Killing to be cool – the case of Elsey and Petrolini

The Observer magazine, December 4 1994

Jamie Petrolini sits alone in his prison cell. Last year, he was a schoolboy cramming for his A levels at a sixth form college in Oxford, striding around in baggy purple jeans and a big white tee-shirt with No Fear scrawled across the front. Now, he is a notorious killer, aged 19, serving life for murder in a young offenders institution outside Doncaster.

His trial was spectacular. In front of a packed courtroom and an avid press, his life blew up in hundreds of colourful fragments: the SAS fantasies he had shared with his friend, Richard Elsey; his stable background at Gordonstoun public school; his unstable behaviour in Oxford, posing as a CID man, playing war games in the dark, climbing cranes in the middle of the night, obsessively listing techniques of murder; and finally, the dark night in January when he and Richard picked a man at random in the middle of London and stabbed him in the throat and chest until he died.

Now, Jamie Petrolini has decided to explain himself. In a series of unique conversations and letters, he has uncovered the secret world in which he lived with his friend and he has wrestled with his own decision to murder. He has looked into the past, to his childhood and his time at Gordonstoun, in search of an explanation for his extraordinary slide into violent crime, and he has looked into the future, to the many years he is now due to spend behind bars.

Some of what he says is naive and self-serving, the voice of an adolescent in deep trouble, desperately casting around for an escape. Some of it catches that same weird mixture of nightmare and silliness that so coloured the trial: Jamie thrusting a commando knife into the windpipe of a total stranger, then heading off home in the back of a coach, quietly opening his birthday cards; Richard catching up with his friend on a prison bus for the first time after they were charged with murder and whispering wide-eyed that it looked as though they were going to be the new Kray Twins. It is a portrait of the schoolboy as a killer.

It is also something rather deeper and more alarming, although Petrolini would not agree. His own line on himself now is that he was utterly under the spell of his friend, Richard Elsey, and that he played his crazy games and finally killed a man, without understanding or even knowing what he was doing. “I was an automaton,” he says. “Richard Elsey was the murderer and I was just the knife.”

His own view of himself has nothing to do with being a convicted killer. “I am a chilled-out, mellow, friendly kid. OK? I’m into Indian music. I like things like The Levelers, Nirvana, Radio Head, stuff like that. I’m well into sports. I’m a bit of a Cat in the Hat. If you want a picture, get a drawing of a really cool teenager with hearts and peace and love and empathy all around the edge, because that is me.” And to make the point still clearer, he produces just such a drawing himself.

He returns to this theme almost obsessively and he’s not lying when he says he is friendly and peaceful, but he’s not telling the truth either. The whole truth is even odder and, perhaps, more revealing. For Petrolini and Elsey are unlike almost any other killers in the legends of crime. They are an exception among rarities and, as Jamie Petrolini’s strange account confirms, they are peculiarly killers for the 1990s.

After their conviction, on November 8, they were widely described as psycopaths. Most commonly, in a tip of the hat to Oliver Stone’s new film, they were dubbed Natural Born Killers. This was wrong. They are unusual precisely because they are not killers by nature. Psychiatrists examined both of them and found no sign of psycopathy at all. One of them did think that there might be the first signs of schizophrenia in Jamie Petrolini, but the others disputed even that much. Neither of them has any history of violence.

Still, the choice of the ‘natural born’ label had another, accidental significance which is much closer to the truth. The newspapers who were baffled by the behaviour of these two stable middle-class boys reached for a little Hollywood chic to bridge the gap in their understanding. That reflex – to fill a hole in the real world with a bung of fashionable fiction – is precisely what happened to the two boys. Jamie Petrolini and Richard Elsey are the first examples of what you might call lifestyle psycopaths. They were not made that way, or forced that way; they chose to pretend to be that way, because of what they picked up from books and films and from the society around them.

