43 years later: Jeremy Thorpe, the 'trial of the century' and the greatest Establishment cover-up ever
The Liberal leader was acquitted of all charges at the trial in 1979 but not without any consequences to his political career
The Jeremy Thorpe sex scandal started in 1975 when a person called Jack Hurley, the editor of the West Somerset Free Press, and told him in a fake Scottish accent that he was a person connected with the Liberal Party.
Hurley, not being fooled by the act, immediately told the man that he knew he was Jeremy Thorpe. The accent immediately stopped and Thorpe spoke to Hurley with a proper Etonian accent.
The local journalist recalled later: "The person stalled a bit, then he admitted who he was. He said he desperately wanted to keep the story out of the paper."
Further research showed that Ted Lethaby, an off-duty AA patrolman, was driving with his wife and another couple across Exmoor when they came across a man standing outside one foggy night. The man was covered in blood all over and he was clutching on to a Great Dane. The dog was dead.
The distraught man told Lethaby when he stopped the car: "My dog has been shot – and all because of a book I wrote about Jeremy Thorpe." Lethaby found out then that the devastated man with the dead dog was actually Norman Scott, Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe's gay ex-lover.
His dog Rinka had been killed by a single shot from a gun.
This was the beginning of the scandal that would ruin Thorpe's career.
Rinka the dog was shot in October 1975. The subsequent trial ended four years after it began at the Old Bailey. It made waves across the country for how scandalous the whole affair was and was called the "trial of the century" by many news outlets. The disgraced Liberal leader was aqcuitted of the charges of procuring a murder and conspiracy to murder.
Interest in the scandal was revived after the three-part BBC1 courtroom drama, A Very English Scandal, was scheduled to air in May 2018. The series stars Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Normal Scott, Thorpe's gay ex-lover. The actual story of the scandal was always there in the minds of the people in spite of Thorpe trying to cover it up. The scandal left Thorpe in the pages of history, even after he died in 2014 at the age of 85-years.
The entire incident was dubbed "Rinkagate" and it left the Westminster powerbroker in a tizzy to trying to keep the news on the down low.
Everything about it was perfect for the dark style of humour that the British are famous for but it also had its fair share of dubious details. People immediately jumped at the opportunity to report the Establishment cover-up and suspicions were high at the time that Thorpe had used friends in high places to escape the clutches of prison.
The BBC Panorama investigation that was held in 1979 alleged that the MI5 and the Met Police knew about the Liberal leader's homosexuality, which was illegal at that time.
The Corporation buried the documentary at that time and it was only aired on June 3 for the first time. Rinkagate has now come back to the public's attention after a new witness in the cold-case investigation came forward in 2016 and said that the investigation that was conducted two years ago was majorly botched by the police that were handling it.
Investigators in the Gwent police department stopped pursuing the inquiry that they started into the series of events behind the shooting of the dog after it was revealed that Andrew "Gino" Newton, the man who shot Rinka and who was actually there at the scene to kill Scott, was dead.
They were, therefore, not able to find any new evidence on the events from the crime. This was until media outlets found out that Newton was alive and well in Surrey living under the false name of Hann Redwin. Unfortunately for the police, however, Newton booked it from the area the moment news reports came out that he was still alive.
Newton being alive made international news after a London antique gun dealer, Dennis Meighan, came forward with a claim that he had been promised £140,000 (in today's currency) to kill Scott. It is believed that Thorpe was supposed to take the money out of Liberal Party funds. It has been alleged that the offer was made while at a meeting in west London between Meighan and David Holmes, one of Thorpe's closest friends and an assisstant treasurer of the Party. Meighan had taken along Newton, a friend of his who was also a professional pilot. It is believed that Newton was chosen for the job by Meighan.
The antique gun dealer claimed that he had initially travelled to Devon to kill Scott himself but then he didn't go through with it because he was afraid that the locals at the pub where Scott was staying would remember who he was because of his London accent. According to Meighan, he went back to London and gave the Mauser pistol that he was carrying for the assassination, to Newton.
Newton was allegedly quite angry that he had to be the one to kill Scott but he accepted it and went on to befriend his intended victim.
