The nineties were a strange time in good old Blighty. Tony Blair in government, the Spice Girls at #1, and little old me living out my primary school days in dismal Fife. Dark days indeed. And things only got darker towards the end of the decade, with the sensationalized murder of the nation’s sweetheart — no not Princess Dianna, her death was entirely accidental… allegedly…
That’s a matter for another, far more controversial episode. But before we even think about joining the conspiracy nuts and going head to head with the British monarchy, we’re taking a deep dive into another tragic death from those days. This was the murder of Jill Dando: journalist, TV presenter, and all-round English girl next door.
This iconic TV personality, who spent so much of her professional life wrapped up in current affairs, ended up becoming perhaps the biggest murder story of the decade. The mystery of her demise is a tangled web of theories, which splinter off and overlap with some of the biggest news stories of the era. It would take a real true crime genius to sort through it all.
Lucky you’ve got me then. So sit back, and strap in, for a very British unsolved mystery…
Jill Dando was born in Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, in 1961. I’m terrible with UK geography, but I know Somerset is south enough that it falls under the category of ‘probably quite posh but I’m not sure.’ Dando herself was born into a middle-class, journalistic family, and followed her father and brother to work at the local paper.
But the youngest Dando journo was destined for bigger things. After five years she landed a gig with BBC Radio, and eventually worked her way up to some of the biggest TV gigs going.
By the mid nineties, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Somerset girl became a familiar face on everything from the evening news to Crimewatch.
If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically like our America’s Most Wanted — they discuss open investigations, appeal for information, and stage reconstructions of crimes for the viewers at home. Nobody would have believed, while they watched ever-professional Jill rattle offer lines from the teleprompter, that she herself would one day become the focus of such an investigation.
Fast forward to the spring of 1999. Jill is more content with life than ever — successful in work, at ease in her own skin, and scheduled to marry her fiancé, Dr Alan Farthing, that September. Dando was truly a woman at the peak of her professional and personal life, but all of that was about to be cruelly taken away…
At quarter to twelve on the 26th of April, 1999, a woman named Helen Dobie was walking down Gowan Avenue, in Fulham, West London. She was a friend of Dando’s, and was surprised to see the presenter’s car parked out front of her old home, number 29. Dando no longer stayed at the house after moving in with her fiancé, and was already in the process of selling it.
Helen was happy to have this rare chance for a quick catch up. She approached the gate to Dando’s front garden, where a gruesome, surreal scene awaited. The 37-year-old was slumped over her own doorstep, face-down. Dobie later described the scene to the Mirror:
“Her legs were stretched out and awkwardly placed. Her hand with her engagement ring on was stretched out, and the hand was blue. That beautiful engagement ring on a very dead hand. That ring was so full of her hopes and dreams, and it was all taken from her.”
Haunting stuff. Jill’s friend and neighbor was in no doubt that she was already dead — the body was utterly lifeless, and a pool of blood spread over the doorstep. So Dobie decided to stay outside of the gate, knowing she might otherwise contaminate the crime scene. From behind the gate, she called 999. Through panic and tears, she told the operator that her friend was dead:
“She doesn’t look as though she’s breathing. She’s got blood coming from her nose. Her arms are blue.”
After she finished the call, an agonizing wait followed. The only sound on the street was the constant ringing of Jill’s mobile phone. Probably her fiancé, calling to check in on her. When the paramedics finally arrived, they attempted to resuscitate the TV star where she lay (displaying a bit less respect for the crime scene than you’d have hoped).
Dobie watched as the color returned to Jill’s arms, and was mortified — she thought there might have been a chance of saving her, had she only acted sooner. But it was all in vain. The color returning to her arms was down to the blood circulation, caused by the paramedic’s chest compressions. No matter what she or anyone else did, there was no saving Jill.
That’s because 14 minutes before she was found, someone walked up behind the TV star as she unlocked her front door, and shot her in the side of the head…
The Initial Investigation
Jill was dead long before the emergency services arrived on the scene. According to Helen Dobie’s later conversations with the cops, the first responders got a little star struck, and abandoned proper procedure when they realized the queen of primetime was the victim.
Whatever forensic evidence might have been left at the scene was irreparably contaminated when they rushed in to examine her, followed by some rookie cops a few minutes after. It was quite evident from a glance that she had been shot. The coroner would later confirm that the cause of death was a close-range gunshot to the left temple. The bullet came out on the other side of her head.
Judging by the way she was lying, it seemed like her assailant snuck up from behind, and grabbed her with his right hand, shoving her face down to the ground. He then executed her with that single shot through the skull. Detectives managed to recover the bullet from the scene, which showed the murder weapon to be a 9mm pistol.
