A small memorial service will take place on Braybrook Street in Shepherd’s Bush on Friday (August 12) to mark the 50th anniversary of ‘the worst crime London has known’.
Detective Sergeant Christopher Head, 30, Temporary Detective Constable David Wombwell, 25, and PC Geoffrey Fox, 41, were shot and killed in the line of duty on the quiet road on the afternoon of August 12 1966, in a crime which was dubbed the Massacre of Braybrook Street .
Jack Witney and John Duddy were arrested a short while after, as was arch villain Harry Roberts following a massive manhunt, and the trio were told they would spend a minimum 30 years in prison.
Duddy died in prison in 1981, while Witney was released in 1991 and murdered by a heroin addict in 1999.
Roberts, who shot dead two of the plain-clothes officers was controversially released in 2014 after serving 48 years behind bars.
The killings happened at the height of the Swinging Sixties, just weeks after England had lifted the World Cup, and shocked the country. The press called it one of London’s worst crimes, while many called for the recently suspended death sentence to be reintroduced.
Among those who will be attending the service will be Chris Rider, who was at the time an 18-year-old local news reporter who would find himself crossing paths with Roberts at various stages in his life, and his chief reporter Brian Collett.
Mr Rider, now 68, was writing for the Shepherd’s Bush Gazette, Acton Gazette and Hammersmith Post at the time and was in the area covering a golden wedding anniversary when he found himself in the middle of the murders.
He said: “I was just coming out of the door when I heard three or four loud bangs. I thought ‘what the hell is that?’.
“There were a couple of kids running past me and I asked what had happened. One lad said he thought a police man had been shot.
“I went around the corner and saw a police car in the middle of the road. There was a body under the car, a body in the car and a body lying somewhere close.
"I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.”
Sadly for Mr Rider, there was a personal element to the tragedy. He said: “I didn’t realise it at the time but these were two coppers that I knew quite well from Shepherd’s Bush police station - Christopher Head and David Wombwell.
"They used to give me the book, as it was known in those days, where they told me about the crimes and larcenies.
“They were two lovely guys. Typical London coppers of the day, with a real sense of humour.”
Despite the shock, Mr Rider soon talked his way into a nearby house and called Mr Collett, who soon joined him at the scene.
Unsurprisingly given the length of time, Mr Collett’s recollection is slightly different. He said he was relaxing in a pub in Acton with colleagues before the weekend when someone wrongly informed them that there had been a fight in Shepherd’s Bush and someone may have died.
Recalling his arrival at the scene Mr Collett, now 78, said: “The place was jumping with police. They were so keen to find the killers they hadn’t even cordoned off the scene of the crime.
“You could walk into the road and see those poor fellows dead. I could see Fox slumped at the wheel.
“It was one of those unforgettable experiences. It was gruesome and horrible and awful.”
Mr Rider would spend the next few days at Braybrook Street and Shepherd’s Bush police station, covering the story and interviewing Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, who came to visit.
He recalls: “We put together a double page spread with the headline ‘Slaughter on the street’, but by the time we were ready to go to press they had caught Witney and it was sub-judice and we couldn’t use it.”
The teenager would again share a close encounter with Roberts soon after: “A few weeks later I was at a training course in Harlow when news came through that Harry Roberts had been caught in Epping Forest, which was quite near to where I was. So I went down again with my class to cover his arrest.”
And their paths crossed a third time some 30 years later, when Mr Rider worked as a volunteer in the prison service. He recalls: “I found myself face to face with him, we were in the same room.
“The opportunity wasn’t there to speak to him, and I’m not sure I would have, but I thought ‘you have no idea I was in the same street as you when you pulled off your little caper’.
“It was ironic, I was at the scene of his crime, I was there just after he was arrested and then I was in the same room as him.”
Despite the passing of the years, Mr Rider, who is now a writer and broadcaster living near Portsmouth, has never forgotten the tragic incident in Shepherd’s Bush.
“Brian said to me ‘you’re 18 and this could be your biggest story’, and he was right.
“The three toe-rags were planning on robbing a rent collector when they were approached by the policemen. Braybrook Street is on the perimeter of Wormwood Scrubs prison . They were talking and planning the robbery when the Q-car came past and thought they looked a bit suspicious.”
And the scenes he witnessed are still vivid in his mind: “It’s stayed with me all this time.
“It doesn’t feel like 50 years. I can still see and hear the scene in my head. I have this detailed view in my mind of police officers with their turned-up trousers and trilby hats, trying to trace a Standard Vanguard with the number plate PGT726, I’ll never forget that.”
The anniversary will be the first time either of the newshounds have returned to Braybrook Street since the incident. Mr Collett, who lives in Northwood , said: “It’s going to be a funny and strange experience returning.
"It will be sombre and we will give it the dignity it deserves.
“Three relatively young lives were lost unnecessarily and it’s a sad occasion.”
A film of the murders called Foxtrot One One was made in 2014, and named after the murdered officers’ Q-car’s call sign.
The service will be first since Reg Collins, who lived on the street and looked after the memorial for the three officers, died last September.