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The Gatwick Blackmailer

“Everybody that I came across, I started thinking that they were the person who had sent me the letter. I used to look at their handwriting to see if it matched the letter. I was accusing everybody…Everybody” – X

This week’s TTCE contains explicit descriptions of sadism and language that the reader may find disturbing or offensive. I make apologies for that, but it is necessary to reproduce here for the context of the post.

Airport security nowadays has undergone such a change since the end of the Second World War that most UK airports now have their own police forces and stations. Aside from todays pre-dominate operational requirement and necessity of an armed police response to deal with any threats to security and well-being, police at airports may also deal with more minor and mundane tasks, such as investigating instances of baggage theft, cases of air rage or the usual day to day trivialities police officers face. But at the end of November 1997, the CID at Britain’s second largest international airport, Gatwick, in south-east England, were faced with something out of the ordinary.

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Gatwick Airport

An attractive blonde stewardess in her mid-thirties arrived at Gatwick Airport police station in a state of clear distress, and placed on a desk the following letter that she had received whilst at work. The name of the recipient has been left out here, but the letter is reproduced:

DEAR X

YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU QUITE WELL. I’M UNEMPLOYED, BUT MAKE A LITTLE DELIVERING THINGS IN MY VAN. I’VE NOT HAD A GIRLFRIEND FOR FIVE YEARS. I HAVE DECIDED I’M HAVING YOU. YOU MUST DO THE FOLLOWING. GO TO A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHIC STUDIO, DRESSED IN YOUR FULL UNIFORM, INCLUDING GLOVES, HANDBAG, STOCKINGS, SUSPENDERS AND HIGH HEELS – BROWN. I WANT 40 PICTURES IN GLOSS COLOUR, 10 BY 8, SO I CAN SEE YOUR TITS, WITH YOUR SKIRT ON BUT PULLED UP – NO KNICKERS, CLEAR VIEWS BETWEEN YOUR LEGS. SEE DIAGRAMS.

IF YOU DON’T COMPLY, NEXT YEAR AT SOME STAGE WHEN IT IS SAFE FOR ME, I WILL THROW CONCENTRATED SULPHURIC ACID IN YOUR FACE. I WILL NOT STAY AROUND TO WATCH YOUR FLESH MELT OFF. I WILL GET YOU, NO QUESTION. NO MORE CHANCES NO MORE WARNINGS. YOU CAN’T HIDE, AND IF THE PICTURES ARENT THERE BY DECEMBER 12, THAT’S IT. IF I CAN’T SEE YOU, NO ONE ELSE WOULD EVER WANT TO ONCE I’VE DONE MY JOB NEXT YEAR. DO YOURS AND YOU WONT NEED TO LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDER ALL YEAR. BY THE WAY, YOU WILL PROBABLY BE BLINDED TOO, UNLESS YOU ARE LUCKY.

This horrifying message also contained with it disgusting and explicit hand drawn sketches of the poses that the author wanted the woman to adopt in the photographs, as well as detailed instruction about how to specifically package the pictures and where to leave them – the location being a ditch by a sign on a minor road near Gatwick Airport.

As one can imagine, this letter frightened the woman beyond belief – if anyone has ever received an anonymous threatening letter, then they will know just how much they can unsettle and frighten. Detectives started an investigation, and although the letter was postmarked 20 miles away in Kingston Upon Thames, they theorised that the author was someone who was employed at the airport in some way. They discreetly began looking at the woman’s male colleagues for a possible suspect, and subjected the letter and envelope to forensic examination for fingerprints or traces of DNA. All fingerprints found on the letter and envelope were ran through fingerprint databases, but no match was found on file. There was no obvious suspect found either. Needless to say, the frightened woman did not comply with the writer’s demands, and the deadline of December 12th passed without incident. The same woman then received another letter on 12 February 1998, written in the same handwriting and in the format of capital letters, simply saying:

YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR NOW, NOTHING WILL HAPPEN

Speculating that the author had gotten wind of the police investigation and had backed off, there was little more that detectives could do – except wait to see if the author wrote again. For nearly a year, there were no further developments.

Then, just after Christmas 1998, a second frightened woman came into Gatwick Airport police station with another disturbing and disgusting letter. It had again been posted in Kingston Upon Thames, and the recipient was again a blonde woman in her early 30’s, who worked on the ticket reservation staff at the airport. This time, the author of the letter had switched to referring to himself in the plural. Again, the name of the recipient has been removed here:

WE NEED YOUR UNIFORM FOR A FILM. IF YOU DON’T SUPPLY IT WE WILL TAKE IT. WE WILL FIND OUT A BIT ABOUT YOU, AND THEN WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT AND YOU ARE OFF GUARD, WE WILL TAKE IT. EVEN IF YOU ARE WEARING IT. WE WILL ALSO TAKE ONE OF YOUR FINGERS FOR MAKING THINGS DIFFICULT FOR US. DON’T BE A CUNT, X, MAKE LIFE EASY FOR ALL OF US. YOU KNOW EVERYTHING CAN BE FORGOT

The letter also contained the same detailed drop off instructions and location as the previous letter. The recipient of the second letter also did not comply with these demands, and although the first inquiry was again looked at, there was no arrest and it did not advance the investigation further. There was no follow up letter this time, and things again went quiet.

