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One night on the Costa del Sol: a true crime story of rape, murder and wrongful conviction

“All I could think of was: why? Why was I here? How had this happened to me, to an innocent person?”

On 2 September 2003, a Dutchman named Romano van der Dussen walked to the beach in Fuengirola, a resort on Spain’s Costa del Sol. It was noon, and the high-rise apartment blocks along the seafront shimmered in the heat. Van der Dussen opened a can of beer, lay down on his towel and looked out at the Mediterranean.

He had moved to Spain three years before to start a new life. It hadn’t always been the paradise he had dreamed of. He had lost his job working in an ice-cream parlour and broken up with his partner, and he saw little of his two-year-old daughter. Often, he slept in the vestibule of his old apartment building, to which he still had a key, or on the couch at a friend’s house. But he was only 30 years old and he knew there was plenty of time to sort things out.

At around 5pm, van der Dussen left the beach and was walking along the promenade when a police car pulled up. Two officers got out and told him to stop. One of them addressed van der Dussen by name and held up an identikit photograph. “This is you, isn’t it?” he said. The picture showed a man with long, scraggly hair, bulging eyes and a broad nose. Van der Dussen, who has small eyes, a pointed nose and wore his hair short, said he saw no similarity. He asked if this had anything to do with the shopfront window that he had smashed the previous year while drunk and paid damages for. The officers said this was about a different matter, which they would only discuss at the police station.

Van der Dussen was gregarious and well liked by friends and work colleagues, but he could also be irascible. When the policemen insisted he should go with them, he pushed one of the officers and swung his arms wildly as he tried to flee. But the officers quickly pinned him down, cuffed his hands and bundled him into the back of their car.

***

Twenty-three days earlier, at 5.33am on 10 August, police had been called to an apartment in the centre of Fuengirola. When the two officers arrived, they found a woman covered in blood. She was crying. Her trousers and underwear were ripped. The 29-year-old Spaniard said that she had been walking alone at around 4.30am when an unidentified man punched her to the ground and then attempted to rape her. A female witness told the police that, from her balcony, she had seen a man lingering near the scene after the attack.

An hour later, the assailant struck again on a street just 500 metres away. The modus operandi was similar: the man hit a 33-year-old women in the face, threw her to the floor, took her mobile phone and wallet and then tried to rape her, before fleeing when a car approached.

On a nearby side street, some 30 minutes later, he struck for a third time, pouncing on a 19-year-old, whom he robbed and sexually assaulted. The victim told police that she was attacked with such aggression that she felt that the rapist hated her, even though he did not know her.

***

In the police interrogation room in Fuengirola, van der Dussen listened to the descriptions of the rapes with bewilderment. His Spanish was poor and the police denied his request for an interpreter. It took some time before he realised he was the prime suspect. He vehemently denied any involvement. He said he did not know the part of Fuengirola where the crimes had occurred and volunteered to submit to DNA testing. He also had an alibi: he told the officers that, on the night of the attacks, he had been at a party in Benalmádena, ten miles from Fuengirola, and that he had witnesses to prove it.

Yet the police never tried to confirm his alibi or investigate his other claims. They believed – or wanted to believe – that they had their man, because they were under huge pressure to solve the crime.

Since the early 1980s, thousands of northern Europeans, many of them British, had moved to the Costa del Sol for the weather, the low cost of living and, in some cases, to escape justice. Over time, the south of Spain became so well known for criminal activity that the British press took to calling it the Costa del Crime. Relations between locals and expats were increasingly strained, and the sexual assaults, along with the murder of a Spanish teenage girl four days later in Málaga, had left residents fearful and demanding justice.

Over the following days, van der Dussen was interrogated for many hours and, he later claimed, the officers assaulted him in his cell every night. “They beat me so badly that one night I started to pee blood,” he declared in a police statement seven months after his arrest.

For their part, the police made much of van der Dussen’s behaviour under interrogation. According to their reports, he had been aggressive and uncooperative, and made misogynistic comments that confirmed “his profound hatred towards the opposite sex”. Their interest in this part of the Dutchman’s conduct was unsurprising, because it was his history of trouble with women that had led the police to him in the first place. (The Spanish national police ignored requests for a comment for this article.)

****

Romano van der Dussen was born in Leiden, near The Hague, in 1973. His father, Robert, ran a small business, while his mother, Johanna, looked after Romano and his two sisters. The children attended the local school, and at weekends Robert would take them to see the canal boats sailing up and down the waterways. Though Romano struggled academically, owing to his problems with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, in those early years the family had few obvious problems. “He was a handsome little boy, who was very close to his mother,” Robert told me. “We were a happy family back then.”

