Trevor McDonald’s documentary on the tragic death of a young woman reveals the crucial “golden hour” in any murder investigation

The film-maker, the detective and the family behind An Hour to Catch a Killer share their stories

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On 1 October last year, 24-year-old Alice Ruggles rang her local police, concerned about the disturbing behaviour of the soldier boyfriend she had split up with a few months earlier.

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“I know that he’s hacked into my Facebook and also my phone,” she said in the recorded call. “And he’s left some flowers and chocolates on the outside windowsill. I just feel a bit shaken up.”

Eleven days later, Alice was found dead in a pool of blood in the bathroom of her Gateshead flat. Her throat had been slashed.

The discovery of Alice’s body by her distraught flatmate is the starting point for this fast-paced documentary that looks at the evidence-gathering and decision-making in the crucial early stages – the so-called “golden hour” – of a major murder investigation.

For ITV it was the case they had been waiting for. They weren’t to know it would prove to be so awful a crime that by the time it had run its tragic course it would be a major national news story.

The film-maker

Executive producer Ed Taylor spent months negotiating with Northumbria Police to work out how, without embedding a camera team for possibly months on end, they would be able to capture the key moments at the start of a major investigation. It was eventually agreed that all on-call murder squad detectives would wear body cameras to record those first scenes.

“I think it helps to showcase the difficult nature of investigation, but of course everyone understood it should never interfere with them doing their jobs,” says Taylor.

They filmed the early stages of nine or ten different murder inquiries before the case of Alice Ruggles, and the early clues that it surrendered, matched the criteria they had set for themselves. “The golden hour principle is now well established as being highly successful in solving all sorts of crimes, but particularly murders. Following a case in such close detail so early on reveals something of the meticulous and highly professional way the police operate.”

Officers such as DCI Lisa Theaker, 37, who is pivotal to this inquiry, also had small cameras that they would mount in their cars once a call about a potential murder was received. “She wasn’t keen to start off with, but I think she just accepted it as part of the job and got on with it,” says Taylor. “I think what you’ll see is an exceptional detective doing her job.”

And then there was the question of gaining consent from Alice’s family. Says Taylor: “Obviously we would only do it with their co-operation, and they have been incredible. It is a desperately sad story, but hopefully one that will have a positive legacy in terms of protecting the victims of stalking. That’s what the family are hoping and why they agreed to do this.”

The detective

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Lisa Theaker is a made-for-telly kind of cop. She joined Northumbria Police in 2000 and was made DCI in 2015, leading the force’s homicide and major enquiry team. But her career has not been without controversy. In the same year of her promotion to DCI she was reprimanded for misconduct by her force’s disciplinary panel after becoming “drunk and incapable” on an off-duty girls’ day out in Edinburgh with former Chief Constable Sue Sim. It was said that she shouted abuse at a member of the public and was rude to British Transport Police officers.

But this documentary shows her at her very capable best as she fires off instructions to her team of detectives, asking for the seizure of Alice’s mobile phone records (which would later prove vital) and any number-plate recognition footage of the suspect’s car movements.

“My job is to catch the killer and get the killer convicted,” she says. “It’s my responsibility. If anything goes wrong it’s down to me.”

It’s a responsibility that evidently weighs heavily on her shoulders. “There’s no worse crime, is there, than taking somebody’s life. I can’t think about the family, and the effect it has on them, when I’m doing my job in those initial stages. But it becomes very real when I meet them. And you see their pain, you see their anger and you feel those emotions. That’s the hardest part for me.”

The family

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As you’d expect, Alice’s parents – Clive, a professor at Leicester University, and Sue, a maths teacher – are still devastated by the death of their daughter. But they’ve set up a trust in her memory to campaign for greater protection of the victims of stalking. In the documentary a tearful Sue tells Sir Trevor McDonald that Alice had grown into “such a lovely adult”. Alice’s dad Clive says: “She was kind, she was funny, she always had a smile. She had this amazing, mischievous sense of humour.”

And of their grief? “Part of the time you’re carrying on and doing normal things and then something just reminds you. It’s a normal life with an Alice-sized hole in it.”

By Terry Payne

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An Hour to Catch a Killer with Trevor McDonald is on Thursday 12th October at 9pm on ITV