailer’ Case
The Mardi Gra Bomber had got the idea of using cash dispensers to avoid capture from watching a 1994 TV documentary on this case. If the poisoned baby-food motif sounds familiar, it was used in an episode of ITV’s A Touch Of Frost, the original case being dramatised in 'The Golden Rule,' the pilot of a 1992 ITV documentary re-enactment series and spinoff paperback, Michael Winner's True Crimes, film director Michael ‘Death Wish’ Winner being in real life a police buff. (Clip here, of a blackmail letter being composed as if it came from an organisation.) This blackmailer began by threatening Pedigree Petfoods with injecting poison in their pet food tins (puncture mark to be hidden by label), and got £18,000 in payoffs. However, he felt there would be more percentage in threatening people’s babies than their pets, and in 1989 switched to blackmailing the American conglomerate Heinz, who as well as beans and ketchup made baby food. He bought a case of 12 jars of Heinz baby food, put razor blades, shards of glass, or caustic soda in the jars, returning them to the supermarket shelves. He also poisoned Heinz beans and ketchup containers with caustic soda and pesticides. He then alerted the press, forcing stockists such as Tesco to remove all Heinz products.
     No babies had in fact yet been harmed, but now came a terrible development: over 300 copycat blackmail cases emerged, leading to five babies being hospitalised. This was followed by a string of false compensation claims against Heinz and other manufacturers by parents of babies. To quote the Simon Cooper book: “A wave of copycat contaminations ensued; at one stage more than 1,000 incidents a day were being reported … perpetrated by parents trying to cash in.” He demanded £2.5 million from Heinz to stop, but Heinz refused to pay, instead offering a reward of £100,000 for the blackmailer’s arrest.
     He had told Heinz that the £2.5 million must be paid by means of a card usable in cashpoint machines that could access a private account. He did not however come up with this idea himself: again, his was itself a copycat crime. Later, he would admit he got the idea from a 1986 extortion scheme by a man called William Frary, involving the contamination of supermarket turkey burgers. The scheme was directed against the UK’s biggest brand of cooked meats, Bernard Matthews Ltd, Europe’s biggest turkey producer. That had been the earliest known use of this criminal modus operandi – corporate blackmail, ransom paid by a special account accessed via a debit card, and all communications via the personal columns of the newspaper. Frary got caught when he became lazy and tried to use the same local cashpoints once too often, whereas the baby-food blackmailer used cashpoints from Glasgow to Southampton to withdraw £300 a day, always wearing a motorcyclist’s helmet to foil CCTV. The judge had banned publication of details of this earlier case to forestall copycats. This in itself should have been a clue that the blackmailer was someone with access to official inside information.
     The police had formed a Special Operations team but this had no luck, and Heinz decided to close down its UK activities. Mrs Thatcher then authorized an extra £8 million to keep the investigation going. (The Mardi Gra investigation cost £10 million.) The vital breakthrough was in fact about to materialise, due to Heinz’s own reward offer. Evidently in pursuit of the reward himself, the blackmailer wrote to Heinz, saying the police would get nowhere because they had a “bent cop” on their team, who was tipping off the blackmailer. As suspects, he gave the names of the 45 actual team members. He said his reward money for this should be paid into 8 building society accounts he had set up (using false names and accommodation addresses). The idea this would get a £100,000 reward paid electronically into 8 different accounts was more than naïve, and led to a phenomenon known in the security world as ‘blowback’ – where a plan backfires on its maker. The fact the letter named the entire detective team revealed the writer was privy to inside information, and the team concluded there must indeed be a rotten apple somewhere. The superintendent in charge thus arranged for a second, independent, investigation to be set up in secret. ‘Operation Agincourt’ employed 40 Special Branch officers. They were tasked with watching the London cashpoints, while the original team were assigned to watch cashpoints elsewhere. Within a week a Special Branch unit spotted a man get out of a car and go up to a cashpoint wearing a motorcyclist’s helmet, and arrested him on suspicion.
     It turned out he had been a member of the original CID team. He was a retired Detective Sergeant from the Regional Crime Squad named Rodney Whitchelo, who had learned about the Frary blackmail scheme while on an advanced CID training course. He had taken early retirement in 1989, convinced his failure to achieve higher rank was because he was not a Freemason. Bent on revenge for what he regarded as Masonic ill-treatment, he had created a computer consultancy business as a front, and had helped the SO team set up their in-house computer system to track down the blackmailer. He met his former colleagues regularly in a bar, thereby picking up tips so he could avoid surveillance. At his trial, he claimed he was working undercover with the team, but was sentenced to 17 years (of which he served half before release). Because of the terrible twist in this case, the police in the Mardi Gra Bomber case would wrongly suspect they too had a rotten apple, investigating Whitchelo’s prison associates, despite former Chief Constable John Stalker’s arguing in the press that this was wrong.

