Lissie Harper, widow of hero PC Andrew Harper, who was dragged to his death by merciless thugs in a crime that shocked the nation, spoke exclusively on Saturday to the Mail to describe her agony.
Today, she recalls facing his killers in court, and her campaign — backed by the Police Federation — for Harper’s Law, guaranteeing life sentences for anyone who kills 999 workers in the line of duty.
There is little anyone can do to prepare for the day you come face to face with those who killed the love of your life. There is no guidance, no handbook.
For six months, Lissie Harper wondered how she would feel, seeing the teenagers who’d robbed her of her husband Andrew — a police officer to whom she’d been married for just four weeks when he was killed.
Among the tumult of emotions: fury, fear, despair, dread, she clung on to one thing. Surely she would be able to detect shame in their eyes, if and when they locked with hers.
Lissie Harper (pictured), widow of hero PC Andrew Harper, recalls facing his killers in court, and her campaign — backed by the Police Federation
Pc Harper, a Thames Valley Police traffic officer, and Lissie Harper (pictured together) had only been married four weeks when he died
But what she saw that March day on the first day of the trial at London’s Old Bailey . . . no one could have anticipated. It was shocking, revolting.
‘They looked like they were sitting in the headteacher’s office,’ she remembers. ‘They were waving up to the public gallery at their families as if it was all just a day out. They were laughing and joking.
‘As the judge walked into the court room and we were all told to rise, the atmosphere changed. They straightened up and wiped the smirks off of their faces.
‘Then, when the jury came in, they behaved like model pupils, shirts tucked in and heads down.
Yet the second the jury left the court, the charade left, too. They were nudging each other, messing about, their shirts became untucked and they looked again like the excuse for human beings they were.
‘Whenever they left the court room we could all hear them shouting, like football fans on the terraces. They looked over at us a lot, but not with any kind of sorrow I could see. I sensed they were trying to get a reaction from us. Like this was just a game.
‘I’d expected my tears to come in buckets yet, when my eyes met theirs, my only thought was: how could these hollow people have taken such a beautiful life away?’
The three teenagers in the dock — Henry Long, 19, Jessie Cole and Albert Bowers, both 18, all petty criminals and members of a local travellers’ community, based at the council-run Four Houses Corner caravan site in Reading, Berkshire — were charged with murdering Lissie’s husband, PC Andrew Harper, 28, a Thames Valley police officer, based in nearby Abingdon.
Pictured: The Seat Toledo with the tow rope that dragged the officer to his death on August 15, 2019
He died on August 15 last year, when he was dragged behind a getaway car after his feet became caught in a crane strap while trying to stop the three youths stealing a quad bike in Stanford Dingley, Berkshire.
The car, driven by Henry Long, sped and zig-zagged for more than a mile along country roads before the strap’s grip on PC Harper was finally detached, leaving him with ‘catastrophic’ injuries. His body was so badly mutilated that one witness mistook it for a deer in the road.
The three claimed they had no idea they were dragging PC Harper’s body, despite witnesses describing the car veering from side to side of the road, as if in an attempt to shake him free.
Their version was obviously accepted by the jury: all three were acquitted of murder: Long had denied the more serious charge and admitted manslaughter while his co-defendants were both convicted.
Long was imprisoned for 16 years while Cole and Bowers, both minors at the time of the offence, were sentenced to 13 years, to be served initially in a young offenders’ institution.
On Saturday, Lissie, now 29, spoke exclusively to the Mail, describing her devastation at the loss of her childhood sweetheart and the love of her life.
Last picture: Andrew and Lissie at their best friend’s wedding just four days before his death
Today, she describes the courtroom dramas and frustrations — an initial trial had to be abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic — and her family’s incredulity at the attitude of the immoral, feral youths who’d taken a life, but who seemed to regard their crime as no more serious than dropping litter in the street.
She also describes her horror at the jury’s verdict, and her campaign —backed by the Police Federation of England and Wales and revealed in the Mail for the first time — for Harper’s Law, which would mean automatic life sentences for anyone who kills a police officer or other on-duty emergency services worker.
‘I geared myself up for a long journey, I had so much faith in our prosecution team but I knew this was going to be an ordeal, and it was,’ she says.
