Who Killed Jill Dando?
Two decades ago, a talented and much-loved TV presenter Jill Dando was shot outside her London home in broad daylight with a single bullet to the head. An extensive investigation followed, resulting in one man’s conviction and imprisonment for the cold-blooded murder—just for him being acquitted eight years later. Today, despite the police naming over 2,000 potential suspects during the years, Jill Dando’s death remains unsolved.
Born on November 9, 1961, in Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, Jill Wendy Dando was the only daughter of Jack Dando and Winifred Mary Jean Hockey. Jill grew up in
Madam Lane, Worle, together with her brother Nigel, who was nine years older. Jill’s parents later recalled how delighted they were to have a baby girl—and how
terrifying it was when that happiness was soon under threat. When Jill was just three years old, her parents noticed that she would be out of breath alarmingly quickly when playing with other children and her little cheeks were glowing red. Worrying that something was seriously wrong, Jack and Jean took their daughter to Weston General Hospital—the decision likely saved Jill’s life.
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A leading heart expert Dr Beryl Corner diagnosed Jill with a potentially fatal heart condition and referred her to Bristol Children’s Hospital for X-rays. The test revealed that the three-year-old had a hole in her heart and a blocked pulmonary artery which needed to be fixed immediately.
On January 12, 1965, Jill underwent an eight-hour surgery—the ground-breaking operation was a huge success, and the heart defects were repaired. Just weeks later, Jill was able to run to the arms of her parents, who took her home.
Straight from the start of her education, Jill was always an excellent student. She attended Greenwood Junior School and Worle Infants, where she was teacher Betty Jones’ star pupil and acted as a milk monitor. Later at the age of 11, Jill moved to Worle School before attending Broad oak Sixth Form, where she was head girl and a straight-A student. It was said Jill always took care of her appearance, and her uniform was always immaculate. Jill was also very well-liked and had many friends in the town.
By the time of her teens, Jill worked part-time on Saturdays at Weston Library. Following their father’s footsteps, Nigel went on to a career in journalism, working at the Weston & Somerset Mercury—Jack Dando had been the paper’s head
compositor for 38 years. When Jill finished school, she approached Mercury editor John Bailey for a job. Jill was asked to write a 500-word essay with the title My thoughts on the year 2000—the essay was very well written, but Jill later recalled how she had had quite big expectations for the millennium that did not come true, like having a husband and two children.
Nevertheless, the essay got Jill the job and taken in as one of the paper’s first-ever female reporters. In her free time, Jill was a keen member of Weston Dramatic Society, playing many lead roles and even acting as Weston’s temporary mayoress on occasions when the lady mayoress was busy. It was clear Jill was a talented reporter and performer, and by the time she started helping out at Weston General Hospital’s Sunshine Radio, the idea of a career in broadcasting began to take shape.
Jill was making new broadcasts along with other Mercury reporters on the hospital station at the age of 19. Soon, her gifts were noticed, and Jill became a regular presenter—it was the start of her route into television. In the following years, Jill worked for the BBC, becoming a newsreader for BBC Radio Devon and a regional news magazine programme, Spotlight South West, in 1985. At the age of 26, in the Spring of 1988, Jill was convinced to leave her beloved West Country and move to London to work as a presenter on the Breakfast News programme alongside Bob Wilson and Sally Magnesson.
Within a year, Jill had become a key part of the programme and went on to have a six and a half year relationship with her boss, BBC executive Bob Wheaton. During that time, Jill replaced Anneka Rice on the Holiday programme and joined Nick Ross on Crimewatch. But despite her huge success and popularity, Jill always remained more the girl next door than a celebrity. She was an ordinary little girl who grew up to have an extraordinary life, never forgetting her friends and family and where she came from. Jill also always made time to talk to her fans, even though she never quite understood the public’s fascination with her. Still, Jill was happy that she was able to captivate her audience, as she once said:
“It’s nice to think people see me as a mate.”
When the relationship with Bob ended due to work pressures in 1996, Jill was briefly together with a national park warden Simon Basil before meeting gynaecologist Dr. Alan Farthing on a blind date in December 1997. That same year, Jill was named 1997 BBC Personality of the Year, and by 1999, she was not at the height of her career but had the happiest time in her personal life. Alan proposed to Jill on January 21, and their wedding was set to take place on September 25. Sadly, that day was never to come as just a few months after the engagement, Jill’s life was suddenly cut short.