Analysis of the cartridge showed it had probably been tampered with in a workshop prior to the crime. It’s possible the killer — or his go-to bullet technician — had modified it to have a lower charge, thereby making it quieter. Needless to say, whoever killed Jill probably really knew their stuff. They also knew that placing the gun closet her temple would help dampen the sound, and they pulled off the murder quickly and cleanly enough to be out of there in seconds.
But you have to ask, why did they do it? Her engagement ring was still on, so it wasn’t some random robbery. And the killer never tried to kidnap Jill, or force her into the house. On the face of things, there was no conceivable reason for the crime. Jill was beloved by all, with zero enemies that anyone knew of. Yet still, the whole thing seemed like an extremely targeted, extremely deliberate attack — perhaps to send some kind of message.
There would be plenty of time to follow up on those angles in the coming weeks and months, if the cops could keep the media and public under control (not exactly an easy task when a beloved celebrity is murdered). Jill was booked to present the Six O’Clock News on the night after her death. Instead, she became the week’s top headline…
Tributes flooded in for the recently-deceased presenter over the following days, from friends, colleagues, and fans. Her Crimewatch co-presenter Nick Ross prepared to host the show without her for the first time in years. In all his time on the show, that was the only time he had to pre-record the intro; he was just too distraught.
Once the show went live, lead investigator DCI Hamish Campbell introduced the timeline of events they had managed to arrive at so far. It began around an hour and a half before the murder. The postman came by Gowan Avenue at around 10:05am, and was the first to spot some suspicious activity on the street.
“I was delivering mail along the odd numbers ’til I reached 29 […] I took a couple of paces down the front garden path, and just before I reached the front garden gate, I saw a man standing in the road, looking directly at number 29. It was like he thought someone was gonna receive the mail.”
The witnesses all describe the same individual, or perhaps two different men working together that day. The most common description was of a man of average height, with dark hair, wearing a dark suit.
Just a few minutes after the post spotted that shady character, a traffic officer at the end of the street went to ticket an illegally parked Range Rover facing onto Fulham Palace Road (which runs perpendicular to Jill’s street). As she was typing the registration into her handheld system, a man knocked on the windshield — she hadn’t noticed he was sitting in the driver’s seat, so she left the car alone.
Another witness reported being tailgated by this same car a few minutes later. It started after she spotted a man in a suit looking up and down the street as she turned into Gowan Avenue. Towards the end of the street, she noticed the blue Range Rover, driving right up behind her, with what looked like at least two men inside. She continued on towards Fulham FC’s stadium, where this aggressive driver parked on the curb. Dastardly villain, or dickhead driver? I’m not entirely sure.
Then at around 10:40, a window cleaner spotted someone lingering in front of Jill’s house, speaking on his mobile phone. He was dressed similarly to the person the other witnesses reported, but this guy had blonde hair. Since Jill’s house was up for sale, he assumed the guy was an estate agent — an evil profession yes, but not illegal. Either this was a different man from the other sightings, or the window cleaner made a simple mistake on the hair color.
Twenty minutes later we get two more sightings: that blue Range Rover was spotted again at the end of the street, and a witness passed by a dark-haired guy standing between some cars. At the same time, a suited man wearing oversized glasses was spotted at the end of the road, acting nervously. Nobody took much notice of these guys at the time, so we can’t say for sure whether they’re describing one, two, or more suspects.
Judging by the distance between Alan Farthing’s house and Jill’s own place, she must have set off around now. She would have left Alan’s place at around 12:25, and arrived on her own street about six minutes later. No doubt her killer was watching as she pulled up and parked in the driveway.
Within seconds of her stepping out of the car, the execution was complete. Nobody on the street registered what had happened, as the gunshot was muted by the manner of the shot and the potential modifications. The next-door neighbor, Richard Hughes, heard Jill cry out, but not in pain — it was as if she had just recognized someone she knew.
He looked out his window and spotted a man — potentially the same one who was lingering around all morning — making off down the street in a hurry. An old man living across the street also caught sight of the same dodgy character, breaking into a run.
This mystery man continued running down the street and onto Fulham Palace Road. He was spotted by a handful more witnesses. The first about knocked him down with his car (which would’ve wrapped the investigation up a lot quicker). Others saw him talking on the phone while running down the road, before running out in front of a van, forcing the driver to emergency brake.
After that, he disappeared into Bishop’s Park. Several witnesses came forward to report seeing a man matching the description of the main suspect, talking agitatedly on the phone, and lowering his voice when they came near.