The Bournemouth Bomber
Thus, when the Dorset Police came to the Bournemouth Bomber case, the fact there had been yet no injuries was no consolation. They saw it as a race against time, and with the help of other forces formed a team hundreds strong. As it happened, the case would take six months to clear up.
     Whether they suspected the perpetrator was a policeman was not disclosed, but at first they had to cast their net wide. One theory, put forward by Tesco management, was the store chain was being targeted by animal rights activists. The prime suspect suggested by Tesco seems to have been … the Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds (membership: 1 million). Its head, Julian Pettifer, a BBC journalist, had resigned after producing a documentary critical of salmon farming practices. He was then tipped off by an anonymous letter from a whistleblowing insider that MI5 had been spying on them at the request of a Tesco executive. The letter said the same executive suspected at the outset that the Bournemouth bombing threats might be linked to the RSPB. The reasoning seemed to be the bombings were by animal rights activists, who are usually highly critical of Tesco. This came out in the Sunday Times [11-3-01], which they said prompted a ‘molehunt’ within MI5, the chief suspect being a disillusioned Special Branch officer.
     In the meantime, local police were facing an immediate snag with one of the case’s ‘copycat’ aspects, the demand to use promotional ‘dummy’ store cards secretly tweaked to work in cashpoints if you know the PIN. After the earlier cases, safeguards had been quietly introduced to prevent this. Tesco printed up a supply of 100,000 dummy loyalty cards, but if the bomber discovered his plan for being paid was now unworkable, he might go on a bombing rampage.
     The same communication setup was employed as in the Mardi Gra Bomber and Baby Food Poisoner cases – personal messages in the newspaper classifieds. The bomber called himself Sally. At his request, cryptograms were also inserted, by a team of 10 officers, in the Bournemouth Daily Echo. These looked like squares of jumbled words, but contained coded data for use in verifying details such as how to access the special account. He was demanding that the Tesco cards be inserted in the newspaper on a specific date to be agreed – presumably so he could scoop up a collection of them at different venues.
     However, this whole line of communication proved complicated for the bomber. The police had to keep putting personal messages in the paper to Sally to keep in touch (“we need to talk – let’s sort this out together”). The bomber complained in another letter of a coding error. Part of the problem was probably that the bomber was not very literate, and the cryptogram puzzle may have baffled him. For instance, in a pathetic attempt at being legalistic, he put a ‘Without Prejudice’ header on his blackmail letters. This is a legal phrase which means the document cannot be used in court against its author, but it’s only used by lawyers negotiating a settlement in civil cases – it’s useless in forestalling criminal charges. He also mis-spelt it as ‘Without Predujice”, a slip that would become evidence against him when his computer was examined. The Telegraph later noted that “his deadlines were unusable because he muddled his dates up.”
     He sent four Tesco customers parcel bombs, using cassettes (another copycat touch). Three were intercepted at the postal sorting office, but one got through. When opened, the cassette inside burst into flame, blinding a pensioner temporarily, fortunately causing no permanent injury. More letters were sent to customers, threatening they would be bombed unless Tesco paid up. But how had he got the addresses? Had he got inside access to Tesco’s customer database? Was he a computer hacker? An employee? Had he an accomplice? All leads had to be followed up. This later proved another red herring – it would turn out the bomber had merely followed shoppers home to get their addresses. (The police should have realised this as the warning letters were addressed with the street number only - no names.) He sent another letter saying he was building pipe bombs filled with gunpowder and planting them in people’s gardens. He gave a grid reference where the first bomb would be found, but this only narrowed the area down to 500 homes across 19 streets. Over a hundred police, plus the Army Bomb Squad and a unit of Gurkhas spent days digging up suburban gardens for a non-existent bomb. Three other bombs were not delivered as they had insufficient postage, and were taken by police from the Sorting Office. He carelessly licked one of the stamps instead of using water, leaving his DNA on the back.
