The Unsolved Murder of Jill Dando, Britain's 90s TV Sweetheart
Twenty years on, new leads still stall. We speak to a former detective and psychology professor about why this case is so hard to crack.
TV presenter Jill Dando (left) and the memorial left on her doorstep after she was murdered outside her home (Both photos: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo)
It’s hard, 20 years on from the morning of the 26th of April 1999, to truly understand how seismic the murder of Jill Dando felt within British society. In 2019, the 24-hour news cycle makes no event feel too ridiculous, too unlikely, too outlandish for long. We read headlines that would have stopped us in our tracks 20 years ago. That’s just an hour on Twitter.
And yet, the execution of the 37-year-old newsreader on the doorstep of her home in Fulham, London, really did feel like a thread of reality unweaving. This was a world where the murder of an MP by a man shouting, “Britain First!” would have resulted in some degree of outrage and reflection. Indeed, such was the shock of the events of that morning, fear and paranoia continues to shroud the Dando case.
A former detective who worked on the case would only talk to me on the condition of anonymity. He talks of how 191 CCTV cameras conclusively proved Dando wasn’t followed the morning of her death. How the number of people put forth as potentially being involved in the murder exceeds 2,100. Additionally, it is known that more than 5,000 people were interviewed with over 2,500 statements taken. All 486 people in Dando’s Filofax were investigated and over 14,000 emails were examined. “Other than terror-related enquiries, I know of no other investigation with anything like the volume,” he says.
Born on the 9th of November 1961, at the time of her death Jill Wendy Dando was one of the most famous faces in Britain. She hailed from Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset – the town’s website still carries her obituary: “not since Diana, Princess of Wales, has the Nation been so affected by such a tragic and wasteful loss of life” – and worked her way up from stints on her local paper, The Weston Mercury, to being recognised by the BBC’s news department.
The travel programme Holiday followed. Then, befitting her faith as a devout Baptist, Songs Of Praise. The Six O’Clock News. Dando could do it all; versatile in a way, say, Dermot Murnaghan was not. “Just because I’ve got blonde hair and haven’t been to Bosnia doesn’t mean I’m a bimbo,” she said, in 1999. “I am still a serious journalist.” The week she was murdered, her face adorned the cover of the Radio Times.
And yet for most, alongside co-host Nick Ross, Jill Dando was the face of TV crime appeal show, Crimewatch. She co-presented the show, based on the German TV show Aktenzeichen XY… Ungelöst (that translates as File Reference XY… Unsolved), since 1995. Crimewatch felt like pioneering television, attracting 14 million viewers during her time on it. The show would reconstruct major unsolved crimes, with a view to gaining information from the public to help crack a case. It’s routinely been cited as a reason why Dando was targeted (though a recent BBC documentary on her death firmly debunked this theory).
Dando's last episode of Crimewatch aired six days before her murder. Her own murder formed the basis of the subsequent episode. Here’s what we know; on the morning of the 26th of April, Dando left the home of her fiancé, gynaecologist Alan Farthing, in Chiswick, west London. They were due to marry on the 25th of September that year. Dando drove to the house she owned in Fulham, on 29 Gowan Avenue. She was an irregular visitor. At the time of her death the house was listed for sale. As she arrived at her front door, around 11.32AM, she was shot once in the head. Forensics later revealed that she’d been shot by a bullet from a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, pressed close against her temple. Fourteen minutes later, neighbour Helen Doble spotted her body, lying prone on the door’s approach. Doble called the police at 11.47AM. Dando was declared dead on arrival at Charing Cross Hospital when the ambulance arrived at 1.03PM.