It’s actually possible that these sightings could have been of two different men fleeing the scene. One reportedly wore a dark, waxy Barbour jacket, and the other only a suit. Either way, the man in the suit eventually emerged from the park, and walked to at a bus stop on Fulham Palace Road.
One witness was already waiting there, and noted that this newcomer was sweating profusely, so much his shirt collar was soaked. He got the impression that it was a plainclothes police officer, or something like that. Since he was far closer than any of the other witnesses, he could offer up some finer details: the guy was about 5’9 – 5’10, with a “foreign looking nose”, and an indent as if he usually wore glasses.
The witness stepped onto the bus after taking one last look at the sweaty stranger. A few minutes later, at 11:45 — just as Helen Dobie was discovering Jill’s body — the man boarded a bus himself. He sat down and talked on the phone. Police were very interested in hearing from any fellow passengers that might have overheard that crucial conversation.
After getting off the bus at Putney Bridge Station at 11:55, this prime suspect fell off the face of the earth. No CCTV sightings, no further witness reports — nothing. A little over an hour later, Jill was declared dead on arrival at Charing Cross Hospital.
That was the extent of the information gathered in those early days — plenty of witnesses, but no real leads to chase. Was this mystery man (or mystery men) really the killer, or was it just some estate agent, late for a house viewing, sprinting for the bus?
Probably the former, as he never came forward to eliminate himself from suspicion.
So what are we to make of all that? It certainly sounds like the person was waiting there for Jill, and there are some pretty good odds that they weren’t working alone. Aside from that, it was a bit of an information overload. The now-solo presenter Nick Ross certainly thought so, telling the papers years later:
“they were looking for a bunch of stuff which was just likely to get a lot of people calling in, but that wasn’t very focused.”
It was the show’s job to communicate the appeals from the police to the public, but the team behind the show were fairly certain the coppers were barking up the wrong trees.For one, they placed great significance on the vehicle, which had apparently been verified using nearby CCTV.
That ended up flooding the tip lines with reports of Range Rovers, since it’s hardly an uncommon model or color of car. Even though there was no concrete reason to connect it to the murder, it came to dominate early coverage of the case. Find the Range Rover, find the killer. Unless of course it was just some road raging moron passing through the area.
To add to the possible misdirection, the top brass of the police were eager to push the narrative that Dando was killed as retaliation for her work on the show. Perhaps some big-time gangster was behind bars after Dando led an appeal for tips, so they sent a hitman to literally shoot the messenger.
The Crimewatch team thought that was a bit far-fetched. Nick Ross himself called this “foolish” many years later, and on the night of the broadcast mentioned to the audience that it was extremely rare for lawyers, judges, or police officers to face revenge killings in the UK. Never mind the prime time TV hosts that deliver their appeals.
But it did make for a damn good story. It gave the green light for viewers to wonder which previously featured crook could have hired the hit. As you can imagine, this opened the floodgates on the tip lines, filled with thousands of reports of Range Rovers and theories from everyone and their gran. Most of it, as usual, was useless. As Nick put it:
“Already it was clear that this had such big publicity, the risk was they would get swamped with literally thousands of lines of enquiry. Which is exactly what happened, they finished up with over 7,000 lines of enquiry.”
If we apply the usual ratios, that must have meant 10 actual witnesses, 100 intelligent ideas, 2,000 well-meaning suggestions, and 4,890 pieces of absolute, howling nonsense.
The Lines of Inquiry
Now, unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of turning this episode into a 50 part special, so we’ll have to distill those 7000 lines of inquiry into something a bit more manageable. The police operation surrounding the case was titled Operation Oxborough, and they spent the better part of a year just distilling this ocean of speculation down. Here are the most interesting avenues they pursued.
Let’s start at the slightly less credible end of the spectrum. Early on, some high ranking police officers, above DCI Campbell’s head, seemed dead set on the idea that a disgruntled crook hired an assassin to murder Dando in retaliation for their arrest. That essentially widened the scope of suspects to everyone featured on Crimewatch — shoplifters to drug smugglers to public masturbators. Perhaps the Worcester Wank Bandit had graduated to murder.
But if some incarcerated crime boss really was out for revenge, you’d think that Dando would be pretty low on their kill list. Dozens of police officers, public prosecutors, judges, and witnesses come together to put you behind bars, yet you decide to go after the woman that introduced a poorly-acted reconstruction of the crime?
Probably not. There would likely be a far bigger trail of destruction to follow if it was a simple matter of revenge, but nothing of the sort materialized. As Nick Ross pointed out to the press years later:
“[W}e knew it would not be to do with Crimewatch. In modern times, there has never been a judge attacked for sending someone down, a prosecuting solicitor, or anybody. It’s just not the way it happens here.”
