22 years ago, London’s minority groups were under attack. Over three successive weekends in April 1999, three horrific nail bombs were set off in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, killing three people and injuring 140.
While many of us may remember these attacks from the time, what we may not recall is the true fascist nature of these crimes, and of the white supremacist who wilfully chose to hurt and kill others as part of his racist and homophobic hate campaign.
Two decades on, Netflix has commissioned a one-off documentary, Nail Bomber: Manhunt, that examines the events leading up to the bombings, the people caught up in the blasts and even a man who went undercover in the BNP to help expose the killer who was later revealed to be David Copeland. Taking a snapshot of the rising far-right political temperament in the country at the time, the documentary looks at the failings of the police in identifying the bombs as racial hatred crimes and also questions whether enough was done to curb the pockets of white extremists banding together at this time.
What happened in the three bombings?
The first bomb was left by Copeland in the busy market of Electric Avenue, Brixton, on Saturday 17 April. However, a few market traders noticed the black sports bag and saw that it contained a bomb, but they weren’t sure what to do with it. One of the traders notes in the documentary that: “I kid you not, a crackhead came and took the bomb out and stole the bag it was in”. By the time the public had alerted authorities, the bomb had exploded at 5.25pm. The sheer number of nails embedded in the bomb were placed there to cause maximum damage to the maximum number of people and 48 people were injured, including a child who ended up with a four-inch nail in his skull.
The second bomb was placed in the Bengali community of Brick Lane, east London, on Saturday 24 April. Once again, it was placed in a sports bag, and once again, it’s crude nature meant a member of the public discovered it and tried to take it to the police station, which was shut. The bomb exploded in the man’s car, destroying nearby buildings, and injuring 13 people.
The most prolific of all three bombs took place in The Admiral Duncan pub, Soho, on Friday 30 April, the start of a busy bank holiday weekend. The bomb - which was taped on to the inside of the pub in a sports bag - was just being investigated by the pub’s manager at 6.37pm when it exploded. Three people including a pregnant woman were killed, 79 people were seriously injured and four people had to have limbs amputated. The documentary reveals that the nails fired out from the bombs had been dipped into rat urine and faeces, further infecting those wounded.
How was the killer caught?
The criminal was branded the only ever serial bomber the country has seen, but the police were slow on the uptake that the bombs were racially motivated. Speaking to key members of the community at the time, the documentary reveals that after the Brixton bombing, police said “they were keeping an open mind” about who may be behind it, despite the risk it posed to other multicultural communities in the country. They also refused to initially reveal a highly pixelated image of the killer from CCTV footage.
The documentary manages to interview “Arthur”, a police informant who went undercover in the BNP/far right groups at the time in the hope of stopping further crimes. Although he became indoctrinated to some of the groups’ warped theories, he helped tip off the police about a guy he called “Dave from Barking”. This turned out to be a 22-year-old man called David Copeland, someone who had been active in the neo-Nazi groups and rallies, and who Arthur - and a work colleague of Copeland - were able to identify when clearer CCTV footage from the bombings was released.
What happened when Copeland was arrested?
When the police turned up at Copeland’s Hampshire home, he admitted the bombings, saying: “Yeah, they were all down to me, I did them on my own”. Hung up in his bedrooom were two Nazi flags, and a collection of newspaper clippings about the bombings.
The filmmakers - Colin Barr and director Daniel Vernon - have managed to obtain the audio tape of Copeland’s police interview, which they intersperse clips of throughout the film. Copeland shows no remorse for any of his crimes, or for the people who he killed or maimed. He claimed his motives for the attacks were “to spread fear, resentment and hatred throughout this country”, that he wanted to incite “a racial war”. He also added, for the record: “I am a Nazi. I admit that, yeah”.
However, when he was charged, he pleaded not guilty and claimed diminished responsibility for his actions - essentially claiming madness. Copeland managed to falsely convince several doctors that he was suffering with paranoid schizophrenia, something that others didn’t believe. Ex far-right member and former soldier Bernard O’Mahoney acted as a honeytrap to get a confession from Copeland that he was faking his mental illness, so started to write to Copeland in Broadmoor prison, claiming to be a young woman called Patsy Scanlon, who was infatuated with him.
Over the course of several letters, Copeland eventually boasted to “Patsy”: “I can’t believe I’ve fooled all the doctors” and it was this confession that was eventually used in the 2000 court case to secure a conviction. In the film, O’Mahoney says the only time Copeland ever showed any upset in the dock was when Patsy was revealed to be “a hairy-arsed bouncer from Essex called Bernie”.
Copeland's plea of guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility was not accepted by the prosecution or jury, and he was convicted of three counts of murder and planting bombs and given six life sentences.
In 2007, the High Court decided that Copeland should remain in prison for at least fifty years, ruling out his release until 2049 at the earliest. Despite an appeal from Copeland, it was rejected and he remains in HMS Belmarsh prison.
Nail Bomber: Manhunt streams on Netflix from 26 May.
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