‘My plan all along was to attend the opening of the trial and then the final week or so. I did not attend any of the days with the finer evidence — it would have been far too much for me to handle. In fact, even in the opening speeches I found myself so overcome I had to leave the court.
‘Some of the details of Andrew’s death brought a sickness to my stomach that will never leave me. I think it was these moments that made me feel the most anger towards those vile savages in the dock.
‘All three defendants had claimed they had learning difficulties [the court was told how they’d had little schooling and were illiterate]. But, as far as we could see, they all had a clear understanding that what they were doing was wrong.’
Albert Bowers (left) and Jessie Cole (right) being taken away by police officers in handcuffs
At the end of a four-week trial, the jury returned its shocking verdict. As the three were cleared of murder, there were whoops and cheers from the killers’ families and supporters in the public gallery and the defendants hugged each other.
Because of the pandemic, much of the retrial had been conducted with them in Belmarsh prison and attending via video link.
The scene was something few will ever forget: the stark contrast between Lissie, the dignified, grieving widow, quietly sobbing while those who ended PC Harper’s good and noble life rejoiced, was terrible to see. Lissie shudders as she remembers: ‘They patted each other on the back and looked as if they had won a football match or something. Some jurors were looking at the travellers’ families with odd smiles.
‘One began to cry — to this day I often wonder why.’
As do others . . . after the verdicts, it emerged security measures had been put in place for both trials due to concerns about jury intimidation.
One female juror was dismissed by the judge after a court clerk reported seeing her smiling at the defendants, and overheard her saying ‘bye boys’ as she walked past them in the dock.
However, at sentencing, Mr Justice Edis said there was no evidence that the jury had been intimidated.
‘It may be believed in some quarters that the jury was subject to some improper pressure,’ the judge wrote in an official note. ‘To the best of my knowledge and belief, there is no truth in that at all.’
Pc Andrew Harper got even closer to Lissie (pictured together at the age of 19) when he moved in with her family
Another wonderful memory: In 2014, Lissie and Andrew travelled to Australia’s Magnetic Island
A daredevil duo: Lissie and Andrew loved adventures, such as skydiving here in 2012 (left) and the showed how close they were on a trip to the Thames in Henley, aged 17 (right)
Afterwards, in an open letter online, Lissie called for a retrial, describing the trial as an ‘abominable injustice’.
She says: ‘All I could think of was Andrew, how he hadn’t got the justice he deserved. I thought of how these people had robbed us all of such love and life, how they had practically tortured my husband and basically got away with murder.’
How different to the scene of Andrew’s funeral in October, as Lissie followed the hearse through the streets of Oxford.
So many had wanted to attend to pay their respects to a man who devoted and, tragically, ultimately gave his life protecting others, that the service was held at the city’s Christ Church cathedral, the only local venue large enough to accommodate the 500 mourners.
Lissie felt proud and deeply moved to see the hundreds of police officers, all in uniform and some mounted on horseback, lining the streets in honour of her late husband, his coffin draped in the Thames Valley police flag.
Lissie described Andrew as ‘the kindest, loveliest, most selfless person’ after he was killed while trying to stop a burglary
Most of all, however, the young widow felt ‘completely numb’.
‘Andrew and I had been inseparable from the age of 16, and I think the only way my brain and body could cope with his death was by numbing me to some of the pain,’ she says.
Lissie, a softly spoken, tiny — size six and 5ft 3in tall, in stark contrast to her 6ft 5in husband — young woman made the brave decision to deliver the eulogy.
‘I would have been petrified at the thought of doing something like that before. I’ve never been good at public speaking, but I wanted people to know what kind of a man he was. Just exactly what we’d lost,’ says Lissie.
‘Doing things for Andrew is what’s kept me going this past year.’ Mourners were moved to tears as she spoke of the ‘ever sweet, lanky and red-faced boy passing me notes in class, to the strong and loyal man you grew to be. I have always known how special you are.
Truly, madly, deeply in love: Ever adventurous, snorkelling on their seven-month trip around the world in their early 20s
‘I have never known anyone so kind, worry-free, forgiving, positive and good as our Andrew.
‘Although he was strong, he was also unfailingly kind — a gentle giant with a heart of gold.’
While Andrew had never encountered his killers before the night of his death, he and Lissie had spoken about ‘lawless communities’ making the job of a police officer particularly hard.
‘Andrew wasn’t prejudiced and always dealt with each person and case by the book,’ says Lissie.