Then in April 1999, the letter writer was back. The third recipient was a colleague of the first recipient, and was the now familiar pattern again of a blonde woman in her early 30’s. This time, the letter had been posted at Gatwick itself, and the writer had drawn up a list of “forfeits” for the recipient. He again wanted her uniform, and it was again to be left in the same spot as before. As with the previous letters, the demands were ignored, and a follow up letter a month later contained the threat that the writer would place an obscene picture of the recipient online. The recipient, like the first victim, had been photographed for the airline’s promotional literature, and the writer threatened to graft her picture onto an image of a woman masturbating with a wine bottle. It would then be placed on a website with a message for people to telephone her airline asking for the “cabin crew performance manager”, and to detail which obscene and degrading acts they wished for her to perform.

The fourth and what turned out to be the final recipient of “The Gatwick Blackmailer” also worked for the same airline that victims 1 and 3 worked for – but this time was brown haired and only 22 years of age. The letter had also been sent just a day after the follow up letter to the third victim, which alarmed police. This man was becoming bolder and was stepping up his attacks. He was also becoming more perverted. The letter to the 4th victim again talked of a forfeit system, but as what was becoming a common pattern with the author, used a slightly different approach from the previous letters:

I WAS ON YOUR FLIGHT ONCE AND I MANAGED TO FIND OUT WHO YOU WERE. I WAITED FOR DAYS OUTSIDE THE CAR PARKS TO GET A FEW PICTURES OF YOU. I THOUGHT YOU SAW ME – DID YOU? I THINK ABOUT YOU ALL THE TIME, AS I DON’T HAVE TOO LONG TO LIVE. I’VE SOLD MY HOUSE, GIVEN UP MY JOB AND DECIDED TO GO OUT, FULFILLING EVERY FANTASY I’VE HAD AND DOING WHATEVER I WANT. ALL IN ALL I’M YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE. BEFORE I DIE I WILL THROW ACID OVER YOU. IT’S SO STRONG NOBODY WILL EVER RECOGNIZE YOU AGAIN. HERE IS TASK ONE. WRITE ME A LETTER. DESCRIBE YOUR BREASTS AND HOW YOU MASTURBATE.

The letter also contained a threat that non-compliance would result in a picture of her being posted online with her face grafted onto that of a woman with a frog in her vagina. This would be accompanied by an invitation to call a number and to ask for private shows of the victim with a manner of objects inserted into her vagina and anus.

The 4th victim was so traumatised by this letter, that after reporting it, she quit her job and moved away from the area. Gatwick Police now had 4 victims of what was undoubtedly the same man, but the investigation was at a standstill. When using an offender profiler was suggested, the officer heading the enquiry, Detective Inspector Steve Johns, opted to try it. On 23rd June 1999, DI Johns, DC John Ashbey, and crime analyst Samantha Thompson travelled up to Leicester University to meet their National Crime Faculty recommended criminal profiler, Dr Julian Boon. Dr Boon was a psychology lecturer who was a veteran of more than 400 criminal profiles the length and breadth of the country.

It was fortuitous that they were seeing Dr Boon. As he read out the content of the first letter received, Dr Boon exclaimed that he recognised the content as being an exact replica of that of an offender he had seen before. Dr Boon then described a case he had worked on in Sutton, South London, in mid-1998, where a 17-year-old shop worker had received a threatening letter telling her to dress as an air stewardess and have pornographic pictures of herself taken. This victim had received much more vicious and intimidating content in the letters to her, describing how he would damage her over a prolonged period of time, and going into explicit detail about crushing her nipples and removing teeth one by one. What convinced Boon that this writer was the same offender as the Gatwick Blackmailer were the similarities between each case – a high sadistic content, drawings contained with each letter detailing how the victim should pose for example, a specific instruction of how to package the content and where to drop the package off, as well as a requirement for 40 copies of each picture.

julian boon
Dr Julian Boon

Boon then considered the profile of the offender. The offender was likely male, in the older age bracket, and was unlikely to be married with children – or even in a conventional relationship. He was likely a loner, computer literate and technologically minded, with an interest in machinery. There was a possibility that the offender may have some form of disfigurement – as acid and disfiguring featured strongly in his letters. He agreed with the police that the writer would work at the airport, as the lure of being around his particular fetish would be too difficult to resist. It may be a low-level job, but that did not mean the offender was unintelligent. He considered the offender to be heavily into “anal sadism”, who would gain thrills from the humiliation and degradation of the victim. He estimated that the offender would be heavily into pornography – particularly relating to air hostesses as this was his bent, likely having clothing or paraphernalia related to that of air hostesses at his home. There was also the likelihood that the offender had written many more such letters to other victims, which may have been dismissed and to not have been reported. The fact that he had contacted three of the four victims twice gave the opinion that the author was a writer rather than a doer; none of the threats contained in the letters had ever been carried out, the offender gained his kicks from purely writing the letters, with every word giving him deep satisfaction. He would also find it irresistible to visit the drop off location described in the letters.