On the morning of April 26 1999, at about 10:03 AM, a postman was delivering mail to Jill’s house on Gowan Avenue, Fulham, when he felt like he was being watched. As the postman looked around; he noticed a dark-haired man in a suit but did not think too much of it and continued his route. At the same time, a traffic warden spotted a blue Range Rover parked illegally in the area and was writing down the licence number but stopped when the driver protested. Both the dark-haired man and the Range Rover were seen by several people over the next hour.
Jill, who had spent the night at her fiancé’s home in Chiswick, returned home at approximately 11:30 AM. At this point, she was only an occasional visitor at Gowan Avenue as the house was already put up for sale. Still, somebody knew to be waiting for her that morning.
As Jill approached the door and was about to put her keys in the lock, she was suddenly grabbed from behind. Using his right arm, the attacker forced Jill to the ground, almost pushing her face on the tiled step of the porch, before pointing the gun in his left hand at Jill’s left temple and pulling the trigger—she died instantly. The whole situation was over in less than a minute and carried out with such professionalism that even experts later said that the cold-blooded shooting could not have been done any better.
First of all, the one shot fired by the killer had basically been soundless. Even Jill’s neighbour, Richard Hughes, who had been working at the front of the house that morning, did not hear anything else than a brief, sudden cry. The shot had also been so clean that the killer was not covered in blood, and he was so quick in and out of Jill’s front yard that barely anyone saw him. Richard did look up when he heard Jill’s scream and noticed a six-foot-tall white man aged around 40 walking away from her house, but as he did not hear the gunshot, Richard continued his chores.
Fourteen minutes passed, and then another neighbour, Helen Doble, was walking past No 29 Gowan Avenue. She found it quite unusual that Jill’s car was there parked in front of her apartment, so Helen turned to look at her neighbour’s door as that was often how we bumped into each other and talked. It took a few seconds for Helen to register what she saw—suddenly encountering such a violent scene can freeze anybody.
The police were called at 11:47, and Jill Dando was taken to the nearby Charing Cross Hospital, where she was declared dead on arrival at 1:03 PM. The news of the death of “the golden girl of British TV” spread quickly and shocked the whole
nation—everybody was asking the same question: Why had this happened?
It was clear straight from the start that the investigation by the Metropolitan Police, named Operation Oxborough, was going to be complex. Jill was a well-known public figure who had not just been in contact with thousands of people due to her job but had also been seen by millions on the TV screen. The number of potential suspects was astronomical, and before long, everybody was speculating the possible motives for Jill’s murder.
The only things the police knew early in the investigation was that the murder seemed like the work of a hitman, and Jill had been shot by a bullet from a 9mm Short calibre semi-automatic pistol. Richard Hughes gave authorities the description of the man with thick black hair and a waxed jacket he had seen leaving Jill’s house. The same man was seen by another neighbour, Geoffrey Upfill-Brown, who had noticed the hasty departure of the killer. In addition, a blue Range Rover was captured travelling at high speed down Fulham Palace Road away from the crime scene on CCTV.
Based on the witness reports and other evidence, the police began to think that the murderer might have had an accomplice. As said before, Jill rarely visited her house anymore, and there was no way for the killer to know when she would come or if she would come at all. So, the assailant must have been waiting for the right moment in the immediate vicinity of Jill’s house—likely sitting in a car as nobody had noticed the man beforehand. When Jill was then seen returning to her house, the gunman got out, and his accomplice drove the vehicle to a predetermined location—that way, the blue Range Rover would not be immediately connected to the murder.
However, as the investigation progressed, the police eventually dismissed the Range Rover sightings as insignificant. Within six months, the Murder Investigation Team had interviewed more than 2500 people and written down over 1000 statements without making much progress in finding the killer. The murder was also featured in Crimewatch, the programme Jill was hosting until her untimely death. The reconstruction of the crime in the show on May 18, 2000, and appeals from her fiancé Alan Farthing generated 500 calls from the public. However, it was a tip-off given to police just a day after the murder that eventually led to an arrest. Immediately after Jill’s death, someone had expressed their suspicions to the police of a “mentally unstable man” who lived just 500 yards from the TV star’s home—40-year-old Barry George.
