Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police Mike Veale
Wearing a freshly pressed shirt and what appeared to be a light dusting of make-up, police chief Mike Veale decided to use the power of the internet to combat criticism of his high-profile investigation into alleged sex crimes by Sir Edward Heath.
It was December 2 last year, and Wiltshire’s top copper was facing widespread public ridicule over reports that several key witnesses in his controversial £1.4 million inquiry, Operation Conifer, were discredited fantasists.
Some, a newspaper had just claimed, were oddballs propagating an obviously fake conspiracy theory that the former PM belonged to a paedophile network behind satanic orgies at which small children were stabbed to death in rural churches.
Former British Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, who died July 2005, sits on the platform during the Foreign Affairs debate at the Conservative Party Conference
Other ‘star’ witnesses reportedly included ‘Nick’, a notorious Walter Mitty figure whose false claims about a VIP sex ring in Westminster had been comprehensively demolished in an official review.
The suggestion that Wiltshire police were still paying serious attention to such dubious individuals during an inquiry of major national significance had placed Veale’s career and credibility on the line.
So he decided to strike back, instructing his force’s PR department to bring video cameras to his office to record an ‘open letter’ reassuring the public about Operation Conifer, then post it to YouTube.
The video, which remains online, began with Veale saying he wanted to ‘set the record straight’ about Heath and ‘ensure that the current facts are entirely and unequivocally clear about this case’.
In particular, the £150,000-a-year police chief wanted to address two highly important matters.
Mike Veale, chief constable of Wiltshire Police, speaks to the media about Operation Conifer. The former Conservative prime minister Sir Edward Heath would be questioned over allegations that he raped and indecently assaulted boys as young as 10 were he alive today, the controversial police report has said
‘Fact!’ he said. ‘As part of Operation Conifer we have not spoken to the witness known as Nick.’
‘Fact!’ he continued. ‘Recent media coverage… referred to satanic ritual sexual abuse. Let me be clear: this part of the investigation is only one small element of the overall inquiry and does not relate to Sir Edward Heath.’
The 51-year-old Chief Constable of Wiltshire was, in other words, using a formal PR statement to declare that two major aspects of embarrassing recent newspaper reports about Operation Conifer were entirely false.
His detectives had neither spoken to the discredited ‘Nick’, he was claiming, nor had they heard any evidence to suggest Heath, who died in 2005 aged 89, was involved with a satanic paedophile ring.
All of which sounds fair enough — were it not for one crucial point: Veale was wrong.
For, ten months on, I can reveal that his comment about ‘Nick’ was highly misleading, while denying that Operation Conifer was looking at allegations of satanism by Sir Edward was simply untrue.
In fact, in the past two years Wiltshire police have devoted significant resources to pursuing the case of ‘Nick’, reviewing a number of statements made by him to other forces.
What’s more, officers working on Operation Conifer have taken evidence from half a dozen ‘victims’ who claim they were abused by a satanic sex cult that involved the former PM.
Veale sheepishly admitted this last week, when he published a 109-page report outlining the findings of Operation Conifer.
Sir Edward Heath at the helm of his new racing yacht Morning Cloud after the launching ceremony at Gosport, Hampshire
On page 59, it clearly states: ‘During the course of the investigation, six victims made disclosures that included allegations that Sir Edward Heath was involved in satanic or ritual abuse.’ At least three of them had spoken to Operation Conifer by the time Veale popped up on YouTube.
In other words, Veale’s own official report indicates that his previous claims about satanism were completely untrue.
Which poses a crucial question: why did Mike Veale, the chief constable behind one of the most high-profile police investigations in British history, seek to solve a PR crisis by issuing a statement so transparently inaccurate?
It is impossible to be sure, as Wiltshire Police say they will ‘not be making further comment’.
So we are left to speculate. Did Veale deliberately say something untrue (making him a liar)? Or did he make the false claim by accident (making him incompetent)? Or is there some other explanation?
‘Either the man is a fool or he’s a knave,’ is the view of Sir Edward’s godson Lincoln Seligman. ‘It’s also possible that he started off this inquiry as a fool but became a knave during the course of it.’
Yet this bizarre affair sums up all you need to know about Operation Conifer, now regarded as one of the most farcical major criminal inquiries in modern policing.