“He will be getting off on constructing that letter. Every line is just causing him to drip mentally with sexual elation” – Dr Julian Boon

Detectives from Gatwick then liaised with the investigating officers who had worked on the Sutton case, and what they learned made them convinced that Dr Boon was correct in his theory that the offender would visit the drop off location. The drop off location detailed in the Sutton letters had been surveilled by officers on the enquiry for two days covering one of the dates detailed by the author in one of the letters. No package had been left of course, but no one had turned up either. When the operation had been stood down, officers had left an empty bag and envelope at the scene to see the results. Shortly afterwards, the Sutton victim had received a letter asking her if she was trying to trick him with empty bags. It was clear that the offender had visited the scene at some point, even though the surveillance had failed to spot him.

Encouraged by this, DI Johns opted to put into action a round the clock surveillance operation upon the drop off location in the country lane near the airport that had been specified in many of the letters. A bag of clothing was deposited at the scene, a concealed video camera was installed that could observe the location, and two teams of officers hid a short distance either side of the location. On a Monday morning in mid July 1999, the operation began. Would the offender take the bait?

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A blurred still from the footage of Downer collecting the bag that had been left by the police surveillance team

For nearly three full days, police sat in wait but with nothing happening. But then, at nearly 11:00pm on 14th July 1999, the bag was collected. A car was observed stopping, and when the camera footage was later examined, the vehicles headlights were seen to illuminate the scene. A person’s silhouette could then be seen exiting the vehicle, going right to the bag and then returning to the vehicle before driving off the way the way that had approached from. The driver was stopped a short distance from the scene – and the bag was found on the front seat of the car. He was arrested and brought into custody at Gatwick, where he was interviewed in the presence of a solicitor. The explanation the driver gave for being at the scene was described by DC Ashbey:

“His explanation was that he had been working on his house all day long and decided to go for a walk some time after ten o clock that evening. He parked his car nearby in a country lane, walked across a couple of fields and then stumbled across this bag which he believed was rubbish or possibly a dead animal, because he’d found a dead badger stuffed in a black bag like that once before. So, because he liked the countryside and didn’t want to see rubbish lying about, he returned to his car, drove back to the scene, and put the supposed bag on the front seat so he could dispose of it at his home address” – Detective Constable John Ashbey

The man arrested at the scene was Keith Downer, a 40-year-old British Airways engineer who lived near Redhill in Surrey, and who worked on the B Shift short haul line maintenance at Gatwick Airport. Downer was bailed following his interview, but allowed officers to take his fingerprints before he left the station. Within a few days, Downer’s fingerprints were found to be a match to outstanding fingerprints on two of the blackmail letters. He was re-arrested and exercised his right not to comment when this evidence was put to him. Coupled with being in possession of the bag of clothing left as bait, and the unlikely explanation Downer had given for being in the lane at the time, it was enough to charge him. Five months later, when the case came before Chichester Crown Court in December 1999, Downer pleaded guilty to eight counts of blackmail – including the Sutton offence. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, which however was halved to four years at a Court Of Appeal hearing in autumn 2000. Downer’s victims were understandably extremely upset by this.

Downer’s family, partner, friends and work colleagues were all shocked beyond belief when they heard of his complicity in the offences. He was of average height, dark brown hair and described as “reasonably good looking”, who was divorced but had a regular girlfriend. He had a good, well paid job, had no previous convictions or police record, and was considered a pleasant, normal, hard-working person by those who knew him. This went against many of the points that Dr Boon made in his profile of the offender. Yet Downer matched several points of the profile. He did have a sexual fetish for air stewardesses, he did work at the airport and was of the older end of the offending scale. He also lived alone. And he also had visited the drop scene – as predicted. No stewardess uniform or paraphernalia was found at Downer’s house – but both Dr Boon and police remained convinced that there was a stash hidden somewhere – just at a location they didn’t know.

When interviewed for a television documentary series that featured the case not long after Downer’s conviction, Dr Julian Boon admitted that he had made a mistake in 3 areas of the profile – the offender’s appearance, work status and relationship with a woman. Boon went on to explain that the reason he had missed this was that because Downer had been what is known as “staging” – the offender had deliberately presented himself as something other than what he actually was. In the Gatwick Blackmailer case, this was not to obscure the identity of the offender as would be the common reason – but more to increase the level of terror and discomfort for the victims. Boon outlined the need to research Downer’s life, to look at his upbringing and relationships, particularly his previous sex life, to try to pinpoint exactly where and when the extreme sadism that was Downer’s sexual proclivity stemmed from. Boon remained convinced that Downer was more of “a writer than a doer”, and that this bent would never change. It just remained to be seen if Downer would be able to keep them under control upon release from prison.

Downer is long released from prison now. Has he managed to keep his fantasies under control – or has he started writing letters again….?

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

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