Dando’s next-door neighbour, Richard Hughes, is the only witness with a confirmed sighting of the killer: six-foot-tall, white, aged around 40. After a year, the Met Police’s specially created taskforce Operation Oxborough failed to place anyone at the scene fitting Hughes’ description. Suspicion then fell upon a local man named Barry George, a former resident of Heathermount boarding school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
George was known to police. He’d previously tried to join the police, failed, then been arrested and prosecuted for pretending to be a police officer after obtaining false warrant cards. When he appeared in court, he did so wearing glam rock attire and proclaiming his real name was Paul Gadd – the birth name of disgraced pop star Gary Glitter. George had also garnered a series of arrests for indecent assault, and had served 18 months of a 33-month attempted rape sentence. He’d also once been found hiding in the grounds of Kensington Palace, then home to Prince Charles and Princess Diana, with a knife and a poem in his pocket he’d written for Charles. Before his trial for Dando’s murder, George was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, epilepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (as well as the personality disorders; antisocial, histrionic, narcissistic and paranoid) and estimated to have an IQ of around 75.
The evidence for George’s conviction hung on a microscopic particle said to be gunshot residue. On the 2nd of July 2001, he was convicted of Dando’s murder by a majority of ten to one, and sentenced to life imprisonment. A retrial on the 14th of December 2007 saw George acquitted in August the following year. During an enquiry into the miscarriage of justice that saw Barry George imprisoned for eight years, the Supreme Court stated that the evidence was “so undermined that no conviction could possibly be based upon it.”
And yet with the prime suspect acquitted, no name has replaced George’s in the decade plus that’s followed. Theories however remain rife, flourishing in an era of armchair detectives and true crime enthusiasts. It’s been suggested that a hitman was hired by a criminal element disgruntled by Dando’s work on Crimewatch; BBC Director General Tony Hall, then BBC Head Of News has said he received calls warning that he was ‘next’ in the weeks after Dando’s death. Other theories have considered that she was the victim of a professional dispute;. the victim of stalking. Her brother Nigel has since said she told him that she was concerned by “some guy pestering her” in the days leading up to her death. He's since said he believes her murder was a random attack (below).
Craig Jackson, Professor of Psychology at Birmingham City University, believes Dando’s murder may never been solved because of the very nature of her clean-cut persona. “Some detectives,” he says, “when investigating the murder of someone who everyone has only has positive things to say about them, may not fully explore any other areas of their lives that could be linked to the murder. This investigative prejudice can sometimes skew investigations, but the best way to guard against it is reviews of the case and multiple investigative teams working independently of each other.”
The two theories that remain most popular are, inevitably, the two most salacious. One is that Bosnian-Serb or Yugoslav groups killed Dando in retaliation for her appeals for aid for Kosovian-Albanian refugees during the Yugoslav Wars. Operation Oxborough reported they found no credible evidence to support this theory, but it’s true that then Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic did have journalists executed in retaliation for perceived injustices to his regime.
The other is that Dando had evidence a paedophile ring existed at the BBC and so needed to be silenced. A former BBC colleague, on the condition of anonymity, reportedly told the press: “I think she was quite shocked when told about images of children and that information on how to join this horrible paedophile ring was freely available.”
Craig Jackson says; “Conspiracy theories flare whenever there are the cardinal ingredients: Celebratory death. Big corporations. Crime scene of little investigative use. No link between victim and murderer. On the whole conspiracy theories are of little value to an investigation, but with the passing of such time, they can be useful in helping investigators to try and think differently about a cold case than may have previously been done.”
And so as this significant anniversary passes, talk of Jill has piqued interest once more, but failed to flag up any sturdy new leads. Last year, TV crime expert, Mark Williams-Thomas nonetheless said he'd been "given the name of the killer," speaking on ITV's This Morning. “There is no doubt Jill was assassinated by a professional hitman,” he said. “The gun has never been recovered. Nothing else has come in circulation. That shows you the quality of this person.”
The world has changed significantly since that morning 20 years ago. So much so that it’s unlikely we’ll ever be as floored by the news of anything as improbable as the death of Jill Dando ever again. Now, it’s scroll-tap-scroll-react-forget. A week’s massive news seems to melt into insignificance, poured into the mush of the constant news cycle. And still, for Dando’s family, closure never arrives.