Hero cops ‘were in right place at the right time’

Jim Williams (left) and Bert Stillings, the men who caught A6 murderer James Hanratty
Jim Williams (left) and Bert Stillings, the men who caught A6 murderer James Hanratty
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It was the crime that shocked a nation.

Fifty-three years ago yesterday James Hanratty, a petty criminal from London, murdered scientist Michael Gregsten before raping and wounding his mistress Valerie Storie.

And, were it not for two policeman from Blackpool, one of the last men to be hanged for such crimes in England may never have been caught.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” admits Jim Williams, now 89.

Jim and fellow detective Bert Stillings were working the late shift on October 11 1961, and were walking along Central Drive after meeting a contact in The George Hotel.

Eagle-eyed Jim, a stickler for reading police reports issued for wanted criminals up and down the land, spotted Hanratty in the Stevonia Cafe, albeit with a disguise which fooled no one - hair died bleach blond.

“Any officer with any nous would’ve turned him over because his hair was like a canary,” recalls Bert, sitting in the living room of Jim’s home on Warbreck Hill Road.

“Jim said to the help ‘what does he talk like, has he got a cockney accent?’

“He said ‘yes he had’, which strengthened our hand about what Jim had thought.

“We had a quick conversation to discuss what we were going to do because it had said in the circulation he was possibly armed.

“We got outside and in those days Central Drive was pretty quick with prostitutes.”

A well known lady of the night came up to Jim and Bert, who told her to stay with them so Hanratty wouldn’t become suspicious about their movements.

Then the pair, who had risen through the ranks of Blackpool’s CID since they first made acquaintance after joining the force from different areas of Yorkshire, decided to strike.

Going up on either side of the killer, they nabbed him.

Hanratty told the duo they were making a “big mistake” and that his name was Jimmy Ryan, an alias etched in Jim’s memory from the report he had so vigorously scanned before leaving the station that evening.

They had their man.

Bert, now 84, said: “We didn’t have any handcuffs but he didn’t make any attempt to run away or anything.

“He kept on saying he’d clean up all the burglaries down south that he’d done.

“The charge office sergeant couldn’t believe his eyes when we booked him in.

“We never got any sleep that night, the praise was coming from everywhere.”

Arrangements were made immediately via telephone for the Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard to travel up from London to collect his man.

Hanratty was picked out of an identity parade by Valerie Storie and charged with the crimes, which had taken place just off the A6 in Bedfordshire.

The ensuing trial lasted 21 days, the longest in English legal history at the time, and he was found guilty.

His execution took place on Wednesday, April 4, 1962, but a four decade long debate ensued about whether the evidence which condemned him had been strong enough.

Finally, in 2002, a DNA test proved beyond doubt that Hanratty had been the murderer.

Jim said: “For years after they said we picked the wrong fellow, I used to get fed up of Hanratty’s name.

“The DNA finally convinced people.”

Their finest hour behind them, the pair continued in the force with Bert attaining the rank of Inspector while Jim stayed in CID.

Still firm friends today, Bert recalls: “We enjoyed it and had some good laughs”.

“We put a lot into it and got a lot out of it,” adds Jim.