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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-ONE
This is Part Three of Three of 'Do Not Disturb', the untold story of the murder of Sarah Gibson.
In the summer of 1972, 21-year-old Sarah Gibson worked as assistant housekeeper at the RAC Club at 89 Pall Mall, London, SW1. She was quiet, pleasant and she kept to herself. Those who knew her had nothing but kind words to say about her, but on across the night of Sunday 2nd to Monday 3rd July 1972, not only would a sadist assail this veritable Fort-Knox of security and navigate its maze of corridors to access her room, but they would subject this young girl to a truly shocking attack over four torturous hours, which ended in her death. But why?
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The location of The RAC Club in Pall Mall where Sarah Gibson was murdered by David Frooms. It is marked with a mustard coloured raindrop near the words Charring Cross. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, access them by clicking here.
SOURCES: As this case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing at Centre Point. Not the famous 34-storey tower-block at the corner of New Oxford Street and Charing Court Road, but the lesser-known headquarters at 54 Dean Street in Soho. Opened in 1969 and still running today, Centre Point is a local charity providing support for the city’s homeless.
Perched at the back of St Anne’s church, the garden provides a fascinating window into the world we live in today; as among society’s most desperate – the addicts, the alcoholics, the lost, the lonely, the maligned and the mentally-unwell – you’ll also see many dreadlocked trustafarians trying to blend in.
Having Uber’d in from the ‘mean streets’ of Hoxton to see “the real London”, these well-meaning nin-com-poops often sit sad-faced, sympathising with a ragged wretch’s tale of hunger; having just wolfed down an avocado and crayfish focaccia, while wearing a stylishly ripped and soiled jeans (the cost of which could clothe a homeless person for a year), all while refusing to give cash as “I only carry BitCoin” and being ignorant of the fact that – having been guilt-tripped into setting up a direct-debit via a sales call or a chugger - only a small percentage (if any) of the money they donate is given to the charity - as being a ‘non-profit organisation’ - most of the profits go to a thirty-party funding company to pay the chugger’s wage, but also to pay for swanky new offices, a Christmas party or the director’s bonus.
If you really want to help a charity? Choose wisely and contact them direct.
On Tuesday 11th July 1972, eight days after the murder of Sarah Gibson, in the basement bar of Centre Point, Police arrested David Frooms. Like the murder scene itself, too many things didn’t make sense.
David wasn’t what they were expecting; he was small, thin and softly spoken. They had the right man, but what they didn’t know was why. Why would a homeless man in search of food and money subject a total stranger he had only met that night to four terrifying hours of rape, strangulation and death?
Was it demons in his past, a hint at his future, or was it part of a series of unfortunate circumstances?
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 161: ‘Do Not Disturb’ – Part Three.
On Monday 3rd July 1972, having been found by the porter - Frederick Hockley - PC’s Ede and Gurney secured Room 519 of the RAC Club and awaited the arrival of Detective Chief Inspector James Neville.
For the detective, everything about the crime-scene was wrong, as there was no clear motive. Was this a murder, a sex crime or a robbery? Did it start as a burglary, only to descend into rape and death? Was he a rapist who murdered out of panic, and stole several inexpensive possessions to lay a false trail for the police? Or was this simply an unplanned assault by an opportunist upon a total stranger?
From the hallway, there were no signs of a break-in. The lock was intact, the key was inside, and the door jamb hadn’t been forced or damaged. So, either she let him in, he had a key, they had arranged to meet, or (as many witnesses would state) she often slept with her door left unlocked and open.
The room itself didn’t match what the detective expected to see from a rape, a robbery or a murder.
Drawers had been opened and searched, but they hadn’t been ransacked. Which is odd, as typically a burglar will scatter the low-cost items they don’t want in the search of the high-value items they do.
From her table and handbag, the thief took a silver watch, a heart-shaped locket and a set of gold earrings which were more sentimental than valuable, but maybe he didn’t know that or didn’t care? He also stole a Churchill crown, a Ronson mother-of-pearl lighter, a travel clock and a transistor radio - all easy-to-sell items. He stole sixty pence in coins, but left her collection of porcelain dolls, her Post Office savings book and her 14-inch portable black & white television worth £80 (£800 today).
