Victims of Britain's most bent copper finally win justice

Britain’s most bent copper: In the 70s, a brutal detective sergeant kept ‘fitting up’ young black men, ruining their lives. As his victims finally win justice, the only consolation? Derek Ridgewell died in jail – and the nation’s changing for the better

My whole adult life was taken up fighting to clear my name,’ says Winston Trew. 

‘I came out of Eastchurch prison aged 23 and I was only acquitted when I was 69. That’s a long time.’

This is the extraordinary story of a racist and corrupt policeman called Derek Ridgewell who, half a century ago, destroyed the good names and blighted the lives of more than a dozen young black men.

Only in recent years has the justice system begun to rectify the wrongs he inflicted, with the impetus for doing so provided by the dogged and deeply impressive determination of Mr Trew.

This week, three of the so-called ‘Stockwell Six’ who were jailed nearly 50 years ago for crimes they did not commit, had their convictions overturned at the court of appeal.

Only in recent years has the justice system begun to rectify the wrongs he inflicted, with the impetus for doing so provided by the dogged and deeply impressive determination of Winston Trew (pictured above)

The trio, all members of the ‘Windrush generation’ of post-war immigrants from the West Indies, are only the latest to be cleared after having been ‘fitted up’ by Ridgewell.

They wept with joy and relief but, in many ways, it is too late.

Their youth is gone. Their good names have been returned only in their twilight years.

As one of the judges, Sir Julian Flaux, said, with considerable understatement: ‘It is most unfortunate that it has taken nearly 50 years to rectify the injustice suffered by these appellants.’

So who was the police officer described as ‘corrupt and wicked and evil’ by one of his victims this week?

Derek Arnold Ridgewell, born in Glasgow in May 1945, was the son of a civil engineer.

The family moved to South London when Ridgewell was a child and at the age of 19 he joined the British Transport Police.

A year later, he emigrated to join the paramilitary police in Southern Rhodesia, a colony still under white minority rule.

But shortly after its prime minister Ian Smith instituted a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and the country lurched towards a race war, Ridgewell returned to the UK and rejoined the BTP.

This brief interlude poses an important question: was Ridgewell’s time in Rhodesia instrumental in turning him into an authoritarian racist or was it an indication of a pre-existing prejudice?

Derek Arnold Ridgewell, born in Glasgow in May 1945, was the son of a civil engineer. The family moved to South London when Ridgewell was a child and at the age of 19 he joined the British Transport Police. A year later, he emigrated to join the paramilitary police in Southern Rhodesia, a colony still under white minority rule

Ridgewell was promoted to detective sergeant in 1971 and put in charge of an undercover ‘mugging squad’ on the Underground.

The role gave him almost unfettered power to pursue his prejudices. Within six months in the following year he had committed four separate outrages against random young black men.

The Waterloo 4

On February 2, 1972, four black, juvenile males were travelling on a Tube train between Oval and Waterloo when they were attacked by a group of white passengers.

It was only on reaching Waterloo, when the youths were manhandled off the train, that their assailants identified themselves as plain clothes police officers, led by Ridgewell.

All four were charged under the so-called ‘sus law’ — later repealed — with being a ‘suspected person’ who had been ‘loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence’ on the Underground.

They signed confessions. But in court one of them stated: ‘I just signed it because I was frightened that I would get beaten up, too.’

The police evidence was contradictory and refuted by the girlfriend of one of the accused, also on the train. The girlfriend happened to be white.

Southwark Juvenile Court threw out the prosecution and referred the case to the BTP for investigation of its own officers’ behaviour. The force reported there was ‘no evidence . . . to support any allegation against any person’. It had cleared itself.

But the Waterloo 4 case was a template for what happened thereafter: young black men on the Tube suddenly attacked by plain clothes officers, arrested, beaten and made to sign false confessions of theft to avoid further punishment and incarceration. This was Ridgewell’s modus operandi.

The Stockwell Six

Sixteen days after the Waterloo incident, Ridgewell’s team struck again.

Ridgewell was to claim in court that he had been acting as a decoy when he was attacked by an armed gang on a train at Stockwell.

One of the supposed gang, Courtney Harriott, allegedly pulled out a knife and demanded ‘Give us bread, man.’ After a struggle all six were arrested.

Again the police account was disputed by the accused, who said they had done nothing wrong and were beaten up to sign statements to confess to offences. 

