Life

The Bartender Who Became Britain's One and Only Female Contract Killer

Thirty years ago, a woman from a respectable Christian family walked into a hospital and shot a man at point blank range.
August 5, 2021, 8:54am
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Photos: Shutterstock / Adobe Stock. Collage: VICE

Holding a pistol packed with hollow-point bullets, and a picture of a man she’d never met, Te Rangimaria Ngarimu walked into Hampstead’s Royal Free Hospital. The 27-year-old Maori woman clearly did not want to be recognised, wearing dark men’s clothes to obscure her slender frame.

As Graeme Woodhatch, a 38-year-old roofing contractor, chatted on the hospital’s payphone, Ngarimu walked up and shot him four times in the face and shoulder at point blank range, before slipping out of the north London hospital undetected.

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When Ngarimu – a gregarious bartender with no criminal history – pulled the trigger in May of 1992, she became the first recorded female contract killer known to have operated in the UK. It is a dubious honour she is thought to retain to this day, almost three decades later.

The story starts in a pub. The Caernarvon Castle began serving Camden’s drinkers sometime in the late 19th century, and by the 1990s was hosting everyone from local rabble and lager-hardened mods to baffled American tourists warily sipping their first pint of snakebite. There was regular live music and a decent enough jukebox, and the place became known as something of a hub for Kiwi expats.

Punters also came for the staff. Te Rangimaria Ngarimu was one of the most popular, a ball of effervescent charm befitting the title “Sparky” – a nickname she’d acquired while working at the Castle.

Having grown up in a middle class Christian family in a small village on New Zealand’s South Island, Te Rangimaria had come to London in her twenties, after completing her studies. None of her prior achievements had anything to do with crime: she’d represented New Zealand in international surfing competitions, spoke fluent Japanese and held degrees in Chemistry and Physics. When interviewed by police, those who knew her described Te as “bright, bubbly, very personable and good company”.

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Photo: Shutterstock

When Deith Bridges asked Te Rangimaria if she’d “knock off” Graeme Woodhatch, she laughed.

The 20-year-old with a buzzcut and boyish face was a builder on the make, whose accomplishments didn’t always match up to his bravado – surely he was joking. He and Te Rangimaria had become “like brother and sister”, she’d later say, while working behind the bar and living above The Caernarvon Castle over a two-year stint. At this point, she knew him better than that.

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But Bridges wasn’t joking. Born in the UK, he’d also grown up in a middle class family in New Zealand, before moving back to his birth country. After working at the pub with Te Rangimaria, he’d grown close to Paul Tubbs, a north London roofer in his mid-thirties. Tubbs was a successful tradesman who wasn’t shy about telling you his origin story – how he’d set out to work at the age of 15 and built a whole life from scratch. 

Perhaps none of this would have mattered if Paul Tubbs hadn’t met Graeme Woodhatch. The latter was a roofer of phenomenal success and rumoured riches – the perfect Thatcherite poster-boy, a captain of industry with a big country house and a gleaming Porsche in the driveway. Tubbs and Woodhatch had teamed up at the end of the 1980s, two self-made men on the apparently endless rise. 

However, the good times barely lasted into 1990. Woodhatch, as Tubbs quickly realised, wasn’t quite who he’d been presenting to the world. By the time the two went into business, he was living far beyond his means, and – according to his brother-in-law – had made plenty of enemies through his business dealings. Woodhatch’s rising debts and explosive temper soon spooked his junior partner. By May of 1992, £50,000 had gone missing from the company accounts. When Tubbs reported his suspicions to the police, Woodhatch threatened to kill a female member of staff at their company. 

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It wasn’t clear what kind of weight Woodhatch’s threats carried, but neither Tubbs nor Bridges wanted to find out. Their fear became hatred; that hatred morphed into a plot to kill. And it wasn’t just murder – they spoke of “eradicating” Woodhatch before he could touch them.

A problem: neither man had any experience with organising a hit, but Bridges did manage to source a gun, which he handed to Te Rangimaria, wrapped in a towel, with strict instructions: twice in the head, twice in the chest.

Te Rangimaria didn’t think the hit would actually go ahead, right until it did. The day before the murder, she turned up at the hospital but got lost looking for Woodhatch, bottled it and walked right back out the door. The day of, she put on her assassin's garb and once again made her way to Hampstead. Then came the blood, followed by the screams.

After shedding the gun, she was on the first flight back to New Zealand. Bridges and Tubbs didn’t last long – they were arrested after murder detectives quickly established both motive and the plot’s broad outline.

