Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #220: Shattered Memory (The Trial of Gunther Podola) - Part Three
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EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY:
On Monday 13th July 1959, just a few streets south, Detective Sergeant Raymond Purdy was shot dead by 30-year-old blackmailer Gunther Podola, who was on the run. Being hunted by Chelsea CID, just three days later on the 16th July, the grieving colleagues of DS Purdy had tracked Gunther down to a third floor room at the Claremont House Hotel at 95 Queensgate, barely a five minute walk from the shooting.
At 3:45pm, eight CID officers and a police dog would storm into Room 15…
…half an hour later, Podola was escorted from the room, with a black eye, a cut to his forehead, and diagnosed with amnesia, he couldn’t remember the shooting, his life, a possible beating by the police in his hotel, or any evidence which may help his defence, when he was tried in court for murder.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE
Welcome to… erm… uh. (as before).
As Gunther Podola stood in the dock at the Old Bailey - diagnosed with amnesia, possibly owing to a head injury, probably caused by police brutality - he couldn’t give evidence to defend himself of a crime which would warrant his sentence of death. So, instead he read this pre-prepared statement:
“Your honour, members of the jury. I stand before you accused of the murder of a man. I cannot put forward any defence. The reason is that I have lost my memory of all these events. I cannot remember the crime. I do not remember the circumstances leading up to the events or to this shooting. I do not know if I did it, whether it was an accident, or an act of self-defence. I do not know if at the time I realised the man was, in fact a detective. I do not know, in fact, whether I was provoked in any way. For these reasons I am unable to admit or deny the charge against me. Thank you, my Lord,”.
With the evidence resting on whether the jury believed that Gunther had wilfully murdered Detective Sergeant Raymond Purdy - a crime still punishable by death – as there were no independent sightings of the shooting and Gunther had no memory, the only witness was DS Sandford, Purdy’s partner.
The case of Gunther Podola was unique, as usually the accused would plead insanity, but here pleading amnesia, the jury had an impossible task; to decide who was telling the truth, the killer or the copper? (Loop/fade/white noise)
For the prosecution, it wasn’t difficult to prove that Gunther was a liar; being a criminal with three aliases, a history of theft, fraud and blackmail, a cowardly man who had abandoned his girlfriend and his child in a refugee-camp in war-torn Berlin, and a fabricator of such magnitude that he had even read out that statement you have just heard, in a North American accent, even though he was German.
His life was a lie, a fantasy concocted to please himself, fueled by delusions to flee from his problems.
In the statement made by Roland Gray, a former sergeant in the Intelligence Corps who had arrested Gunther in 1949 trying to blackmail an unnamed widow having “recognised Podola...” and his cunning ploy of “a defence of amnesia”, he would state “Podola was detained for 14 days… he refused speak at all; he put on a vacant expression and grinned as if he was stupid or mentally deficient… throughout he spoke with a strong Slavic accent, which suggested he was either Russian, Polish or Yugoslavian”.
His con was simple, as by claiming memory-loss, the less he told the British Authorities of his crime or his identity, the more they would struggle to charge him. Only this lie would come back to bite him.
Having claimed to be Major Karanov of the NKVD, “I told him we believed his story… and were going to hand him over to the Russian authorities”. And therefore, having been caught impersonating a Russian official, he would most likely be sentenced to a life of hard labour in a Siberian gulag, or death.
“As we escorted Podola to a waiting car, he broke down and told us that he was German… Podola changed completely and answered all of my questions… in an ordinary German accent”. Although, prone to lying, “he told me his real name was Junkersfield but used the aliases of Podola and Fisher”.
So, it’s no surprise that being accused of a policeman’s murder, that he would adopt that same ploy.
On Thursday 16th July 1959 at 3:45pm, four days after the murder, Gunther stood inside Room 15 of the Claremont House Hotel, where this wanted man had held-up since the shooting of DS Purdy.
It’s likely he heard the officers coming, as how silent could eight heavy-footed detectives and a police dog be, having rapidly parked up several cars outside of a half-empty hotel on a weekday afternoon?
He’d have heard the engines, the boots, the barking and an abrupt silence outside of his door, followed by a hard knock, an order “police, open up” and the door being forced. With his gun in the attic and his only escape route being a window with a thirty-foot drop, he would have known he was cornered, so - outmanned and overpowered – he did as he always did and concocted a tried-and-tested lie.
