It is nearly 30 years since he was at the centre of one of Scotland Yard’s most notorious operations, yet strangers still recognise him – although usually they can’t quite recall why.
Colin Stagg is now 57, greying and portlier than when he hit the headlines in the early 1990s, but there is no mistaking his features as he heads to his local Tesco Express for his checkout shift.
He was the innocent loner targeted in a police honey trap involving a blonde undercover officer whose mission was to get him to ‘confess’ to a murder he did not commit.
Colin Stagg received £706,000 in compensation from the Home Office for the ‘stigma’ of still being wrongly considered the prime suspect
Mr Stagg never admitted killing Rachel Nickell, 23 – stabbed 49 times in front of her young son Alex on Wimbledon Common in July 1992 – and there was no worthwhile evidence against him, but police still charged him with her murder.
He spent a year in custody awaiting trial before a furious Old Bailey judge threw out the case, branding the undercover operation ‘reprehensible’.
Later, after a double killer locked up in Broadmoor emerged as Miss Nickell’s real murderer, Mr Stagg received £706,000 in compensation from the Home Office for the ‘stigma’ of still being wrongly considered the prime suspect in the case and therefore unemployable, years after he had been cleared.
Now his story features in a four-part Channel 4 drama about how the undercover Met officer codenamed Lizzie James tried to entice him into a ‘confession’ in 1993.
Photos from the set of the forthcoming series My Name is Lizzie show the undercover officer stumbling into the sea, her face etched with despair as the emotional strain of the investigation takes its toll.
Mr Stagg, 57, was seen entering his local Tesco for the start of his shift on the checkouts
While it is unclear what stage of the inquiry the scenes from the drama reflect, the real life honey trap officer did pay a heavy price for her involvement.
For five months ‘Lizzie’, played by Irish actress Niamh Algar, 28, called and wrote to Mr Stagg, even dangling the possibility of sex as bait.
In 1998 she took early retirement aged 33 and three years later was awarded £125,000 compensation after claiming Scotland Yard failed to support her adequately. She has built a new life and her true identity cannot be revealed for legal reasons.
In 2008 serial rapist and double killer Robert Napper – who at the time of the case bore a striking resemblance to Mr Stagg – was convicted of the manslaughter of Miss Nickell after a DNA breakthrough.
Rachel Nickell (pictured) was stabbed 49 times in front of her young son Alex on Wimbledon Common in July 1992
Mr Stagg had walked free in September 1994 after a judge refused to allow Lizzie’s evidence to be put before a jury. The view at the top of the Met was that he had ‘got away with it’ – a key factor in his record £706,000 compensation payout later.
Four years ago he said he had blown much of the money on cars, holidays, clothing – he even paid £850 for a Darth Vader costume – charity donations and flawed business investments. ‘I spent like there was no tomorrow… and I was earning two or three grand a month in interest,’ he added. ‘I was making up for lost time doing the things I should’ve done in my youth if it hadn’t been blighted by Rachel’s murder.’
Today he lives in a semi-detached house in a town in the South East with his wife, a mother of four grown-up children. It is a three-minute drive from the Tesco Express store where he works on the tills and as a warehouseman.
His colleagues are aware of his history with the Nickell investigation. A friend said: ‘Sometimes customers recognise him and can’t figure out where they’ve seen him.
Serial rapist Robert Napper (pictured) was convicted of the crime in 2008 thanks to forensic evidence
‘Colin and his wife went on holiday to Wales a year ago. A farmer said, “I recognise you” and he just said, “I’ve got one of those faces”.’
Approached for comment by the Mail, Mr Stagg politely declined to answer questions. It is understood he has a contract with the makers of the Channel 4 drama who interviewed him as research about the honey-trap operation. It forbids him from speaking without their permission.
But it seems likely he will speak publicly about his police ordeal and dealings with ‘Lizzie James’ when the drama is screened later this year. Channel 4 has not yet revealed who is playing Mr Stagg.
For now, friends say he is simply getting on with his life after being the victim of one of Scotland Yard’s most disgraceful investigations in which – as in the more recent shambolic VIP child abuse inquiry Operation Midland – the presumption of innocence was not adhered to by police.
Some of what remains of his payout is invested in ISAs, a friend said.
And his views on ‘Lizzie James’ and the force that tried to frame him? ‘He doesn’t think much about her,’ the friend said. ‘He recovered a long time ago. He’s one of those people who doesn’t look back.’