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Bill Rowland interview: Murder and mystery

Can you tell us about a big mystery concerning the Common?

Well many years ago in the early 1980s I was sat on a horse near Queensmere one February darkish afternoon around 4.30pm and I saw these three chaps walking around the pond. They all had beards with donkey jackets. They spoke to me and asked me how deep the pond was and had we ever found any bodies in the pond. I said no and thought no more of it and I didn’t really know how deep it was. Then on the Sunday morning I was on duty and somebody came to the office and said there was a dead cat in the pond. So myself and a colleague took a makeshift canoe that we had then – a health and safety requirement – and paddled our way out into the middle of the lake. I put my hand down to pull the cat out of the water and it happened to be a man’s body floating. We dragged the guy in and apparently he had been in there at least two weeks so you can imagine [the condition] with plenty of pike in there. But when I went to the coroner’s court at the end they found out this guy was a Russian. During the war he had been involved in some kind of coalition with the Nazis. They were convinced this chap had been assassinated but the only injuries they could find was a bash on the back of his head and drowning so there was an open verdict. It went on for many years, this story. It’s in the book Mysteries of Wimbledon.    

You were here during the murder of Rachel Nickell. Can you talk about that?

Yes, a very sad occasion in the history of Wimbledon Common.  This was in 1992. Rachel Nickell was a striking young lady who walked on the Common. She stroked the horse many times with her young son walking around in the morning. But on this particular day there was a charity golf match on so the car park was full of cars. At 9.30am a man walking his dog came across this lady’s body just below the hill and a young boy crying. He ran to the rangers and we went down there. As soon as I saw the body although I didn’t know her name I knew which car she drove. The police turned up very quickly. This poor young lady had been stabbed 49 times and a young child had been bashed around the face. Straight away a complete lockdown of the Common was involved, a search was made but nothing else happened after that. We cordoned off the Common and for months and months searches were made for the murder weapon which was never found. Witnesses said they saw a chap in a trench about 50 yards away washing his hands and the rumour was that he jumped across into the cemetery and escaped across there. Many things were going on at the time. Everybody who had done anything undesirable on the Common was brought in and checked over. But still for ages and ages nothing came of it until they did a Crimewatch video. A local character was identified and subsequently arrested. They hadn’t got anything on him so they let him go.  But there was a controversial honey-trap. They got a policewoman to befriend him, write to him and try to coax him to confess which he never did. When it went to the Old Bailey the judge threw it out. So he was awarded around £800,000 and for years the whole thing went quiet until a man who was already in Broadmoor after murdering a young woman and child over in the East End of London [was identified]. When DNA was found they could identify this chap and he was found to be the murderer. So there it ended.