Colin Sutton is the retired Metropolitan Police detective who headed up the inquiry which led to the conviction of serial killer Levi Bellfield.
Thanks to the tenacity of DCI Sutton and his team, Bellfield was convicted of the murders of two young women, Amelie Delagrange and Marsha McDonnell, and the attempted murder of teenager Kate Sheedy in 2008. The former bouncer and wheel clamper was later convicted of the murder of schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2011.
He is being played by Martin Clunes in a three-part ITV drama called Manhunt, which tells the story of Sutton’s dogged pursuit of the killer right up to the moment the detective reads the charges against Bellfield and knows he will stand trial.
Sutton (pictured below) has also just published a memoir, talking about his career which culminated in the successful prosecution of Bellfield. Here he tells us about the moment he charged him – and what he thinks of the ITV drama based on his book…
What’s it like being played by Martin Clunes? And do you think ITV’s Manhunt reflects the truth of the real-life investigation you led?
It thought it was very well done and it was almost incredible to have my story brought to life in that way. It was sensitively done. It wasn’t an impersonation of me. But I think Martin is very talented and he brought a lot to it and he picked up some of my mannerisms – my wife says he managed to do that. [The producers] were very good at accommodating my request for authenticity – I was keen for the look and the feel to be authentic and they did a fantastic job with that. Seeing the CCTV room recreated was like going back 14 years. It’s not a story about Levi Bellfield and I didn’t want it to be. There have been all sorts of books and documentaries about him. I think there’s a story to be told about what it’s like for people like me and my team. You see lots of dramas about a killer on the loose – but this is what it was like for real.
What do you say to people who argue that it’s too soon to revisit these real-life crimes in a TV drama?
Everything we did was done with full disclosure to the victims’ families. They knew we were doing it and I wrote to them all before I started on the book and none of them had anything but encouragement for me – some more than others, in fairness. What I wanted to do was tell the story of some remarkable police officers. The families knew what we did with the investigation. They knew the story of the effort that went into the investigation and how hard we worked. And it was the best we could do for them because we couldn’t bring their loved ones back, but you can treat them with decency and respect and do your best to bring the perpetrator to justice. A couple of families have given me real encouragement [for the book], saying this needs to be told. Amelie’s family told me to get on and do it and said it’s good you want to tell the story. And we have had no issues. I think a lot of people see it as their business to take offence on behalf of other people. I spent four years of my life trying to do my best for these families – I wasn’t going to start upsetting them now.
There are some moments of mirth in the TV series particularly when the detectives joke among themselves. Is that in bad taste or just how it was?
It’s like any work environment. It’s not all doom and gloom and that was part of the authenticity. There’s a moment when we are seen finally arresting Bellfield who is hiding upstairs in his loft which is what happened. It’s dark, extremely dangerous but an officer goes up into the loft with a torch and one of the policeman makes a joke about Bellfield not being a moth. To me that was exactly right. That’s how it was. That’s how policing is.
It could be argued that Surrey Police, which investigated the murder of Milly Dowler, don’t come out of your book or this drama very well. How do you feel about that?
I wanted to present the truth and the facts as they were without making any judgment on them. What I would always say is the Surrey force were very tenacious and determined once they realised Bellfield was their suspect. There are so many things in play, and one of which is Surrey is a small force and they had a lot of big cases to work with at the time.
In Manhunt you are shown at a Milton Keynes police station personally reading the charges against Bellfield when the Crown Prosecution Service give the go ahead to take the case to trial. Is that as it happened? And how did it feel to you personally to be able to bring Bellfield to justice in that moment?
Yes, it’s true. At Milton Keynes Police Station where he was being held they told me someone from the team needed to read the charges. It was something I had never expected to do, although I had visualised doing it many times. For me to be the person doing it and looking him in the eye two feet apart and telling him he would formally have to answer for these things he had done was a powerful emotional moment for me. It meant I got to serve the coup de grace myself.
How did he react when you read the charges and he knew he was going to face trial?
He said “not guilty, sir”. Words he had to say because he knew it was being recorded and written down. But I could see in his eyes that he had lost, he knew he had been beaten at that point. He had had a history and lifetime of being able to charm and talk his way out of things. He didn’t expect to get beaten on this one, but he was.
Do you still think about Bellfield?
I try not to. He is the most self-centred, egocentric person I have ever come across. Everything he did in his life from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep was for himself. He showed no sympathy or empathy or care for anyone in the world except himself. I don’t think about him a lot. He’s one of these people who manages to pop in the news every now and then. I think about his victims a lot more than I think about him. But there are TV and book companies that get in touch with me. People still want to make things about him. But I feel more about the victims, especially when their birthdays come up and Christmas and things like that. I wonder how old would Amelie be, how old would Marsha have been…?
Are you still in touch with the victims’ families?
I am in touch with the McDonnell family quite frequently. When it comes to February, the month when Marsha died, they get sentimental about it as you would expect. But it’s nice to keep in touch with them. I have had contact with Amelie’s family and there is a scene in the drama where I talk to them and tell them about a huge mistake in the investigation and they had dinner with me and it happened like that. They are extraordinarily decent people.
In the drama – and in person – you seem to lead a normal life despite the horrors of your work. What’s your secret?
It was almost like going to work was playing a role. There was a persona for work – and a persona that was me. I was very passionate about my work and wanted to do the very best I could. And there are occasions I really miss it. But I would come home to my dogs, and my cars – I am passionate about Minis – and play golf. And I can cut myself off from the fact that I may have been to a post mortem with someone who was brutally murdered hours earlier. Somehow, I always did. There are many people who can’t and there are many police officers who suffer because they can’t keep their life and work separate. I am very fortunate that I have been able to.
Manhunt airs nightly on ITV at 9pm between Sunday 6th and Tuesday 8th January. The book Manhunt: How I Brought Serial Killer Levi Bellfield To Justice by Colin Sutton is published by John Blake on Thursday January 10, priced £8.99