The police evidence sounded far-fetched: no black youth would use the word ‘bread’ for money. That was a white hippie term.

Five of the six were convicted. Harriott got three years’ imprisonment, and four received two years’ Borstal training.

The sixth youth was illiterate and could not have understood or signed his statement and was acquitted. Another BTP investigation into this anomaly found no wrongdoing.

This week, three of the so-called ‘Stockwell Six’ who were jailed nearly 50 years ago for crimes they did not commit, had their convictions overturned at the court of appeal. Winston Trew is pictured above with his wife Hyacinth outside court after his name was cleared

The Oval 4

On March 16, 1972, Ridgewell’s squad was back in action. Their target was four young black men. One of them was Winston Trew, a married father of two, aged 21.

His father had been a police sergeant in British colonial Jamaica and had named his boy after the Mother Country’s wartime leader. Winston came to Britain as a small boy, when his parents decided it offered the promise of a better education for their three children.

What he encountered, Mr Trew told the Mail this week, was something entirely new to him: racism.

‘On my first day at infant school in South London another child walked up to me in the playground and punched me in the face, for being black,’ he says. ‘That was my ‘Welcome to England’ moment.’

As a youth he became used to being called ‘golliwog’ and having white men shout the N-word at him from passing cars. A bright boy whose education was stifled by this conflict, he became active in radical community politics and the nascent Black Power movement.

It was while making his way home after attending a meeting with activists that he and his friends fell into the clutches of Ridgewell.

‘We used to walk around in groups, not because we were in a gang but for our own protection,’ he says.

‘We were stopped at Oval Underground station. They produced no ID at first. We thought they were just some white guys making trouble. A fight broke out.

‘When they identified themselves as police I just thought: ‘Here we go again’. We were used to harassment. But once they got us in to the van on the way to the station I began to worry.

‘They told us we would be getting a hiding and no sooner was I in the corridor at Brixton station than I had been punched twice in the head and I was left confused and vulnerable — and very afraid. Once you are in a cell you are facing the prospect of a serious hiding.’

Then Ridgewell produced a prepared statement: ‘A confession for me to sign. It was total rubbish. They kept going on about me having picked pockets at bus stops. I was desperate in the end. They told me ‘You’re not going anywhere until you sign’. Ridgewell said, ‘You blacks have got no rights’.

‘In the end I signed a false confession that I had committed a number of these offences. I did it because I was frightened and also because I knew I had a cast-iron alibi for the times I gave (he was signing on at the labour exchange) and therefore thought that the case would fall apart later as a result. I was honestly afraid I would not come out of the station alive.

‘There was no CCTV, no mobile phone footage, nothing like that to help you. We told our lawyer the police were lying and he said things would be worse if we said anything like that and to make sure we kept our mouths shut.’

The pickpocket allegations did fall apart at the Old Bailey trial. But Trew and the others were convicted of assault on police and attempted theft and jailed for two years.

This was later reduced on appeal to eight months.

Tottenham Court 2

On the night of August 4, 1972, Ridgewell’s gang committed its most egregious ‘fitting up’.

Two devout Jesuit college students from Rhodesia, both black, who were studying social work at Oxford were ‘set upon’ by ‘five burly strangers’ at Tottenham Court Road Underground station. 

Again, it was only after the initial melee that the students learned that their assailants were undercover police, led by Ridgewell.

The pair were subsequently charged with assaulting police and attempted handbag theft. But none of the accounts given by the police officers were the same.

At the Old Bailey the charges were thrown out by Judge Gwyn Morris who said ‘One is dealing with highly reputable … students. One is not dealing with people of bad character. How can any possible reliance be placed on these officers?’

He added: ‘I find it terrible that here in London people using public transport should be pounced upon by police officers without a word by anyone that they are police officers.’ 

In 1973 the BBC Nationwide programme broadcast an investigation into the suspect cases brought against black men by Ridgewell.

But he remained in the police force and public interest died away. However, the damage to his victims’ lives and reputations was permanent. ‘I lost everything,’ says Mr Trew. 

‘My wife blamed Black Power for me going to prison and did not understand why I had signed a statement admitting the offences. It was all too much for her.

‘I came out of jail in July 1973 and by 1974 she left me and took my sons to live in Jamaica and that was it. My life over. My mother believed me. 