And yet - stranger still - if this was a burglary, why didn’t he bring his bag with him?
There was no denying that sexual intercourse had taken place, but was it rape or consensual?
The evidence pointing towards rape was that her night clothes had been ripped from her legs to her neck, leaving her flesh exposed. Her bedsheets were soaked with her sweat. The assault had dislodged her hair-curlers and an earring. But – more importantly – Sarah’s wrists and ankles had been tied up.
But if it was a rape, it was a very strange one. As why did no-one hear her scream? Why did he place a soft pillow under her bottom – was it for her comfort or to facilitate the sex? Why did he tie her up so gently that the pathologist initially missed the marks? Why did he untie her gag, cut her restraints and re-tie them with a softer and looser material? And – even weirder – he had ejaculated inside her, but why didn’t her arms, legs, face or vagina sustain any bruises or cuts, like a violent assault would?
Why was she so still during the attack; was she compliant, terrified, or was this something else?
Then again – the detectives surmised - just like the burglary, the rape could have been committed by an opportunist, or left as a false trail by the perpetrator to disguise her killer’s true motive? A murder.
Only, as murders go, this didn’t look planned. Everything he had used to tie-up and strangle Sarah was hers - which he found in that room – and had been left by her the night before as she prepared for bed - the blue bathrobe’s cord, the towelling, the white stockings and the handkerchief. Nothing was his.
Beside her bed and on her bedside table, nothing had been knocked, spilt or broken. Even in her last moments alive; her half-full coffee cup remained upright, her open flask of water hadn’t spilled a drop, the grey ash of six spent cigarettes hadn’t wafted from the ash-tray and a photo of her beloved family stayed upright, perched a few inches from her head. Things that should have been damaged, weren’t.
Regardless of whether this was a robbery, a rape or a murder, detectives felt there were many details which made no sense. Such as, why did he leave behind his brown jumper and a white shirt? Why didn’t he wear any gloves to disguise his fingerprints? Why did he murder her, only to cover her with her blanket, as if to make her more comfortable? And yet, as he fled, he placed a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the handle, but left the door unlocked and left ajar? Did he panic, or did he want her to be found?
The crime-scene asked more questions than it answered…
…and so far, the police didn’t have a single suspect.
On Tuesday 4th July, one day after Sarah’s body was found, Police received an anonymous phone-call stating “the man you’re after is at Centre Point”. It was one of hundreds of tips they would receive from members of the public; some of whom were trying to help, but others were merely crank calls by the sick and sad desperate for attention. They checked it out, but with no name, they drew a blank.
Besides, even if they knew his name, hunting David Frooms was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Having ran away from home aged 7, the 24-year-old ex-con knew how to run and hide; he didn’t have a bank account or claim benefits; he survived by theft, his needs were basic and he was literally one of hundreds of homeless people living in makeshift tents in a London park. Being primarily a car-thief, he was far from a likely suspect and his probation officer still believed he was living at Simonwell Farm.
That same day, at 10:30am, David walked into the NatWest Bank off Pall Mall and exchanged Sarah’s Churchill Crown – one of 9 ½ million souvenir coins issued in 1965 – and he made just 75 pence.
On Friday 7th, in De-Veers Coins at 97 Charing Cross Road, he sold Sarah’s charm bracelet for scrap value and made £2, with an additional 50p for the mother-of-pearl lighter. As requested, he presented a letter, as ID, which he had stolen in a robbery from a ‘Mr P Buckey, of 56 St Paul’s Street in Sussex’.
And on Sunday 9th July, he hid a bag of his worldly possessions in a locker at the Left Luggage office at Piccadilly Circus Underground Station, a lady’s handbag in the men’s lavatory, and just like that…
…David Frooms had vanished.
For DCI Nevill, the crime-scene had presented him with several pieces of hard evidence. The killer’s clothes; a brown jumper and a white shirt, missing two buttons having been removed prior to the rape and left behind, they also knew he was wearing blue jeans as microscopic fibres had been left on the bedsheets. This gave them his size and shape, but - in an era before DNA profiling - very little else.