‘But these people live in a different way to everyone else, which, I suppose, is partly why they cheered in court after the ‘not guilty’ verdicts. They felt they’d won, as if Andrew’s death was part of a game or a battle. But that’s not how decent people think.’
Lissie with Andrew on their wedding day at Ardington House in Oxfordshire in the summer of 2019
Undated handout file photo issued by Thames Valley Police of 28-year-old PC Andrew Harper and his wife, Lissie
No one from the local travelling community, including the families of his killers, has ever offered condolences, or an apology, to either Lissie or Andrew’s family.
Lissie has requested a retrial of all three men for murder, while the Crown Prosecution Service has asked for a review of the sentences handed down.
Meanwhile, the young widow, with the backing of the Police Federation of England and Wales, is campaigning for the introduction of Harper’s Law.
‘Every day, 84 police officers in England and Wales are assaulted on duty,’ said Andy Fiddler, of the Thames Valley Police Federation. ‘Punched, kicked, bitten, spat at, driven at by cars, stabbed. And sometimes worse.
‘More than 30,000 colleagues were assaulted last year, many receiving serious injuries.
‘Sadly, on very rare and horrendous occasions, a colleague makes the ultimate sacrifice. When police officers are killed on duty, then it hits right at the heart of our democracy. Those responsible should spend the rest of their lives behind bars.’
Back in 2013, then Home Secretary Theresa May told hundreds of officers at the Police Federation annual conference that police killers should automatically face a life in prison, without parole.
Seven years later, Lissie and federation representatives have requested a meeting with Home Secretary Priti Patel to introduce such a penalty under Harper’s Law.
While there have been countless days when getting out of bed has been too much of a challenge for Lissie, ensuring justice for Andrew so his death was not in vain has kept her going.
‘Sadly, nothing I do will bring Andrew back. But I know he would be proud of me for seeking to bring about a change in the law, which will hopefully act as a deterrent to anyone considering doing to one of his fellow frontline workers the terrible thing they did to him,’ she says.
‘If that isn’t enough to protect our protectors, then at least other families going through this will know justice will be done.’
Back home, at the idyllic 17-century cottage they shared in South Oxfordshire, Lissie is still surrounded by all of Andrew’s things, from his clothes in the wardrobe to his size 14 shoes under their bed and his toothbrush in the bathroom.
‘I find it comforting having his stuff around,’ she says. ‘Making decisions about them is a big thing, which I’ve no desire to do.’
His ashes are kept in a wooden box inscribed with ‘Andrew James Harper, forever in our hearts’ and Lissie sometimes finds herself holding it and chatting to him, as if he were still there.
Although she spends much of every day thinking about Andrew, it’s at night, as she’s trying to sleep, that the horrific images of his final moments haunt her.
‘It’s unbearable thinking of him suffering, even briefly, in that way,’ she says. ‘There are still details of how he died that I don’t know, and don’t want to know, but some of the evidence in court was utterly heart-wrenching.’
Adopting a grey and brown British shorthair cat called Bernard, via the Blue Cross charity where her beloved mum, Julie, works, helped Lissie to return to the cottage in May, after nine months at her parents’ house.
The Harpers were planning a move from the one-bedroom cottage as they were hoping to start a family soon after their honeymoon in the Maldives, which had been scheduled for last September. If Andrew had lived, they could have been parents by now.
She has recently joined the support group Widowed And Young (WAY) and found it helpful talking to others who can empathise, not just sympathise, with what she’s going through.
‘There are certain things you can only relate to if you’ve been widowed,’ she says.
‘It is only now that I understand the cruelty of continuing with life without the one person you want to spend it with. Things that brought you joy before no longer have the same worth without your partner to share them with.
‘I have been overwhelmed with the support I have received from everyone, perfect strangers included, not just emotionally but financially, too [Lissie, supported by her husband, was launching her own design business when Andrew was killed].
‘Although I would give every penny back just to be with Andrew again, but I know he would want me to be secure.
‘The community and fellow widows have shown me the way I am feeling is normal, the random things that bring me pain like washing the last of my husband’s clothes as they sit in the washing bin is understandable and those stomach-churning experiences are shared with them.’
It’s support she’s going to need in the years ahead, as she begins her own life sentence, without her soulmate at her side.