Going to jail with a clear conscience
IT WAS DECEMBER 23rd 1997, about three o’clock in the afternoon. The side of the end house in the road was open to the elements. The householder was getting ready to fit a large new window. Two men and a woman parked their car further up the road, walked back down and spoke to him.
“Is it Basil Williams-Rigby?”
“That’s right”, he said, “Can I help you?”
“Are you alone in the house at the moment?”
“No”, he replied, “I’ve got my boy here.”
The three quickened their step, went round to the front of the house and hammered on the door.
It was, perhaps, the very last answer an actual paedophile would have given. But Williams-Rigby had no inkling that the three were police officers, or that they’d come to question him about sexual offences against boys who had once been in his care.
Straightaway, the officers wanted to take away the boy – Rigby’s six-year-old, Joshua, the apple of his eye, the much-loved son born after three daughters. Rigby’s wife, Diane, arrived and wouldn’t let them near him. They said they had to take Rigby to the police station for questioning – but he insisted on finishing his DIY first. With the presents already under the Christmas Tree, he wasn’t going to leave the house exposed. The policemen had to help him hold the glass while he fitted it.
That day was the beginning of a family tragedy that lasted over five years. Williams-Rigby was arrested, sent for trial and convicted of abuse. He initially received a 12-year sentence. A colleague, Mike Lawson, suffered a parallel ordeal. He, too, was cruelly parted from a young child – his then 10-year-old daughter, Becky – put on trial, and sent down for seven years.
On Friday [14 March 2003], the two men were freed by the Court of Appeal on the basis of fresh evidence which led the judges to conclude that the convictions were unsafe. Amid moving scenes, the men were cheered in court before being reunited with their families.
Twenty-four hours later, the St Helen’s street where the Williams-Rigby family lives must have been the sunniest in England. A constant stream of friends and neighbours dropped by to offer congratulations as the unseasonal sunshine blazed down. The phone would not stop ringing. Basil’s three daughters kept thinking they should touch their father, just to reassure themselves that it was for real.
“I’ve dreamt of this day for over three years”, said Rebecca, Williams-Rigby’s eldest daughter. “I’m absolutely overjoyed, it’s the best day of my life.”
“From that first day, December 23rd, I just couldn’t believe it”, said Diane Williams-Rigby. “I just said to the police, ‘You’ve got the wrong man here’. But that was it – the nightmare began.
“The children have been devastated, but I’ve told them every day that their father is innocent and that one day we’d have him home.”
A few miles away, in West Derby, Liverpool, the mood of the Lawson family was equally joyful. “I think the roof blew off our house when we heard”, said Mike’s wife, Geraldine. “My reaction to the allegations was one of total disbelief. I knew I had an innocent husband. We just had to carry on as best we could, no matter how difficult it was, for the other members of the family we had to take care of, and we knew we had to fight for the truth, however long that was going to take.”
The effects of the imprisonments on both families had been devastating. In both instances, young children lost their father at a vital stage of their lives. Both men also had elderly mothers who were naturally bewildered by events.
Lawson served much of his sentence on the Isle of Wight. For Geraldine, each visit entailed a round-trip of 600 miles and a cost of over £400. It also meant that her sister, Marilyn, had to take over the care of their frail 93-year-old mother and, as a result, had less time to be with her own family.
Both Lawson and Williams-Rigby had worked at St George’s Community Home, Formby, the same care home as David Jones, the Wolverhampton Wanderers manager who faced similar abuse charges but was acquitted in December 2000.
All these families had suffered such difficulties and emotional stress as a result of one of the most tragic and counter-productive episodes in the history of British policing – with officers across the country actively encouraging men in their 30s or 40s, most of whom had been through the prison system, to make horrific accusations that would put the innocent behind bars.
He moved into a flat with his wife Diane, whom he married in 1973, and who later became a housemother. They started a family, and had three daughters – Rebecca, now 27, Victoria, 25, and Lydia, 17, before Joshua was born in 1991. In the care-home environment, Williams-Rigby became known, simply, as Baz Rigby.
“It has been painted recently as a bad school – but it wasn’t”, he insisted. “When there was a potato shortage, in the 70s, we went out to local farmers, to buy potatoes so that we could give the boys chips.
“Then I went and bought the frame of a go-kart, with my own money, assembled it and we used to spend hours going round the field at the back. They would stand in an orderly queue, to take a turn, it was a tremendous activity for them.
“I was concerned that these children were looked after. They were from rough-and-tumble backgrounds, streetwise children, but likeable rogues, let’s say.
“You couldn’t think aloud sometimes. I remember saying I had two bald tyres on my Mini. The kids said, ‘Don’t worry, Mr Rigby, you’re good to us, we’ll sort it out’. I instantly knew that somewhere in Liverpool that weekend there’d be a Mini jacked up with its tyres gone. To prevent that happening, and even though I was sorely pressed financially at the time, I had to go straight out to get new ones.”
