Pathologist who sifted through bodies on 9/11, worked on the Hungerford massacre and Stephen Lawrence’s murder, claims Princess Diana would have been at Harry’s wedding if she was wearing a seatbelt in Paris crash
- Dr Richard Shepherd has performed more than 23,000 post-mortem operations
- His subjects include victims of the 7/7 bombings in 2005 and the 9/11 attacks
- He re-examined Princess Diana’s body for the official inquiry into her death
- Dr Shepherd said if she had worn her seatbelt she would have survived
A car that had slewed across a road, the woman driver’s body slumped over the steering wheel. A man lying by his garden gate in a pool of blood. A police car riddled with bullet holes, containing an officer’s corpse. A pedestrian sprawled motionless on a path, dog lead still in his hand.
This was the scene one August evening at dusk in 1987, in Hungerford, Berkshire, that confronted pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd.
A gunman had just massacred 16 people before turning the weapon on himself. No such indiscriminate act of mass carnage by a lone gunman had ever happened in the UK before.
Dr Shepherd, one of the world’s most eminent forensic pathologists, took in the enormity of the drama before carrying out autopsies on all the dead, victims and perpetrator.
Princess Diana (pictured) would have walked away with a ‘black eye’ if she had worn a seatbelt, according to pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd, who worked on her inquest
Since that day he has performed more than 23,000 post-mortem examinations, including on victims of murder, suicide, explosions, accidents, mass disasters and terror attacks.
He was the pathologist in charge when 35 were killed in the Clapham rail disaster in 1988. He examined the drowned bodies after the Marchioness tragedy in which a Thames pleasure boat sank with the loss of 51 lives in 1989. He was in Bali after the terrorist bomb attacks in 2002 and carried out post-mortems after the London 7/7 bombings in 2005, having sifted through human remains in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York four years earlier.
After Princess Diana died in August 1997, he re-examined her body for the official inquiry into her death. He also carried out the post-mortems on young mother Rachel Nickell, murdered on Wimbledon Common in 1992, and Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager stabbed to death in a racial attack a year later.
Every day he confronts death and sometimes disaster. Yet of all these tragedies and others, familial, national and global, it was Hungerford that prompted the first symptoms in an episode of post-traumatic stress disorder so profound, it led him to thoughts of suicide.
‘Instead, she was hurtling forward with the weight of one and a half elephants, and the human body is not designed to suffer those forces,’ said pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd
Three years ago — almost 30 years after he had driven through the town in the ghostly half-light that summer evening after the killings — Richard was piloting the small plane he flies for pleasure when he noticed that, quite by chance, he was flying over the town.
‘I looked down and there was Hungerford,’ Richard, now 65, recalls. ‘It was as random as that. I started to feel something like nausea, but more ominous.
‘It came from deep inside me, forcing its way through my body with such power I felt breathless. I felt unhappiness and dread; a sense that something terrible was about to happen — even an urge to make it happen — and a ludicrous thought crossed my mind. What if I got out of the plane? I struggled to stay in my seat, to keep breathing, to control the plane.
‘Then I flew over Savernake Forest and the feeling passed. But it had never happened before in the whole of my career and it was the first intimation that things were building up, an early sign of PTSD.
‘During 30 years I’d seen bodies in death, decomposition and after illness, crimes and disasters, yet it was the first time I thought my job could have emotional repercussions.’
Dr Shepherd worked on over 23,000 post-mortems, including that of Rachel Nickell (pictured), the young mother who was murdered in Wimbledon Common in 1992
What happened next was as disquieting as it was debilitating.
Every time Richard shut his eyes, he had flashbacks. Horrific images would crowd into his head, triggered by everyday occurences.
‘I’d hear ice chinking in a glass of gin and tonic, and suddenly see bodies stacked on bags of ice — where they had been put because there was no refrigeration — after the Bali bombings.
‘I’d see a ring on a finger and it would summon up an image of a ring I’d seen on a dead body.
‘When the Charlie Hebdo shootings happened in Paris [12 people were murdered in the terror attack on a Paris satirical magazine in 2015], I couldn’t even watch them on TV. I’d been completely in control of my life but suddenly I wasn’t in control.
‘All I wanted to do was go to bed and do nothing. I couldn’t even shut my eyes because I’d get flashbacks, so I just sat and waited for the oblivion of sleep.’
He believes it was ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ that ultimately tipped him over the edge.
Fortunately, Richard’s second wife Linda, a paediatrician, recognised the signs of mental breakdown and organised emergency psychiatric care. He began a course of antidepressants and psychotherapy.
‘I was very lucky Linda stopped it going further, but I did think about suicide,’ he recalls. ‘Life became unbearable. The mental health nurse said: “A lot of people think about it but you know what to do.”
He also worked on Stephen Lawrence, who was stabbed to death in a racial attack in 1993
‘I considered various possibilities. I was going to take my seatbelt off and crash the car at speed. I thought it wouldn’t involve anyone else.
‘But the nurse said: “What about the people who have to sort it all out? And how will your family feel?”’
Fortunately, the suicidal thoughts soon passed and within a year Richard had stopped taking medication.
But the respite from work gave him time to write a memoir, Unnatural Causes, which is just published.
‘It wasn’t an exercise in self-analysis but it proved therapeutic to be a bit more introspective about my work,’ he says today. ‘The writing became a sort of therapy.
‘And I think it’s important people understand what we pathologists do, that we’re not Dracula figures, that our job is a traumatic one and that society needs someone to do it.