You can search the history of murder all the way back to Cane and Abel without finding this kind of crime of fashion. For slightly different reasons, as Petrolini explains, they grew up devoid of direction, largely because they had failed in a society which insists that its children succeed. They were bereft of value, just drifting. That, in itself, may be one way in which they reflect their era. Then they picked up an image just like they might have picked up a new video, an off-the-shelf personality. And the choice of image is crucial.

If they had gone through this process in Oxford, say, in the 1930s, they would probably have joined the Communist Party and headed for the Spanish Civil War. In the 1960s, they would have smoked dope and danced to the Global Village Trucking Company. In the 1990s, they found no socialism, no global revolt by young people, no reason for hope or excitement at all really. So they selected an image for themselves which was utterly indifferent to the world around them.

They chose to make themselves emotionless, to regard all human beings including themselves as mere objects, to reinvent life as a series of tasks to be performed with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss, to reinvent death as a minor irritant to be shrugged away with a curse from the corner of the mouth whether it was their own death or someone else’s. They were a couple of karaoke kids, strutting and posing and mouthing someone else’s lines. And these lines were best-sellers.

They didn’t invent them. They bought them: from the tabloids, who have been marketing ‘SAS-style’ heroes ever since the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980; from scraps of film where men are machines and all the better for it; and, particularly, from a book called Bravo Two Zero, the story of just such an SAS hero in Iraq, which happens to have been the best-selling book in Britain at the time of their crime.

They arrived at this state of emptiness by slightly different routes. From prison, Jamie Petrolini looks back and sees trouble springing from his childhood in the tiny hamlet of Cromdale in the rugged Spey valley of north east Scotland. “I grew up from zero to thirteen – just because of the location of where I lived – with nearly no contact with other human beings. Now for normal people – I mean, for the average person – that would be really bad, but, for me, it was just really bad luck, because the type of personality that I had developed is really, really friendly. And I took it a lot worse.”

Those who know his family confirm that he was a lonely little boy. Without brothers or sisters, his most constant company was his collie, Jake. His parents, Wanda and Johnny, on whom he dotes, had migrated separately, from Poland and from Italy, and were both working long hours in their restaurant business. By the time he went to Gordonstoun, at the age of 13, he had lost the knack of making the friends he craved. “I was a country lad and I didn’t understand the boarding school thing about stiff upper lip, showing no emotion, and I took that as personal.”

He says he became completely isolated at school, out of his depth with the children of the truly rich, whom he found pretentious; clumsy with the other boys, who started to tease him. They did nothing barbaric, but he says they demoralised him, by kicking on his study door when he was trying to work or all going off together without telling him. He says that in all his years at Gordonstoun, he cannot remember ever having anyone to share a cup of coffee with.

Another child might have turned rebellious and taken to chain-smoking behind the bike sheds. Petrolini went the other way and attempted to beat the boys he could not join by being better than them. At 14, he approached the Royal Marines and told them he wanted to be an officer when he grew up. He threw himself into sports. He took up judo and became captain of the school team. He tried skiing and made it to the fringes of the Scottish national team. He climbed, ran, swam, took up karate, canooing and parachuting. And he tackled his class work with furious devotion. If he had succeeded, if he had scored three mighty A levels and a scholarship to university, he might have left his problems behind him, but he was not that bright.

He began to struggle. One of his teachers recalled how he invested hours in a project which she set, staying behind after class to research it, and then finally produced nothing but blank paper. He says he caught himself having several romantic fantasies about other boys and, although now he puts it down to mere loneliness, at the time, he started to worry about it. His work got worse. When he should have been writing essays, he stared at the wall of his study and kept ending up, as he puts it, ‘at the bottom of the barrel’. In his final term, he ploughed his A levels. His chances of going to university on an army scholarship blew up in his face. The boy who had pinned all his hopes on success, had failed.