As if feigning amnesia wasn’t his plan, then several elements of what follows don’t make sense.
If he didn’t want the officers to force their way in, why didn’t he block the door with his bed? If he didn’t want this eight-man team to barge inside causing havoc, why did he ignore their repeated commands to “open up”? And if he didn’t want them to gain entry, why did he unlock it with a key?
When DS Chambers broke down the door, he would state “I caught a glimpse of the prisoner… he was bending forward… as the door hit him in the face”. Which is an odd position to be in, given that a 17-stone detective was forcibly attempting to break the door down, and Gunther had just unlocked it.
Why would he be anywhere near that door, at that very moment, unless he wanted a head injury?
This impact resulted in a wound which didn’t fracture his skull, it caused minor bleeding on the surface of the brain, a black eye and a half-inch scar (all of which were temporary), and when Dr Larkin was asked “could that concussion account for his loss of memory in its depth and extent?”, he replied “no”. In fact, according to DCI Acott: “afterwards, Podola struggled violently for three or four minutes”.
So maybe, being trapped in a private room with no independent witnesses to verify what happened, using the Police’s well-publicised history of brutality against them, he adopted a very familiar ploy?
DS Chambers would testify “I felt him go limp under me, he stopped his struggles… he appeared to be senseless… I got off him and DCI Acott ordered the officers to move him to the bed”, where he was made comfortable and his injuries (a small cut and a swollen eye) were treated using basic First Aid.
If this was police brutality - as the rival Press and a Labour politician had asserted to the Conservative Home Secretary shortly before a General Election – why did he have only the most minor of injuries? When examined, he had no burns, slashes, fractures, breaks nor signs of suffocation or strangulation, as you may expect from eight angry officers trapped inside a room with the killer of their colleague.
If he was beaten up by the police, where were the bruises?
Having supposedly ‘gone limp’ owing to 30 stone of burly officer on top of this 12-stone weakling for almost five minutes - a weight which would surely have left him aching and sore, at least - DS Chambers would state “after a few minutes, he came round and was able to sit up on the edge of the bed”.
He didn’t wheeze, cough or grumble, in fact “he sat up on the bed and watched every movement in the room. I felt he might be shamming”, DCI Acott said “so for safety, I had the prisoner handcuffed”.
Through-out the 30-minutes they were inside Room 15, in which eight supposedly corrupt CID officers with a deadly axe to grind inflicted a terrifying ordeal on a suspect which ended in his amnesia, why did no-one hear him shout, cry out or scream? In fact, “he said nothing, and he showed no emotion”.
At 4:15pm, as Gunther was escorted from the hotel, the officers would confirm “I saw Podola going down the stairs himself… he walked in the normal way” as confirmed by the photographs taken by the awaiting press, “but it was only when he was seen by the medical staff that he ‘needed help’”.
But was he injured, declining, or was he faking his symptoms?
By 4:30pm, Gunther arrived at Cheslea Police Station. As before, “he walked up the steps to the charge room” unassisted and owing to “fainting spells” (which couldn’t be disproved) windows were opened, the fan was switched on, and - deemed “unfit to be charged, arrested, give testimony or see a solicitor, the Duty Officer phoned the police surgeon” – Gunther was placed in a cell until he could be examined.
When arrested, many criminals use this moment to abuse the officers and when questioned they state ‘no comment’ which affords the police no evidence but comes across badly in a court of law. Where-as amnesia is a much more sympathetic way of saying ‘no comment’ without being seen as obstructive and giving the criminal a better chance of being found guilty of a lesser charge, or even acquitted.
When examined by Dr John Shanahan, the Police Surgeon, “although he appeared dazed, frightened and exhausted”, physically he was okay, “including his reactions to light, his tendon flex, his heart rate, his temperature was normal, his pulse rate was 86 and his blood pressure was a regular 140/80”.
But any mental impairment would be hard to disprove and easy to fake; whether he was passing out, going limp, shaking or simply falling silent, it takes effort, but it also needs consistency, which was a problem as the symptoms of this convicted thief and blackmailer were intermittent and convenient.