     Finally, in February 2001, police arrested a 50-year old man, Robert Dyer, at his home in Kinson. Press reports described him as a failed businessman and a self-employed electrician. When detectives knocked on his door, according to the press report, Dyer “invited them in and agreed to provide samples required for elimination purposes.” Presumably the samples were to test his DNA against that found on the back of the stamp. Dyer must not have realised he had carelessly licked one of the stamps he used instead of using water. In any case, the detectives examined his PC in his bedroom, and found another blackmail letter.
     They arrested him and took his computer in for forensic analysis. Documents were found on it with the same telltale spelling mistakes the bomber had used. At the station, his DNA was matched to the DNA from the postage stamp. Detectives still asked magistrates for extra time to detain and question him, probably on legal advice to justify a full range of charges and counts. At his trial, Dyer pleaded guilty to 9 counts of blackmail with menaces, and one of assault (for the device that injured a pensioner). He got 16 years, reduced on appeal to twelve. Apparently his motive was money to pay off his debts, but he never got a penny in ransom money.
     A final mystery remains. How did the police arrive at his address? For he did not live all that near the postboxes in question, but in Kinson, to the west. Police had cameras overlooking all the postboxes in the area, and were also working with the Post Office to intercept the next blackmail letter. That is, when the twice-daily postbag from each postbox was brought in by the post van, they would check through it, until they found the next letter to Tesco. The cover story feature the Echo ran [5-5-01] after his conviction said the police knew that 38 people had posted letters into the relevant postbox the day the next blackmail letter arrived, which must refer to CCTV. To trace the 38 senders, they would probably have checked the local electoral rolls for known criminals, and done routine house-to-house enquiries locally. It’s also possible that one or more of the detectives may have recognised Dyer’s name or face from 8 years before - he was actually a murder suspect after his wife was found garrotted in their home. (He claimed she was depressed and killed herself, and questioning of him was abandoned as he had collapsed from a heart attack.) The official account, the Crown Prosecution Service year-end report, merely speaks of “meticulous detective work.” Evidently, this was a combination of traditional and modern approaches, from old-fashioned legwork to paper trails to more modern approaches – electronic surveillance, DNA testing, and computer forensics.
     Since then, a BBC Crimewatch retrospective item dramatising how they caught the Bournemouth Bomber provided the answer to how they broke the case: old-fashioned stakeouts, just as we've seen in hundreds of police dramas. CID officers, sitting in cars, watched the postbox used to post the burnt letter. They had (poor-quality) CCTV image printouts of the 38 people who had used the postbox on the relevant day, of whom they had already eliminated 14. A detective spotted a man walking by who matched a CCTV printout of the remaining 24 suspects. The suspect did not post any letters, and neither of the detectives followed him (as they would in a movie). This may have been because (a lucky break, this) he was carrying a petrol can, obviously headed for the local petrol station. Detectives checked the CCTV footage there and found the suspect had paid by cheque, which gave them Dyer's name and address.
Unlike in a fictional crime drama where they would ram the door down, they simply asked to come in and speak to him, and then asked for his cooperation in eliminating him from their enquiry. Partly this was by providing a DNA sample, but they also asked to check his computer, which yielded a more immediate result. This involved loading a floppy disk containing a batch of keywords, including the misspelt "Without Predujice" - and up popped a "Sally" letter. (The fact he was a suspect in the death of his wife 8 years before doesn't seem to have been part of the investigation, and the matter was evidently not reopened.)
     The TV series CSI was just climbing the ratings charts when Dyer was dropping forensic clues. Since then, American police forces have complained the show is making criminals more conscious of potential scene-of-crime evidence. The Echo reported local police were being cagey about exactly how they tracked Dyer down. No doubt they realised it is only a matter of time before another copycat emerged from the shadows. The Echo reported that five years before, a Dorset man had tried a similar campaign, threatening to bomb Tesco's if they did not pay him half a million in cash and diamonds. (He got 6 years.) While the criminals’ inherent laziness and self-stereotyped behaviour prompts them to believe they can profit from copycat schemes that had not in fact worked out previously, the police have actually been learning from each case - including not to tell the media everything. There have been bomb scares since, one involving Tesco again. So far, these have been hoaxes. But that was not the end of this scenario, as our postscript below shows.