‘We need to know how and why our citizens die, that there isn’t another Harold Shipman around.’ (Richard was also involved in the case of the Greater Manchester GP who killed more than 200 patients before his arrest in 1998.)
The man I meet is affable, easy company, with the fluency of thought and speech of someone accustomed to commanding an audience. Tall and long-limbed, with piercing blue eyes and tousled grey hair, he is relaxed in off-duty casuals.
He has two children — Chris, 37, a vet, and Anna, 35, a hospital pathologist — from his first marriage to Jen, another doctor, and two grandchildren. When he married Linda, a widow, in 2008, he became stepdad to her three grown-up girls.
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His marriage to Jen, which ended in divorce, was a casualty of their demanding careers. ‘Our lives were hectic and complicated and our relationship sagged beneath our workloads,’ he says. ‘One of us was always rushing in as the other rushed out.’
His job consumed him. Once, his children walked unannounced into his study to find him stabbing a pillow with a ruler, trying to work out the mechanics of a murder.
His ambition to become a forensic pathologist took root early when, as a schoolboy, he became enthralled by a textbook on the subject.
When he dissected his first cadaver, the initial fear and revulsion was quickly usurped by a fascination that absorbs him to this day.
He writes of a ‘sense of wonder’ at the human body: ‘Its intricate systems, its colours and, yes, its beauty. For blood is not just red, it is bright red. The gall bladder is not just green, it is the green of jungle foliage. The brain is white and grey — and that is not the grey of a November sky, it is the silver-grey of darting fish. The liver is not a dull school-uniform brown, it is the sharp red-brown of a freshly ploughed field.’
He says he learnt early in his career to isolate himself from the horror of the bodies he dealt with every day, while engaging fully with the intricate business of examining them.
He also had to learn to leave the sights of the mortuary behind as he walked through the door and out into ‘the world of daylight, children and home’.
He wonders now whether this continual slipping between horror and mundanity might have precipitated his breakdown. ‘It became harder and harder to clear the images from my mind,’ he admits.
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex ride by carriage following their wedding at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018 in Windsor
I ask, too, how he dealt with friends’ fascination about his work. When he carried out the second autopsy on Princess Diana, for example, he must have been besieged by questions. ‘People asked: “Was she beautiful?” “Was she peaceful?” “Was she pregnant?”’ he recalls. ‘I always made sure I never said anything — in all the cases of public interest I was involved with — that hadn’t already appeared in the Press.
‘Pathologically there was no evidence that Princess Diana was pregnant, but some women say they know they’re pregnant from the moment of conception. Was she one of those?’
He leaves the question hanging, adding: ‘I wish I could say she would have died whatever happened, but the fact is, if she had worn her seatbelt she would have been here for Prince William and Harry’s weddings.
He believes that, had she been strapped in, ‘she would have walked away with a black eye or maybe a broken arm, but nothing more. Instead, she was hurtling forward with the weight of one and a half elephants, and the human body is not designed to suffer those forces.’
He says, too, that there is no enhancement of the procedures and protocols, no extra level of care or commitment, for celebrities or royals apart from a more senior police officer being present.
Forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd (pictured) featured on Autopsy on Netflix
He recalls other high-profile cases: it was he who suggested that a forensic psychologist should be flown in from the U.S. to help solve Rachel Nickell’s murder. And long before Colin Stagg was acquitted of the crime, Richard suspected that the actual killer, Robert Napper — now remanded indefinitely in Broadmoor high-security hospital — was guilty.
He did so because he carried out a post-mortem on one of Napper’s subsequent victims, Samantha Bisset, and noted similarities in the method of the two young mothers’ murders; both had been stabbed in a frenzied way.
He is an expert on knives: he notes the angles at which blades penetrate flesh, the bruises made by the hilt, marks that indicate whether a wound is self-inflicted. And he has developed the capacity to sketch a murder weapon accurately by the track it leaves on a body. Invariably, he can also identify a knife used in a stabbing.
‘I was always rooting around in the kitchen at home for a knife to stick into a joint of meat,’ he says. ‘I’d use pork bellies, cow kidneys and joints of beef for stabbing exercises.’
He remarks that when he was called to perform a routine post-mortem on a young black man called Stephen Lawrence, who had been fatally stabbed, he had no idea he would give evidence so many times at future dates about the 18-year-old’s murder.
‘Public scorn at the failure to arrest Stephen’s attackers reached such a pitch that it really began to seem that demands for an inquiry into the Met’s investigative failures would be met,’ he recalls. ‘I was delighted by the strong move for change which forced a rethink in official and police culture.’
He has seen great advances, too, in methods of identifying bodies.
Until 2000, fingerprints and dental records were used. He recalls the furore among relatives of those drowned in the Marchioness disaster when, advised not to see their loved ones’ bodies as they were decomposed, it later emerged that some victims’ hands had been removed for identification.
‘In their position I would have been angry too,’ Richard concedes. But breakthroughs in DNA technology meant that by the time of the 9/11 attacks, the dead could be identified swiftly by minuscule fragments of material alone.
For those who worry that autopsies involve desecration or disfigurement of the dead, Dr Shepherd offers reassurance.
‘When I perform a post-mortem, I am ascertaining the exact cause of death and doing my job with care and respect. And after I’ve discovered the truth, the bodies are restored faithfully by mortuary technicians.
‘I don’t feel grief as I incise a body, but I do when I see others suffering their loss.’
Unnatural Causes: The Life And Many Deaths Of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist, by Dr Richard Shepherd, is published by Michael Joseph.
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