Five hundred miles away, in Beaconsfield, Richard Elsey was traveling a parallel path – the only child of middle class parents, his father a business executive, his mother a migrant from Iran. He, too, was slightly isolated, not so much by geography as by his understated manner. He glided through prep school, playing with Ninja turtles, and then Merchant Taylor’s public school, leaving almost no trace, neither particularly obedient nor particularly rebellious, not brilliant but not stupid either. It was a mild, mediocre little life, with evenings at the Church youth club.

When he was 16, his parents moved him to Dr Challoner’s grammar school in Amersham. Like Petrolini, he wanted to succeed and was expected to do so, but he started to fail in his school work. While Petrolini reacted by burrowing deeper into conformity, Richard Elsey started to drift quietly to the edges. He took up smoking, he began to pose around in the smart blue uniform of the school cadet corps. And he tried his hand at dishonesty. When his friend, Peter, left his wallet lying around one evening, he pocketed it and then pretended to look for it with everyone else. And while Petrolini tried and failed to pass his exams, Richard Elsey hardly tried at all, and also failed.

By the time that the two of them arrived in Oxford in September last year to re-sit their A levels at Modes sixth-form college, they were both worried about their future. Jamie Petrolini was still full of great ideals about joining the marines, not to fight, but to find comrades and to protect democracy. Richard Elsey was more selfish, looking for fun and admiration. But neither of them was going anywhere near any of their dreams, not without A levels. And both of them were now blighted by failure. Still, that was all. They were not killers. Neither of them had ever shown the slightest inclination to violence. They were certainly not psycopaths.

You can see the gap most clearly if you compare their teenage troubles with the kind of nightmares which twisted the lives of real psycopaths: Charles Manson, whose mother was a teenaged prostitute, who was pregnant with him at 15 and then abandoned him a few weeks after his birth when she was sent to jail; or Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf serial killer, who watched his father rape his mother, was seduced by his sister and introduced to bestiality by the local dog-catcher; or Ian Brady, abandoned by his father and then by his mother; or Joseph Kallinger, who was sexually abused by both his parents who then told him they had castrated him to protect him from sin. Petrolini and Elsey, by contrast, were just a couple of lost boys, looking for a future in a world which didn’t seem to offer them one.

Elsey found it first – on the shelves of John Menzies. And it was not murder that he bought; that just turned out to be part of the package. What he bought was a lifestyle, an image, designed to escape from failure, supplied in its purest, clearest form inside the covers of ‘Brave Two Zero, the true story of an SAS patrol behind enemy lines in Iraq’ by Andy McNab.

Elsey discovered a private world with its own private language. There’s SOP for the standard operating procedures, and VCP for Vehicle Check Point, E and E for escape and evasion and then there are remfs (rear echelon mother fuckers) for despising. Officers are ‘ruperts’, Arabs are ‘rag heads’. Half the people have lost their real names; it’s all ‘Geordie’ or ‘Legs’ or ‘Dinger’. There’s no headquarters; it’s the Head Shed. You’re never tired; you’re always on ‘on your chinstrap’. You don’t march; you ‘tab’. You don’t get beaten up; you get ‘filled in’. And you never kill – you slot the little rag heads if they get in your way.

Elsey soaked it up and passed it on to his new friend, not as the contents of a book but as his own first-hand experience, reinforced by signals from endless films and news stories. Within weeks of the beginning of the first term, they were both inside this private world, and they found there was a kind of magic in there. If you have the outlook of an SAS hero, you can do anything. Your body is a machine, well-tuned and perfectly balanced. Your mind is a calculator, precise, clear, correct. Your wish is your command. “Just fucking let’s do it,” as Andy McNab likes to put it. What could stop you?

There is no failure. You just follow the SOP. Fear? There is no fear because there is no feeling. You are about to be tortured? Well, it’s only ‘the old chop-your-bollocks-off routine’. Iraqi guards attack your cell-mate? “We let them get on with it. It was just a kicking and a few punches.” You hear that your best friend is dead? “Bastard!” you say. “I gave him my bobble hat.” There’s no room for feelings here or any other kind of foul-up.

