Detective reveals how Stephanie Slater's kidnapper almost slipped through his grasp

Ex-West Midlands Police Chief Superintendent Mike Layton opens up about the investigation which gripped the nation in a new book detailed in a two-part feature in the Express & Star.

Victim Stephanie Slater and kidnapper Michael Sams
Victim Stephanie Slater and kidnapper Michael Sams

A former detective today described the moment he let a notorious kidnapper slip through his grasp.

The abduction of Stephanie Slater in the West Midlands shocked a nation.

The estate agent, 26, was taken during an appointment in Great Barr and held in a makeshift coffin by killer Michael Sams for eight days in 1992.

Former West Midlands Police chief superintendent Mike Layton today speaks of the growing anxiety he and fellow detectives felt as they attempted to find her.

Mike Layton with his new book Reporting for Duty detailing his career at West Midlands Police

A lead came when Slater demanded a ransom and the manager of Ms Slater’s estate agents followed instructions from the kidnapper to deliver cash to a disused railway line in the Yorkshire Pennines.

Police saw it as an opportunity to catch Sams and save Ms Slater, but the kidnapper managed to slip away with the cash by speeding from the scene on a moped.

She was eventually freed after ransom money was paid to her kidnapper and would later help convict him of murdering 18-year-old Julie Dart, who he had abducted a year earlier in Leeds.

'Black moment'

In the first of a special two-part Express & Star feature about his police work, Mr Layton describes Sams’ escape as a “black moment”.

He said: “Throughout these events I was in the office, with members of my team watching events unfold. I had already been on duty for nearly 12 hours, but I had to be there, it would have been unthinkable not to be.

“It was an extremely tense time and I felt for the senior officers who were tasked with making massive split-second decisions in such a charged environment.

“The moment when the cash disappeared along with the attacker was a black moment which was felt personally by everyone, whatever role they were performing.

“The next move would be in the hands of the kidnapper, and now that he had the money people feared the worst.”

Ms Slater was eventually freed when Sams’ dumped her at the end of the street where she lived.

A massive manhunt followed and after a Crimewatch appeal he was arrested and convicted of the kidnap and as well as the murder of 18-year-old Julie Dart, who he had abducted a year earlier in Leeds.

How routine house viewing led to major manhunt

Now, more than 25 years on former West Midlands Police chief superintendent Mike Layton has given an insight into the scale of the investigation and the growing anxiety among senior officers as the days passed without finding Ms Slater, and their feelings as the case twisted and turned during the subsequent manhunt – one of the largest ever conducted by the force.

The case features in a Mr Layton's new book, Reporting for Duty, charting his 30-year career with the force and some of the largest inquiries of the era.

Ms Slater's life would be altered irrevocably on a day that started like any other.

Sams had arranged to meet Ms Slater for what she thought would be a routine house viewing on Turnberry Road, Great Barr.

The property in Turnberry Road, Great Barr, where Stephanie was kidnapped

There didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary at first. But when they entered the upstairs bedroom, he attacked her, tied her up and bundled her into a car.

She was held captive at a workshop in Nottinghamshire where for eight days she was blindfolded, bound and gagged while being kept in a home-made coffin inside a wheelie bin, which had been laid horizontal.

Within hours he made a £175,000 ransom demand, crucially providing police with hope he was intending to keep her alive.

Mr Layton headed up and intelligence unit from his base at Nechells Police Station and was tasked with trying to find out who the kidnapper was and where Ms Slater was being held.

Detectives worked around the clock to try and save the estate agent and he revealed their fears that she may not be found in time.

A paper from the time showing the police trail to find Michael Sams

He told the Express & Star: "It was a really complex inquiry and really stressful. Everybody was absolutely committed, while she was still missing, to finding her alive. Officers were working non-stop, with a bit of sleep in between.

"The whole emphasis was on praying, hoping, working towards the safe recovery of her."

The ex-detective reveals in his book how staff "routinely worked at least 12 hours a day, day-in-day-out, and stress levels were high".

Investigators were given a crucial early lead, thanks to the kidnapper himself. By calling to demand payment he had also diverted attention to his whereabouts.

While he was careful to dial from a call box at a service station, the call was traced to Nottinghamshire.

The caller was described as having an accent local to that area and so straight away police pinpointed an area of interest.

Officers worked flat out trying to gather all the intelligence they could. Modern cop dramas present investigative work with shiny offices and a touch of glamour but Mr Layton's surroundings were far less salubrious.

He tells how he "ran the team from two Portakabins in the back yard of the police station".

Julia Dart

This became the nerve centre in the hunt to identify the kidnapper and find out where he was keeping Ms Slater captive. Theories and clues were mapped out on the wall of one of the cabins.

Mr Layton recalls in his book: "It was a hugely important job and senior investigators relied on the information to assist in some of their decision-making."

The investigation had built to a crucial juncture but morale amongst the team plummeted when an opportunity to catch Sams was missed.

The manager of Ms Slater's estate agents followed instructions from the kidnapper to deliver a cash ransom to a disused railway line in the Yorkshire Pennines.

This was the chance the team had been waiting for but despite covert policing methods, Sams was able to slip away with the cash, using a moped to avoid being tracked.

It came as a bitter blow to Mr Layton and other officers leading the case, who described it as a 'black moment'.

Fearing the worst

Detectives began to fear the worst. Their leverage had gone and they, and Ms Slater, were now at the mercy of Sams. He had the money and so, in theory, had no reason to keep her alive.

"Throughout these events I was in the office, with members of my team watching events unfold. I had already been on duty for nearly twelve hours, but I had to be there, it would have been unthinkable not to be," he recalled.

"It was an extremely tense time and I felt for the senior officers who were tasked with making massive split-second decisions in such a charged environment.

