Richard Taylor tells Audrey Ward what it was like to work with some of Britain's most notorious criminals, from 'Camden Ripper' Anthony Hardy to hate preacher Abu Hamza.
Dr Richard Taylor, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, was walking his daughter to school one morning in 2002 when he bumped into a former patient. The man, Eugene, a talented musician in his 40s, waved cheerily.
Taylor had treated Eugene many years earlier after he beat his father to death during a psychotic episode. He had set fire to the body before sticking a meat thermometer into his stomach. When assessing him in prison afterwards, Taylor had asked why he had done that. "To see if he was done, I suppose," was Eugene's reply.
"It was an extremely dramatic offence," says Taylor, a large, avuncular 55-year-old. "In prison custody he was incredibly disturbed and violent." Eugene was found guilty of manslaughter through diminished responsibility, but after many years of intensive treatment, a lengthy stable period and rigorous testing, he had been discharged under close supervision.
"Who was that, Daddy?" Taylor's 5-year-old daughter asked as they continued their journey along the leafy north London street. "Oh, just someone I used to work with," he told her.
Taylor, one of Britain's most experienced forensic psychiatrists, says he was unperturbed by this unexpected reunion with Eugene. "For me it was amusing," he says with a hint of a smile. "The idea of telling my daughter his story was obviously ridiculous."
Although he didn't tell her back then, Taylor has now written a book that recounts Eugene's chilling tale, as well as those of other prisoners and patients he has assessed and treated over a career spanning three decades.
It is an unsettling insight into his work with perpetrators of serious crime, including some of Britain's most notorious prisoners — such as Anthony Hardy, dubbed the Camden Ripper, and the hate preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri.
Taylor says he was inspired to write the book because "the most interesting cases stayed with me". "I've got a psychotic homicide, an intimate-partner violence killing, a battered-woman syndrome homicide. There's a whole psychiatric typology of murder. I wasn't aware it had been written about for a public audience."
Psychiatrists such as Taylor are less focused on the "whodunnit" than the why. Most murders involve extremes of normal mental states such as anger, jealousy and fear, but there is a fine line between these states and a mental disorder — and Taylor is often called upon to determine whether that line has been crossed, whether an individual has lost contact with reality and is suffering from the delusions and hallucinations of psychosis. His judgment can be boiled down to a single question — is this person mad or bad?
"There are two issues," he says. "Should the person be in hospital for treatment? And how will the court deal with them in terms of their offence level? So it does come down to mad or bad."
His work also involves being called to give expert witness evidence at trial and sentencing, and determining whether patients should be eligible for supervised release. Three quarters of secure hospital patients are referred by or transferred from prison. The other quarter are mostly referred from other psychiatric hospitals or occasionally from the community.
"It's quite common to go to a prison to interview someone — by which stage you've read the papers and you've got a sense of what they've done — and to be surprised by who you meet," he says. With Abu Hamza, whose medical and psychological problems he was assessing ahead of his trial, "I was aware of all the press coverage and of course he has the fearsome hook. He was seen as public enemy No 1 at the time. I imagined this very inscrutable, gruff man who would be hard to connect with. I was thrown by the fact that he was highly intelligent, articulate, charming. We developed a cordial relationship over a number of years."
Not all encounters have proved so convivial. Taylor has been assaulted a handful of times and now wears a personal alarm attached to his belt when he visits secure units.
"Nothing serious — but I've been slapped in the face, punched in the back and I was once chased down the corridor by a man who believed he was being spied on by pygmies." It is, he says, his hard-working nursing colleagues doing lengthy shifts on the wards who bear the brunt of any aggressive behaviour.
Taylor was born in Singapore and grew up in the south of England. He qualified as a doctor and in 1993 chose to specialise in psychiatry, before gaining exposure to forensic psychiatry on a training post. It was "the crossover between law and psychiatry" that particularly appealed to him.
One of Taylor's first cases involved a patient who suffered from chronic mental illness and had escaped from a hospital. "He went into a building society with a banana inside a bin liner and committed a robbery," but as far as the victims were concerned he had a real gun.
The first homicide case he worked on involved a young woman, Stella, who had killed her unplanned and unwanted newborn baby. It led him to think about the impact of mental illness on his own family.
"I became more curious," Taylor says, referring to a dark family secret, the details of which he slowly unravels. Sixty years ago, while his maternal aunt Georgina was in her early 20s, she married and gave birth to her first child, Louisa, a colicky baby who cried constantly.
"Georgina had delusions before she had the baby. She was very paranoid — she had these weird beliefs that people were tampering with her things."
With the arrival of Louisa, his aunt was unable to cope. One day she picked up a pillow and smothered her 5-month-old daughter. "I think it was postpartum psychosis," Taylor says.
