“Police! Open this door!”
THE CRIME: Gunther Fritz Podola was born on 8 February 1929 in the Templehof area of Berlin, Germany. His father died on the Russian Front during the Second World War and Podola was an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. Podola, a career criminal specializing in burglary and blackmail, was to find infamy as the only accused person in Britain to claim amnesia as a defence against a capital offence and the last person to be hanged in the UK for the murder of a policeman. On 21 May 1959, having been deported from Canada where he had been convicted of theft and burglary, he landed in England. He changed his name to Mike Colato because he thought it sounded like he was in the Mafia.
On 3 July 1959 he burgled the South Kensington flat of American model Verne Schiffman, stealing jewellery and furs worth £2,000. Hoping to increase his haul he tried to blackmail his victim by claiming to have embarrassing photos and tape recordings of her. Knowing she had nothing to hide she reported the phone call to the police who tapped her line and when Podola rang again on 13 July, they were able to trace the call to a public phone box inside South Kensington Underground Station. Two unarmed Detective Sergeants, John Sandford and Raymond Purdy, moved in and arrested him but moments later Podola twisted free and ran off.
Chased, he was cornered in the hallway of a block of flats at 105 Onslow Square. While Sandford went to fetch the caretaker, Podola sat on a window ledge and suddenly produced a 9mm FB Radom V15 pistol. He shot DS Raymond Purdy, 43, through the heart and again escaped. When Purdy’s belongings were returned to his widow she discovered Podola’s address book which Purdy had taken when arresting Podola. This pointed the police towards the Claremont House Hotel, 95 Queens Gate, Kensington where Podola was staying in room 15. On 16 July armed police assembled outside the room and shouted, “Police! Open this door!” Hearing a click like the cocking of a gun, Sergeant Chambers charged the door and Podola, who was probably listening at the door, was floored, landing with his head in the fireplace. Despite this he continued struggling until he suddenly collapsed unconscious. He was hospitalized for four days as a result and claimed to have lost his memory of all events up to 17 July.
105 Onslow Square, London, England
Monday 13 July 1959
He was tried at the Old Bailey on 19 July 1959 and even though it was proved that he had shot Purdy, if he genuinely couldn’t recall doing so and was not mentally fit to stand trial, he would have had to have been acquitted. The jury rejected his defence of memory loss after 35 minutes’ deliberation. Mr Justice Edmund Davies sentenced Podola to death. Podola’s lawyer, Frederick Lawton, thought there were no grounds for appeal but the Home Secretary made legal history by sending the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal under section 19(a) of the Criminal Appeal Act 1907 as if it had been referred by the defence. On 15 October 1959 The Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed the appeal and on 2 November the Home Secretary insisted that the law should take its course.
Harry Allen hanged Podola at 9.45am on 5 November 1959, the last person to be hanged for the murder of a policeman in Britain. Later that day, Podola was buried in the prison graveyard (grave 59). DS Purdy’s widow, with three children to support, received an annual pension of £546.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Between 1900 and 1975, 33 men serving with London’s Metropolitan Police were murdered on duty.