But the van der Dussens were suppressing a trauma. “Romano’s mother was raped when she was 16, two years before I met her,” Robert said, “and she carried it with her for the rest of her life.”

Johanna, a Catholic, decided to keep the daughter she gave birth to as a consequence of the rape but thereafter suffered from chronic depression. At the age of eight, Romano was taken into care by social services and later moved to a home for disruptive children where, his father suspects, he started taking soft drugs and became involved in petty crime.

After a spell in a juvenile prison, he moved to Amsterdam, where he found some stability, taking a job at a Hilton hotel. Yet before long, he was bingeing on hard drugs and alcohol. It took until his mid-twenties before van der Dussen resolved to change his life. He checked into rehab and promised himself that when he finished the programme he would make a new life outside the Netherlands.

“I was trapped in a vicious cycle, with the same group of friends, doing the same things I had always done,” he told me. “I thought it was time to move on.”

He arrived in Spain with his Belgian girlfriend and baby daughter in 2000 and found work at Irene’s Ice Cream Shop in Fuengirola. But the following year, he got into trouble with the police when his girlfriend accused him of threatening behaviour following an argument in the street. In early 2003, he was arrested after a Brazilian prostitute accused him of rape. Although he was not charged in either case, his conduct towards women was recorded in police files, and his photograph appeared in an album of local offenders. It was this album that was shown to the victims of the Fuengirola rapist immediately after the attacks.

***

The women’s initial descriptions of their assailant were varied, describing him as either tall or short, with either brown or blond hair, and wearing either a dark or light-coloured T-shirt. When the second and third victims were shown the police album, neither identified van der Dussen as the attacker; nor did the witness who had seen a man loitering after the first attack. (The first victim was suffering amnesia as a result of her injuries and was not shown the album.)

On 20 August 2003 – ten days after the sexual assaults – the identikit image was drawn up using the third victim’s description. The women were shown the identikit, and then asked to look at the album again. This time, the third victim identified van der Dussen, as did the witness. The second victim expressed doubt and requested an identity parade.

On 5 September, three days after van der Dussen was detained, police organised a line-up. Spanish law dictates that all members of an identity parade should be of similar height, build and complexion. Yet van der Dussen, who is pale and slim, was put alongside men of dark complexions and stocky builds. The law also prohibits witnesses from speaking to each other beforehand. A court document later submitted by van der Dussen’s lawyer claimed that the three women talked prior to the parade.

After the line-up, all three identified van der Dussen as the assailant. He was charged and sent to prison without bail.

***

Accused rapists are targeted in prison and van der Dussen was no different. After being beaten up by other inmates, he was moved to solitary confinement for almost 14 months, where for 23 hours a day he was locked in a cell, except for a one-hour break in an open-air courtyard. “All I could think of was: why? Why was I here? How had this happened to me, to an innocent person?”

Ten months after his arrest, while he was still on remand, two people who claimed to have been with him at the party on the night of the attacks wrote to the Spanish police saying that they were willing to testify in court. One of these witnesses, Frank Donnelly, a British expat then living in the area, told me that he remembered playing drinking games with van der Dussen – one involved the Dutchman karate-kicking beer cans off his head – for much of the night. Donnelly claims that the Dutchman stayed over at his house that night.

Other factors gave van der Dussen confidence that judges would acquit him when the case reached court. He did not appear in any of the CCTV footage taken from the neighbourhood at the time of the attacks. The fingerprints found on the outside of a parked car near the scene of the first assault were not his. And forensic officers had confirmed that the DNA of an unidentified male extracted from the pubic hair of the first victim was not van der Dussen’s.

The trial began in Málaga in May 2005, more than 20 months after his arrest. The Dutchman stood accused of three counts of sexual assault, three counts of assault and two counts of robbery. Entering the courtroom, his certainty of acquittal began to wane. In front of him was a large screen covering where the victims were sitting; they could see him but he could only hear them. As he sat down, one of the women shouted, “I hope they send him to hell.” The gallery responded with affirmative murmurs.

On the first day of proceedings, two of the victims and the witness testified. (The first victim did not give evidence, owing to her amnesia.) When the second victim got up to give evidence, she called the Dutchman a “son of a bitch”. The third victim began to cry as she recalled the details of her assault, while the witness told the court that she was certain that she had seen van der Dussen from her balcony around the time of the first attack. The prosecutors focused on his troubled past and drug addiction. They portrayed van der Dussen as an evil misogynist.

Free at last: Romano van der Dussen in Mallorca, February 2016. Photo: Sofia Moro

When it was the turn of the defence, the court heard that the DNA found on the body of the first victim was not van der Dussen’s. His lawyers argued that this alone was enough to exonerate the Dutchman, as the only other possibility – that the DNA had come from a known sexual partner – had also been ruled out. The defence also pointed to the absence of any fingerprint or CCTV evidence linking van der Dussen to the crimes. But, crucially, the lawyers had failed to submit the requisite paperwork that would have allowed the statements from the witnesses who said they saw van der Dussen at the party on the night of the attacks. The testimonies supporting his alibi were never heard.