Moved to Cell No1, PC’s Hannagan & Hall stated: “he slept a lot”, which may have been a symptom of his supposed head injury, his need to say less and to provide nothing, or his cruel callousness having shot a policeman dead? And as Dr Brisby would state “even people on grave charges sleep well”.
It could also be that – by struggling to walk, to sit up, to stand, and even undertake the most basic of tasks like going to the toilet unaided – given that the Police had a duty of care for his welfare whilst in their custody, maybe part of his petty revenge against them was to make these officers wipe his arse?
With Gunther remaining silent, sleeping and shaking intermittently, unable to diagnose the cause, at 12:30am, he was removed by stretcher to St Stephen’s hospital…
…where he would be assessed by experts.
Back in Berlin, when it was said that Gunther had been detained for 14 days by British Intelligence, as a sergeant with no experience of amnesia, Roland Gray was out of his depth. But these doctors were trained to diagnose a patient who couldn’t talk, couldn’t think or wasn’t conscious. They could filter the truth from the lies to wheedle out an honest sick-note seeker from a workshy layabout, the chronic from the malingerers, and a death row prisoner with a convenient memory lapse.
Transferred to Ward B5, Gunther would spend the next four days bedbound, bored and immobile with his left wrist chained to the bed and only able to move if – aided by an officer – he needed to pee. It may seem like all he had to do was sleep, but brains need activity and boredom can be torture, as 24-hours-a-day, three shifts of officers would watch his every move and eagle-eyed nurses would report on the tiniest change in their patient, as several doctors poked and prodded the recesses of his brain.
If Gunther was lying about his amnesia, so far, he had been a good liar…
…but even the best liars can make simple mistakes.
When first admitted into Casualty, on initial observation, Dr Latham would state “he appears semi-comatose and responds to simple commands, his pupils are reactive, and his reflexes are present. I diagnose exhaustion, terror and concussion” but with no brain injury, he would conclude “he is not an amnesiac”, as when they offered him Nembutal, he declined, proving he knew what this sedative was.
Of course, with amnesia often being selective, maybe this detail remained in his brain?
Assessed by Dr Ashton, he would struggle to decide if Gunther had amnesia or not, “as it is difficult to assess this patient because he is uncommunicative and also because his head injury and associated circumstances have obscured his personality. For what it’s worth, I’d label him a schizoid psychopath”.
But then again, his girlfriend Ruth would describe him as “conflicted” and “emotionally cold”?
And when assessed by Dr Harvey, although a diagnosis of “severe retrograde amnesia” was stated, he would qualify “it’s patchy and breaks up as he improves”… and as retrograde amnesia affects the memories formed before the incident that caused the amnesia “not the stored memories from years ago”, it made sense (if conveniently) that he couldn’t recall the murder… but not the rest of his life.
To assess his mental capacity or lack of, every detail of Gunther’s day was noted and assessed.
On Friday 17th July 1959, the day of his admission, three teams of two officers in rotating three-hours shifts sat at Gunther’s bedside kept guard and watched him as he was examined by doctors and nurses.
Up to 9am, the PC’s would state “he slept soundly”, which could have been a simple ploy as silence is a sign of the most sinister of symptoms, although the sickest of patients are usually the most silent?
At 10am, “he asked for water” by whispering just the word ‘water’ and pursing his mouth as an officer bottle-fed him like a baby. And yet, hours earlier in Room 15 of the Claremont House Hotel, “he had greedily guzzled cup after cup” without assistance, but maybe his amnesia was worsening by the hour?
At 10:35am, he needed the toilet and indicated this need by one word ‘toilet’, at which the two officers “removed his trousers and pants” as he royally emptied his bowels in their presence. Which was odd, as even when a toddler is toilet-trained, once they know how to do it, they never forget it. But he had.
At 11:07am, muttering the word ‘smoke’ like he’d forgotten the name of his slave, PC Plowman lit him a cigarette and held it as he smoked. With Gunther supposedly incapable of the most basic tasks, he ordered his flunkies with a curt word of ‘food’, ‘smoke’ or ‘toilet’, only when a nurse washed him “he answered all of her questions by nodding, he assisted her in drying himself and cleaned his own teeth”.
