Allan Chappelow murder: a macabre mix of a corpse coated in wax, secret trials and the shadow of MI6
An exiled Chinese dissident has spent more than 10 years in jail over the death of a reclusive London writer. Spotting flaws in a case layered in mystery, Thomas Harding, a neighbour of the victim, goes in search of the truth
January 14 2018, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
In May 2006 an 86-year-old man named Allan Chappelow was bludgeoned to death in his crumbling home in Hampstead, north London. He was discovered more than four weeks later buried under about five feet of paper, curled up in a foetal position, partially burnt and covered in wax. In September 2006 Wang Yam, a Chinese dissident, was arrested in Switzerland. He was extradited to Britain and convicted of Chappelow’s murder. His murder trial was the first in modern British history to be held in camera: closed in part to the public and the press. More than 10 years later he is still protesting his innocence.
The police were certain they had the right man, yet no forensic evidence was found linking Wang Yam to the crime scene. A pathologist described the killing as particularly brutal, but the prosecutors were unable to prove that the accused had a history of violence.
The police said that after murdering Chappelow, Wang Yam had repeatedly stolen post from his house in an attempt to assume his identity but credit cards, Pin numbers and a passport were found untouched and in plain sight on the victim’s bed.
The more I read about the case, the more confusing it became.
For 18 years I had lived four doors away from Chappelow. That is to say I knew him as a child knows the peculiar old man who lives up the street. His murder was tragic and shocking. But as I began to research it further a senior barrister warned me that I was heading into “murky, murky waters”. He was right.
Larger questions loomed: why was Wang Yam’s trial held in closed court? Is it possible to hold a fair trial in secret? In this time of growing terrorist and criminal threats, are individual and press freedoms being sacrificed on the altar of national security? I wanted to know more about the trial — and who had killed my neighbour.
Chappelow, an author of books on George Bernard Shaw, had lived alone at 9 Downshire Hill for more than 30 years. After the police were tipped off about suspicious transactions made on Chappelow’s bank account, they stopped by his home to verify his identity.
The whole house smelt sweet. The front hallway and half the rooms were filled with old newspapers, plastic bags, bottles, fragments of wood and rubble. Three days of searching passed before a sniffer dog found Chappelow’s body under the debris. His skull appeared to be fractured, as if struck repeatedly by a blunt instrument.
Detectives could not find his Nokia phone yet his Sim card had been used numerous times during the previous weeks. Perhaps the victim had befriended a conman or had a fraudster broken in and stolen his mail?
The postman recalled being questioned a few weeks earlier about Chappelow’s mail by “a Chinese man, a bit shorter than me . . . He was about 50 years old with an English accent . . . His hair was black with a fringe and collar-length.” The police wondered: could this be the first description of the murderer?
Wang Yam claims that his grandfather was Ren Bishi, a revolutionary hero of China’s Long March. At his funeral Mao Tse-tung had served as one of his pall-bearers. But Wang Yam grew disillusioned with the regime as a student in Beijing and joined in the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
He was interrogated several times by police and managed to escape to Hong Kong in 1992. Questioned by entry guards, he said he had “political problems” and wanted to leave for “any country that speaks English”. Soon he was on an overnight flight to London.
After arriving in the UK he obtained a researcher’s job in the physics department at Queen Mary College in east London and became involved in pro-democracy politics, attending rallies and handing out leaflets in Chinatown.
He also went on to develop a web of complicated financial services, renting a central London office, printing business cards and registering internet domain names. Several of his cheques bounced, he was often chased for unpaid debts and filed for bankruptcy.
Detectives were convinced they had found their man. They had a motive: there were numerous accounts of Wang Yam’s financial troubles. They had opportunity: he lived around the corner from Chappelow and the postman had allegedly linked the suspect to the scene of the crime. And they had plenty of evidence: perhaps best of all, Wang Yam had been captured on CCTV depositing the victim’s cheques in his own bank account. It was more than enough to issue a warrant for his arrest for murder.
At a meeting in a small, windowless room at Belmarsh prison, Wang Yam was encouraged by his barristers to provide a full account of his story.
He said he had been in possession of Chappelow’s cheques and Sim card because he had become involved with Chinese gangsters in London who were responsible for the theft of Chappelow’s identity. He said he had been handed the cheques and credit card by three gangsters whom he had come to know and that he was playing them along as a means of assembling evidence against them and reporting them.
He said they must have shadowed him, committed the murder and framed him. Although this seemed fanciful, none of his claims could be tested in public.
In November 2007 a letter arrived by government car at the Home Office requesting that the home secretary approve a public interest immunity (PII) certificate preventing the disclosure of Wang Yam’s defence. In evaluating whether to approve the PII, the home secretary had to determine whether disclosure would be likely to lead to real damage to the UK’s national security or economic interests, outweighing the public interest in open justice.
So it was that six weeks before the trial’s scheduled start, the Crown Prosecution Service said that the trial could not take place in open court “in the interests of national security and to protect the identity of a witness or other person”. Wang Yam’s lawyers were stunned. How could they mount a defence that was at least partially held in closed court?
In a separate order the judge said that not only were the media to be excluded from the in camera portions of the trial but they were also forbidden from speculating as to why the trial was being held in secret. The jury found him guilty of three charges, including the handling and receiving of stolen goods, but could not agree whether he was guilty of burglary, mail theft and murder.
The judge ruled there would be a retrial on the other charges later that year. According to Geoffrey Robertson, Wang Yam’s QC, the police “had decided that Wang Yam was their man. There was a logic to it. He was difficult to understand, they didn’t bother looking much further and they didn’t run down the alternatives.” Later it was widely reported that Wang Yam was an MI6 informant.
Was there another side to Allan Chappelow? At a restaurant near the Haymarket, central London, I met a tall, thin man in his sixties known as “Serpico”, who had cruised Hampstead Heath for decades. Between 2000 and 2006 he said he had frequent encounters with a man dressed in black trousers, black shirt and a black hat. This man had facial hair, spoke with a posh accent and was called “Allan”. Then “Allan” had disappeared.
According to Chappelow’s cousin, the police had found sex-related paraphernalia, including condoms and a video of a gay pride march, inside the victim’s home. Did he have a hidden second life? Serpico told me that men who took part in corporal punishment sometimes engaged in sex play with hot wax and that it was exactly the kind of thing “Allan” would have enjoyed.
In 2017 Wang Yam’s case went to the Court of Appeal. This time “Serpico” appeared as a witness and spoke of the “spanking bench” where he would meet the man in black. Another witness, Jonathan Bean, said he had been threatened by a man with a knife at his home on Downshire Hill less than a year after his neighbour had been killed and that some of his mail may have been stolen.
None of these statements impressed the judges. The “key connection”, they wrote in their judgment, was between the use of Chappelow’s mobile Sim card and the murder.
Could there have been two sets of criminals, unknown to each other, carrying out separate crimes? There was never any physical evidence linking Wang Yam to Downshire Hill. If he was the killer, why did he leave no trace? Yet because of the PII, upheld throughout all of Wang Yam’s trials and appeals, significant parts of the judicial process were held in camera. Even more extraordinarily, journalists (myself included) are still barred from speculating about the reasons for the trial being held behind closed doors.
Whatever is contained in the secret appendix attached to the PII certificate, it must be of such scope and scale that it is important enough to override the centuries-old tradition of open justice.
© Thomas Harding 2018
Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding will be published by William Heinemann on January 25 at £20
Sunday Times - 14 Jan 2018