She said: ‘He might have an attitude towards the police but he is not someone who would pick pockets.’ 

But some of the parents of Ridgewell’s other victims did not believe their sons. They did not think a policeman could lie.

‘I was an angry man, with myself, the police, my wife and the whole world. And the four of us (the Oval 4) drifted apart. I felt very much alone. It was a horrible time.

‘Ridgewell threw a hand grenade into my life. The only way I could get my life together was to investigate Ridgewell. So that is what I did for the next 40 years.’

One of the first discoveries was that his accuser had himself been jailed, for very different offences.

After questions were raised about the prosecution of black males by his mugging squad, Ridgewell was quietly moved to a different job, investigating Royal Mail bag thefts.

On the face of it, he was a model of suburban respectability and rectitude. He and his wife owned a general store in South London, and were members of the tennis club. He did not drink.

It was all a façade. Ridgewell was not simply a racist; he was rotten to the core. He began to steal from the mail bags himself and in 1978 he was caught.

In January 1980, at the Old Bailey, Derek Ridgewell was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for a conspiracy to steal goods worth £1.3 million in today’s money and corruptly accepting a gift. His next address was to be Wormwood Scrubs.

‘I read about it and thought ‘Crumbs, he really was a crook!’ Mr Trew recalls.

While Ridgewell was languishing in jail, Mr Trew got his life back together as best he could. He gained a degree, then a Master’s, remarried and in 1987 took up a post as a lecturer in sociology at South Bank University.

But Ridgewell’s unpunished crimes haunted Mr Trew still.

‘Slowly little bits of information about Ridgewell came in but there were long periods where I wasn’t getting anywhere and you do get very depressed. I never gave up.’

He combed the National Archives. The passing of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 was a major boost. He was able to access papers related to Ridgewell from the Offender Management Service. 

The first revelation was that his tormentor had died of a heart attack in Ford Open Prison in 1983. He was 37 years old.

The papers also contained a report by a prison governor who had asked Ridgewell how had he had ended up in jail.

‘I just went bent,’ the ex-policeman was reported to have replied.

‘They sent me a big file on all the contentious cases he was involved in and that’s where it all fell into place,’ says Mr Trew. 

‘I’d read about the Tottenham Court Two when I was in prison. But the file alerted me to the Waterloo Four.

‘I had another big breakthrough when Graham Satchwell, a senior ex-British Transport Police officer revealed he had found the entire transcript of my Old Bailey trial, among material he had unearthed for a book he was writing on the Great Train Robbery.’

Mr Trew wrote a book of his own on his fight for justice and Ridgewell’s wrongdoings — Black For A Cause … Not Just Because: The Case Of The ‘Oval 4’ — which was published in 2010.

It was to have a profound impact on all concerned.

Ridgewell had not only ‘fitted up’ young blacks.

Stephen Simmons, now a businessman, is white. But as a 21-year-old in 1975 he had been arrested ‘out of the blue’ and falsely accused by Ridgewell of mail-bag theft.

He was convicted and sent to Borstal, losing his job and home.

‘Stephen Simmons was someone like me who did not accept he was guilty,’ says Mr Trew. 

‘He saw my material on the internet and contacted the Criminal Cases Review Commission, who contacted me.’ 

The book was used in evidence at the appeal and Mr Simmons had his conviction quashed as unsafe in January 2018. Thanks to Mr Trew, the endgame for the Ridgewell victims had begun.

In December 2019, Mr Trew and two others of the Oval 4 also had their convictions quashed on appeal. The fourth member could not be traced. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, told them: ‘Our regret is that it has taken so long for this injustice to be remedied.’

This week, three of the Stockwell 6, including Courtney Harriot, were also — belatedly — cleared. Two could not be traced. BTP apologised, once again.

‘I feel good for them,’ says Mr Trew, 70. ‘I’m glad I helped. A weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I used to say to my wife: ‘That bastard’s ruined my life. But his memory no longer bothers me at all’.

‘In a sense, Ridgewell’s wrong-doing was the making of me.’

He believes that many of the problems he faced remain unresolved, however. ‘There is still police corruption, there is still antagonism between young black men and police,’ he says.

‘I am old now and so invisible on the streets. But I wouldn’t like to be a young guy today.

‘The sus law has gone but others which have similar negative impact are in its place.

‘There still needs to be a fundamental change in the way police approach young black men.’

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