Critics will also say it sheds light on a culture of police incompetence and misguided political correctness that has led to the persecution of blameless public figures falsely accused of historic sex crimes.
Conifer stretches back to late 2015, when Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson and a now-defunct website called Exaro were spreading confected hysteria about an alleged VIP paedophile ring involving dead or elderly public figures such as former Tory MPs Harvey Proctor and Leon Brittan.
Their chief source for this bile was ‘Nick’, who, among many spurious claims, alleged he was repeatedly sexually abused as a child by Sir Edward Heath.
Some incidents supposedly took place on Sir Edward’s yacht Morning Cloud in the Seventies or Eighties; others at an address in London, where ‘Nick’ claimed Proctor once tried to maim his genitals with a penknife during an orgy, only to be prevented by Sir Edward.
There was, as we now know, no wider evidence to support his outlandish claims. But now those claims were winging around the internet, in 2015 Wiltshire Police began to receive other wild allegations about Heath.
In July that year, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was approached by a retired officer who alleged that the trial of a Salisbury brothel owner called Myra Ling Ling Forde had been scrapped in 1994 after she threatened to name the former PM as a client who used rent boys.
For Veale, a West Country boy who had joined his local force at 16, this series of events offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance for his obscure force to spearhead a major inquiry.
Conifer was duly launched with a press conference outside Sir Edward’s old home in Salisbury at which officers appealed for his ‘victims’ to come forward, saying they ‘would be believed’.
Critics said this language turned one of the pillars of British justice — the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty — on its head, and wondered at the wisdom of investigating ‘crimes’ by a man who could neither be charged nor defend himself.
But no matter: in the weeks that followed, an astonishing total of 118 people emerged to raise abuse claims about the former PM.
Margaret Thatcher pictured at the 1971 Conservative Party Conference, with the then leader of the party, Edward Heath
There was one problem: Veale’s team of investigators (which would eventually number more than 20) soon realised the vast majority of their tales were fantasies. Indeed, after chucking out the most blatantly spurious reports, they were left with 40 claims that they felt warranted investigation.
Then came further setbacks.
First, Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into the allegations by ‘Nick’, collapsed in the spring of 2016.
The still-anonymous man, who claimed abuse and murder had been carried out by a string of VIPs, many of whom had their homes raided and incurred significant legal costs, is now being investigated himself for perverting the course of justice.
Then the IPCC ruled there was no evidence to support the original claim about brothel-owner Forde that had led to Conifer being launched in the first place.
Most police chiefs would surely have scrapped the investigation. But Veale, the only applicant for the job when he was made chief constable, ploughed on.
Some blame this on inexperience: Wiltshire is one of Britain’s smallest forces, where senior officers have little or no experience of high-profile investigations under a political spotlight.
‘The problem with a force that size is that if you are chief constable, you might struggle to find something meaningful to do in the afternoon,’ is how one retired chief constable puts it.
Another police source says: ‘Veale is a “provincial carrot cruncher”. Nothing wrong with that, but when you take coppers whose priorities are usually stopping speeding motorists on the A303 and put them in charge of a complex, politically charged criminal investigation, don’t be surprised if it turns into a shambles.’
Some even believe Veale, who is married with a teenage son, began to believe the conspiracy theories spread by discredited ‘victims’.
Only this week, he gave an interview referring to a ‘state cover-up’ of abuse by politicians, civil servants and the security services. Last month, it emerged that he had been in personal email contact with Robert Green, a self-styled ‘campaigner’ who has been jailed for harassing people he falsely accused of paedophilia.
Among the outlandish lines of inquiry Operation Conifer officers decided to pursue last summer were suggestions that Heath — who spent most of his later years in the almost constant company of close protection officers — was in a satanic paedophile ring.
Documents and other material obtained by the Mail show that the ‘victims’ making this extraordinary claim included three women who had originally approached Wiltshire police with tall tales of satanism in the late Eighties.
Back then, they claimed they had occultist parents who regularly raped and murdered children, including babies, in ceremonies in candlelit churches and remote woodland clearings — allegations dismissed at the time for lack of corroborating evidence.
But the three women did not allege Heath was one of their abusers when they originally came forward in 1989. It wasn’t until after the appeal for ‘victims’ made by Operation Conifer more than 25 years later that they claimed the former PM was involved.
