Was Jill Dando really murdered by mistake?

·7-min read
Brinkworth and Dando - AFP | Getty
Brinkworth and Dando - AFP | Getty

When former BBC undercover journalist Lisa Brinkworth met with her lawyers in Paris last September, they revealed some quite startling news. The 55-year-old – who has spent the past two decades trying to expose allegations of rape and sexual abuse in the fashion industry – was informed that when Jill Dando was murdered in 1999, it may have been she who was the intended target.

The extraordinary revelation – that Miss Dando may have been shot dead in a case of mistaken identity – left her stunned and unable to process what she had heard.

As Brinkworth explains: “I went to Paris to give my deposition to the French police and was told then that this witness had come forward claiming that he had been present when this conversation happened and that was the first I heard of it. I was utterly shocked. I left Paris that evening because I did not feel safe.”

She adds: “It is devastating and traumatic. It has been very, very hard. I did not know what to think.”

Earlier this year a detective from Scotland Yard’s cold case review team went to visit Ms Brinkworth in her London home to discuss the possibility that she had been the real target in the Dando killing. The officer took a statement and the Met Police are now investigating the claim along with numerous other theories.

 Lisa Brinkworth
Lisa Brinkworth

Brinkworth says: “The cold case review team have now logged the details and confirmed it is one line of inquiry out of thousands of leads. My British lawyer has also given a statement to Scotland Yard.

“It is so hard to process it all and I was so reluctant for this to come out because of the pain it will cause to the Dando family, but a witness has come forward and his claims need to be investigated fully.”

The murder of Jill Dando more than 20 years ago remains one of Britain’s most enduring criminal mysteries – with suspects ranging from IRA terrorists and vengeful gangsters, to obsessed stalkers and Serbian warlords.

But now, in a fresh twist, Brinkworth’s French lawyers have raised the possibility that a Russian mafia hitman, ordered to silence her, simply got the wrong blonde BBC journalist.

In a further twist, both women lived in west London, and Dando’s fiancé, Alan Farthing, was also Brinkworth’s doctor.

The astonishing claims have emerged as part of a legal case involving Gerald Marie, 72, the French fashion mogul, who is being investigated over numerous historical allegations of sexual assault and rapes. He denies all the allegations.

Brinkworth, 55, has claimed Marie sexually assaulted her in 1998 when she was working undercover for the Donal MacIntyre series.

Gerald Marie - Sygma
Gerald Marie - Sygma

She is currently embroiled in a legal challenge over France’s 20-year statute of limitations on sex crimes and as part of her case, lawyers have raised the prospect that attempts may have been made on her life. In documents submitted to the Judicial Court in Paris, lawyers reference a conversation said to have been witnessed by a model agency executive in which Marie allegedly ordered a member of the Russian mafia to “deal with a problem”.

The documents from French law firm Bourdon Associes continue: “Shortly thereafter … a BBC journalist, Jill Dando, was shot dead in April 1999.

“Indeed these two journalists were in their 30s, were blonde with the same facial features, of the same height and of similar stature. They lived close to each other and had people in common.”

The extraordinary claims have reignited interest in the Dando case and Scotland Yard last night confirmed detectives will explore any new information that comes to light.

Jill Dando, who had started out her career as a local newspaper reporter, was one of the most recognisable faces on BBC News in the late 1990s. Following stints anchoring Breakfast Time and the Six O’Clock News, she branched into presenting work, featuring regularly on Holiday and Songs of Praise.

But it was her work on Crimewatch, alongside fellow presenter Nick Ross, for which she became best known. Featuring reconstructions of unsolved crimes and appealing for help to catch suspects, the BBC programme became compulsive viewing for many and was credited with leading to the capture of thousands of criminals.

However, just before lunchtime on April 26 1999, it was Dando who became the centre of a massive police investigation when someone walked up to her outside her home in Gowan Avenue, Fulham, and shot her once in the head.

The murder shocked the nation to the core and the Metropolitan Police came under intense pressure to find the killer quickly. Homicide detectives spoke to more than 2,500 people and considered a wide range of motives for the killing.

In July 2001, they thought they had got their man when Barry George – a local loner with an unhealthy obsession with guns and celebrities – was convicted of Dando’s murder following a trial at the Old Bailey.

The evidence was thin, however, with the prosecution relying on a minuscule particle of gunpowder residue found in the suspect’s coat pocket. After two unsuccessful appeals, George’s conviction was eventually quashed in 2007 and he was acquitted at a retrial the following year.

The murder of Jill Dando shocked the nation - Peter Jordan
The murder of Jill Dando shocked the nation - Peter Jordan

So if George was innocent of the murder, who had pulled the trigger? While the list of concrete suspects was short, the number of theories was long.

Dando’s role on Crimewatch led to speculation that a criminal element whose activities she had helped to expose had been angered. In a 2017 ITV programme, an anonymous hit man told Mark Williams-Thomas, a police officer turned investigative journalist, that he knew the culprit but was too scared to name him. Police looked into the criminal underworld but ultimately discounted the gangland theory.

The suspicion that she had been killed by an obsessed stalker remained one of the most popular theories for a motive among most detectives. Police were able to identify 140 people who were obsessed with Dando, including men who had sent her sexually explicit fan mail or tried to meet her.

But none of the men traced by police had been in the area at the time and all of Dando’s ex-boyfriends were eliminated from inquiries.

Among the more bizarre theories was that Dando had been assassinated on the orders of Serbian warlords in revenge for the Nato bombing of Belgrade three days earlier. In 2012, Branka Prpa, the widow of a prominent Serbian journalist called Slavko Ćuruvija, suggested Dando had been killed because she had fronted a BBC appeal to help Kosovan-Albanian refugees fleeing Milošević-supporting militias.

William Clegg QC, the barrister who successfully represented Mr George, was convinced the murder had all the hallmarks of a professional hit.

After two unsuccessful appeals, Barry George’s conviction was eventually quashed in 2007 and he was acquitted at a retrial the following year - Lewis Whyld/PA Wire
After two unsuccessful appeals, Barry George’s conviction was eventually quashed in 2007 and he was acquitted at a retrial the following year - Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

Three years ago Mr Clegg told The Telegraph: “There’s no doubt at all, the person who killed her was a professional hitman.

“From the way the murder was committed, the weapon used, the method of execution – all point to it being a professional. It would have been beyond the capabilities of anyone [else].”

Another suggested theory was that Dando had been murdered by the IRA, but that the killing was being covered up by the establishment in order to protect the Northern Ireland peace process which was at a delicate phase at the time.

Police were also understood to be investigating claims that a hitman named “Joe”, who worked in a Spanish bar, had killed Dando on the orders of a gangster who had been jailed for life for murder following a Crimewatch appeal. The claims were contained in a report from the National Criminal Intelligence Service, but despite a thorough investigation the mysterious Joe was never traced.

Will Jill Dando’s murder finally be solved as a case of mistaken identity? Time will tell.

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