The Dutchman grew increasingly anxious. During the cross-examination of one of the scientific experts, he panicked – just as he had done on the promenade on the day of his arrest. Standing up, he began proclaiming his innocence, shouting raucously in Dutch, and pleading with the court translator to explain his plight to the three judges. They ejected him from the courtroom for contempt.

On 25 May, the judges reached their verdict. They agreed with the prosecution that the geography, time and modus operandi of the attacks suggested that there could be only one attacker. With this in mind, and solely on the basis of the women’s testimonies, they found van der Dussen guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to 15-and-a- half years in prison.

Van der Dussen received news of the decision in jail. “I will never be able to explain what I felt at that moment,” he told me. “To be found guilty of something that you didn’t do. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t know what to do.”

Days after the sentencing, he fashioned a knife out of the lid of a tin and started to slash his wrists. But it was not sharp enough and, as he struggled to pierce his skin, he began to think what his death might mean. He didn’t want to be labelled a rapist – the type of man who had ruined his mother’s life. He did not want to give anyone else cause to believe that he might be guilty. He put the knife down.

***

On 25 September 2005 – four months after van der Dussen’s conviction – the body of Sally Anne Bowman was found next to a skip in Croydon. The 18-year-old singer and part-time model had been out the night before with friends and on the way home had quarrelled with her ex-boyfriend. She had climbed out of his car to walk the rest of the way home. Soon afterwards, at around 4am, Bowman was attacked just metres from her front door. According to reports, the young woman was stabbed, bitten and then raped while she was dead or dying.

Almost nine months later, Mark Phillip Dixie, a 35-year-old chef with a long criminal record of burglary, sexual assault and indecent exposure, was arrested for fighting outside a pub. As is routine, police took a DNA swab. When it was found to match that of Bowman’s killer, Dixie was arrested for murder.

His genetic profile was subsequently added to various criminal databases, including that of Interpol, where, in November 2006, staff found that it also matched the unidentified DNA found on the first victim of the Fuengirola attacks in August 2003. Interpol alerted the British and Spanish authorities, noting that Dixie had lived in Fuengirola on the Costa del Sol from late 2002 to October 2003. The implications were clear – the wrong man was in prison. Furthermore, if Dixie had been correctly identified and arrested as the perpetrator of the rapes, Sally Anne Bowman would still be alive.

Responding to the Interpol notice, the Spanish police said they needed more proof, and in April 2007 asked for a fresh sample of Dixie’s DNA to be sent to Spain. The Metropolitan Police in turn petitioned the Fuengirola court for their officers to be able to reinvestigate the rapes, as part of their case against Dixie.

“Both these requests should have taken a matter of months to process,” Francisco Carrión, a lawyer on van der Dussen’s current legal team, said. “Instead, they became entangled in a hellish administrative web.”

In February 2008 at the Old Bailey, Dixie was found guilty of Sally Anne Bowman’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Newspaper reports of the verdict speculated that Dixie might have committed other sexual crimes, possibly even murders, in Australia during the 1990s. But the Spanish sexual assaults went unnoted, and for good reason: the Metropolitan Police had not sent the sample of Dixie’s DNA to Spain and had never received permission to investigate the crimes. (The Metropolitan Police has declined to comment on this.)

There was one more crucial thing that had not happened. Nobody had informed van der Dussen that the real perpetrator of the Fuengirola attacks had been identified.

***

The Dutchman had been in prison for nearly four-and-a-half years. He concerned himself with staying healthy – scrubbing his cell with bleach to kill the cockroaches until his eyes puffed red – and out of danger. At one point, an inmate had held a knife to his throat and sworn to kill him. With few friends, he spent most of the time alone in the library, immersing himself in the complexities of the Spanish judicial system, reading thrillers – he enjoyed James Patterson novels – and writing his memoirs.

Early in 2009, he learned that his mother, Johanna, had cancer and was dying at the family home in the Netherlands. Van der Dussen asked for special dispensation to visit her. “The prison authorities agreed, but only on the basis that I admit to the crimes,” he told me.

Though he was desperate to see his mother, van der Dussen refused. “Clearing my name became an obsession and one that I couldn’t let go,” he said. He asked the warden if he could speak to his mother via a video call, but his request was denied.

“To be made to hurt the person you love most in the world or to maintain your integrity as a human being: that was the inhumane choice I had to make.”

