Maori Te Rangimaria Ngarimu's face had the bone structure of a warrior but she possessed the body of a beautiful young woman. Her lovers all praised her sensuous nature and her fondness for steamy sex, and her bubbly personality helped land her the nickname 'Sparky'. Te was 24 years old, confident, well educated – with a double first from a university back in New Zealand – and enjoying her life in Britain so much that she planned to stay for at least the next five years.
But Sparky's shapely body was well hidden by the baggy black tracksuit, sunglasses and baseball cap she wore in May 1992, as she strolled into the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London, to visit a sick friend. Sparky managed a typically pleasant smile at the nurse who kindly directed her towards the main men's ward.
Sparky calmly pressed the lift button as she waited alongside a mother with her young child and two elderly women. Once inside the elevator she pressed number three, turned and glanced casually at the other visitors as the lift slowly rose to the third floor. When the doors opened she slid her hand into her handbag to check on the contents.
Then Sparky walked out into the corridor, and looked to her right and left before recognising the man she'd come to see. He was leaning casually up against a wall with a phone virtually glued to his ear while he talked quietly into the receiver. As Sparky began walking towards him, he turned his back to her, but she already knew for sure it was him. She'd studied his photograph closely the previous week and then followed him from his home to make sure she knew exactly what he looked like in the flesh. Sparky walked right past him as he continued talking into the phone. Another ten yards and Sparky casually turned around for one last glance.
Then she reached into her handbag and kept her hand buried inside it as she strolled back towards where he was standing. But just then something stopped her, she turned away and walked back towards the lifts, still grappling in her handbag. She firmly pushed the button to call the lift. Her target was just three feet from her. Now was the perfect moment. She flicked the safety catch on the gun in her handbag.
Graeme Woodhatch only noticed Sparky as she pulled the .22 pistol from her bag and aimed it straight at him, holding the weapon with both hands. His mouth fell open and started to move as she squeezed the trigger. His scream was drowned out by the explosion. Woodhatch tried to cover his face with his hands as the first bullet smashed into the centre of his forehead, another ricocheted off his backbone and severed an artery, a third demolished the bridge of his nose and the fourth embedded itself in his shoulder.
'Something just snapped inside and I did it,' Sparky later recalled. 'There were four shots but I remember pulling the trigger only once. That first shot hit him in the face – he was facing towards me. I do not remember firing the other shots, although I heard four. I remember seeing him rolling around on the floor screaming. He had his hands on his face.'
By the time Sparky had fired that fourth and final bullet, her victim already lay dead on the floor of the hospital corridor. She'd just earned £7,000 from Woodhatch's business colleagues for gunning down their enemy.
As Sparky glanced down at her victim one last time a man appeared from the other end of the hospital corridor. But before he could get too close, the elevator doors opened and Sparky slipped into the lift. Less than two minutes later, she hailed a passing black cab and headed back to an apartment owned by the man who'd commissioned the hit.
Half an hour later, Sparky let herself into the flat, grabbed a kitchen towel and began wiping her prints from the .22 gun. Then she stripped naked and placed all her clothes in a large black plastic bag before barking at her accomplice, 'Get rid of this shit as soon as poss.' That man must have felt the strangest combination of sexual excitement, fear and trepidation. She was riding high on adrenaline.
Sparky was what police later described as a 'semi-pro': she had knowledge of either firearms or violence, but was not a full-time criminal. More often than not semi-pros are unreliable and botch the job. They are frequently employed in domestic rows, to get rid of an awkward spouse or to sort out a business disagreement once and for all.
Sparky's only kill as Britain's first ever hitwoman would never have happened if she hadn't encountered two friendly men at a pub where she worked in north London. Paul Tubbs, 34, from Enfield, north London and New Zealand-born Keith Bridges – nicknamed Charlotte – 21, from Camden, also in north London, both fancied the attractive Maori who was always dressed in figure-hugging jeans and tight, slinky blouses. Tubbs and Bridges ran a roofing firm with Graeme Woodhatch and believed that Woodhatch was swindling the company out of thousands of pounds.
At the pub where Sparky worked, she quickly formed a close bond with her fellow countryman Bridges. He even let her stay in a room in his flat and the two new friends were soon pouring out all their troubles to each other. Sparky, a chemistry graduate and national sportswoman, played hockey, surfed and spoke fluent Japanese so she was interesting company.