Back home, Te Rangimaria told friends she’d been involved in a drug deal. But suspicion had been piqued by her sudden exit and connection to the two men. In August of 1993, detectives told her she could await extradition or choose to return to Britain. Despite her lawyers’ protestations, she decided on the latter. 

Later, she claimed that God had spoken to her during a visit to an Auckland church – that a great weight had lifted and that she had to speak out on her terrible crimes. That facing the truth was the only option. Some detected a desire for a lighter sentence. Others, the actions of a truly penitent woman.  

At the heart of all the intrigue remains a question without a satisfactory answer. Before the murder, Te Rangimaria’s only interactions with Woodhatch had been via Bridges’ fevered rants. Her fee was £7,000 – money that would go towards a mobile home back in New Zealand – but she only ever received £1,500 of it. What possessed her to kill a man for an almost comically inconsequential fee?

What we know of Te Rangimaria’s life doesn’t seem to hold the appropriate clues. Boiled down, they read like little more than a patchwork of cliches from a high school yearbook entry. Dedicated student, keen sportswoman, accomplished linguist. The Kiwi bartender who woke up one day, walked into a packed London hospital and shot a man to death as he recovered from a haemorrhoids operation.

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Popular culture is saturated with the contract killer as a glamorous lone wolf, from The Day of the Jackal through to the Hitman video games and their self-consciously cheesy film spin-offs. They depict the mysterious, almost invariably male (they are hitmen for a reason) expert who performs his grim trade in the shadows, lurking patiently until the point of activation. 

The job is always carried out with inhuman detachment and precision. Razor sharp, merciless, but never cruel exactly. Murder is murder, but these fictional killings at least come wrapped in a sober professionalism. 

Reality is very rarely as neat. Guns jam, blood spurts, innocent people are caught in the crossfire. The hired killer arrives at the wrong floor of a north London hospital with nerves boiling in her stomach, before turning home.

Though Te Rangimaria Ngarimu’s gender makes her unique, there is plenty that is familiar in her story, from a criminologist’s perspective. Just like any other line of work, contract killing has its own patterns. In 2014, researchers at Birmingham City University (BCU) published The British Hitman: 1974-2013 – still the most thorough study of its kind undertaken in the UK.

Life is cheaper than we might like to think. The average cost of a contract killer in the UK is £15,180. The most expensive hit comes in at £100,000, with the cheapest at £200. That figure was commanded by the youngest hitman covered by the study, Santre Sanchez Gayle. In 2010, the then 15-year-old took a cab to an address in Hackney, before calmly shooting a woman to death on her doorstep. He bought a Dolce and Gabbana beanie with the proceeds and was picked up by detectives a few weeks later.

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The paper offers that there are four distinct types of hired killer: novice, dilettante, journeyman and master. All but the last is at risk of capture. There are the seasoned pros who slip up, and first timers who can’t hold their nerve and go through with the job. And then, there is the outlier: Te Rangimaria Ngarimu. Not only a woman, but a category-blending novice who managed to successfully execute a man before her apparent crisis of conscience. 

Dr Mohammed Rahman is a criminologist and senior lecturer at BCU, and an expert in contract killing. Over several conversations during the early months of 2021, he explained to me a bit more about the paper's findings. The successful hitman, Dr Rahman explained, will have to go through a “psychological reframing process”. First, they have to be prepared to kill. “You’re not shooting to disarm or disable,” he said. “Humans are not naturally engineered to kill in this way. You have to objectify [the target] as someone who deserves to be killed for money.”

This kind of justification isn’t easy. It relies on being able to boil down murder to an economic transaction. But pulling the trigger is only the first phase – it’s the days, weeks and months after which offer the greater challenge for the novice assassin. All that guilt and paranoia. Sleepless nights spent waiting for the sirens and blue lights to interrupt the coming morning. 

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“They have to condition themselves to continue with daily life after [the murder]. In the case of Te Rangimaria Ngarimu, it’s something she found difficult to do,” Dr Rahman continued. “She successfully executed the hit and knew she needed to protect herself. What she couldn't do was carry on as if she hadn’t killed [Woodhatch]. This is something that a lot of contract killers struggle with.”

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Photo: Shutterstock

Researching the case, I noticed how little attention it’s received over the years, aside from the initial baffled flurry of articles and the coverage of the subsequent trial. Before Te Rangimaria’s arrest, Woodhatch’s actual murder hadn’t provoked much media interest, though attention had come from other quarters. 