***

In May 2010, a Dutch diplomat who had recently learned of the evidence implicating Dixie visited van der Dussen in prison and gave him the news. Van der Dussen was incredulous – and furious. “How could two governments from two European countries take so long to process paperwork?” he said. “And why had nobody thought to mention it to me?”

He decided to seek a new lawyer. Though he had no money, he wrote to every legal firm he could find details of and explained his plight. Silverio García Sierra, a Madrid-based lawyer, agreed to take on the case. “At first I was reluctant,” García told me, “but as I read more and more about it, I couldn’t believe some of the irregularities and the number of injustices that Romano had suffered.”

In May 2011, García appealed to the Spanish Supreme Court to reopen van der Dussen’s case on the basis of the DNA evidence implicating Dixie. But by 2013, there had still been no progress, prompting García to accuse the ministry of justice in writing of negligence and malpractice.

In its response, the ministry did not recognise any failings. “They said that what had happened in 2007-08, regarding the processing of the DNA and the UK’s request, had legally expired, and that the problems of recent years did not fall under the responsibility of any magistrate,” García told me.

Every week van der Dussen would ring him from prison, hoping to hear news of his imminent release, and every week García would have to tell him that there had been yet another delay.

***

On 19 August 2015 – nine years after Interpol first informed Spain about the evidence implicating Mark Dixie – the Spanish forensic police finally confirmed a match between Dixie’s DNA and the sample found on the first victim’s body. García’s appeal to the supreme court was accepted and, in early 2016, the case went to trial.

Van der Dussen’s legal team was confident. It had the DNA match. It had the testimony of Marcus Downie, a British citizen who accounted for the Dutchman’s presence at the party on the night of the attacks, and whose testimony had not been heard during the first trial. And, most importantly, it had a written confession from Mark Dixie.

Criminal intent: the convicted killer Mark Dixie. Photo: PA

A Dutch lawyer, Rachel Imamkhan, who had been hired by van der Dussen’s father, Robert, using funds from a Kickstarter campaign, had travelled to HM Prison Frankland in Durham to record Dixie’s testimony. Dixie told the lawyer that he had assaulted and attempted to rape the first victim. However, he said that because he had been drinking and taking drugs that night, he could not remember the other two attacks. (I wrote to Dixie in Frankland requesting an interview, but he did not respond.)

During van der Dussen’s original trial, the judges concluded that the three attacks were the work of a single perpetrator. But when considering the new evidence, the Spanish supreme court said it could only consider a revision of one of the three sentences (that which corresponded to the first victim) because the new physical evidence pertained only to her and not to the other two victims.

On 10 February 2016, it absolved van der Dussen of the crimes committed against the first victim. Since he had already served his time for the other two charges, he was free to leave prison. However, he would do so as a convicted rapist.

***

The next morning, van der Dussen walked out of Palma prison on the island of Mallorca into the pale winter sun. He carried two plastic bags filled with old clothes and €33. He was met by his Spanish girlfriend, a volunteer whom he had met at the prison two years earlier, and Father Jaume Alemany, the prison chaplain.

He looked haggard and thin, and there was no joy on his face as he told the press that his life had been ruined. “The blame doesn’t lie with the victims. The authorities created this hell,” he said.

He had been locked up for 4,542 days. The world had changed. “When Romano first left prison, he needed to make a call and he asked me where the nearest phone box was,” Father Alemany told me.

At first, the freedom was overwhelming. The day after his release, he drank six espressos in a row at a café. He bought a pair of Nike Airs with money lent to him by his family and stopped wearing them when he realised he was not the 30-year-old who entered prison but the 43-year-old who had been released. “In jail, time doesn’t pass like it does in the real world,” van der Dussen told me at a café near his rented flat in Palma. “Things don’t change and you experience nothing that makes you different. It is only when you’re out and you look at yourself in the mirror that you see you’ve grown old.”

He felt nervous in wide-open spaces or crowds. At night, he dreamed that he was back in prison; that his fellow inmates were trying to kill him; that his mother was still waiting to say goodbye. According to his psychiatrist’s report, van der Dussen suffers from severe depression and anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic attacks.

He had a job as a hotel receptionist for several months, but could not handle the stress of dealing with demanding clients. Although his girlfriend is helping him keep his life together, he still spends a lot of time alone, wandering the streets, or watching the Discovery Channel – and waiting. The Spanish government owes him compensation for the 1,231 days he spent wrongly incarcerated for the crimes against the first victim. He asked for €6m and the government has yet to make a counter offer.

When he is paid, he plans to go to England to try to track down more people who attended the party on the night of the attacks. He hopes these additional testimonies will persuade the supreme court to re­open his case and clear his name of the other two convictions. Until then, he says, he won’t permit himself to think of a future. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue