On 24 August 1961, I returned to the UK after several weeks hitch-hiking in Europe. Few readers will realise the significance of this date.
As a young student, not yet out of my teens, I had been delighted by the kindness of motorists who had stopped to help me on my way. Rarely did I have to wait more than a few minutes for an offer of a lift.
Arriving back at Dover I left the ferry terminal and made my way to the start of the road to London. I set down my backpack, raised my thumb and waited for the car that would take me home. To my amazement, nobody stopped. Not only was my polite request for a ride ignored but drivers were looking at me as if I was a dangerous monster. After an hour or so it was obvious that I was not going to get a lift and I ended up taking a train from Dover station. It was only when I picked up a newspaper that all became clear. Just the day before, Michael Gregston was killed, and his girlfriend Valerie Storie raped and left for dead, in what became known as the A6 Murder.
What should have been a simple murder case, solved in an hour in any of the TV police series, dragged on for 40 years. Storie, who was shot five times, survived the attack although she was left paralysed. She described their capture at gunpoint while sitting in their car by a gunman who made Gregsten drive aimlessly before stopping on the A6 at Deadman’s Hill. The police investigation soon turned up James Hanratty, a 25-year-old petty criminal with convictions for car theft, larceny and burglary.
In police line-ups, Storie eventually identified Hanratty. Her testimony was critical in securing a guilty verdict and Hanratty was sentenced to death. His appeal was dismissed on 13 March 1962, and despite a petition signed by more than 90,000 people he was hanged on 4 April, still protesting his innocence.
Hanratty’s brother fought for decades to have the verdict overturned. Many supporters felt the evidence had been too weak to justify conviction, and in 1998, a police inquiry concluded he had been wrongfully convicted; an innocent man had been executed.
However, in 2002 the case was sent to the Court of Appeal which considered a new DNA test. As a result, 40 years after his execution, the court ruled that Hanratty’s guilt had been proven beyond any possible doubt.
Any possibility of hitch-hiking regaining its past popularity was lost after the murder of Céline Figard, a French woman who accepted a lift from a lorry driver on Britain’s M4 in December 1995.
I was reminded of the A6 when watching the horrifying pictures of the devastation in Sri Lanka. A beautiful country with friendly people, a magnet for tourists from all over the world, had suddenly become a place to avoid. Government warnings flooded the internet. Our own Counter-Terrorism Bureau called for Israelis to leave the island and cancel planned trips. UK citizens were told that “Terrorists are very likely to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka. Remain vigilant, avoid crowded public areas and gatherings/demonstrations”. In just a couple of hours, heaven had become hell.
Unlike the A6 murders, there is no question as to who was behind the Sri Lanka bombing. All nine of the bombers have been identified. Well educated and from wealthy families these heartless murderers were proud of their horrific act. As we have come to expect, two local Islamist groups organized the attacks.
While hitchhiking has never regained the popularity it had in my youth, tourism to Sri Lanka will recover. Sun, sand and sea, with an exotic mix of temples and churches, will soon cloud people’s memories of a few bombs and some, mainly local, dead people. But, perhaps, in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, the world will have a little more understanding of the dangers that we Israelis face in our never-ending confrontation with Islamic terror. Perhaps, this time, Islamic extremism has gone too far, has been too extreme. Perhaps ……….