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Police killer Harry Roberts: The crime that shocked a nation

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Media captionTom Symonds reports on a crime that shocked the UK

The world was a very different place in 1966 when three unarmed police officers were shot dead in west London.

Such violent crimes were relatively unheard of and shockwaves reverberated across a nation which had been celebrating England's World Cup victory just two weeks previously.

Harry Roberts, who shot two of the men, would be given three life sentences for his role in the crime - but only after sparking a massive manhunt.

Britain's outrage and sorrow were illustrated by the thousands who lined the streets for the officers' funeral.

Members of the public openly wept for the occupants of the unmarked police vehicle, call sign Foxtrot One One, killed in the line of duty.

Months on the run

Roberts had been sitting in a parked van in Braybrook Street, near Wormwood Scrubs, at about 3.15pm on 12 August 1966 after taking part in an armed robbery when they were spotted by the three officers.

Sgt Christopher Head, 30, and Det Con David Wombwell, 25, approached John Witney, the driver of the vehicle, to ask him about his driving documents.

As Det Con Wombwell was writing in his notebook, Roberts - the front seat passenger - took out a Luger pistol and shot him.

Sgt Head ran back towards the police car but he too was shot by Roberts. Their colleague PC Geoffrey Fox, 41, was killed by fellow gang member John Duddy.

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Image caption A policeman stands guard near a cordon in Shepherds Bush after the murders
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Image caption Thousands of people lined the streets to mourn the loss of the three policemen

Roberts went on the run - evading police for three months by camping out in Epping Forest, Essex, using the survival training he had learned in Malaya while serving in the Army.

Meanwhile, around the country police were trying to track him down in the biggest manhunt Scotland Yard had ever carried out. Wanted posters bearing Roberts' image - and promising a £1,000 reward - were put up.

His mother Dorothy made an emotional televised plea for him to turn himself in, saying directly to her son: "I ask you from the bottom of my heart to come into the open and give yourself up. If you make an appointment with me, I will come with you.

"The whole thing is killing me. Please do as I ask you before there's any more blood shed."

When he was eventually apprehended, Roberts seemed grateful to the police, according to a senior Hertfordshire Police officer who had been on the raid.

Press Association reporter Peter Woodman, whose parents were friends with the officer, said: "He [Roberts] was surprised that he was merely arrested as he thought the police would kill him on the spot."

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Image caption Two images of Harry Roberts that were used on 'wanted' posters while he was on the run
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Image caption William Morris pointing out the barn on his Hertfordshire farm where Roberts spent the night before his capture

If the triple murder had taken place the previous year, Roberts may well have been hanged after being convicted - but the death penalty was abolished in 1965.

Instead, he was given a minimum 30-year tariff, the Old Bailey judge describing it as "the most heinous crime for a generation or more".

Mr Justice Glyn-Jones told Roberts: "I think it likely that no home secretary regarding the enormity of your crime will ever think fit to show mercy by releasing you on licence.

"This is one of those cases in which the sentence of imprisonment for life may well be treated as meaning exactly what it says."

'Professional criminals'

Duddy died in prison in 1981 aged 51. Getaway driver Witney was freed on life licence in 1991 but was found murdered at his home in Bristol in 1999, when he was 69.

In a 1993 interview, Roberts insisted that killing the officers had not been the intention.

He told journalist Nick Davies he felt sorry for the impact the murders had on the policemen's families, but said: "They keep asking me 'Do you feel remorse, Harry?' And I say no. We didn't want to murder anyone.

"That was the last thing we wanted. We shot them because we thought they were going to nick us and we didn't want to go to jail for 15 years.

"We were professional criminals. We don't react the same way as ordinary people."

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Image caption The men shot dead were (left to right): PC Geoffrey Fox, 41; Det Con David Wombwell, 25; and Sgt Christopher Head, 30

His had been a life of crime, starting with helping his mother sell goods on the black market. Having been sent to borstal, he joined the Army upon his release.

When he came back to the UK, he resumed his "old life" and has spoken of taking part in "dozens of armed robberies" on betting shops and post offices with Witney.

Now at the age of 78, Roberts is expected to be released from his Cambridgeshire prison within a matter of weeks.

He is thought to have been turned down for parole at least eight times before he was successful.

Roberts faced the prospect of release back in 2001 when he was transferred to an open prison.

But the situation changed when allegations arose that he had been involved in criminal activity - including drug dealing and bringing contraband into prison.

'Betrayal of policing'

He was sent back to a closed prison and the then home secretary David Blunkett produced files, withheld from Roberts and his lawyers, that were used to keep him behind bars.

Roberts challenged the use of the secret evidence, taking the issue to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.

After years of fighting for release, his wish has been granted by the Parole Board.

Some have expressed sympathy for a man who has "served his time", but the decision has caused anger for many, with the Metropolitan Police Federation describing it as a "betrayal of policing".

Even though decades have now passed since the shootings, the fate of Harry Roberts continues to cause controversy.

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