After all, we’re talking about Blighty, not Bogota. After spending thousands of man hours pursuing this angle, the police eventually agreed.
Something More Personal
If not an incarcerated crook, there remained the possibility that someone else had bad blood against Dando. Perhaps someone in her personal or professional life. The cops gathered alibis from everyone from her agent to her ex-boyfriends, but none became suspects. There was also no hint that Dando owed anyone money, or had any ongoing personal feuds.
So if not someone close to her, perhaps someone who desperately wanted to be… Dando was a young, pretty woman in the public eye — the nation’s primetime sweetheart. As you can imagine, that meant she had more than her fair share of creeps hovering around. Her brother Nigel even told the police that she was worried about “some guy pestering her” a few days before the murder.
That particular creep had an alibi, but she received thousands of pieces of fan mail at the BBC, some of which were extremely sexually explicit. Out of all those horny, horny mail sacks, 140 people were identified as being “obsessed” with the TV star. Could one of them, frustrated with Dando’s romantic indifference, or upcoming wedding, have tracked her down and killed her?
That might explain why the killer was apparently waiting at an address she rarely used anymore. If it were someone close to her, they’d have known she had basically moved out of 29 Gowan Avenue. But then, this doesn’t sit quite right with the manner of the killing.
I’m no criminal psychologist (not a qualified, paid, or competent one, anyway), but it seems to me that a skilled execution from behind doesn’t add up with a crime of obsessive passion. Surely if the killer was obsessed with Dando, he would have wanted her to see his face — or even know his name — before pulling the trigger.
It would have been a far more intimate event than it turned out to be— which was far more in keeping with a cold, emotionless, contract killing. Would the killer not have waited until Dando was inside, and tried to gain access? Would they not have taken a souvenir: her wedding ring, or a piece of clothing?
Perhaps I’m a better criminal psychologist than I give myself credit for, because it turned out that all 140 of the sexually-frustrated correspondents were tracked down, and had solid alibis for that day. Which makes me wonder, were they really putting their return addresses on their sweaty-palmed fan mail?
Random Act of Violence
With all of her stalkers and boyfriends absolved, the criminal obsession theory all but fell apart. The idea that someone was following Dando was also discredited by thorough CCTV analysis of her final days. Her brother Nigel Dando told Scotland’s own TV golden girl Lorraine Kelly:
“The police carried out an exhaustive check of CCTV, as it existed then. They plotted Jill’s journey. […] They were able to monitor thousands of phone calls being made in the area at the time at that area and there was nothing that jumped out on that day.”
That’s a lot of data to go on. According to data from 2020, London is the third most surveilled city in the world with over 630,000 CCTV cameras (8 of the rest of the top 10 are in China, and one in India). If Jill was being followed before the crime, the guy must have done a damn good job of hiding himself.
For this reason and more, Nigel Dando believes that it wasn’t a targeted attack against his sister at all. He was sitting in his newspaper office the day of the murder, and found out about his sister’s murder when it flashed up on a monitor showing Sky News. He spent years trying to make sense of the event afterwards, before concluding that… maybe there wasn’t any sense to it at all.
He thinks it was just some violent opportunist that took their chance to kill a celebrity. Nigel added: “I believe there was no reason, it was just an act of random brutality and Jill was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
After all, if the killer really was plotting against Jill, then they surely would have done better research. It wasn’t a secret that the house was vacant and up for sale. She only actually went there that day to pick something up before heading off for a wedding dress fitting.
That could certainly help explain away some of the more confusing parts of this riddle; arbitrary murders are often the hardest to solve. However, several details mean it’s not quite waterproof itself.
For one, the man lingering across the road was there for almost an hour and a half. He was in the area from the postman’s sighting at 10:05 until fleeing the scene after the murder. It hardly screams ‘random violence’, especially when he’s spotted right across from that specific house. And the fact he happened to have a gun on him implies he came prepared.
I mean, 9mm pistols aren’t exactly ten-a-penny in the UK (our supermarkets just sell food and non-deadly essentials, unfortunately). So if you’re going to use one, you probably have to have a few connections to get your hands on it. Plenty of old blokes down the pub might claim they know a guy, but I’ve yet to follow up on any of their claims.
Usually, Londoners prefer their random acts of violence a bit more traditional: good old-fashioned stabbings. I’m not saying it’s impossible this was a random, spur-of-the-moment, broad-daylight shooting — just that those are relatively rare in the UK. And if the bullet really was modified before use, then it only adds to the idea that this person came with murderous intent.