Maybe he was faking amnesia, or as Dr Colin Edwards would testify, maybe this was his ‘sheet anchor’? “A person suffering from amnesia needs a form of memory to hang onto… in great emotional conflict, such as might be aroused by fear, the mind protects the patient by shutting off recollections which gave rise to the conflict”. In this case, a beating by the Police could cause him to lose his sheet anchor?
On Saturday 18th July, his second day in hospital was a copy of the first, as he said little and did little, but with PC’s Plowman and Hucklesby doing puzzles to pass the time, “he took a great deal of interest in the jigsaw”, as being mentally starved of any excitement, even a kid’s toy would look mesmerising.
By Sunday 19th July at 5:45pm, 65 hours into his confinement to a hospital bed, either he was mentally improving, or – forced to see only the same four walls and the same few faces - boredom had set in.
Whilst having his ears syringed, Gunther - who said he couldn’t recall his name, his age, his family or his past – began talking in fluent French to the nurse, and later in perfect German to the doctor, having only muttered the most basic of words in English. Was this a mistake, or was his brain recovering?
After this revelation, now able to converse fully in English, “he ate a full meal – soup, salad and ice-cream, with seconds” and took an interest in the puzzle an officer was doing. PC Hind would state “he said ‘there’s an easy way to do it. The other men did it this morning’. He completed both puzzles in half an hour. They were difficult and had been attempted by several officers but without success”.
Monday 20th of July would be his fourth and final day in hospital. As PC’s Burke and Hucklesby played chess, “Podola laughed when an officer was foolish enough to let his queen be taken by a pawn”.
Later examined by Dr Latham, who was beaten by Gunther in a chess match “in which he told me he’d learned to play in Germany… and played a faultless game pointing out my mistakes and alternatives”.
So at 2:10pm, with Gunther declared “fit to appreciate the nature of a charge, but not fit enough to provide testimony”, he was arrested and transferred to Brixton Prison to await his trial for murder.
So was Gunther lying about his amnesia, or was it real?
On this matter, the medical professionals would be split.
Dr F R Brisby, Medical Officer of Brixton Prison would state “psychiatry is widely discussed in the press, movies and books, so even a layman could acquire the basics”. With Edgar Wallace being Gunter’s favourite mystery writer, it was noted that “several of his stories have a character who has amnesia”, but potentially using this source as a basis for his knowledge of amnesia, he had made many mistakes.
His first was to claim a loss of memory (not just for the incident but) for his whole life, “as that kind of amnesia would be very rare and would result in his entire personality being erased” - which it hadn’t.
Tested on his knowledge, Dr Brisby would state “he couldn’t recall his family, his friends, his nationality or his occupation, but he could remember details of New York and Montreal…”. The same was said by Dr Leigh of Maudsley Hospital, who found that Gunther couldn’t recall his child’s name “but was able to name the Monarch, the Prime Minister, the German Chancellor and the President. He even corrected me that Herr Ulbricht was the East German Communist Party Chief and not the Premier”.
His memory was inconsistent. He couldn’t say where he was born, but he spoke German. He had no idea how he injured his head, but (when asked by the doctors) he knew he wasn’t on any medication. He had no knowledge of his career, but spoke freely about modern aerodynamics having worked (as an investigation would prove) as an apprentice draftsman at the Heinkel factory in Rostock. And yet, his memory of his girlfriend Ruth and their child Michael, who he called “Mickey” was hazy at best.
But when antagonised by Dr Brisby about his Nazi past, Gunther barked that he wasn’t in the SS, as “being too young to fight, I was in der JungVolk and later in the Hitler Youth” – which was true.
His second mistake – Dr Brisby said - was to lose his ability to do basic tasks. Described by Dr Stafford Clark as ‘hysterical amnesia’, trauma can cause selective physical amnesia, “but recovery often occurs within a few hours and is usually connected with the traumatic circumstances”. In this case, if Gunther was assaulted by the police, it would occur in things associated to Room 15, but not everything.
His third was to be deliberately cautious when asked about the murder and possible assault, as when asked how he knew various details, he’d either state “my solicitor told me”, “I read it in a statement”, “I don’t know, I just know”, or his answers would be painfully vague like “they said I’d killed someone”.