The early 1990s were marked by a series of violent incidents in hospitals around the UK. On the 7th of July, 1992, Glenda Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, stood up in the House of Commons to denounce “terrible [crimes with] a particularly awful dimension when they are committed in places and against people dedicated to saving life and restoring health”. Graeme Woodhatch had been one of Jackson’s constituents, she added in her speech. 

Five hours before his murder “by an as yet unknown assailant”, a nurse in the Royal Free had been assaulted. A week later, a nurse in another London hospital, St. Thomas’, was knocked unconscious and slashed with a knife. That same day, an attempted rape took place at Guy’s hospital in London bridge. Six days later, a hospital porter in Manchester stopped the abduction of a newborn baby.

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It was only Te Rangimaria’s arrest that elevated Woodhatch’s murder beyond the violence of its day. The press, tabloid and broadsheet, played up the novelty of a woman contract killer. “Hit woman’s motives leave police baffled” splashed The Independent, relegating Bridges and Tubbs to little more than background padding. 

Te Rangimaria’s crime was already unusual, even without the contract killer angle. When a murder occurs in England or Wales, there’s a 93 percent chance that a man is responsible. Kate Morgan, author of Murder: The Biography and an experienced lawyer, explained how, in the cases of women who kill, there are often “desperate circumstances involved. People who have been abused by their spouse or something [similar].”

Few cases are as cold-blooded as this. “There’s usually aspects or provocation or duress – you don’t see many women commit crimes like this very often,” she continued. “[But] there’s a gloss put on it when a woman is involved. It isn’t just that a murder has happened, there’s always [something else] when it’s reported on.”

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An artist's impression of Te Rangimaria Ngarimu at the Old Bailey. Image: Julia Quenzler / PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

At the Old Bailey, Te Rangimaria Ngarimu was big on regret after her apparently Damascene moment in the Auckland church. The trial opened in May of 1994, two years after Woodhatch’s murder. From the start, Te Rangimaria – now 27 years old – made no attempt to deny or distance herself from the killing. Through tears, she outlined the blur of the morning she’d pulled the trigger. 

“I had my hand on the gun and took off the safety catch,” she said. “I was pacing up and down, deciding whether to do it or not. Then something just snapped and I did it. There were four shots, but I remember pulling [the trigger] only once. That shot him in the face”.

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She could remember Woodhatch rolling around on the floor and the way he put his hands to his face, just as she could still remember his screams. 

As the days went on, the trial descended into farce. On the 12th of May, the jury reacted with audible shock as the judge relayed the news that Deith Bridges had been shot in the leg and chest after a night of drinking out in the fringes of north west London. Bridges had been making his way home just before 1AM, when two men called his name. He survived emergency surgery for his injuries.

With the trial postponed for a few days, Paul Tubbs’ bail was withdrawn for his own protection. Nothing else came of the botched revenge hit. The following Thursday, the three defendants – Paul Tubbs, Deith Bridges and Te Rangimaria Ngarimu – were sentenced to life in prison, and that was that: the neat closing chapter on one of the strangest murders in modern British history. 

Te Rangimaria lived in a London that doesn’t really exist anymore. The Lost Pubs Project is a blog detailing the history of Britain’s vanishing watering holes, one sweetly nostalgic tribute at a time. There are several detailed entries for The Caernarvon Castle, which finally shuttered in the late-2000s after a protracted decline and multiple name changes. Now, after the Camden Fire of 2008, nothing at all remains of the old pub – not even a gentrified shell. 

Some of the entries overlap with Te Rangimaria’s time at the pub. People who would have been living and working there in the same raucous times as her and Bridges. But none of them seemed keen for a stroll down memory lane, as I fired email after email out into the abyss.

Eventually, a reply landed in my inbox from one of the forum’s most cheerful seeming posters. Steve the Mod had been there during the glory years. He’d started drinking at the pub in 1998, a few years on from Te Rangimaria’s era. Those were the good times. “It pains me now to see [the area] being massively developed and commercialised,” he wrote to me. “The golden years of Camden [are] now a thing of the past for a lot of people.”

Times change. Things get forgotten and others repressed. There are comings and goings, some more likely than others. In 1996, Deith Bridges and Paul Tubbs had their sentences reduced on appeal to 17 and 22 years respectively. It isn’t easy to find evidence of either man these days, let alone contact details. 

Te Rangimaria Ngarimu was deported to New Zealand in 2005, having served over a decade inside British prisons. Attempts to contact her were fruitless, leaving us with no answer to the same question that has persisted for nearly 30 years.

As one of the detectives on the case put it after the trial: “Why? Why did she do it?”