Having failed to wear gloves, the suspect’s fingerprints were found on her telephone, the drawer of her wardrobe and the top edge of her washing basin, with a faint print on the ‘Do Not Disturb sign on the door. But without a name - still using a manual card-system where prints were examined by eye – searching every possible record would take teams of highly-trained officers’ months to make a match.
Two promising notes was that they had found several brown hairs on the bedsheets, in her pubic hair and on her body – which weren’t Sarah’s. They also collected a semen sample which confirmed her attacker’s blood-type – Group O – and although PGM1, HP 2-1 only accounts for 12.5% of the UK population, being a non-secreter, his sample was more likely to be confused with Groups A, B or AB.
The police had enough evidence to convict… but what they didn’t have was a suspect.
The Royal Automobile Club had presented the police with hundreds of viable suspects with no obvious motive. Everyone agreed that Sarah was lovely girl, who was innocent and fun, but upset no-one.
As standard practice, her family were interviewed, they all had alibis (living 68 miles west of London) and being so tragic, her death sent shockwaves through the family for decades to come. And although wealthy, neither the family nor Sarah were sent any threats and she had no known issues in her past.
Of the RAC Club’s 200 plus employees, everyone was interviewed – regardless of whether they were on shift – especially the 12 staff members who lived on site, and everybody had an alibi and no motive.
Of the 80 guest rooms, 17 were occupied and everyone was cleared. In fact, so thorough was the investigation, that the police checked the fingerprints of every member or guest who stayed or visited the club since Sarah joined 18 months prior. But no-one matched the fingerprints found in her room.
And by the Friday, Police had even tracked down ‘Frank’, the man from Belfast who some said was her boyfriend, who – it transpired - had been a doorman when Sarah worked at the Norfolk Hotel. He was interviewed and he voluntarily gave a hair, blood, saliva and semen sample – which proved he was a ‘Group O, non-secretor’ - the same type as her killer. But having a cast iron alibi which was backed up by several reliable witnesses, ‘Frank’ was eliminated from the enquiry, leaving the police with no-one…
…and with that, the investigation hit a dead end.
David Frooms had vanished, the police didn’t know him, and they no reason to suspect him.
But sometimes people can do the strangest of things for no apparent reason.
On Saturday 9th July 1972, at Cannon Street Police Station, DCI James Neville received an anonymous letter sent one day earlier from a WC1 postcode. It was written on brightly coloured note-paper which depicted three little cottages nestling in a sunset with the word ‘Peace’ spelled out like flowers.
It read: “Dear Superintendent. Thought you may like some help with your case as it seems that you are approaching it from the wrong angle. I didn’t like the idea of Sarah’s departure, but things couldn’t be helped. Though what is to stop it happening again. I found a strange sense of power in depriving a body of life, though Sarah was a mistake. So why do I tell you this? Mainly because I’m a lonely person, always have been and secondly because I think I may be ill. The reason I think this is that on the night Sarah died (which I still can’t remember) I felt no remorse, no guilt, so hurry up and catch me. I won’t give myself up as that will destroy me and I have a great deal longer to live. To prove this isn’t a crank’s letter – you found some blue dressing gown cord under the bed, at least a couple of pieces!”
The fingerprints on the letter matched those in David’s criminal record, the note-paper matched those (later) found in his bag at the Left Luggage kiosk, and – having contacted his family - the letters he had recently written from Simonwell Trust proved that the handwriting was a perfect match.
All they needed to do was to find David Frooms…
…but again, sometimes people can do the strangest of things for no apparent reason.
On Tuesday 11th July, another anonymous phone-call stated “the man you’re after is at Centre Point”. Unlike the needle in the haystack which had confronted them before, now the police had a name, a face, a set of fingerprints, and – having realised their mistake – they went to the one at 54 Dean Street.
Entering the basement bar at 11:30pm, DCI Nevill saw David chatting to a girl, he asked “are you David Frooms?”, David replied “I am”, and having identified themselves as Police, David replied “I’m glad you’ve caught me”. And with that, eight days after her murder, the killer of Sarah Gibson was arrested.
In his interview, he would give the police a full and frank confession…
…but how much of that night could he remember…
…and how much of what he said was true?
