The general consensus on a young James Hanratty was that he wasn’t ‘quite right’ – he displayed evidence of impaired intellect and delayed development (his personality having been described as anti social, disinhibited and egotistical.) By the time he was ready to move up to St James’Catholic High School In Barnet, North London, his teachers proclaimed him to be uneducable.
However, his doting parents were having non of it and resisted all attempts to send him to an educational institution which would better serve his complex needs. So upon leaving school in 1951 Hanratty found himself unpopular, unqualified and illiterate.
After a failed job with the local council James headed for the bright lights of Brighton and after a couple of years made his way to the bohemian utopia of Soho where he endeavored to affiliate himself with the criminal underworld.
Eventually forced to seek treatment for his psychiatric problems Hanratty spent a while as an outpatient at the Portman Clinic, this was possibly a requirement of his probation, as he had by now acquired an increasing number of convictions, (including house braking & various motoring offenses). Unfortunately the treatment had no effect whatsoever and the next seven years of his life were spent in and out of prison. In each of the institutions that housed him Hanratty became well know as a psychopath.
In the March of 1961 Hanratty left Strangeways and headed back down south.
Fast forward five months to the night of the 22nd of August and the picturesque village of Dorney Reach. An amorous couple inside a Morris Minor are parked up in a cornfield. He is a scientist at the Road Research Laboratory, his paramour a lab assistant. This clandestine meeting is to be their last.
Michael Gregsten and Valerie Storie were abducted at gunpoint and forced to drive in a roundabout manner, as their assailant chatted away in his distinctive, uneducated cockney accent occasionally ordering them to stop and pick up supplies.
Complaining of fatigue and spying a lay-by the back seat conquistador forced Gregsten to pull over. Rather ominously his final destination was Deadman’s Hill, beside the A6.
After parking up Gregsten reached down to retrieve a duffle bag and the sudden movement spooked their perfidious passenger, two shots rang out, both of which hit Gregsten in the head at point blank range. He died instantly.
The understandably hysterical Ms. Storie was unceremoniously forced into the back seat where she was ordered to remove her undergarments before being viciously raped. After the attack Valerie pleaded for her life, handing over both her money and the car keys in a vain attempt to save her own skin. But the fiend showed no mercy and after appearing to back off turned and fired the gun at her seven times (even pausing to reload).
Hitting the ground the courageous young woman ‘played possum,’ and believing her dead the gunman drove off. Although she had escaped with her life Valerie was left paralyzed from the bullets which had penetrated her shoulder, arm and leg. Her spinal cord was severed. Aged just 23, she was never to walk again.
James Hanratty was arrested for this heinous crime on the 11th of October 1961 at the Stevonia Cafe on Central Drive, Blackpool. Quite what he was doing in Blackpool has never been explained, it is thought he had arranged to meet some contacts in the Philharmonic Club on Foxhall Road, but this has never been verified.
It was in fact two prostitutes who recognised the villain as he sipped his tea, after seeing a facial composite in the national press. One of the ladies gamely engaged him in conversation whilst her companion went to inform the local police.
Intriguingly, Hanratty was not the only suspect in this case, Back in London, the manager of the Alexandra Court Hotel reported a surreptitious tenant to the authorities, one Peter Louis Alphon, a local transient who bankrolled his accommodation by gambling. In an extraordinary twist of fate Hanratty had been a hotel guest there at the same time as Alphon.
When spent cartridges from the murder weapon were discovered down the back of a sofa in a basement guest room rented by Hanratty, ( at the Vienna Hotel) and the gun found wrapped in a gents handkerchief on a local bus, this evidence seemed to indicate Hanratty was the guilty party.
(Alphon was also able to provide police with a credible alibi for that fateful evening.)
Valarie Storie subsequently identified Hanratty in a police line up, for although he had made an attempt to disguise his image, when asked to repeat the phrase “shut up, I’m thinking” his cockney accent and fricative tendency to say ‘f’ instead of ‘th’ were a dead giveaway.
At his capital murder trial on the 22nd January 1962, Hanratty faced judge and jury at Bedfordshire Assizes. After 21 days of listening to evidence and nine hours of deliberation the jurors delivered a unanimous verdict of guilty.
James Hanratty was hanged on the 4th April by Harry Allen, who shares the dubious joint honor of being Britain’s last hangman. (Harry, incidentally, later retired to Fleetwood where he got a job giving change on the pier!)
Later, evidence came to light casting doubt on Hanratty’s conviction and a band of campaigners including MPs, politicians, journalists and even John Lennon & Yoko Ono contested the judgement. His family repeatedly called for further inquiries into the case.
In the spring of 2001 James Hanratty’s body was exhumed for the purpose of obtaining a DNA sample. This was compared with DNA extracted from mucus on the handkerchief that accompanied the gun and on semen found in Valerie Storie’s underwear.
It was found to be a match.
Further appeal hearings were held, bad storage was blamed for contamination of samples, new theories and conspiracies were heard, but the verdict of guilty was not to be overturned.
One person adamant Hanratty should not be exonerated was Valerie Storie, so I’ll give her the last word;
“ I identified the guilty man, I looked in his eyes and he looked into mine. I knew who he was, and he knew I recognised him. I had found the guilty person.”