He told Scott that he was sent to Devon to protect him from people in the government who wanted to make sure he was dead. The pilot took Scott and Rinka across Exmoor and decided that the lonely country road was the best for him to use the opportunity. Newton stopped the car and when Scott came to the driver's side with the dog, he shot the dog first because he was afraid of her. According to Scott, Newton then turned the pistol on him but the gun jammed and wouldn't fire. The scared pilot then fled the scene in the car and left a devastated Scott on the side of the road, who was later found by Lethaby.
Newton was caught and put behind bars for two years after being convicted of possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life. He was spared the charge of attempted murder. At Thorpe's trial in 1979, Newton came forward and gave evidence.
Former Panorama reporter, Tom Mangold wrote in the Sunday Times on June 3 about how he had "bumped" into Meighan when he was out walking his dog in 2014 at a park in west London.
Meighan apparently knew who Mangold was and told him the story of how he became involved in the shooting conspiracy. He told Mangold about how he had initially confessed to being involved in the crime but he later had a meeting with three unidentified cops and then everything changed. According to the story Meighan told Mangold, the three police officers gave him a highly redacted statement that would exonerate him of being involved. The statement also did not mention Thorpe at all. Mangold has no doubts that Thorpe was saved from any controversy, even if it was just for a little while.
Mangold's BBC Panorama documentary has revealed that the MI5 had "copious files" on the former Liberal leader. The documentary also reveals that the Met Police also had more files on Thorpe which were all kept under lock and key in a senior police officer's private safe.
The now-78-year-old Scott currently lives in the West Country. He has been openly critical of the Gwent police's failure to open an inquiry into the cold case and says that they did not do anything to find out about the complete story behind the attempted murder. Scott now claims that he wasn't just exploited by Thorpe but was raped by him.
The ageing homosexual described himself as being naive and also a virgin when he met the stylish and charismatic party leader in 1960. He said: "Jeremy Thorpe raped me and put his hand over my mouth. I was a virgin. I’d had girlfriends, I didn’t know what gay sex was. Jeremy Thorpe took advantage of me in every way a human being could. I was bowled over by his generosity. I didn’t know then he was grooming me."
Till the day that Thorpe died in 2014 he stood by the statement that he and Scott were just friends and that there was nothing physical between them. The disgraced Liberal leader had married twice in his lifetime. Scott tried many times to tell the people around him that Thorpe had used him but his claims were not taken seriously. This was probably because the people he was telling his side of the story were either not interested in him being a victim or that they were all told to take no notice of his claims.
Thorpe, along with three of his alleged accomplices, were taken to trial soon after the incident and he was seemingly confident about it which was odd. He had resigned before as the Liberal leader and had lost his seat in the 1979 general election. Thorpe still believed that after the case he would have some form of political rehabilitation. The former leader was helped in the trial by George Carman, defense counsul and contemporary of his at Oxford, and Justice Cantley, who is believed to be the most biased judge in English legal history.
Justice Cantley addressed the jury at the high-profile trial saying: "I now turn to the evidence of Mr Norman Scott. You will remember him well. A hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy. He is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite."
It wasn't much of a surprise to anyone then that Thorpe and his co-defendants would be acquitted of all the charges. Unfortunately for Thorpe, however, the political rehabilitation that he was looking forward to never happened. The leadership of the Liberal Party had decided to cut all ties with Thorpe after he resigned as its leader and he was considered an embarrassment to the party.
Scott has said that he will not forgive or forget what Thorpe did to him. He is currently living off a small state pension and he still blames Thorpe for the life he has had to lead after the scandal.
He said: "Thorpe may have died but even now, from beyond the grave, he’s still trying to own a part of my life. After Exmoor, I wasn’t sure I’d survive, much less thrive, but I have. Jeremy Thorpe took my twenties and thirties away from me and tried to take my life. I won’t let him take any more. If the papers ever say, 'Norman Scott has killed himself', it’ll be a lie. I wouldn’t, and I won’t."
At the end of the day and more than 40 years since the night that Rinka was killed, there is some hope that the full story of the cover-up will somehow break free of the cloak it was hidden under.