(DCI) “On the evening of Sunday 2nd July 1972, where were you?” (DF) “I was trying to sleep in St James’ Park, the law came and kicked everyone out”. It was a standard part of police procedure under the Vagrancy Act of 1866. “I went before they got over to me”, as he was afraid of being re-arrested having stolen £50 from the Simonwell Trust, but he was unaware that they had not reported his crime.
He ran up the steps of the Duke of York memorial, left into Carlton House Terrace and along Carlton Gardens. “I wanted somewhere to kip”. That weekend there had been a mini-heat wave in the high 20’s, but living in a city made of stone, glass and steel, sleeping in the nightly shadows could be cold.
(DF) “I went round the back of a large building with a Wool sign”. Wool House at 5-7 Carlton Gardens, an office block occupied by the Wool Inspectorate. “I tried to sleep under a sort of balcony they had there but it was too draughty”. Had the night been warmer, David may have slept there? But he didn’t. “I left my rucksack and took a look around the garden, looking for a shed or something”. The garden was neat and manicured, so he expected to find a cosy shed to shelter in, only there wasn’t one.
“While searching I came upon the back of a large building with a few lights on”. He didn’t know it but this was the back of the RAC Club. “The thought entered my head that I might find something to eat there, so I tried the windows and doors but all were locked”, as expected in a place with solid security.
But people do make honest mistakes, and being a humid day, “I then saw an open window on the first floor”. Someone (no-one knows who) had wedged it ajar, just a crack, with a folded piece of paper. It would be small enough for a little breeze to blow in, but more than ample for David to open and enter.
The problem was that this window wasn’t exactly accessible, being 12 feet off the ground and hidden behind a jutting terrace. But again, someone - possibly having ended their shift early - had left a 10-foot ladder propped against the wall. It wasn’t deliberate, but this simple mistake made his entry easy.
“I entered to find some sort of dining room. I searched around for some food but didn’t find any, just a bag of bread rolls”. He was hungry, but there wasn’t much to eat. “Near the door was a sort of desk with a padlock on it”. It was a waiter’s desk. The padlock suggested it held something valuable within, maybe a cash-tin? “I couldn’t twist it off. I got this knife thing off one of the tables” – a fish knife – “I tried to break it but couldn’t”. So, unable to find any food or money, “I went further into the building”.
Inside was a maze of corridors, passageways and stairwells. Having no reason or right to enter the club before, the choices he made were entirely random. With 80 guest rooms and 20 staff quarters over five floors, including kitchens, offices and bars, he could have gone anywhere and found anything.
But sticking out like a sore thumb, he headed up to the top floor, where he was less likely to be seen.
From this point on, David’s detailed description of the events that night become a little vague.
Climbing the ‘staff only’ staircase, as he entered the roof, he saw a small room with a light on. Sarah’s room. Room 519. The light was on, the TV was on and the curtains were open. “I chose homes with a light on because I knew the doors will always be open”, which – being claustrophobic - Sarah’s was.
“I went along ‘till I came to one where I saw the light was coming from”. The four other doors were shut, the corridor was silent and - from within her room - he could hear the white noise of her telly.
“I opened the door and went in, very quietly, and I saw this girl lying on the bed asleep”.
Snoring gently, her head on a pillow and snuggled under the comfort of her multicoloured blanket lay Sarah; all tiny, calm and quiet, a peaceful girl who worked hard and wouldn’t say boo to a goose.
“I wanted the money. That’s it”. He had done this many times before, the secret was to be silent, to creep in and creep out. “On the chair by the door… a handbag, I looked in the handbag… opened it… there was a purse… only small change”. It’s tragic to think, but if she’d had more than 60p in her purse, that may have satisfied his need? Having left his bag in Wool House, he stole her rucksack, and placed inside several items she had left on the dresser; a locket, a lighter, a watch and a set of earrings.
They were worth very little, but did he know that, or did he care? So, maybe that’s why he went looking for something else, maybe some jewellery in the cupboards and drawers by her bed? As he crept, he didn’t disturb a single item that she had left beside her bed. But soon his plan would change.