The Entire Nation of Serbia
So once you’ve eliminated stalkers, lovers, gangsters, and random thugs, where the hell do you look next? Those pesky Serbs, of course. It would normally take some impressive mental gymnastics to accuse the entire country of Serbia for the murder of a BBC presenter, but the idea is actually surprisingly sensible.
Back in April 1999, the Kosovo war was fast approaching a bloody zenith. Since March 24th, NATO air forces had been launching strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (a union of Serbia and Montenegro), in retaliation for the ethnic cleansing of Albanians. An ethnic cleansing which Dando personally led appeals against, campaigning for humanitarian aid.
Even more compelling, was that just three days before Jill Dando’s murder, a British bomber involved in the project struck a broadcasting station in Belgrade. Sixteen civilian workers died inside, one of whom — according to Jill’s mother — was essentially her Yugoslav equivalent: ‘the Jill Dando of Serbia’.
If the Serbs were keen to strike back at the UK for killing their civilians, they might have chosen Dando as the target for symbolic reasons: an eye for an eye (or rather, a beloved primetime presenter for a beloved primetime presenter). On that theory, her sister Judith said:
“The fact it might have been a tit for tat reprisal, I can understand that might be the case, particularly since the way Jill was killed, it makes me think it’s related to something bigger than the actual act.”
Threats did come in to the BBC in the days before Jill’s murder, which resulted in an increase in security around the the director general Sir John Birt. If he were the intended target of the reprisals, perhaps Jill was the plan B — a fail safe if they were unable to reach the broadcasting chief himself.
Or who knows, maybe there were Serbian operatives watching the doors of more beloved BBC legends that day, seeing who showed up first. That would mean they missed a golden opportunity to put down Saville (that’s the episode I really wish I was writing).
This angle was never taken particularly seriously by the police. Despite the fact a Serbian hitman was in London at the time, he was overlooked in the early days. And the threats never stopped with Dando’s death. Shortly after, calls came into the BBC from several men with heavy Eastern-European accents, claiming responsibility for various Bosnian-Serb nationalist groups. The director of BBC News was even told he was next on the list:
“[Y]our Prime Minister Blair murdered, butchered 17 innocent young people[…] He butchered, we butcher back. The first one you had yesterday. The next one will be Tony Hall.”
It’s impossible to tell if they were all hoaxes or not, but some familiar with the tactics of the old Yugoslavian hit squads were quick to point out some key similarities. One was Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, who fought in Bosnia during his time in the army. He is quoted as saying:
“It had all the hallmarks of covert forces. The killer even used specially tailored ammunition, which was a Serbian assassination trademark and something I saw when I was over there.”
The hitmen employed by the Yugoslav communists were known to work in pairs — a shooter and a lookout. That would fit the theory that two strange men were lingering around that day, one across from the house and one on the corner keeping watch. These highly-trained killers would have known to avoid blood splatters by placing the gun right against the head.
The Slavic Sicarios also made a habit of killing people on their doorsteps, as this was a way to confirm their identities before pulling the trigger. In fact, just fifteen days earlier, dissident Serbian journalist Slavko Curuvija was found dead on his doorstep in Belgrade, in an eerily similar fashion to Dando. Even his widow believes there was a connection between the two deaths.
Compelling stuff, but if these guys were such pros, then surely their escape plan went a bit further than “run until drenched in sweat and hop on the number 45 bus”. That’s the thinking of a teenage shoplifter, not an international hitman.
And it’s also likely their weapons would have been slightly more sophisticated. The cartridge casing of the gun was recovered from the scene, and analysis suggested that the handgun might have actually been a replica, modified in a workshop to function like the real thing.
I know the budgets were probably tight in Belgrade at the time, but surely you can avoid proper guns for your assassins…
Each of the possibilities seems reasonable enough, but every single one has its flaws. That’s why, six months into the investigation — despite a ridiculously bloated case file, with 2,500 interviews and 1000 statements on record — no definite leads solidified.
Hope was beginning to dry up. With the Serbs off the hook for now, the police decided to hone in on one individual who couldn’t be fully accounted for…
By the turn of the millennium, the London Metropolitan Police had arrived at the belief that an individual with mental problems killed Dando in an act of reckless opportunism. They extended their search beyond Dando’s immediate acquaintances, to include any dangerous eccentrics in the local area.
That’s how they first came across Barry George, described by his own defense lawyer as “the local nutter”. That might sound harmless enough — every British town has its local nutter, after all. If you don’t know who yours is, it’s probably you. But Barry was apparently a more dangerous nutter than usual.