Lawson started at the school about two years later. He had worked as a coppersmith on the steamers on Lake Windermere before doing his National Service. Afterwards, he worked in Liverpool city police for 15 years, becoming the force’s youngest-ever sergeant. Then he went into a second-hand bookshop and bought a book on the 1645 siege of Oxford.
Tucked in the back cover was an original manuscript, a real collector’s find. Lawson, who was fascinated by military history, used it to write a book about the rank-and-file troops in the English civil war. He then donated the potentially valuable manuscript to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
At that time, however, the idea of a police officer pursuing other professional interests was frowned upon, so Lawson left. He became a care worker because that did allow him to spend what spare time he had writing history books. He has two grown-up children, a daughter and son, and he and Geraldine have a daughter, Becky, who was born in 1987.
Lawson discovered that the change of profession really suited him. “I found I enjoyed the work”, he said. “I became a history teacher. We had an unused workshop, so I taught metalwork. And I became boxing coach – that was a good way of channelling aggression.”
Lawson always lived at home with his family; Rigby, of course, lived on site.
“On many occasions, I was called out of my house to go into the unit, perhaps to settle a child down”, Rigby recalled. “On one occasion, I got out of bed at two o’clock in the morning. I heard the social worker knocking hell out of the door. He’d brought back a boy who’d run off. Yes, I did bring him up; yes, I did give him a bath, because he was filthy; yes, I did take him into the flat – to give him a cup of tea and something to eat, because he’d been on his toes for I don’t know how many days.
“I was doing my job to the best of my ability. I have no qualms about that whatsoever. I helped those kids, and they know that. It’s only retrospectively you realise that you put yourself in vulnerable situations.”
At this stage, care workers up and down the country were facing abuse allegations as police investigated suggestions that, decades earlier, paedophile rings had operated in children’s homes. The method of investigation pioneered by Merseyside police was to send out a letter to former residents of homes, inviting them to contact the police if they had complaints.
This practice became known as trawling. Today, there are serious doubts about whether it was ever an appropriate means of investigation. It was the reverse of normal police methods. Usually, police have a crime and need to find a suspect; in “trawling” investigations, they often had suspects in mind and were seeking crimes.
The main problems were the unfairness – a care worker would often have no idea that a catalogue of complaints against him was being compiled. More importantly, the men to whom the letters were sent were hardly a normal group of potential witnesses. Nearly all had been in trouble with the police (that was why they were in homes in the first place) and, years later, many had long criminal records.
If they were in prison, as many were, there were often various forms of inducement that could be offered to help the police construct a case against someone whom (because of their understandable abhorrence of paedophilia) they regarded as a prime target. Then, it became widely known that, for those who were victims of crime, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority would pay what were often handsome sums in compensation. Moreover, the crimes did not even need to be proved at trial. Even if there were an acquittal, the CICA could still pay compensation to claimants.
Lawson was one of those who, initially, had no idea that the police were accumulating allegations against him. By 1997, he was involved in historic pageants and the re-enactments of famous battles; he owned a number of muskets and other guns; he had drawn up codes of conduct for the government in safety procedures when dealing with explosives; and he was consulted by police forces up and down the country. But, when he heard about the allegations, he was deeply concerned. He phoned Rigby.
“I said, ‘Mike, don’t worry, you’ve got a clear conscience’”, recalled Rigby. “I was saying, nothing will come of it. Looking back afterwards, it was a cry for help, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t helped him.
“I was foolish, I didn’t understand the seriousness of it.”
Lawson and Rigby were being accused of the vilest conduct – of sexually assaulting the boys in their care, committing acts of gross indecency and even of subjecting them to buggery.
“When my solicitor sent me the statements of complainants, I couldn’t read them”, said Rigby. “It upset me to think that I could be accused of something like that. I just went like a lamb to the slaughter, thinking that these people wouldn’t continue with these idiotic lies. That wasn’t the case, was it?
“There was one witness I was staggered by. He used to be a very frightened kid, I boosted his confidence. He’d done reasonably well for himself – I thought at the time, that’s something that I gave him. He’d actually kept in touch.
“The police approached him, on more than one occasion. He said, nothing like that had ever happened. I’d phoned and asked him to be a character witness – he agreed straightaway: ‘What a stupid set of allegations. I’ll help you anytime, Baz, you’ve helped me enough in the past’.
“Then, he succumbed to temptation. I think it was just the money. He got three thousand pounds – or three thousand pieces of silver, as I think of it.”
Those who claim to be victims of criminal conduct are eligible for compensation. Moreover, the amount of compensation varies according to the severity of the crime: the more serious the allegation, the more money the complainant receives.
The financial reward may be the most powerful incentive to concoct allegations, but it is certainly not the only one. Since many complainants are in prison, they are far more easily led than any other group of witnesses.