Speaking to Veale’s officers, one of the trio declared she could picture Heath with his top off and his ‘turkey neck’ exposed, laughing as he abused her.
On another occasion, she claimed she had seen him in a candle-lit hut where satanic symbols had been drawn on the floor and wall-hangings. She said adults at the paedophile orgy wore masks while their victims had to go barefoot.
Another of the women claimed Heath was known to members of the satanic paedophile ring as ‘Teddy’ and had been accompanied at its events by uniformed security men.
In further police interviews, the women spoke of witnessing babies being murdered, youngsters being drugged and forced to drink blood, and bizarre rituals involving chanting, gang rape and small children being disembowelled.
Often, they claimed, these events — some of which Heath, a public figure, was supposed to have attended — took place in broad daylight in the countryside.
There was no real evidence to back up these claims. For example, no children had been reported missing in the places where the women claimed the ritualised sacrifices had taken place.
Sir Edward Heath, former Conservative leader with his piano at his home Arundells in Cathedral Close, Salisbury, Wiltshire
But rather than dismiss the women’s allegations out of hand (as their predecessors had in the Eighties), Veale’s team decided to have them reviewed by an expert called Dr Richard Hoskins.
Dr Hoskins, a criminologist accredited by the National Crime Agency to give expert evidence at trials, was also asked to read multiple transcripts of interviews with ‘Nick’ which officers on other forces had carried out, and advise Veale’s staff on whether they ought to be taken seriously.
He produced a 157-page report. It explained in great detail why the women’s claims were likely to be false, pointing out that their allegations were full of contradictions, vague about important specifics but full of lurid detail, and backed up by absolutely no corroborating evidence.
What’s more, Hoskins said, many of their recollections of being abused appeared to have originally surfaced thanks to controversial psychotherapists who use hypnosis to help clients unlock what they believe are memories of childhood trauma.
Some events they claimed to have witnessed also seemed to have uncomfortable parallels with the plots of bestselling books.
His report concluded that their ‘so-called retrieved memories seem to me mostly likely to fit False Memory Recall’, a condition where the brain creates memories of events that never happened.
It was also highly critical of the website Exaro and Tom Watson for their role in bringing the allegations of Nick, which he also believed were clearly false, into the public domain.
All of which, again, ought to have raised serious questions about the future of Operation Conifer.
But instead of reconsidering in the light of the Hoskins report, Veale once more ploughed on.
Having issued his PR statement that falsely denied they had investigated satanic sex claims against Sir Edward, his team set about investigating claims by the remaining 40 complainants.
By the time Conifer was published ten months later, all but seven had been dismissed — and these seven all seem dubious.
None appears to have provided corroborating evidence that they were abused. At least one is a convicted criminal. And most of their stories are flawed.
One, for example, claims he was abused as a teenager in Heath’s garden between 1990 and 1992. Yet the garden was protected around the clock by police and monitored by an extensive CCTV system. Another says Heath abused him in his Mayfair flat in 1961, claiming the property was filled with yachting gear, In fact, Heath didn’t take up the sport until 1963.
The report, meanwhile, is loaded with cant and obfuscation, automatically describing anyone who made any claim whatsoever about Sir Edward as a ‘victim’.
People whose claims are shown to be false have been re-categorised not as fantasists or liars seeking compensation (as at least two ‘victims’ already have) but as ‘people who have reported alleged abuse by Sir Edward’.
Amid such platitudes, the report shows Veale’s team has ploughed through £1.4 million of public money (at a time when crime in Wiltshire is rising by 10 per cent a year and violent crime by 19 per cent), spending £34,542 on air tickets and car hire, and £556 on books about the former PM.
Astonishingly, £2,000 was spent hiring a psychologist called Elly Hanson, a specialist in a condition associated with satanic sexual abuse, to offer advice about two complainants. Ms Hanson is also a member of the independent panel that oversaw Operation Conifer (although she denies the payment affected her independence).
For all this spending, Veale had a surprisingly loose grip on major details of his investigation.
Asked at the press conference that launched the report whether any complainants in the seven remaining cases were convicted criminals, he replied: ‘I don’t know.’ It emerged hours later that one is actually a jailed paedophile.
But perhaps no one should have been surprised. For this is one ‘top cop’ whose public pronouncements deserve to be taken with a pinch of salt.