He was known for uncomfortably approaching women in Fulham and the surrounding burroughs, and held convictions for various sexual harassment and antisocial crimes. For example, in 1983 he was arrested while hiding in the bushes outside of Kensington Palace, waiting to see Princess Dianna. Rather than an autograph book, he brought some rope, a knife, and a belt, and was wearing combat gear (for which he amazingly faced no charges).
He also fit the profile of an unstable eccentric perfectly. Barry was known for claiming to be the cousin of Freddy Mercury, and lied about serving in the SAS. His severe social problems might have been related to Asperger’s syndrome, which can make reading interactions extremely difficult.
He may have also had the motive and knowledge to commit the crime. Barry had a short stint of employment with the BBC, working as a messenger. Even after he was let go, he continued to pop in to collect a copy of the staff newsletter.
It’s possible he could have set his sights on Dando while working there. Or, since his house was just a ten minute walk from hers, on Crookham Road, there was every chance he just knew where she lived. Celebrities rarely get the same privacy as ordinary people.
The cops decided to start tailing Barry and observing his behavior. In the three weeks they followed him, he approached 38 different women on the street, and tried to initiate conversations. Maybe he was just being friendly though.
This was taken as reason enough to search his home, where the puzzle pieces all fell nicely into place. Inside were 100 rolls of undeveloped photographic film, featuring 2,248 pictures of women, taken by Barry George without the knowledge of those featured. Oh okay, he was probably not just being friendly. I’d like to formally retract that statement.
It seemed that Barry made a habit of following women around — both celebrities and everyday folks — and snapping the old-school film photographs for his collection. Among the women featured was TV personality Anthea Turner: another blonde, pretty BBC mainstay. Dando herself wasn’t featured, but as I mentioned, she lived just a short walk away.
So there’s your motive right there. How about the means? Apparently Barry was a fully-fledged gun nut, who collected military magazines, owned a list of firearms, leather holster (sans handgun), and other weapons-related paraphernalia.
Key to the case against him was a photograph of the suspect, wearing a gas mask and holding a starter pistol. According to the police, that gun could have been modified to fire live ammunition, as they suspected was the case in Dando’s death. The nail in the coffin was a tiny speck of gunpowder, found on the inside of his jacket pocket.
On the 25th of May, Barry George was arrested and formally charged with the murder of Jill Dando three days later. All of the evidence above led to his conviction a year later, when he was sentenced to life in prison on July 2nd 2001. After all that promise of James Bond level intrigue, our culprit turned out to be… just some weird guy….
Or was he? I mean, our man Barry was very much a weird guy, but was he the murderer? That’s a more difficult question. For one, he wasn’t exactly a dead ringer for the police sketch. Bear in mind, this sketch was made from the testimony of quite a few witnesses, and they reported someone more “mediterranean” in appearance. If you take a look at his mugshot and sketch side by side, they look a bit similar… if you shave off 70% of the chin and completely reshape the nose.
There was no physical evidence placing him at the scene either — that spot of gunpowder was key to proving he could have handled live ammunition at some point. However, analysis after his conviction proved this was hardly the smoking gun it was made out to be.
The jacket had been taken to a photographic studio before the laboratory, the same photographic studio where a terrorism suspect’s gun and bullets were photographed before being put into evidence not long before. Neither the mannequin nor the surfaces there were tested for gunpowder beforehand, completely undermining the evidence.
Then there was the method of the crime: although Barry was hooked on ‘stolen valor’, he didn’t actually have any special forces training. In fact, even his regular education was extremely lacking; his defense team pointed out that he had developmental problems, and an IQ of 75. According to the tests of prison psychologists, he tested in the bottom percentile for memory and other aptitude tests. Hardly evil genius material.
As you can see, the case against Barry George was actually much thinner than it seemed in that first trial. His defense team lobbied two failed appeals against his conviction over the following years, arguing that the police had just gone with the most convenient scapegoat to avoid looking like fools in front of the nation. It wasn’t until 2007, when the gunpowder evidence was undermined through further analysis, that the crown agreed to hear the case again.
The next year, the prosecution once again told their side of the story: essentially heaps of circumstantial evidence about Barry’s character, and some sketchy resemblances to a limited number of witness’ descriptions. Without the gunpowder, the case fell apart. Barry George’s conviction was overturned on the 1st of August 2008.
As his defense lawyer put it: “The case reflects a desperation on the part of police that after a year they didn’t have the faintest idea who had done it.”. An accusation which DCI Campbell called “somewhat insulting and completely untrue.”
But we’ll leave that one up to you to decide.
