Detective who busted John and Yoko lifts the lid on corrupt 1960s policing

Duncan Campbell
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

He was the detective who busted John Lennon, George Harrison and Dusty Springfield, the officer who was told by an Old Bailey judge that he had “poisoned the wells of British justice”, and the man Lennon supposedly had in mind when he wrote I Am the Walrus. Now, at the age of 84, Norman “Nobby” Pilcher has written his memoir, Bent Coppers.

Pilcher was famous in the 1960s. He felt the velvet collars of the era’s best-known rock stars and was responsible for some of its highest-profile arrests. But the squad he worked for was riddled with corruption and Pilcher himself ended up behind bars for four years for perjury. His memoir seeks to “set the record straight” and in it he claims that he himself, like so many of the drug squad’s targets at the time, was the victim of a stitch-up.

Pilcher joined the Met in 1956, after a spell in the military police, because he wanted to “do something sincerely useful”. But he soon found that “the squeaky clean officer was never able to remain dirt-free if he wanted to investigate crime … London and the Met were rotten and if you needed to walk through muck you’d need to be prepared to get your clothes dirty”.

Pilcher suggests that the Home Office was anxious that there be as many high-profile arrests as possible to deter young people from drugs. So, after tip-offs from informers, the homes of composer Lionel Bart and the singer Dusty Springfield were raided. He ignored “the foul language and insults” from Springfield and she eventually pleaded guilty and was fined.

“The Home Office were breathing down our necks to move on more of the big names,” he recalls. In 1967 Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was a target, and in 1968 Tubby Hayes, the brilliant saxophonist and an addict, was arrested for heroin possession. On 18 October 1968, wearing a postman’s hat as a disguise, Pilcher led the squad as they crashed into the Marylebone flat of John Lennon and Yoko Ono and discovered that “they were stark naked!”

He was impressed by Lennon: “His ideas of peace and kindness were expressed in his demeanour and attitude, which was quite humbling indeed.” Later he received postcards from the Beatle in Japan with the greeting: “You can’t get me now!”

Brian Jones and Prince Stanislas Klossowski De Rola, a.k.a. &#x00201c;Stash&#x00201d;, arrive by car at West London Magistrates Court, where they are appeared on drug possession charges on 11 May 1967.
Brian Jones and Prince Stanislas Klossowski De Rola, a.k.a. “Stash”, arrive by car at West London Magistrates Court, where they appeared on drug possession charges, 11 May 1967. Photograph: Ted West/Getty Images

George Harrison and Pattie Boyd were next on the list, with small quantities of cannabis being found in their Esher home. Nor did Pilcher and his team limit themselves to British musicians. The late Levi Stubbs of the US band the Four Tops was arrested at the Mayfair Hotel, amid much media fanfare.

By now the policeman was known as “Groupie Pilcher”, as he often appeared in photos of the arrests alongside the famous suspects – the result of some corrupt colleagues leaking the arrests to the press for cash, he says.

At this time Robert Mark, the commissioner of the Met who pledged to “arrest more criminals than he employed”, became determined to clean up the Yard. Pilcher blames this drive – and also the Freemasons to whom he did not belong – for his subsequent disgrace.

He finally came unstuck because, in the course of a major drugs trafficking investigation, he fabricated entries in his police diary – which, he says, was standard practice and something his bosses had encouraged him to do. In 1973, after a lengthy Old Bailey trial, he was convicted of perjury and jailed for four years.

The hardline judge, Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, said as he sentenced him: “You poisoned the wells of criminal justice and set about it deliberately … not the least grave aspect of what you have done is provide material for the crooks, cranks and do-gooders who unite to attack the police whenever the opportunity arises.”

Pilcher seems to have quite enjoyed his time behind bars, mainly at Ford open prison in West Sussex, where his sentence included a game of cricket at Arundel Castle and football in a local league. He emerged to find work running a driving school and a care home and now lives in Tonbridge in Kent.

Why write Bent Coppers, published by Clink Street, now? “To set the record straight and let the public know about the corruption within the police service,” he said in a phone interview. “I never felt bitter at the time but now I’m really very bitter.”

There were many false stories about him, he said, that he wanted to correct. He did not arrest “a person named Donovan”, despite legend to the contrary, nor did he try to nick Eric Clapton in Chelsea, as the latter has suggested. He denies planting evidence, as was a common drug squad practice, or allowing dealers to operate freely if they informed on a sufficient number of their rivals. “If they were at it, we felt their collars,” he said.

Police mugshots of Mick Jagger in 1967
Police mugshots of Mick Jagger in 1967 after being arrested on drugs charges when Keith Richards’ home was raided. Photograph: Kypros/REX/Shutterstock

He does accept, however, that when Lennon wrote I Am the Walrus in August 1967 with a reference to semolina pilchard he may well have had him in mind, and is now happy to be known as the Walrus.

The dirty dealings of the Met’s drug squads were a major factor in the formation in 1967 of the renowned drugs advice charity Release by Caroline Coon and the late Rufus Harris. Pilcher expresses a “high regard” for Coon in his book. The feeling is far from mutual.

“At first I had a hollow laugh about his disingenuous ‘high regard’ for me,” she said last week. “Then, I remembered the devastating misery his corruption caused. He served time in prison, yes, but I won’t forgive him for all the rest he did that he didn’t serve time for.”

As for those drugs laws, the man who carried out some of Britain’s most high-profile arrests now believes, like a growing number of former police officers, that “we should legalise drugs and bring them above ground … You’ve only got to look at prohibition and what that led to”.