Postscript: The 'Black Saturday' Tesco Blackmail Plot
In May 2007, former tax inspector and charity worker Philip McHugh sent Tesco blackmail letters threatening to contaminate yogurt with caustic soda. When that produced no payoff, the threat changed in July to one of bombing stores, and the ransom rose from £100k to £1m. This was to be paid via a Tesco debit card he had applied for, which have a £200-per-day limit (it thus would have taken over 13 years to withdraw the £1 m). McHugh, 52, had become a tax inspector after his career playing bass in a punk band which supported the Boomtown Rats went nowhere. However he was sacked in 1993 after being caught in a Sunday newspaper sting where he was exposed as a tax evader with a spanking fetish. (On his arrest, local press reports mentioned he had recently written to the local newspaper urging the return of corporal punishment for criminals.) He wrote to the food chain: "Please don't think that there is anything personal in all of this (I like Tesco and enjoy its shopping experience) but if you get emotionally involved, it won't help - treat this as a cost of your business operation. Please do not underestimate me - I am absolutely desperate and blood will flow if you do not co-operate."
Bomb threats posted to 76 Tesco stores in Scotland, Wales and England led to 14 branches around Britain being evacuated on what the blackmailer called Black Saturday. The other 62 branches were not closed as the letters failed to arrive before his deadline due to a postal strike. He threatened the head of Tesco with another 'Black Saturday' unless they cooperated. No bombs were found but health and safety required evacuation in each case, which cost Tesco several millions in lost sales. Letters were made up from words cut from newspapers, while others were in a childish script. Acknowledgement from Tesco that they would pay would be via an encoded personal notice in The Times. He signed himself "Arbuthnot, the sign is the spider," taping a spider inside letters - reportedly an allusion to an 18th-C poem taken to symbolize the complicated (in his mind) web he was weaving. (Dr Arbuthnot was the man credited with creating the character of "John Bull.") To taunt the detectives of the dozens of forces involved, he also used collector-issue postage stamps featuring a "Laughing Policeman" cartoon image. There were human hairs under two stamps, but the crime lab soon established these were from two different people - a deliberate red herring.
However after only four £200 withdrawals over a 4-day period, each in a different but neighbouring Lancashire town, the nationwide police manhunt was able to focus on that area, and soon the last laugh was on McHugh. He had failed to mask his face during one withdrawal, perhaps out of bravado. (He had written "I have no objection to your trying to catch me out at the hole in the wall machines - why not? Life's a game anyway." Earlier, he had attempted suicide.) Also, a generic bank-documents pack he used was traced to a local office-supplies shop, and telltale phone calls were traced.
CID teams watched the railway stations for a man matching the CCTV cashpoint image, and in late July he was arrested at his home. Among other evidence, detectives found a 1995 handbook entitled The Black Book Of Revenge: The Complete Manual of Hard-core Dirty Tricks and Schemes. He was sentenced in early 2008 to 6 years for three sample counts of blackmail and two of carrying out a bomb hoax. McHugh said in court he had lost his job as a charity worker in 2006, and needed to pay off debts of £37K run up via his addiction to online gambling, as he had a Russian wife and two children to support. (His stepson told the local press he had begun discussing blackmailing Tesco in 2005.) The blackmail plot, he said, was just one final gamble. He also said he had come to enjoy the thrill of threatening the mighty Tesco's.
The Guardian commented that the whole plot seemed to have come from a pulp detective story - for by then this type of plot had been assimilated by crime fiction and drama. But it had instead come from real-life cases, where one had copied from the other, and both criminals and the police had learned from each case in turn: the criminals with layer upon layer of media-age copycatting, the police becoming more and more media-aware. As they say, you just couldn't make this sort of thing up; but it all really happened, even the most unbelievable aspects.