Aftermath: Fresh Evidence Wasted
The Hitman’s Story
So almost a decade after Jill Dando’s murder, the investigation was back to square one. And I hate to have to tell you, but we’ve basically stalled out there ever since. The case is cold. That’s not to say it’s forgotten — Jill’s family and friends still appear on British TV every now and then to renew the appeals for information.
And some compelling leads have come up since the arrest and trial of Barry George. I’ll go ahead and drop a spoiler by saying that most people are now convinced that a professional pulled off the murder. Several people in the British and Serbian underworld have suggested they might know who was to blame.
Cop-turned journalist Mark Williams-Thomas (the guy who broke the Jimmy Saville case) managed to speak to one of them face to face. He gained access to police documents which showed a list of potential suspects — hired killers and assorted miscreants. In 2018, he told TV show This Morning:
“I’ve never reviewed a case where there is so much information that was never followed up[…] and the reason being is that the police prosecuted Barry George and the information came in prior to the trial after his arrest, and continued to come in afterwards…”
He took it upon himself to do so. Williams-Thomas managed to track down an unnamed individual from the list to pick his brains: a known hitman who was identified as a potential lead, but never pursued. The journalist asked the contract killer if any of the names on the long list of underworld suspects might be to blame. He replied: “there’s one in particular that stands out to me. But I wouldn’t identify that person because it’s very dangerous.”
It seems like he might have passed that name onto Mark Williams-Thomas, under condition of total anonymity. The journo now believes he has the name of the man who ordered the murder, to “send out a direct, bloody message to others: “Do not take on organised crime.”
(Note to Simon: leave London gangsters alone — I’m quite enjoying not being dead)
The journalist has handed this and all his other investigative efforts over to the Met. Three years on, and nothing concrete has come of it.
‘John’ the Englishman
However… there is a popular theory that has featured in documentaries about the case, which might shed light on just what kind of story Williams-Thomas unearthed. A career criminal named Kenneth Noye — known for fraternizing with crooked cops — has been connected with the crime.
He was convicted of murdering a 21-year-old during a road rage incident in 1996. The murdered man’s girlfriend was interviewed by Dando on Crimewatch, and managed to give a description of Noye. The girlfriend went into hiding, while another witness decided to opt out. He was shot dead in 2000.
Could it be that his death was part of the same campaign of revenge as Dando’s murder? It’s been suggested that a Spain-based, English hitman known only as ‘John’ might have pulled the trigger, to pay off a debt to Noye. It’s a whole lot of ‘mights’ and ‘maybes’, but if nothing else this shows the wealth of possibilities that might have been ignored while the police pursued Barry George.
The crime boss himself denies any involvement, and I will not be the one to say otherwise. Actually Simon, you might want to sprinkle a few “allegedly”s around that section, just to be on the safe side…
The Colleague’s Story
Things took a bit of a detour from the usual hitman angles in 2014, when an anonymous BBC staffer made some extraordinary claims about Dando’s final days. This was just a couple of years after the child abuse scandal broke, and the nation discovered their public broadcaster was hiding about as much skeletons as the Catholic Church.
The anonymous whistleblower (who, let’s be honest, may not have existed) apparently leaked the information to the Daily Express that Dando was on the cusp of blowing open a paedophile ring comprised of powerful celebrities and public figures:
“I don’t recall the names of all the stars now and don’t want to implicate anyone, but Jill said they were surprisingly big names.”
Apparently this cabal of sex offenders ordered the hit against Dando to make sure her findings were never made public. Now, all things considered, I have to rate this one a zero out of ten. It sounds like some headline-making nonsense cooked up by a dishonest journalist, or maybe a dishonest informant.
Plus, we’re getting dangerously close to Pizzagate territory, and that is a watchlist I’d rather not be on…
The Smuggler’s Story
How about something marginally less soul-crushing? In 2009, the year after Barry George walked free, another behind bars came forward to offer up a lead to the police. This was pilot and coke smuggler Christopher Barrett-Jolley, whose own life story could be a separate episode entirely.
Very briefly: Barret-Jolley operated a company out of Coventry Airport, called Phoenix Aviation. He got into hot water with animal rights protestors in the mid nineties for transporting live veal cattle overseas, in poor conditions. In 2001, he found a more profitable cargo than baby cattle.
He chartered a plane from a Belgian company, and when they were suspicious about his intentions, he claimed to be an undercover CIA operative, not at liberty to discuss his mission. Unbeknownst to the airplane’s owners, that mission was smuggling 271kg of cocaine to the UK.