Sparky told Bridges she'd been a master shot back in New Zealand and that her dream was to save enough money to buy her own home when she eventually returned to New Zealand. Bridges told Sparky he had big problems at work and explained how Graeme Woodhatch was endangering everything that he and his partner Tubbs had worked for over the years. During one chat, Bridges even mentioned 'knocking him [Woodhatch] off'. Then he asked, 'Would you do it, Sparky, for a certain amount?'
'Yeah, I'll do it,' she replied at double-quick speed. Neither of them seemed emotionally capable of questioning the severity of what they were proposing.
A few days later, Bridges provided Sparky with a photograph of her intended victim so she could identify him for the hit.
'And where is he now?' asked Sparky.
'He's at home but he's going into hospital next week to have an operation on his piles,' responded a deadpan Bridges.
'Has he got any kids?' asked Sparky, ignoring the fact her intended victim was about to go into hospital.
Sparky later insisted, 'I would have thought more about it if he'd had children.'
'Charlotte' Bridges advised Sparky that if she was caught she should make out Graeme Woodhatch had done something really bad to her. 'Charlotte promised he'd come to visit me in prison,' Sparky later recalled.
Over the next few days, Sparky stalked her intended victim just to make sure she knew exactly what he looked like when the day came for her to murder him.
Then Bridges provided Sparky with a .22 pistol – known across the middle of America as a 'Saturday Night Special' on account of its cheapness and availability to the good citizens of the most powerful nation on earth. Sparky showed off her knowledge of such weapons by opting to use hollow-tipped bullets for maximum damage. Bridges informed her that Woodhatch had just gone to hospital for his operation and it would be the perfect location for the intended hit.
'Buy a hat, gloves and some tracksuit bottoms so you don't stick out in a crowd,' Bridges said. Being mistaken for a man would be a big advantage in the aftermath of the killing. In any case, no one would believe a woman could carry out such a heinous crime.
'Shoot him twice in the head and twice in the chest just to make sure,' advised Bridges. He then rather tactlessly admitted that his business partner Paul Tubbs was paying him a total of £10,000 to get rid of Woodhatch – £7,000 of which would be passed on to Sparky. He was keeping the rest as commission.
So it was that Sparky set off for the Royal Free in search of Graeme Woodhatch. Minutes after getting to the hospital she abandoned the hit because she couldn't find the correct ward. She might also have been suffering from a bout of cold feet.
Next morning, when he heard about her aborted mission, Keith Bridges began putting some serious pressure on Sparky. 'Just think about the house bus [mobile home].' As she later explained: 'I had always wanted one – it was going to be my home. It cost $30,000 [£10,000] back home. I thought about it all the time. It was my goal in life.'
A few hours later Sparky returned to the hospital and shot Graeme Woodhatch dead before heading back to Keith Bridges' flat.
Back at the Royal Free, medical staff hadn't even realised that Graeme Woodhatch had been shot because no one had actually witnessed the hit, and the bullets from the .22 were so tiny that doctors believed his wounds were the result of a fall in the corridor. Only after resuscitation attempts had failed and the dead man's girlfriend had departed having spent four hours with his body, did staff preparing the corpse for the mortuary become suspicious of his facial injuries. They noticed what looked like bullet wounds.
John Cooper, chief executive of the Royal Free, defended his staff's extraordinary oversight. 'Very experienced British medical and nursing staff may well never have seen a gunshot wound of the kind suffered by Mr Woodhatch,' he said. 'Some types of gunshot wound appear as no more than discolouration of the skin around a puncture mark. The entry-exit wound from a gunshot may be very small and may not bleed.'
But as one police officer later pointed out: 'If we'd realised earlier that a man had been assassinated inside the hospital we would have been on the trail of the killer much more quickly.'
At one level the hit on Graeme Woodhatch seemed incredibly amateurish. Yet Sparky had a definite lucky streak; she was able to walk out of the building virtually unchallenged because no one realised Woodhatch had been shot.
Also, there had been no eyewitnesses. There were 12 lifts near where the killing occurred, plus two fire escapes. There were even three public exits from different parts of the hospital. How on earth were detectives going to establish whether the killer had been seen by anyone?
Detectives initially described the shooting as a 'criminally professional' operation. As one firearms expert explained: 'Whoever did this job knew what they were about – two shots to the head and two to the body to make certain of a kill, plus the clever choice of weapon. It is easily available, it fits in the palm of your hand, it is no louder than a cap gun, and it does the job.'
Thirty miles away, to the south of London, Sparky was checking in at London's Gatwick Airport for a 4.30pm flight back to New Zealand. She was pulling out her ticket to check the details when she found that photo of the victim still in her pocket. It was the first time she realised the full enormity of what she'd done. She left the check-in line, walked into the nearest ladies' lavatory and ripped the photo into tiny shreds before flushing it down the toilet.