 

Bournemouth square
“We’d love to do a ‘CSI Bournemouth’ ” Could it happen here?

 

Bournemouth is normally thought of as just a family-friendly seaside resort, but it too has its dark secrets.

Bournemouth does have one famous historic murder case, the 1935 Rattenbury affair, about which Terence Rattigan wrote his final play, Cause Celebre, produced as an ITV teleplay in 1987 with Helen Mirren. But this being a domestic crime of passion at a famous local architect's retirement villa (the wife and chauffeur were younger), there was no forensic manhunt involved, and the town itself scarcely appears in Rattigan's courtroom drama.


The Tesco Bomber-Blackmailer Case

No 'CSI Bournemouth' series ever materialised. The idea did wind up a joke on the ITV Reggie Perrin remake starring Dorset-based actor Martin Clunes: in one scene, Reggie's wife asks him what's he watching on TV, and he replies, "I'm not sure, I think it's CSI Bournemouth." However an hour-long documentary-drama reenactment was made of the case in 2009 by Tern TV with official cooperation. (The police CCTV footage is used.) The screengrabs below are from this docudrama reenactment, part of their Real Crime series.

 

Above: the blackmailer sent complicated instructions for payment, copying the method use in a previous case.

 

Above: During the bomb threat, Tesco had to warn customers about suspicious packages etc.

 

Above: at first, police had a wide area to trawl through, Ferndown being a sizeable and fast-growing suburb.

 

Above, a tongue-in-cheek Sunday Times editorial accompanying their double-page feature [11-3-01]: a 'mystery letter', thought to be from a 'rogue' Special Branch officer, alleged that MI5 suspected that RSPB 'twitchers' [bird-watchers] were behind the blackmail. Click on image to read larger version
(The reasoning, if you can call it that, was that RSPB were animal-rights activitists and extremists who might be under the influence of 'foreign agents.') This was one aspect of the case omitted from the Tern TV programme, though their researcher contacted us to ask for copies of the Sunday Times coverage, which we supplied. The whistleblowing leak caused a fuss about the relationship between MI5 and the police, article below.

 

 

 

Above: the self-styled 'Mardi Gra' [sic] Bomber, included in the film as he had tried the same type of crime earlier and was a likely source of inspiration for the Borunemouth bomber.

 

Above: Coded ads were used to communicate with the Bournemouth bomber-blackmailer.

 

 

 

Above: classified personal ads were also used for direct communication.

 

 

The Echo was involved in the case from early on.

 

 


The blackmailer's mistakes allowed the surveillance be narrowed down to a manageable area.

 

Above and below: However there often remained the problem of poor-quality CCTV imagery.

 

 

 

Searching his home, detectives found a new blackmail letter being composed on the bomber's home computer.

 

The Echo's headline was a grim pun on the fact such home-made bombs usually contain nails for maximum damage.

 

The face of the blackmailer - bomber finally revealed by the police mug shot.

It was only after the arrest that most of the back story emerged, including the fact this was in ways a copycat crime ... in fact it was a copycat of a copycat.


 

Crown Prosecution Service's year-end report


The official summary of the case, from the Crown Prosecution Service's year-end report. In fact, under the new system of jailtime-reduction 'tariffs' designed to save costs, Dyer was quietly released after 6 years of the 16 he was originally sentenced to.


book cover
The copycat's manual: the evident source of inspiration for McHugh - and perhaps others.

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