TV star: Jill Dando
THE MURDER of Jill Dando, gunned down at the height of her fame nearly 20 years ago, shocked the nation. With theories ranging from Balkan assassins to underworld hitmen, the clamour to find the culprit raged for nearly a year. But when police settled on Barry George, a local oddball with a dubious past, as prime suspect, it would tear an innocent family apart.
George was wrongly convicted and spent eight years in prison before being cleared on appeal.
With their elderly mother, Margaret, wilting under the pressure of the media interest, it fell on Barry’s sister Michelle Diskin Bates, a mother of three living near Cork in Ireland, to speak for the family.
She continues to defend him to this day, but tells in her book, Stand Against Injustice, how high a toll the case has taken.
Devoutly religious, Michelle always maintained a smart, dignified and confident public personna as debate about her rather odd brother raged for years.
DEVASTATED: Michelle and Barry outside the London flat where he was arrested
But in a frank appraisal of two decades at the heart of one of the most compelling of murder mysteries, Michelle supplies many of the missing pieces from the family jigsaw.
“The healing of damaged relationships is difficult to achieve after a miscarriage of justice,” Michelle reflects in her book.
“People have been hurt, words have been spoken that cannot be taken back. Trust will have broken down, and bitterness can become the driving force in many lives.
“Guilt, anger, fear, denial, pain, confusion and blame. These are all emotions I have either experienced or witnessed since Barry’s release. Barry and I clashed many times – with me being the one to shout and scream at the poor guy for his unintentionally injurious effect on our family’s life.
“Guilt, anger, fear, denial, pain, confusion and blame. These are all emotions I have either experienced or witnessed since Barry’s release”
“I shouted, stormed and blazed. Barry looked on, confusion in his eyes, speaking words of apology to me. None of us had a magic wand to wave that would make all this disappear.”
There was no hint of how life would turn out when Michelle’s mother Margaret Bourke left her family’s home in Limerick, aged just 15, to live with an aunt and uncle in London.
Margaret met Alfred Michael George, born in 1930, whose father was a corporal in the Army.
They settled in Fulham and were keen to start a family. Michelle was born in 1955. Susan following three years later, but she suffered epilepsy throughout her life and died while a young woman.
Michelle Diskin, speaks to the press before entering the High Court on her brother’s appeal in 2007
On Good Friday in 1960 Barry was born while the family was living in White City.
When he was five Michelle took him to a local outdoor pool and was aghast when she spotted him lying face down in the water.
Plucked unconscious from the pool he came around but harboured a lifelong fear of water.
With Barry’s undiagnosed autism Michelle found it hard to reason with his actions, such as the time he jumped into a milk float aged six and took it for a drive or when he was hospitalised after covering himself in petrol. Aged seven he set his bedroom on fire while playing with matches.
But in 1981 he was convicted of indecent assault for which he was given a suspended sentence. Two years later he was jailed for attempted rape.
Michelle found his conduct hard to deal with. “I visited him in prison but it was not a comfortable time for Barry. I was incensed at his behaviour and let him know it,” she says.
Preferring to live in Ireland, Michelle rarely saw her brother. In 1988 she met him briefly after bringing two of her children to London but said: “The next time I saw Barry was in 2000 when he was on remand for murder.”
He was charged with killing Jill Dando. The Crimewatch and Holiday presenter was shot through the head on the doorstep of her home in Gowan Avenue, Fulham, on April 26, 1999.
Arrested a year after the crime, Scotland Yard built a circumstantial case, but the Old Bailey jury was swung by forensic evidence suggesting residue from a firearm was on his coat and newspaper stories about Dando, 37, were found at his ramshackle home.
Barry George’s lawyer Jeremy Moore in 2008
After he was convicted, a photo of a masked man with a gun went around the world. It was, said police, George himself, with the photo found on undeveloped film at his home.
Michelle said: “The films contained many subjects, as well as images of women he had seen in the street. Some had been taken with permission and some covertly.
“Not one image had ever been viewed by Barry they were undeveloped. He was not at home poring over them night after night, salivating, which was the implication by the prosecution at trial and by the media. Neither had he set eyes on a photo of someone in a gas mask and holding a broken gun. To this day Barry believes it wasn’t him in that photo but a friend of his.
“The photo had been taken in the 1980s and lay undisturbed and undeveloped until the year 2000 when the police found the roll.”
The Crimewatch and Holiday presenter was shot in April 1999
George maintained he was at the offices of a housing charity at the time of the murder.
During his first trial and later, when she devoted years of her life to proving his innocence, Michelle stayed with her mother, amid simmering tensions.
At one stage Michelle told her: “I’m sorry but I’ve had enough. I’m not taking any more of this attitude from you. This is your son I’m supporting, not mine. My son is back in Cork with his two sisters, all missing their mum. Either this sniping ends or I go home. If I can’t stay here, I can’t continue to do what I’m doing for Barry. You decide.”
When appeal court judges cast doubt over the firearm residue a second trial was inevitable and in 2008 a jury found him not guilty.
But still a cloud hung over him and he found it impossible to resume life in London, where he was pursued by the media.
Beloved Jill Dando’s grave
Barry now lives in Ireland, still struggling with his notoriety. For a while Michelle’s son Shane stayed with him at his flat in Cork, but after a few months Barry asked him to leave.
States Shane in his mother’s book: “I couldn’t understand what I’d done, or why he felt so anxious, but Mum explained it was a reaction to all that happened to him. He’s been very badly affected by it, and I’m not sure he can ever fully recover.”
After the death from cancer of Michelle’s first husband Pat, a huge support, she has remarried and lives happily in England, but rarely a day goes by when she does not worry about her “little brother” Barry. And the true killer has never been found
Stand Against Injustice (Malcolm Down, £9.99) is available now