Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, page 5
Sheppard and Clarke made an odd pair. Sheppard was an unemployed 30-year-old who professed an unwavering dedication to his cause, even if that meant breaking the law. Taciturn and straightforward, he says it as he sees it. Clarke, a gardener for a London council, was younger at 25, and, as he now admits, a touch naïve. He is often given to long, involved explanations of events. The pair would not naturally be friends, but any movement needs all sorts of people.
One interpretation of Lambert’s infiltration of the ALF is that it was a superb triumph for the police. The undercover operative had been buried deep enough in the group to secure intelligence that jailed two committed campaigners in the midst of an arson spree involving a well-known department store. And Lambert did it with aplomb, displaying a cunning that cemented his reputation as one of the finest spies ever to serve in the SDS. His escapades would be recounted for years to come, burnishing his credentials as one of the most committed ‘hairies’ ever deployed in the field. There is even grudging respect from Sheppard. ‘There is part of me that does feel betrayed by Bob because I genuinely felt that we were mates,’ he says. ‘But on the other hand, now I know that he was an undercover officer doing a job of work, I suppose you have got to, in that sense, hand it to him in a way. He was very clever at what he did.’
But would an officer in Lambert’s position who did carry out a criminal act cross a line? Broadly speaking, police chiefs can authorise an undercover officer to participate in criminal acts if they can show that it would help detect or prevent a more serious crime. They are not usually permitted to be involved in the planning, instigation or execution of crime. Nowadays covert policing is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which requires advance authorisation from senior officers. But in Lambert’s time, the rules were more vague. The SDS considered the arrest of its spies, and their occasional participation in crime, a hazard of the job that could always be ironed out with a quiet word with someone senior at Special Branch.
A practice had emerged in which SDS officers who committed crimes quickly reported what they had done to a supervising officer. They were then provided with retrospective authorisations, recorded over the years in top-secret green files, known through their filing code: 588. It was not carte blanche approval to commit any crime, but it gave SDS spies licence to blur the lines when out in the field. Most of the time, the crimes they were committing involved trespass, breaches of the Public Order Act or minor acts of criminal damage.
The accusation levelled against Lambert is of a different order: that he encouraged and even participated in an arson campaign that caused millions of pounds of damage. Lambert has firmly denied that he planted the incendiary device at the Harrow store of Debenhams but takes credit for jailing Sheppard and Clarke. In a carefully worded statement, he says: ‘I was deployed as a Met Special Branch undercover officer in the 1980s to identify and prosecute members of the Animal Liberation Front who were then engaged in widespread incendiary and explosive device campaigns against vivisectors, the meat and fur trades. I succeeded in my task and that success included the arrest and imprisonment of Geoff Sheppard and Andrew Clarke.’ Denying the accusation over the arson attacks, he adds: ‘It was necessary to create the false impression that I was a committed animal rights extremist to gain intelligence so as to disrupt serious criminal conspiracies. However, I did not commit serious crime such as “planting an incendiary device at the Harrow store”.’
On one reading of the contrasting accounts, Lambert should be believed over Sheppard. It is the word of a long-serving, decorated police officer against that of a convicted animal rights campaigner with an obvious axe to grind.
Even if that is the case, there remain a host of difficult questions for Lambert and the SDS. If Lambert was involved in the arson campaign because it was deemed necessary to avert a more serious crime, who authorised his mission? Two former SDS officers say the unit would never have countenanced one of its spies taking part in sabotage of that severity as it would have been too risky and foolhardy.
And there were of course other options. Given they had advance warning of the plot against the three Debenhams stores, why did the SDS allow the arson attacks to go ahead? Why did they not intervene sooner, arresting Sheppard and Clarke as they were about to carry out their first wave of attacks?
Finally, there is the mystery of the fire in the Harrow branch of Debenhams. The luggage section of the department store was undoubtedly scorched by flames. If Lambert did not start the fire, then who did?
In the autumn of 1985, Bob Lambert was standing in a hospital holding his newborn son. Surrounded by nurses and medical equipment, he looked the archetypal proud father. His eyes were fixed adoringly on the infant he had just watched being born. But this was not one of the children he had with his wife. Lambert was in the cosy red jumper and jeans of his alter ego, Bob Robinson. In a nearby bed, recovering from the painful labour, was Charlotte, the activist he had been sent to spy on and now the mother of his child.
The birth of a first child is an unforgettable moment for any couple, and Lambert and Charlotte seemed no different. Lambert came and visited his tired girlfriend in hospital. He held her hand at her bedside as she floated off to sleep. ‘Bob was there by my side through the 14 hours of labour in the autumn of 1985 when our son was born,’ Charlotte says. ‘He seemed to be besotted with the baby. He was a great dad and I had no reason to believe that our son was not his first. I didn’t realise then that he was already married with two other children.’
Lambert was not the first SDS officer to father a child in the field. At least one other child had already been born to a member of the squad in the early 1980s. Rather than receive any reprimand for his actions, that SDS officer was later promoted to a senior post in the squad. But on the whole, fathering children was not what police spies were supposed to do. It made life exceptionally complicated.
