With Michael Shields now free, Graham Sankey will find the spotlight turns to him. Martin Georgiev was brutally attacked by someone in Bulgaria in May 2005. And the only person to admit to such an attack is Graham Sankey.
Whoever it was, the real perpetrator of the crime carried it out as Michael was sleeping back in his room.
The Bulgarian authorities seemed intent on getting someone convicted of what was a horrific crime. Unfortunately for Michael, the details of actually getting the right person didn’t seem to be a priority. Michael was English, the perpetrator was English, case – seemingly – closed.
They may deny that was how it worked – but the evidence suggests otherwise.
He was originally sentenced to fifteen years in prison, this later being reduced to ten in return for a far larger fine. The Bulgarian authorities eventually agreed to let him serve the remainder of his sentence in England – as long as Michael’s family paid what amounted to a ransom, almost £100,000.
Martin Georgiev was the victim of the crime, a sickening display of thuggery that left him with a fractured skull. But Michael was the victim of the Bulgarian legal system. He was the victim of the red tape that presented obstacles to dealing with his case through the British or European legal systems. He was the second victim of the real, cowardly, perpetrator.
The real perpetrator has yet to face trial for the crime. Graham Sankey signed a written confession, prepared with the aid of a solicitor, in July 2005. But the confession was considered inadmissible by the Bulgarian court, and Sankey was not prepared to travel to Bulgaria to face the music.
Prior to Michael’s trial Sankey had denied any involvement in an interview with the Liverpool Echo on July 7th 2005. Sankey, then 20, had been accused in the city of having made a confession on his flight home from Bulgaria, as well as in the resort prior to leaving. He dismissed this as “Chinese whispers”, claiming, “They had started even before I got home, that the person who did it was back in Liverpool – and obviously I was the first person back.”
He told the Echo he’d been in a club on the night the attack took place, leaving at 4.30am with a friend. He told the paper that they “walked past a burger bar and my friend said he wanted to grab something to eat.” This is presumably the burger bar that became the scene of the attack.
He continued with his story: “I carried on walking. A bit further up there was another bar which had a lot of Liverpool fans in singing so I went in there until my mate caught up.”
He carried on with his story, saying that by the time his mate “caught up” it was “about five, five-thirty and we walked back to the hotel. We went to bed shortly afterwards.”
According to the Echo report of the time, Sankey said he was woken a couple of hours later by police who handcuffed him and his friend before taking them to a police station to carry out fingerprint and blood tests. But it was Michael Shields who was arrested by police.
Sankey was taken to Varna the following day for questioning, the Echo asked him what he’d said: “I told them everything I knew,” he claimed, “I was told I had been seen with my friend not when the fight happened, but either just before or just after.”
He admitted to the Echo that he’d spoken about the incident before the flight home, but claimed he’d not even mentioned it on the actual flight home He also denied making a confession.
Sankey still wouldn’t admit his part in the attack: “When I came home I was told ‘several people’ said it was me, but were they on the flight? Were they even in Bulgaria? I was five minutes away and I do not know who did it.”
“I walked past that burger bar where it happened, but I don’t know who it was.”
Sankey’s family stood up for him, his father Eddie saying: “I asked him if he did it and he swears he didn’t – that’s enough for me.” His mother dismissed rumours that her son was in hiding: “We have heard rumours Graham has left town and we have changed our telephone number. But Graham has been at home every night and gone to work every morning.”
Sankey seemed able to recall events with a lot of clarity for someone who’d been in a club until 4.30am, and was defiant he’d not even seen the incident. A couple of weeks later he’d changed his tune. He reportedly “broke down in tears” as he admitted to his solicitor – David Kirwan – that he was, in the Liverpool Echo’s words, “the football lout who beat the 25-year-old barman with a paving slab.”
The news brought hope to Michael’s family, especially with the Echo reporting that Sankey would now “accept arrest and prosecution”. However Sankey’s supposed compassion and sorrow wasn’t without conditions: not only would he refuse to go voluntarily to Bulgaria to face questioning, he’d also fight any extradition attempts.
Solicitor Kirwan said at the time: “Graham Sankey is prepared to admit that he is responsible for the attack in Bulgaria of which Michael Shields stands accused.”
“His conscience has told him that he must take these steps to end the agony that Michael and his family have been going through for these past few, horrendous weeks. Reading about Michael appearing in a Bulgarian court left him with no alternative but to come forward and admit his part in the events of that night.”
The solicitor said Sankey’s family had faced pressure too: “Graham’s family, who have received threats themselves in recent days, are standing 100 percent behind their son even though they are devastated and shattered by what has happened.”
The pressure had brought a confession from Sankey, but it seemed to be a calculated move, his solicitor saying: “My client is prepared to stand trial only in Britain and to accept the consequences.”
As time has shown, it was highly unlikely that the British legal system would get involved in actually starting any kind of action against Sankey. And the Bulgarian authorities were unwilling to consider a confession sent from overseas by someone unwilling to discuss it in person.
The judge overseeing the trial, Angelina Lazarova, rejected it. In fact she decided that none of the requests made by Michael’s defence representatives would provide objective evidence. Shockingly, she deleted Sankey’s name from the list of witnesses.