"The moment when the cash disappeared along with the attacker was a ‘black moment’ which was felt personally by everyone, whatever role they were performing.

Michael Sams pictured in 1995 outside court for a later case

"The next move would be in the hands of the kidnapper, and now that he had the money people feared the worst."

It was with a tremendous sense of relief when Ms Slater was dumped, alive, at the end of the road where she lived. However, Sams again managed to escape as he drove away into the night.

Mr Layton said: "There was great relief that she was alive and then sheer determination to get going to find this guy. It was a really nasty, horrible crime - those words don't come close to describing it. What he put her through was just horrendous."

He said it was "simply unthinkable" that Sams would be "allowed to win". Ms Slater was home but there was just as much determination among detectives to ensure she got justice for her ordeal, and protect any other potential victims of Sams.

Police and journalists at the trial of kidnapper Michael Sams at Nottingham Crown Court in 1993

The release of Ms Slater meant she was able to provide crucial information to aid the investigation.

Detectives were able to narrow down a search area based on predictions of the minimum and maximum times she would have travelled.

Traffic officers were sent out on motorbikes to drive the routes being considered.

Officers got very close to Sams' workshop of horrors, but Mr Layton said it was just one possibility in a "haystack".

Mr Layton admitted the glare of the press put added pressure on investigators but it would ultimately be the power of the media which would bring down the kidnapper.

He said: "The issue as always with the press is how much you tell them, how much you talk in confidence and how much you keep from them. In my experience it was often down to personal relationships, if that trust was there.

"The force was under a lot of pressure. It just was a huge inquiry. With the dynamics of the Julie Dart murder the inquiry became even more challenging."

Although officers felt they were getting closer, they decided it was time to try and use the help of the public.

Stephanie Slater was reunited with her cat Swiftnick as she arrived home to Great Barr

A recording of his voice from the ransom calls aired on BBC's Crimewatch was recognised by Sams' first wife.

It was the crucial breakthrough detectives were waiting for and led to his arrest.

The police had got their man and Sams eventually confessed to kidnapping Ms Slater.

He was jailed for life for the abduction of Ms Slater and murder of Julie Dart, after the former gave evidence against Sams.

Ms Slater died in 2017, aged 50, following a battle with cancer. Friends said she never truly got over her eight-day ordeal.

She shared how while in captivity she was told she would be electrocuted if she tried to move. She said when she was allowed out of the coffin for food, she chatted about herself to Sams, "to humanise" herself and to increase her chances of survival.

She moved to the Isle of Wight and wrote a book, Beyond Fear: My Will to Survive, about her time in captivity, and worked with police forces to improve the treatment of kidnap victims.

Stephanie later worked with police forces to help them deal with kidnap victims

Ms Slater said in 2011: “Before this happened, I had a boyfriend, a job and a company car. I had loads of friends and a great social life. But he took everything and destroyed the next 20 years of my life.

"But now I am ready to begin again. Most people begin their lives in their 20s and 30s but those years of my life were destroyed.”

Mr Layton concluded: "Taking all the circumstances into account this case could only be described as a truly remarkable story of "survival against all of the odds" and a unique inquiry which I have never forgotten."

Breach of protocol ‘was right thing to do’

Retired chief superintendent Mike Layton believes he would have made the same decision as a controversial detective who was recently the subject of an ITV drama.

Steve Fulcher made national headlines and almost lost his job at Wiltshire Police for his actions while investigating a double murder in Swindon, which polarised opinion.

His questioning of murderer Christopher Halliwell while investigating the disappearance of Sian O’Callaghan led to the discovery of another victim, Becky Godden-Edwards.

However, Mr Fulcher failed to caution Halliwell as he continued to question him, disregarding police guidelines and increasing the prospect of a subsequent trial collapsing.

The ITV recreation of the notorious search

The officer was given a final written warning for his conduct, which saw him labelled a maverick by some but a hero by others.

Former Detective Superintendent Mr Fulcher has always maintained his actions were necessary to save Ms O’Callaghan if she was still alive.

He also insists the second victim would never have been discovered if he had cautioned Halliwell and taken him to a police station.

The case has been re-told in the ITV drama A Confession over the last few weeks with The Office star Martin Freeman playing the role of Mr Fulcher.

'A brave decision'

Now former West Midlands Police chief superintendent Mike Layton has backed Mr Fulcher and described his actions as “brave”

He said: “It would in normal circumstances not be right to deliberately breach legal guidelines to the point where evidence is rendered legally inadmissible and therefore could lead to justice not being done.

“All that said speaking as a human being I think he made a brave decision which led to the recovery of another murder victim and closure for the family.

"When he lies awake at night thinking about how things might have been I think he can take great comfort from the fact that many people will applaud him for his decision and the personal sacrifice that resulted.

"He was trying to do the right thing for the right reason and that’s the bottom line.

Former Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher of Wiltshire Police

“On balance I believe that I would have taken the same course of action but relationships between persons in custody and police officers are very complex and often border on becoming ‘personal’ in nature.

"I have cautioned many people in the past who have still gone on to admit things despite being told what their rights are. Hindsight is a wonderful gift.”

Senior officers at Wiltshire Police were accused of hanging Mr Fulcher out to dry and Mr Layton said: “In my experience many very senior officers become totally divorced from the realities of practical policing.

"Their skill set is very strategic rather than tactical and its rare to see them not toeing the party line.”

Tomorrow: In the second of a two-part feature Mike Layton reveals more on the Birmingham Pub Bombings investigation.

  • Reporting For Duty: Twenty Five Years of Policing the West Midlands 1974 - 1999 by Mike Layton and Stephen Burrows is available now for £14.99

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