The police were already a bit too familiar with Barry. He had tried to join the force at some point, failed and was then arrested and charged for pretending to be a police officer after obtaining false warrant cards. During his trial, Barry was seen wearing glam rock attire and proclaiming his real name was Paul Gadd—which is the birth name of disgraced pop star Gary Glitter. Barry also served 18 months of a 33-month attempted rape sentence and was known to be obsessed with princess Diana. In 1983 Barry was arrested in the grounds of Diana’s home at Kensington Palace, having two knives and a 15ft coil of rope in his possession. Strong evidence showed that Barry had been stalking the princess, but he was not charged over the incident.
After Diana’s death in 1997, it is possible that Barry looked for a replacement and transferred his obsession to Jill Dando, who he saw on TV all the time and who shared similar features with the princess.
It took the police 10 months to look more closely at Barry George—likely because of the endless amounts of tips coming in due to the high profile of the case. But when they finally did, the investigators quickly noticed Barry fit the psychological profile provided in May 1999 by forensic criminal psychologist Dr Adrian West, who had said
the authorities should look for an obsessive loner.
And so, Barry was put under surveillance and eventually arrested on May 25, 2000. At this point, the police were so sure they had the right guy that three days later, Barry George was charged with Jill Dando’s death. Before his trial, Barry was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, epilepsy, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was estimated to have an IQ of around 75. It was evident Barry was a troubled individual but did that make him a killer?
The only piece of evidence the prosecution had to link Barry to the death of Jill Dando was a microscopic particle said to be gunshot residue found in his coat pocket upon his arrest—ten months after the shooting. Somehow, that was enough
to convict Barry George on July 2, 2001, and sentence him to life imprisonment. The case could have ended there, but Barry and his legal team were not going to give up without a fight.
After two failed appeals, the third one succeeded in 2007 after discredited forensics evidence was excluded from the prosecution’s case. Barry was given a new trial that lasted for eight weeks and ended his acquittal on August 1, 2008. The Supreme Court stated that the evidence presented during the first trial was “so undermined that no conviction could possibly be based upon it.” However, after spending eight years of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Barry George was denied any compensation because he was “not innocent enough”, according to the Justice Secretary.
After Barry’s release, the police were back to zero. During the following years, several theories of what happened to Jill Dando.
One of the proposed theories was mentioned by Barry George’s defence team during the first trial. Lawyer Michael Mansfield proposed that Jill’s death had something to do with the UK and NATO being involved in the Kosovo War, opposing Serbia. The claim was based on the phone calls made immediately after the shooting to the BBC and other media outlets claiming responsibility for the killing on behalf of Serb groups. Perhaps the Serbian warlord Arkan had ordered Jill’s assassination in revenge for the NATO bombing of the RTS headquarters. A few weeks earlier, Jill had fronted a BBC appeal for aid for the Kosovan-Albanian refugees, possibly making her a target. Still, the theory was eventually dismissed as ‘utter nonsense’, and no solid evidence has ever been produced to prove the Serbian connection.
Another possibility was that Jill was gunned down on the orders of a London underworld gangster only known as “Mr Big.” The murder seemed to have been a professional hit, and Jill’s work on Crimewatch could have pushed a mob boss to send a message: “Do not take on organised crime.” It has also been said that Jill had found evidence of a paedophile ring that existed at the BBC following the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal and so needed to be silenced. However, some details
caused the investigators to question the professionalism of the attack: the spent cartridge was left at the scene, the gun used may have been a modified starting pistol, and the location and time of the attack did not really fit the work of a professional hitman.
So, what if the killer was just an ordinary person, perhaps a stalker instead of a gangster? Someone like Barry George. Jill was a very public figure, so it is possible she had obsessive fans. Apparently, Jill’s brother Nigel informed the police that she had been worried about “some guy pestering her” just days before her death. But again, the lead did not lead to anything.
And that is where we are today, 23 years later. Since Barry George’s arrest, conviction and acquittal, no one else has ever been charged with Jill Dando’s murder. Some still believe the Yugoslav connection is the most plausible theory—but unfortunately, even the leading detective of the case, Hamish Campbell, says that we most likely will never get the answer to who killed Jill Dando. Still, her brother, Nigel, just hopes for some closure:
“Of course, I would like to see somebody charged and convicted, but I would just like to know why someone would want to kill her. I would like somebody, the person who did it, to be able to tell me … why it happened and that would be fine. That would put my mind at rest.”
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