A few days before the birth was due, Lambert announced that he needed to urgently visit his father, whom he pretended lived on the other side of the country, in Cumbria. Charlotte was devastated – she wanted the father of her child to be by her side. The birth was already a few days overdue and doctors had warned her that there was a growing risk of problems with the pregnancy. Lambert initially insisted he needed to go. Part of the SDS officer’s cover story was that his mother had died of cancer, while his father, who had dementia, was alone. It was a convenient excuse for Lambert to disappear from time to time.
Charlotte’s parents chastised Lambert, pleading with him to remain in London. But he refused to hang around. Instead, shortly before he claimed to be leaving for Cumbria, Lambert picked up Charlotte’s mother and drove her to her daughter’s flat in Hackney, so she could look after the heavily pregnant woman while he was away.
On the Sunday afternoon, Charlotte felt sufficiently well to tell her mother it was OK for her to leave her in the flat alone. Lambert was due to return that evening. After half an hour on her own, Charlotte began to suffer contractions and the pain was far worse than she had expected. She started to panic.
Lambert arrived home just in time to rush his girlfriend to hospital in his beaten-up old van. Charlotte started giving birth that night, oblivious that her boyfriend had not, as he claimed, been in Cumbria while he should have been looking after her.
Instead, Lambert had spent the weekend in Herefordshire, wearing the regular clothes of an off-duty cop and enjoying the company of his wife and kids. In the evening, Lambert had said goodbye to his family and told them he was going to work. None of them suspected anything untoward. They would never have imagined that when he said he was going to work, Lambert meant he was actually en route to a maternity ward to watch his secret child being born.
The challenge of juggling two separate family lives was just one of the dilemmas faced by Lambert, now he was the father of an activist’s child. There were some difficulties, like the tricky question of the child’
Because he and Charlotte were unmarried, they were required to sign the birth register together. The spy initially gave the impression that he wanted his son to take his surname – that of ‘Robinson’ – rather than Charlotte’s. He then evaded several attempts by Charlotte to get him to sign the form.
At the hospital, Lambert disappeared when the registrar came around. He let Charlotte down on the handful of occasions when they made appointments to visit the registrar’s office. On the last afternoon before the six-week deadline for registering the child, Charlotte stood waiting outside the office for Lambert to turn up. He never did. Charlotte registered her son under her own name but without any reference to Lambert. The section of the birth certificate used to list the name of the father was left blank.
In hindsight, Lambert’s refusal to sign the document may seem odd. But at the time it appeared in keeping with the beliefs of a radical activist who eschewed any connection to the state and refused to wed Charlotte, arguing he did not want their relationship stamped with the institution of marriage. A friend of the couple recalls: ‘Bob didn’t believe that people should own each other and have some sort of legal hold over each other.’
Charlotte had fallen pregnant with the child toward the end of 1984. It was not an unwanted pregnancy. On the contrary, Charlotte wanted the baby and she got the impression that Lambert felt the same. ‘Bob seemed excited by the news and he was caring and supportive throughout the pregnancy,’ Charlotte says. The SDS man appears to have done nothing to persuade his girlfriend to terminate the pregnancy. He was caring and supportive, by her side during hospital appointments and antenatal classes. The couple went shopping together to buy clothes, a cot and pram for their child. Lambert insisted they undertake a practice drive from Charlotte’s flat to the hospital, so they could be certain of the route.
What was Lambert thinking? He knew that his life with his son would be short-lived. At the time, he was near the start of his deployment, still trying to build his credibility as an activist. Lambert had another three years undercover ahead of him. But after that, he would be gone, likely never to set eyes on mother or child again. Charlotte, the woman he claimed to love, would be left in a life of poverty, raising their child as a single mother.
Perhaps Lambert was seduced by his undercover life and unable to think through the consequences. Maybe he thought there would be a way to straddle his two worlds long into the future, that he would find a way to retain some kind of presence in his second family’s life. A less charitable view is that Lambert calculated that having a child with an activist would cement his cover story. No one would suspect he was an undercover police officer if the mother of his child was an animal rights campaigner. The child would be his own flesh and blood. Evidence – if ever it were needed – that Bob Robinson was a real person.
Cynical as it may seem, some people who know Lambert well believe he probably had his undercover operation in mind when he decided to have the child. To penetrate groups like the Animal Liberation Front, his fake persona had to be totally believable. The child, his son, was a convenient prop.
Initially, Lambert gave every impression of being a devoted father. For a few months he betrayed no hint that he would vanish from the family’s life, doting on the boy and supporting Charlotte. He took the child with him on father and son outings and spent most of his spare time with his new young family. One photograph from the time shows Lambert and other activists building an animal sanctuary. They are in a muddy construction site, pushing wheelbarrows and carrying planks of wood. Lambert is leaning against a wall, holding his son in one arm and staring at the ground.
