In 1961 two bodies were found on the A6, south of Bedford. A man and a woman had been shot. The man was dead, but the woman was still alive. She’d been shot five times and had been raped. But who’d done this to the young couple, and would police ever be able to catch him…
It was late in the evening on 22 August 1961, and Michael John Gregsten, 36, and his mistress, Valerie Storie, 22, were sat in his car in a cornfield at Dorney Reach, Buckinghamshire.
As the couple chatted, a man tapped on the driver’s door. When Michael wound it down, a gun was thrust in his face.
‘This is a hold-up, I am a desperate man, I have been on the run for four months. If you do as I tell you, you will be all right,’ a cockney accent said.
The man then got in the back of the car and ordered Michael to drive further into the field. He then chatted incessantly to the terrified couple for two hours before telling Michael to drive again.
He made Michael stop along the way for cigarettes and milk before they headed onto the A6. Michael and Valerie offered him all of their money and the car, but the man seemed to want to stay with the couple.
At 1:30am the next morning, the car was still travelling along the A6. The man said he wanted to sleep, and ordered Michael to pull into a lay-by at Deadman’s Hill, Bedford.
When Michael refused, the man became aggressive and tied Valerie’s hands behind her back with Michael’s tie. Then he asked Michael to hand him a duffle bag, which contained clean clothes. As Michael turned to hand it to him, two shots were fired. He was hit twice in the head and died.
Hysterical, Valerie begged the gunman to shoot her too. Instead he put a cloth over Michael’s face and ordered her into the back of the car. She refused so he dragged her. Then he ordered her to remove her underwear before raping her.
After, he forced her to drag Michael’s body from the car before asking her to show him how to operate the car. She then sat by Michael’s body at the side of the road.
The gunman got out of the car and pointed the gun at her. She pleaded for her life, but he shot her five times. She played dead until he sped off in the car. Valerie then waved her petticoat to attract the attention of other motorists before losing consciousness.
A man passing by spotted the couple and phoned the police. In time a man was arrested.
James Hanratty was a 25-year-old petty criminal with four convictions for car theft, larceny, and burglary. Hanratty had telephoned Scotland Yard several times, saying he had fled because he had no credible alibi for the date in question, but repeated each time that he had nothing to do with the A6 murder.
Eventually, he was arrested and Valerie, who’d been left paralysed from the chest down, identified him in an identity parade. Police were certain he was the A6 killer.
James Hanratty’s initial defence was he had been in Liverpool on the day of the murder, but then, halfway through the trial, he changed part of his story, claiming he had in fact been in Rhyl, North Wales.
At that time there was no conclusive forensic evidence to connect James Hanratty with the car or the murder scene. But with Valerie’s witness statement, prosecutors were certain he was guilty.
After a long trial, James Hanratty was convicted of murder. He appealed, but it was dismissed, and despite a petition signed by more than 90,000 people, Hanratty was hanged on 4 April 1962, still protesting his innocence.
Hanratty, who was among the last people to go to the gallows in Britain, reportedly told his family before his execution, ‘I’m dying tomorrow but I’m innocent. Clear my name.’
In the years following, and in Britain’s longest-running alleged miscarriages of justice, Hanratty’s family protested his innocence.
An appeal was dismissed though when the court of appeal ruled there was evidence to show ‘beyond doubt’ that James Hanratty was guilty.