(DF) “I saw her. She woke up. I told her to be quiet and I gagged her”, (DCI) “What with?”, (DF) “Handkerchief… something else… I ripped some towel and tied it over that. I tied her hands and feet with her white stockings. I then had a look round for money and food. I couldn’t find any”.
DCI Nevill asked “did you take the gag out of her mouth?”, David said “Yes, afterwards I did”, “After what?” the DCI asked, only as his fumbling words littered with vagaries, David replied “I don’t know”.
And maybe he didn’t? Maybe he had forgotten? Or maybe he chose not to remember?
“I told her to lie on her face. Then I moved her onto her side because I was afraid she might suffocate. She was mumbling something, the words ‘stockings’, I thought they might be too tight, so I cut them loose and tied her up with some blue cord from the dressing table” – but would a murderer do that?
David took a real risk loosening, cutting and re-tying her restraints and her gag, but the likelihood is that he trusted her, as she hadn’t made a sound. But why? Perhaps she was terrified? Maybe being so timid that just who she was? Or maybe she hoped by being good and quiet, the burglar would leave?
The DCI pressed on “what we’re you wearing, David?”, (DF) “Black t-shirt, brown jumper, a shirt”. (DCI) “Did you leave the shirt in the room?”, (DF) “Yes… I must have done”. (DCI) “Did you undress in the room?”, (DF) “I don’t know. I must have done”. (DCI) “Why did you?”, (DF) “Don’t know. Don’t know”.
Asked “Did you cut any of her clothing?”, David replied “Yes, with a knife” (his pen-knife).
Asked again, “David, did you make love to her?”, David replied “I can’t remember”.
(DCI) “Was she naked?”, (DF) “She was wearing a red something, a nightdress, I don’t know, the next thing I remember is being astride her on the bed... my hands were round her neck”. Why? He never said. (DF) “I turned the room over, looking for money… she was dead then… I killed her, didn’t I? I killed her”. But as much as he talked, one crucial detail was still missing from his confession.
(DCI) “David, did you have sex with Sarah?”, as her lack of bruises led the detectives down a disturbing line of inquiry, at which David simply rambled on; “She was dead then; dead, dead, dead, dead, dead”.
And having exhausted almost every avenue, DCI Neville would ask one final time (DCI) “David, did you have sex with Sarah, before she was dead?”, and although the evidence would suggest that when he raped her, she was either dying, or already dead? His only reply was this; “I don’t think so”. (End)
David Frooms was charged on the 12th July 1972, at Bow Street Police Court and remanded in custody. When offered legal representation, his solicitor advised him “not to answer any questions”, as was his legal right, and – although he had previously been helpful – he would make no further statements.
His trial was held at the Old Bailey from the 18th to the 20th December 1972, before Mr Justice Forbes.
Charged with two counts, he pleaded ‘guilty’ to the second count of burglary, trespassing and handling stolen goods, but he pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the rape and murder of Sarah Gibson. Declared sane and fit to stand trial, his solicitor used the defence of ‘diminished responsibility’, owing to the trauma he had suffered during his traumatic childhood, which may have affected David’s memory of the events.
Giving evidence, he recalled all of the robbery, he admitted to tying her up, he had vague recollections of strangling her, but he denied raping her, whether she was alive or dead. He even denied writing the letter which he sent to the police, and phoning in the tip-off which led them to Centre Point.
On Wednesday 20th December 1972, after just thirty minutes of deliberation, a unanimous jury of twelve men found David Frooms guilty of murder, with Mr Justice Forbes concluding “you have been found guilty in the most terrible circumstances… nothing but a monster could have done this”.
As of today, David’s whereabout are unknown, having left Sarah’s family with nothing. No daughter, but also, no answers as to what happened that night, and - more importantly – why did he murder her? Was it something she said, did or saw? Did she remind him of a lost love? Did he lash out owing to his past? Or was this just another tragic coincidence, which led to an innocent girl’s untimely death?
Asked “why did you cover her up with a blanket?”, David said “It seemed somehow wrong leaving her dead all on her own”. And although we will never know exactly what he did with Sarah, in that room, over those four terrifying hours, the DCI would ask “Is that why you stayed with her a long time?”, but David gave no reply. Fifty years since her murder, we still don’t know the truth… and we never will.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London” and nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards".
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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