And other people? Could they stop you getting what you want? Well, who cares about other people? You can get sentimental about the family back home. But what can you do? You just leave your parents a letter: “Don’t worry about me being dead. It’s just one of those things”. You can be loyal to your mates “But if you’re worried about people getting hurt and killed, you’d spend your life on anti-depressants.” They’re only people, ‘slime’ or ‘dickheads’ or ‘wankers’. Here today, rat-shit tomorrow.

They loved this stuff. Elsey, who already owned several books about the SAS, was soon transformed. No more school clothes, no more poxy cadet corps uniform. He dressed entirely in black, from his baseball cap down through his leather jacket and his jeans all the way down to his stomping boots, dressed in darkness. With reflecting sun-glasses, because, as Andy says: “You have to mask your alertness. You have to make people peering in believe that they’re looking at empty premises, not the shop front of Harrods.” No more mediocrity.

Jamie Petrolini was not far behind. When Elsey told him he was a 2nd lieutenant in the Paras, Petrolini believed him, as several other class-mates also did, and when Elsey offered to train him for this secret world of his, Petrolini, desperate to succeed at something at last, overjoyed at the attention of this friend, took him at his word. “He was my best friend so far. Why should he lie? He lectured me about good and evil, about taking what you want, glory, pride. ‘Why don’t you join the paras?’ I became a clone of him, arrogant, brash, a para type.”

By the time they reached their first half-term, they had become the Bravo Two Heroes, beyond all the petty restrictions of everyday life and all the petty weaknesses of everyday people. They were still nowhere near killing anyone. They swapped nicknames. Petrolini was ‘Happy’. Elsey was ‘Billy’, after Billy the Kid, because he was so young to be an officer in the paras. They developed their heroic philosophy in Life Books, whose writing they shared, only fragments of which were revealed at the trial.

When they looked at the people around them, they came up with a maxim for the 1990s: “Do unto those before they do unto you.” They were not going to kill them, they were just going to despise them – a bunch of remfs. When Elsey tripped over a man’s dog one day as they came out of Oxford market, they rapidly concluded that the correct reaction would be to rip his fucking head off. But they didn’t. They just rolled their shoulders as they strode around town. They considered morality and they soon dealt with that: “You must possess both good and evil to survive in this world,” they argued. They wondered about how to succeed in a world where the rules said that success depended on exams. The answer was to break the rules. “Don’t get caught,” they wrote. “There is no clear cut good nor evil. Everything is a bit of both.” Be a man – drink from the can.

They found other ways to be heroes, to deceive the enemy, to be strong. At night, they went out into the fields, with their faces blacked, wearing camouflage kit, and played ‘the wide game’ where one of them would hide in the undergrowth and the other would have to creep up and catch him undetected. If anyone asked them what they were doing, they said they were training – to be the best. They cut their hands and became blood brothers, and Elsey produced a tremendously sentimental poem. “Danger is my soul’s food now,” he wrote, “instead of happiness. I am not a boy. I am a machine that lives. No feelings.” And no fear. And no failure.

Early in November, they went off to London for the day, posing as heroes. Petrolini was Captain TG Walker. Elsey was Lieutenant Chris Winter. They strolled into the Royal Garden Hotel, took a room and arranged for the bill to be sent to the army, walked into a wedding reception and relieved the waiter of a bottle of vodka, headed off for the Hilton, where they infiltrated right to the top floor and celebrated the successful completion of their task by removing the breakfast orders which were already hanging off some of the doorknobs and swapping them around. That would annoy people. But who cares about people?

They talked about killing – slotting, as Andy would call it – rather like a kid with a cricket bat talks about playing at Lords. They had several thoughts for the Life Books: “Be a sniper and have a fun-filled life… Head shots only. If you’re not good enough for that, don’t bother… Don’t gloat. Like in the films, when they say ‘I should have killed you when I first met you.’ No bullshit like that – just kill them on sight… ” Be a man – be a killing machine.