His aunt was convicted of infanticide and, after a number of suicide attempts, she was lobotomised. The procedure, in which connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain are cut, is no longer practised.
Taylor's first memories of her date back to the 1970s, years after the incident. He recalls her at Christmases, when "other than being a little disinhibited there was never any other psychosis, so the lobotomy worked".
Georgina went on to have another daughter, Hannah, who was made a ward of the court and spent many years in and out of children's homes. Hannah suffered from depression later in life and committed suicide in her 40s.
"I felt gutted," says Taylor of the moment he heard the news. "It was early January, a bleak time of year. I was seeing a group of very damaged patients that day. They had significant histories of childhood abuse and neglect, so it was emotionally draining. I was struck by the fact that I had put so much energy into helping this group over many years, yet I hadn't seen my cousin in ages. There was this thought: if only I had taken the week off work and gone to see her in December. I missed that opportunity."
There is a sense throughout Taylor's book of a career that weighs heavily on him. Memories of victims have intruded upon precious family moments. While playing in the park with his children when they were younger, a pile of autumn leaves beneath the trees reminded him of photographs of a crime scene.
Does he ever manage to escape his work? "It can be really helpful processing this material if you can bounce it off a partner because they understand what you're dealing with," he says, pointing out that many psychiatrists have a partner in the profession. He reads Scandi noir thrillers to unwind, which doesn't seem ideal, and his musical tastes are also hardly off topic: "I didn't really get into opera until after I started forensic psychiatry," he says, "but so many operas have themes of murder and revenge."
Preoccupation with cases is an understandable hazard of the job and Taylor admits he is plagued by the worry that someone he has treated will go on to commit suicide or homicide owing to something he has missed. "It does weigh on me," he says. He puts this tendency to imagine the worst down to two unpleasant homicides he worked on early in his career, one of which involved Anthony Hardy, known as the Camden Ripper.
The police had visited Hardy's London flat in January 2002 after being called about a quarrel between him and a neighbour. On entering his flat they discovered the body of a prostitute, Sally Rose White, on his bed.
Hardy, who had previously been investigated for a series of rapes and an indecent assault, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, abnormal personality traits and alcohol abuse.
He was charged with White's murder, but a coroner ruled the likely cause of her death was a heart attack. Taylor and four others assessed Hardy over the course of the following year.
Given the post-mortem examination findings, they had to act on the basis that he had no involvement in White's death, but they did diagnose low-grade mental disorder and flag up the risk he posed to women. After some months of treatment Hardy was, unbeknown to Taylor, released from a psychiatric hospital.
Fast-forward to New Year's Eve in 2002, when body parts of another two prostitutes, Elizabeth Valad and Bridgette Maclennan, were discovered in a bin. Hardy was the prime suspect. Realisation hit that White's death was far more significant than Taylor and his colleagues had thought.
"It was just an appalling night. I probably think about it every New Year's Eve." While dredging the Grand Union Canal in Camden looking for the remaining body parts of the victims, police made another gruesome discovery — "a head, but from another case. You couldn't make it up," he says.
A public inquiry scrutinised whether Taylor and his colleagues could have prevented the subsequent two murders. While the five experts who had seen Hardy during 2002 were never named in press coverage, Taylor outs himself in the book.
Flaws in the original post-mortem examination on White subsequently emerged and the likely cause of death was amended to asphyxia. The pathologist was struck off the General Medical Council register for dishonesty, incompetence and a catalogue of errors. Taylor and his colleagues were exonerated on the basis of what they knew at the time of their assessment.
"I felt relief," he says, "but it was tinged with nagging regret about what an awful course of events had transpired."
Despite the bleak prognosis for some of his patients, Taylor has witnessed the recovery of many suffering from serious mental illness and he has been instrumental in sustaining their progress.
He says the patients who do well can end up living in supported accommodation, reach a better level of mental stability and engage in structured activities.
"Occasionally we do better than that and somebody gets to full employment and progresses to independent accommodation. There are others who develop insight, realise what has happened and engage well with treatment. Those patients are the most gratifying and some come back — they're called 'experts of experience' and will help out with other patients on the units."
What would he say to any aspiring forensic psychiatrists? "There are vacancies," he says with a smile. "You need a strong stomach — and stamina. We go to the patients, they don't come to us. You're schlepping to remote prisons in far-flung places. And you have to be able to deal with people swearing in your face and not feel threatened by it. You have to be able to absorb it." Not the greatest job advert, perhaps, but then he adds: "It's not for everyone, but it's fascinating."
The Mind of a Murderer, by Dr Richard Taylor. Available February 10, $37.99. Published by Hachette.