And yet, “after the initial police court proceedings, he gave me a very intelligent, detailed and coherent narrative with a keen appreciation of what he thought were the discrepancies in the evidence”.
Asked in court “do you accept that this alleged case of hysterical amnesia is genuine”? Dr Brisby replied “No. There are no consistent symptoms”. Dr Colin Edwards, Dr Michael Ashby & Dr Phillip Harvey said it was, Dr Stafford-Clark claimed it was fright, and Dr Leigh testified “he is feigning his amnesia. There is no evidence of any impairment now or at the time of his alleged crime, and he is fit to stand trial”.
Six specialists in neurology and psychiatry, but all with differences of opinion.
Only it was two seemingly insignificant pieces of evidence which would be bring into question the recollections of those involved, which would prove so devastating to the prosecution and the defence.
One was by Gunther himself… an amnesiac who couldn’t recall his own name, his friends or any of the places he had stayed at or things he had done in the seven weeks of freedom he had spent in England.
And yet, on the 28th of August from Brixton Prison, Gunther wrote a letter in reply to his friend – Ron Starkey of Southsea – writing in perfect English and beginning “Dear Ron”, as he asked how he was, requested “some smokes” being sent to prison as he had ran out, and ending it with “yours cordially”.
But later realising his grave error, Gunther asked the prison officer to retrieve this letter from the post box, which he did, but realising its value in the impending criminal trial, it was used against him.
Where-as the second …? It wasn’t a recollection by DS Sandford, the late DS Purdy, or any of the CID officers of Chelsea Police Station, as although inconsistent, their statements were believed. It was the evidence of Roland Gray, the British Intelligence officer who was said to have arrested and detained him on the charge of blackmail in 1949 and – from a newspaper report - “had recognised Podola who is charged with the murder of Detective Sergeant Purdy and is putting forward a defence of amnesia”.
From what they knew of Gunther, it all matched… a 20-year-old German blackmailer and fraudster who had a history of using aliases like Fisher, was prone to fleeing when cornered, had a willingness to shoot without any hesitation, a habit of feigned amnesia when detained, and – when confronted with a death sentence, like being handed over to the Russians – he would suddenly admit the truth.
The prosecution needed this evidence to be rock-solid, but when Interpol investigated, it turned out that Roland’s memory of the events a decade ago were mistaken, as that was not Gunther Podola…
…but somebody else.
Deemed fit to stand trial, but not to provide testimony, on the 23rd September 1959, he pleaded “not guilty” to the murder of Detective Sergeant Raymond William Purdy and would call no witnesses. Assessed as “an intelligent man with an IQ of 115”, Gunther’s demeanour was described as “cool and cold”, as he handed his solicitor handwritten notes as each witness spoke - their contents unknown.
And although he said he couldn’t remember the murder; the evidence of his crime was concrete.
While the jury deliberated whether “this was a deliberate shooting by the accused?”, Gunther sat in his cell, calmly munching a nice lunch of German sausage, luncheon meat, salad and coffee. Returning just 37 minutes later - as Gunther had in the hospital - the foreman replied with one word – “guilty”.
Donning his black cap, Justice Edmund Davies proclaimed “you have been convicted of the murder of Raymond William Purdy, a police officer acting in the execution of his duty. For that foul and terrible deed but one sentence is prescribed. It is that you suffer death in the manner authorised by law”.
Appealing his sentence, on 15th of October 1959, with his appeal dismissed as the Medical Committee had determined that “his amnesia was faked”, suddenly - with his execution looming – Gunther had a change of heart, he would state that his memory had miraculously returned and that “at the time of the murder I was house-breaking”, and for the shooting, he blamed it on “a double called Bob Levine”.
Rightfully investigated, his burglary and look-a-like claims were debunked and on the 5th of November 1959, four months after the murder, 30-year-old Gunther Podola was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.
Today, a memorial stands outside of 95 Queensgate where DS Purdy was murdered, and although his killer would feign amnesia to escape the hangman’s noose, Gunter’s only claim to fame was that he was last person executed in England for the murder of a police officer. His cowardly crimes do not warrant any praise, so let’s afford him the respect he granted his victim by forgetting his name, his details and his history, as if he has already been erased by a shattered memory. (same sound as start).
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.
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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