Alex Hanscombe and his mother Rachel Nickell were out playing in a park—one they’d been to countless times. But the carefree day was turned up on its head and into a nightmare as, out of nowhere, a man came and assaulted Nickell.
He pulled a knife on her, and it turned into a bloody, brutal murder as Alex was left just a few feet away, suffering from shock.
He was barely 3.
“Mommy, please get up,” he pleaded. Seeing her completely still, Alex repeated the words.
“Then it hit me right at that moment—I understood, I made that connection: She was gone,” he said. “And she was never coming back.”
“My heart was completely broken,” he said. “I could feel that physically.”
This all happened in 1992, but Alex only broke his silence on the matter in 2017.
When Nickell died, she left behind her partner Andre Hanscombe and her son Alex, just weeks short of his third birthday.
“The story blew up so much,” Alex, an adult now, told the BBC. “The archetype of a young child with his mother and him being there while his mother was attacked and witnessing all of that … everyone was moved by the story.”
The press rained down on the father and son, hounding them wherever they went—there wasn’t a moment of peace.
Headlines like “TRAGIC TOT” and “BLIGHTED LIFE” plagued the family.
This was the horrible future everyone expected for young Alex, his father Andre later recalled in a documentary.
Alex had been found pale and crying “almost hysterically” while pulling at his dead mother’s arm, by an architect passing through the park. He had at first seen Nickell’s pale legs sticking out of a bush and approached thinking someone had passed out. Then he saw her glazed eyes, he saw the blood, and he saw the crying boy.
The murder stirred up the public in panic and sympathy and outrage.
“It was one of those cases that really caused people … to stop and say, this is absolutely dreadful. How on earth does this happen? Who on earth could have done it?” said Jeff Edwards, then correspondent at the Daily Mirror.
After begging the public to come forward with any information they had to apprehend Nickell’s murderer, the father and son packed up and left for France.
“Please come forward before he destroys someone else’s life,” Andre said.
In fact, someone had come forward.
The Nickell case has gone down in history as one of the UK’s most notorious murders, committed by serial killer and rapist Robert Napper.
The person who had come forward—prior to Nickell’s murder—was Napper’s mother.
The case was not only horrific, it was famously botched.
Nickell was not the first woman Napper had ever assaulted, so long before her murder, Napper’s mother had actually gone straight to the police to report that her son had raped someone after he told her, apparently unconcerned at what she might be able to do.
Napper, considered by many to be a sort of “Jack the Ripper,” had consistently targeted attacking young mothers. But when Napper’s mother reported this crime, she gave the wrong location and the police did not locate her son—and the case slipped through the cracks.
A few years later—after Nickell’s murder—a neighbor of Napper’s gave the police a similar tip—but upon meeting Napper, the police officers present had determined he didn’t fit the profile of the suspect they were looking for, and let him go without bringing him to the station or getting a DNA test.
Meanwhile, a man named Colin Stagg had been thrown in jail, suspected of killing Nickell, even though there was no clear evidence.
The description of the suspect the police went on had been pieced together from bystanders and passersby, corroborated by a 3-year-old, the sole witness to the brutal crime.
So the police set out targeting Stagg with an undercover sting, using a female detective who fed him a strange story about a ritual murder of her own, in hopes that Stagg would drop his guard and confess.
No evidence ever surfaced, but Stagg remained in prison for 13 months before a judge threw out his case and publicly admonished the police department for its shoddy investigation.
It wasn’t until 1995 when Napper went to jail for a completely different attack that the police finally got a DNA sample—which eventually led to the realization that he was connected to several more rapes and murders—all of which happened in the same park Nickell was killed in.
Yet Napper’s guilty plea did not come until 16 years after Nickell’s death. The “monster” that “wreaked havoc in our lives” was finally put to rest after 16 years, in 2008, Andre said.
Yet, if it hadn’t been for his son Alex, they would not have been on the road to recovery at all.
Andre remembered that when he got the phone call about Nickell, the police wouldn’t confirm her death over the phone. But the way they delivered the news, he just knew what had happened. It crushed his heart, and by the end of the call, he had collapsed.
Nickell meant everything to Andre, and Andre knew she meant everything to Alex, too.
“This person was absolutely his whole universe,” Andre recalled. After her death, he seriously considered suicide, but not at the risk of leaving his son alone. “I said I didn’t want to go on if he didn’t want to go on … I had absolutely no will to go on without Rachel.”
Alex, just 3 years old then, remembers lying on the bed and listening to his father. Andre told Alex that their dog, Morley, was young and running around now, but there would be a day that would come where she just wouldn’t get up again.
Then his father asked if he wanted to go on.
The toddler looked up at him, and said, “I want to go on.”
Alex remembers his father gathering him up in his arms and telling him, “Your mother is gone and she’s never coming back, but we’re going to continue on together.”
When Alex thinks back on his mother, he feels a sense of complete love.
“The feeling of being loved, and loving in return—that is something that will always be with me,” he said. In some ways, he feels privileged to have had that—something other people might go their entire lives without experiencing. It was these memories that led him to continue his life on the positive side.
Everyone had expected a tragic life for the young boy, but by believing things could be better, he turned his life, and his father’s, around. And while he cannot condone what the killer did, he doesn’t let himself hold hate or ill feelings about it.
“Once you’ve been through a difficult situation, it makes no sense to keep feeling pain every time you think about an event,” he explained in a 2017 interview, breaking his silence on the matter. “Without condoning that person’s actions, that person’s behavior, you forgive that person for yourself so you can let go of that negative baggage.”
And when he thinks back on his mother, and what she would think if she was here today, “I know that she knows that I’ve turned out well.”