When Elsey went home to his parents at Beaconsfield at the weekends, Petrolini never called him. “I thought he was with the regiment, training.” During the week, the SAS games went on and, as they did, the talk of killing became more intense. I mean, if you had to kill someone, if you really had to, how would you do it? Andy McNab knew. “You have to get hold of his head, hoik it back as you would with a sheep and just keep on cutting until you’ve gone right through the windpipe and the head has just about come away in your hands. That way he’s not going to breathe any more or have any means of shouting out.”

Elsey passed on this intelligence, using his failed A level science to elaborate on the theme. Studiously, Jamie copied it into his Life Book. Under the heading “Slotting, a fundamental approach”, he wrote: “Behind, hand over mouth. Heart once and hold until dead. Insert at top of vertebrae, sever spinal cord and brain. Insert at bottom of Adam’s Apple, straight, sever spinal cord, wrench to the left, sever jugular. NB – lots of spray.” You could call it killing. When Andy does it to the Iraqis, he calls it ‘giving them the good news’.

When Richard Elsey went off for Christmas, it was on a mission to kill, rescuing US hostages in Baghdad. He whispered details of his mission to Jamie. And Jamie loved him for it. Then Elsey left him a letter: “Hasta la vista, Jamie. Somewhere out there, an unknown soldier lies. By now as you are reading all this crap, I am either with the bearded haloed guy or the big red guy. I am deader than a dead thing. I’m lost for words. Make sure my will is enforced, will you? Fuck this one up and I will come back and haunt you till your dying day.” It was pure Andy, a straight lift from the book. “Remember what we said, Happy, be the best.” Jamie understood. His task was to look after Richard’s girl. She’d need help if the worst happened. Jamie gritted his teeth as he bade farewell to his comrade: “If you don’t come back, can I have Sarah?” Richard nodded and left quickly.

Petrolini claims now that by the time his friend returned from the Christmas break, he wanted to get away from him. “At this point, I just wanted to get rid of him, settle down, chill out, make some real friends and study.” But on the first day of the new term, the two of them met in the pub, caught up on their chemistry homework and swapped commando knives. “That was Sunday,” Petrolini recalls. “On Wednesday, he said ‘We’re going to London and we’re going to kill someone and rob them. It’s an SAS test for you, ordered by my boss.’”

There is no clear cut good and evil. There are only tasks to be performed, quickly and efficiently. Andy understands: “You’re presented with a problem, you make your appreciation and you make your decisions.” You plan carefully. “Minor detail missed equals fuck-up guaranteed.” They decided to slot a pimp, not a real person at all.
They’d go to Kings Cross. They’d need rough clothes or they’d stick out like the balls on a bulldog and the Zulus would spot them. They’d wear gloves, carry a bag for blood-stained clothes. You think of everything. Then you act, you fucking do it.

But when they got there, the real world kept poking around in their dreams. They couldn’t find a pimp. They decided to steal a car, but they couldn’t even find a car park. Around 10pm, they went off to Bayswater, disconsolate. There was Elsey, still posing as a pro, visibly blowing it in front of his mate. There was Patrolini, facing failure again, letting down the only friend he had. But they had made so many decisions, they had come so far down the road. Petrolini says that when it happened, it happened very fast. “He says ‘Him!’. I do it. He helps.”

After all the false starts, it did go more or less to plan. It wasn’t exactly a VCP, but this man in a car stopped at a Give Way sign. Elsey gave the order, Petrolini grabbed the door, took to the front passenger seat, while Elsey slid into the back. Petrolini showed the man the knife and told him to drive round the corner, then Elsey held him from behind – hand over mouth – while Jamie Petrolini gave him the good news, 14 times with the razor sharp blade of his Fairburn Sykes commando knife. The man with the knife in his throat screamed. Andy McNab knew all about that. That was good: “It meant they were bleeding, not shooting.” They completed their task, stole the man’s possessions, made an exit from the car and performed the infantry manoeuvre known to Bravo Two Heroes as getting the fuck out.