Then she tore off every item of clothing she was wearing, including her black G-string. Sweat was dripping off her body and she was shaking like a leaf. All those earlier feelings of excitement had been replaced by fear combined with a severe dose of paranoia. For a few moments Sparky stood stark naked in the toilet cubicle in the departure area of Gatwick, wondering how on earth she'd just managed to kill a complete stranger. A rap on the door from another female passenger waiting snapped her out of her momentary feeling of self-doubt. Sparky slipped on a pair of tight black leather trousers, buttoned up a fresh blouse and marched out of the ladies with her head full of strange thoughts and emotions.
Back in north London, Graeme Woodhatch's colleague Paul Tubbs telephoned a friend and arranged for him to pick up a holdall containing the murder weapon from Keith Bridges. The bag also contained bullets, the baseball cap and other clothing worn by Sparky for the hit. The following day it was all thrown into a lake.
Less than 48 hours later, Sparky turned up on the doorstep of one of her closest friends in New Zealand. Within a week, paymaster Keith Bridges had sent her newspaper cuttings about the murder plus a money order for £1,500. The contract killing of a hospital patient had made front-page news in the UK but there was no suggestion the murder had been committed by a woman. One newspaper reported that Woodhatch had wanted to leave hospital early, after his beautiful 26-year-old Israeli girlfriend told him she was pregnant. That left Sparky feeling a tad guilty, so she tore that cutting into pieces.
Then British newspapers began investigating the background of victim Graeme Woodhatch and uncovered a string of business debts totalling almost £1 million from his roofing firm. Even Woodhatch's former brother-in-law said the dead man had made a lot of enemies in his business dealings. Newspapers reported that Woodhatch drove top-of-the-range sports cars, including a Porche 911, took lavish holidays and was never short of a pretty girl on his arm. And it emerged that, two days after his death, Woodhatch himself had been due to appear in court in Clerkenwell. He'd been accused of threatening to kill 22-year-old Emma Harrison, a secretary working for his company. All those revelations helped convince Sparky that justice had been done.
North London detectives had also been busy looking into the dead man's business associates and put Keith Bridges and Paul Tubbs at the top of their suspects list. Officers had deliberately cast a wide net of suspicion by publicly suggesting Woodhatch had hoodwinked numerous people and that it was inevitable someone would want to do him harm. Detectives went as far as to describe Woodhatch as 'a Maxwell without the brains' after the late, little-lamented and deeply dubious publishing mogul Robert Maxwell.
Paul Tubbs even agreed to be interviewed by newspapers. He told one reporter: 'Within a week of employing Graeme he was getting personal threats on my phone from people he owed money to.'
Then detectives established that Keith Bridges had been sharing his flat with a mysterious Maori woman who'd disappeared back to New Zealand on the same day as the killing. At first, officers found it difficult to contemplate that a female could have carried out such a cold-blooded killing. Then they heard about her experience with guns. A team of Met Police detectives were immediately dispatched for New Zealand.
A few days later, London detectives confronted Ngarimu in New Zealand but she denied all knowledge of the killing. She even looked the officers in the eye and told them she couldn't have carried out such a shooting because she was a vegetarian and 'could not even kill a chicken'. After three visits to her home, the detectives travelled back to London empty-handed. They did not have enough evidence to charge Sparky.
But a few days after that visit by British police, Sparky found herself walking past a church in New Zealand and felt herself drawn inside. There she began having second thoughts about what she'd done. Shortly afterwards, her sister gave her a Bible which she read over the following two weeks. Afterwards, she announced to friends that she'd 'found the Lord'. She also felt increasingly guilty about killing Graeme Woodhatch.
Sparky then got a call from her local police to say that Keith Bridges and Paul Tubbs had been charged in connection with the Woodhatch murder back in London. That development had a profound effect on Sparky. Within hours she'd called the police back and agreed to return voluntarily to London to face murder charges. As the prosecutor of the case later explained: 'It was a matter of conscience and living with her actions. It is an unusual situation for a murderer to return from abroad, to acknowledge her responsibility and guilt, to co-operate and be prepared to give evidence. She was at the very heart of the conspiracy.'
Sparky was officially arrested when her plane from New Zealand touched down at Gatwick Airport and she was charged with murder later that evening at a north London police station. Newspapers labelled her Britain's first female contract killer. At Sparky's first court appearance in front of Hampstead magistrates in north London she was tense, distraught and full of remorse.