Lambert knew he would need to terminate his relationship with Charlotte and prepare the ground for his departure months or even years before he disappeared. In 1987, at the height of his infiltration of the Animal Liberation Front, Lambert became more distant from the mother of his child. One of the perceived strains on their relationship was lack of money. Charlotte came from an unstable background and was struggling to support herself and their newborn son. Lambert claimed never to earn much in wages from his cash-in-hand jobs doing bits gardening and cabbing. Besides, he told Charlotte that his efforts were better spent campaigning against animal cruelty.
Friends of Charlotte recall how she was initially happy to take the greater responsibility for earning money, allowing Lambert to dedicate his time to politics. After a period on benefits, she took on some part-time work, making arrangements for friends and family to look after the baby. But Charlotte could not escape the feeling that Lambert should have done more to provide for them. It was a constant source of friction. Another reason for the arguments was more intimate. Eighteen months after the birth of his son, Lambert was complaining that Charlotte was neglecting their sex life. ‘The relationship was a slow death – arguments, scenes, all the things of a breakdown of a relationship,’ says a friend of the couple.
Charlotte believes that Lambert deliberately provoked her and started wearing her down, causing arguments when there was no reason to quarrel. ‘With the benefit of hindsight I can now see how he orchestrated the breakdown of our relationship,’ Charlotte says. ‘It was a very hard time for me.’
Desperate, she would shout at the father of her son and say she was disappointed in him, that she needed him to start working to put food on the table. Friends recall how Lambert remained calm, even Zen-like, and refused to talk to her unless she calmed down. ‘That would make her even more wild, as you could never wind Bob up,’ the friend adds.
Charlotte was one of four sexual relationships Lambert had when he was undercover. A second was little more than a one-night stand, and a third lasted some months. His fourth intimate relationship was curious because it was not with an overtly political campaigner, but a woman who Lambert believed could lend his undercover identity further credibility.
Karen met Lambert at a party in Tottenham in north London in May 1987, around the time his relationship with Charlotte was falling apart. Karen was a 24-year-old who had come to the capital to find work and was intrigued by Lambert’s endearing smile. They fell easily into conversation and before long, she was smitten. Evidence of the love she felt for Lambert rolls easily off her tongue. He was, Karen says, ‘polite, considerate, very romantic, attentive, charismatic’. She recalls he smiled a lot and was non-judgmental. And he was cute. ‘I thought I had found my Mr Right. He was very charming and I thought I could take him to meet my parents,’ she says. Throughout their 18-month relationship, she was struck by one particular trait in the man she knew as Bob Robinson. ‘I thought he had a high moral code,’ she says.
Very quickly they were spending most of their free time together, attending concerts and spending long, lazy weekends at home. Karen was aware that Lambert had a young son from a previous relationship and he occasionally brought him along when he saw her. But on the whole he came across as a free spirit with a politically rebellious streak. Lambert confided in Karen that he was deeply involved in campaigning for animal rights and even admitted he was part of the ALF. Karen in contrast had little interest in political activism. ‘He was always asking me to go to meetings. He introduced me to lots of activists. I did not realise what the ALF was,’ she says. At the time Karen was working as an administrative assistant at the state-owned Central Electricity Generating Board. She kept quiet about her job as she feared Lambert’s activist friends would take against her because the CEGB was running nuclear power stations.
Karen had less idealistic hopes for the future. She wanted to develop her career and settle down to a family life, ideally with Lambert. The SDS man gave every impression that life together was a possibility.
After more than a year together, Karen felt their relationship was moving forward. She had made it clear that she wanted to start a family with Lambert and he appeared to feel the same way. He had been to see her parents three times. But when
The couple were spending most of their time together at her house in east London, which she shared with seven others. Lambert lived in what she remembers as a grotty flat above a barber’s in Graham Road, Hackney. ‘He had a single man’s room with a shared kitchen,’ she says. It was almost completely empty. ‘He claimed to be not interested in possessions,’ Karen says. It was the same line Lambert had used on Charlotte when she had visited his threadbare Highgate flat a few years earlier.
There was a time during the summer months of 1987 when Lambert was maintaining a complex web of deception involving women. He spent at least one day of the week with his wife and two children in the suburbs. The rest of the week was either spent with Karen or Charlotte, whom he was still sleeping with. Charlotte was desperate to rekindle her relationship with the father of her son. Lambert would often come around to her flat with a ‘takeaway and a bottle of wine’, a code they developed for a night of romance.
Lambert must have known he was toying with Charlotte’s emotions, giving her false hope. There was no chance of a reconciliation. He knew that Bob Robinson was soon going to have to vanish for good. His duplicity was becoming more intricate. Lambert made sure that Karen and Charlotte never met each other and told both women different stories. He told Karen that his son was the result of a brief fling with a woman who had tricked him into having a baby by claiming she was taking the contraceptive pill when she was not. Whenever he picked up his son from Charlotte, he made sure that Karen stayed in the van, parked around the corner.