“They’re waiting in line for whatever favours you can give them”, explained Lawson. “They may get parole, or better conditions, or just attention – there’s a whole gamut of factors there.”
“In Wakefield, I met a prisoner whose complaint against another member of staff in the same group of care homes as myself led to him getting a 14 year sentence”, recalled Rigby, “and he more or less admitted that it was a pack of lies – and he’d done it just to avoid the prison treatment programme. That was his only inducement.”
Rigby went to trial facing 44 allegations. There were 29 counts against Lawson. At one stage, 91 members of staff at the school were under investigation.
All this should have raised two fundamental questions: why were all these allegations only emerging now? and how could up to 91 members of staff have abused children 25 or 30 years ago without a single complaint having been made at the time?
“Parents used to visit, social workers used to visit”, said Lawson. “The schools were regularly inspected. If a kid ran off, who brought him back? The police did. They always asked him if there were any problems. There were independent school doctors, nurses, and dentists. There was ample opportunity to complain – had these things gone on.”
Nevertheless, it proved impossible for these men to defend themselves against highly emotive accusations that, however graphic the descriptions, were uncorroborated allegations going back a quarter of a century.
Lawson, whose case took an astonishing three years to go to trial, was convicted in June 2000. “I go to jail with a clear conscience”, he told the judge.
Rigby had been found guilty in August 1999. “I felt devastated”, he admitted. “So helpless, I was so frightened, going to prison for the first time.
“My lawyer said, ‘As soon as you get there, you want to ask for the numbers’. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He explained to me, ‘You don’t want to be beaten up, do you?’”
Those who were deemed vulnerable in prison – especially sex offenders – are put on what is known as Rule 43 and kept segregated for their own protection. “I was scared stiff. The verbal abuse was horrific, and there was a lot of spitting. That’s nasty. You’ve got to go through it to be able to put words to it. But I wouldn’t let them put on me any form of guilt. Though I was scared stiff of going across the compound and being ‘nonce’d’, as it were, I would do it. Because of my own belief in myself, I did it. I would be intimidated, I would not let them stop me.”
Lawson survived his time in prison through his “two escapes from stress”: working on the gardens at Albany, in the Isle of Wight; and reading history books. He also worked out a routine with his family, ringing briefly every morning before Becky went to school, and again every evening. “It helps to keep you in touch”, he said, “it keeps you balanced.”
He told the prison staff, “You can open the prison gates, and I won’t walk out. I’m only going out with my head held high”.
With help and funding from a friend, a former care worker who had also been a police officer, the Williams-Rigby family hired a private detective to find fresh witnesses, other men who had been resident at the time and whose accounts of life in the home contradicted the ones given at trial. Meanwhile Mike Lawson met one of his new witnesses in prison. This man said that a complainant who made allegations both against him and David Jones had confessed to having fabricated the allegations; he said he’d needed the compensation money to pay for a sex-change operation.
With the assistance of their legal teams, which now included solicitor Chris Saltrese, the men won their appeals, to great rejoicing from family and friends.
“It’s not been easy, going to prison five times a month”, said Diane Williams-Rigby. “I said I would get my husband free, and I’ve got him free. He’s an innocent man, we wanted to prove that, and we’ve done it.”
“For any wife”, reflected Geraldine Lawson, “if you thought for one second he was guilty, he wouldn’t have remained in the house. But that thought never entered my head. I knew he’d been falsely accused by very vulnerable people whom I feel very saddened for.”
Becky, now 13, handled the trauma with what her parents described as “great courage”, and was open with everyone at her school. “All my friends have been very supportive”, she emphasised, “and the teachers”.
It is the quality time they have missed with their families that has been the biggest sacrifice for the men. Basil apologised for seeming over-protective of his son, who had asked to go swimming at the local baths. “I keep thinking he’s only eight”, he explained, “but I’m not thinking. I’ve missed him for more than three-and-a-half years. He’s nearly 12 now.”
Some estimate that there are more than a hundred men in prison whose cases are broadly similar to Rigby and Lawson’s – men who have been wrongly convicted of historical allegations of abuse. Lawson pointed out that two entire wings at Albany prison are filled with men who maintain their innocence.
He recalled his own exchanges with the police questioning him. “I said to them. ‘I’ve sat where you’re sitting, I’ve interviewed guys for interfering with children. I used to weigh a guy up, just like you’re weighing me up. I know what you’re thinking, I’m not going to let this guy harm anyone else.’
“There are many detectives who are straightforward and honest, I know that”, he continued. “But there are also zealots. If you’re a detective, you go on intuition and gut-feeling, and sometimes you’re wrong. In the end, you become that sure he’s done it, you’re going to stitch a guy up. It is just so easy.”
“There are other people I knew in prison who are innocent, definitely”, added Rigby. “The least they deserve is what I had on Friday. If I can get through what I’ve got through, I’m sure I can carry on and fight for other people. That’s what I want to do now.”
© Bob Woffinden, 2003