By the time he made the full trip, from Belgrade to Jamaica to Southend, someone had tipped off UK customs. They quite easily saw through his ridiculous cover story, and sent him down for 20 years. By my calculations, he’ll be scheduled for release this year.
But anyway, back to the point: this British pilot apparently made some strong connections in the criminal underworld before being sent down for smuggling. In 2009, he told investigators that while he spent time at a shady bar in Belgrade, he overheard a Serbian hitman bragging about killing Jill Dando.
The story has apparently been corroborated by two other witnesses who were there, at Belgrade’s Portobello Bar, that day. One of these anonymous sources is reported to have said about the contract killing Serb, who reportedly had connections to England’s West Midlands:
“During the conversation with his friends it turned to what had happened in the UK with Jill Dando. The friends of his actually said: ‘Well, this was the man that was involved in that’. He took a bow over that because he claimed he had something to do with it. He stood up and his friends applauded him.”
Does this mean for sure that the Serbian theory is true? Absolutely not. Go to any dodgy pub and you’ll find at least two or three guys who claim to know all the top gangsters. It’s kind of like the opposite of ‘stolen valor’ — stolen vice? Stolen villainy?
At any rate, the report came from a condemned man with a track record of making up elaborate stories. We have to take it with a pinch of salt. In fact, dig around online and you’ll find dozens of attempts to link specific underworld figures to the crime throughout the years — it’s become a pretty reliable story for tabloids to milk for clicks. (On a related note, I’ve read so much of the Sun and Mirror today it may have caused irreparable brain damage)
All of those possibilities, and we’re still no closer to a satisfying conclusion. Given the fact that 22 years have passed since the murder of Jill Dando, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know who was really behind her death. It’ll simply go down as one of the most sensational, perplexing unsolved cases ever to make UK headlines.
I won’t tell you what to make of this tangled web of madness, but I will leave you with the same warning as usual, this time delivered in the wise words of DCI Campbell: “In most cases, when a darker conspiracy is offered up, the truth proves more boring and mundane.”
If justice for Jill isn’t an option, then all that’s left for today is a little ‘where are they now’ for our supporting cast.
Barry George, wrongfully convicted man (and rightfully convicted perv), has had a bit of trouble readjusting to life on the outside. He told the papers: ”Coming out, everything was moving so fast. I was trying to settle back into the community.” I’m not entirely sure the community welcomed him back with open arms. Let’s hope they at least confiscated that sneaky camera of his…
DCI Hamish Campbell has lost any optimism that the case might be one day solved. In his eyes, the only thing that might move things forward now is retrieving the handgun that ended Jill’s life. Besides that, there’s little hope. Mark Williams-Thomas offered a little hope on that front in 2018, when he suggested the cops dredge an overlooked canal, but it’s unclear if they followed through on the tip.
Despite departing before her time, Jill’s legacy lives on. Her colleagues at the BBC established a memorial garden for her in her hometown of Weston-Super-Mare, while Crimewatch’s Nick Ross and Dando’s fiance Alan Farthing established the Jill Dando Institute for Crime Science at University College London on 26th of April 2001 — exactly two years after the her death.
And lastly, Helen Dobie, the woman who tragically discovered Jill’s body on the doorstep, took a while to emotionally recover. For years she had trouble sleeping, unable to forget the horrific sights from that day. But now, she takes comfort in Jill’s memory:
“I will light a candle at 14 minutes past 11.30am, the time when I found her. I do it wherever I am on that day, every year.”
At least there’s the minor consolation that many of those involved have at least managed to find some closure for themselves. Still… would’ve been nice to nab those pesky Serbs though…
1. There’s one person I forgot to do a wrap-up for, and he has perhaps the most interesting biography of all. Jill’s ex-fiancé Alan Farthing continued on his highly successful medical career, and is now a gynecologist to the Royal Family.
2. In a fitting tribute to the journalistic star, killed long before her time, Jill Dando News Centers have been set up around the UK, which aim to get young people into journalism. Most recently in King Alfred School, Highbridge — just a few hours south of her hometown. You can find them on Twitter: @JillDandoNews.
3. Barry managed to win damages from News of the World and other media organizations in a landmark libel trial, but has yet to receive any compensation from the state for the 7 years of life lost. To be eligible for that, his innocence would have to be proven beyond a doubt, and that would require the real killer to be found.
4. If none of today’s theories tickled your fancy, let’s throw the IRA in for a laugh — it wouldn’t be a true nineties story without them. That decade saw a major campaign of attacks from the provisional IRA, and one of their members, Wayne Aird, claimed that one of their hit squads killed Dando. The theory goes that the powers that be knew this to be true, but covered it up to preserve the Northern Ireland Peace Protest.