Now they had killed someone, but they felt nothing. They were heroes, immune from guilt, just like real psycopaths. Petrolini recalls: “The minute after it happened, I stepped out of the car and walked off as if nothing had happened. It just left my mind. I never thought about it until about a week later. I never even knew what had happened.” And when he did think about it, he took a leaf straight out of the book of heroes: he took the piss out of it. Andy says that’s the only way to deal with pressure – “take the piss out of everything and everybody.”

So Jamie Petrolini thought it was pretty heroic to take the dead man’s glasses out of his rucksack and his gloves out of his tuckbox, to sit down with Richard and some of his other school friends in a burger bar and suddenly to put on the dead man’s possessions, bite into a sachet of ketchup so that red stuff poured down his chin and make like a stiff. “Just a private joke,” he said.

Petrolini says that Elsey was getting ready for more slotting. “He was planning to do it on a regular basis – as a hobby, as a regular thing.” People are only dickheads, after all. They talked about giving the wankers a shock by turning on the sprinklers in Marks and Spencer. One day, Elsey pretended he had stabbed Jamie, who fell on the floor with ketchup oozing through his fingers, while Elsey ran for help and laughed at the fear of those who came.

The private world finally collapsed a couple of weeks later, when Petrolini started to tell people what he had done. At first, he treated them as though they were part of McNab’s world. He met a new friend, Luke, in a discotheque and described how he had killed a man and “the blood spurted out just like in a movie”. When he told his new flatmates, he described the killing as ‘first blood’ and spoke with such hard-eyed satisfaction of his readiness for battle that one of them barricaded himself in his room for safety. Soon, the police were called, and this lethal little karaoke was over.

In prison, Jamie Petrolini eventually realised that his friend had been lying to him and he blames him now for all that happened. “Can you think how I felt when I realised what my best friend had done to me? He saw I was weak and he went out of his way to use me. He is a really, really, really evil bloke… I didn’t know what was going on. All I wanted was a friend… He is the only reason I am Public Enemy Number Two. I hope Elsey does not hang himself, so that he can burn in hell every day of his pathetic, evil life.”

He says he has thought seriously of killing himself and, when he recalls his crime, he becomes almost incoherent. “Another good, friendly human being killed. Oh, God no. Jesus, no. Even now, I’m crying my eyes out. I cannot believe it. Not me. I’m not involved. I’m a victim. It was him. This man would have loved his mates as I loved the few I had, not to mention his wife and kids. I had no wish to be part of it. I am desperately sorry.”

But he does not understand it. His theory now that he was Elsey’s automaton is his latest attempt, replacing the idea which he produced at his trial, that he did everything in order to get into the SAS. Jamie Petrolini cannot explain what he did, because there was no reason for it.

If there is a case to which all of this should be compared, it is not that of any of the notorious psycopaths but that of two other young men who were aimless in England in the 1990s and who found a victim at random and then killed him with almost casual calm, two other young men whose crime demanded an explanation, which was never found: the two ten-year-old boys who killed Jamie Bulger.

Even in prison, Petrolini is still shuffling through a pack of junk culture cliches. “Have you seen My Private Idaho, with River Phoenix? That was me when I got to Oxford… Have you seen the Manchurian Candidate, when the KGB hypnotised people and turned them into assassins and they haven’t a clue what’s going on? The same thing happened to me… I’m a bit of a hippy actually. I always have been.”

He was probably closest to the truth when he was first arrested, when he explained to the police that the people who were killed by the SAS were not real people at all or, if they were, you just didn’t think about them. “It seemed the thing to do,” he said.

UPDATE: In 2012, the Court of Appeal accepted that Jamie Petrolini should have been convicted of manslaughter, not murder, on the basis that at the time of the crime, he was suffering the early stages of schizophrenia. His life sentence was replaced with an order that he be detained in hospital. Richard Elsey was released from prison in early 2012.