She also denied Michael’s lawyer permission to call other witnesses, including the arresting police officer and also other members of that dubious ID parade.
Stephen Jakobi, of pressure group Fair Trials Abroad, said at the time that the way the confession was made just wasn’t good enough: “Graham Sankey made a confession and said he was prepared to stand trial only in Britain, not in Bulgaria. The evidence of Graham Sankey’s confession as it stood had no weight whatsoever.”
Sankey’s written confession began: “On Sunday, May 29th 2005 I was in the Bulgarian resort of Golden Sands near to the Port of Varna at about 5am. I unfortunately had far too much to drink; I had been drinking lager for the better part of the day.”
He went on: “In the evening I estimate that I drank nearly a full bottle of Vodka and I was very, very drunk. I left the PR Club and I was making my way to my hotel.”
He spoke about a disturbance he’d seen, a “fight… involving a large number of people” and that as he got nearer to the disturbance “a bottle smashed on the wall behind my head.”
He then suggested he acted in self defence: “As I turned to see where the bottle had come from I saw three men running at me with bottles and bricks in their hands. I panicked and stupidly picked up a brick and threw it in the direction of the men running towards me.”
This story was considered by many not to match the events that resulted in the injury to Georgiev, where a paving slab had been used rather than a brick, and where it had been slammed onto his head as he lay on the ground. Sankey’s confession suggested he’d thrown it from some distance: “I saw the brick hit one of them. I panicked and I turned and ran away and returned to the hotel.”
Sankey claimed he was unaware of the extent of Georgiev’s injuries until just before he returned home: “I did not know at that time that Mr Martin Georgiev had been injured. The following day I was questioned by an investigator. I was utterly terrified and denied any involvement in the incident. I still did not know about the injuries to Mr Georgiev. I was then released and I discovered that Mr Georgiev had been seriously injured. I then returned to Liverpool.”
And in a carefully worded sentence, Sankey’s ‘confession’ then said: “I accept that I must have caused the serious injury to Mr Georgiev.”
The confession got almost as sickly as the attack itself after that: “My conscience has been tormenting me ever since. I read in the papers about Michael Shields’ trial, and I felt that I could not let an innocent man take the blame for what I had done. So I instructed my solicitor to make public my acceptance of responsibility and my willingness to accept fully the consequences of my actions.
“I expected that the Bulgarian Court would accept my admission and free Mr Shields. I was horrified that the Court has refused to do this, so I am making this signed confession in the hope that an innocent man will no longer have to take responsibility for what I admit I did.”
He went on: “Finally, I want to say that I bitterly regret what I did to Mr Georgiev. I wholeheartedly apologise to him, his family and the Bulgarian authorities. I am only 20 years old, and am appalled that I have ruined Mr Georgiev’s life and that Michael Shields, an innocent man, has received blame for what I did.”
And the story ended: “I just wish that I had my time over again.”
Words are cheap, and Sankey stayed put in England. The Bulgarian authorities had no interest in calling him over to Bulgaria; after all they’d got someone in prison for the crime. Before the year was out the situation had even been raised in council meetings, with the City council passing a unanimous motion that Sankey should travel to Bulgaria, because it would be “the right and honourable thing for Mr Sankey to give evidence”.
Of course Sankey didn’t want to travel to Bulgaria, and the council drawing more attention to him like this would have made him feel uncomfortable. His solicitor, Kirwan, spoke out “It is completely inappropriate for Liverpool city council to intervene in a case which is before a court of law.”
Laughably, Kirwan, said: “Graham Sankey feels that no matter what he does, it is not good enough.” Catching a flight to Bulgaria to hand himself in would have at least been a start. There would have been plenty offers to pay for his flights.
But Kirwan stuck to the game plan that had been in place throughout. Bulgaria had to come and get Sankey: “If the Bulgarian authorities wish to question Graham Sankey further about the events of the night of May 29, then it is their responsibility to make contact.”
The council defended their motion, a spokesman saying: “This arose from a motion which was approved unanimously. The motion is in the interests not just of Michael Shields but of the victim of the attack. We felt that all the evidence should be gathered, and that is why we called on Mr Sankey to do his part.”
Any smug look on Sankey’s face must have subsided when he heard his confession was to be used as evidence in an attempt to place a football banning order on him. The action was unsuccessful, but drew more attention to Sankey’s part in the events that saw Georgiev so badly injured.
His solicitor, still David Kirwan, spoke out again. It was outside the court where the bid for the banning order had begun, Sankey hid inside the court as Kirwan complained: “The Sankey family and myself are at a loss to understand why Merseyside Police have chosen to bring these proceedings against my client.
“Graham Sankey has never been involved in a football related incident in this country and the police application concerns an incident on foreign soil for which he has never been tried, let alone convicted.” Of course he’d not been tried, let alone convicted, but he had of course admitted to the violent actions in his confession from July 2005.
“We believe strongly that there is no foundation whatsoever for this action and would call upon the police to reconsider their position. There are serious discrepancies between the evidence in the Bulgarian court in the Michael Shields case and the statement made by my client on July 28 last year. It is our belief that we may be talking about two entirely separate incidents.”
Separate incidents or not, if the judge had considered the injuries to Martin Georgiev to be from acts of football-related violence, it would be difficult for Sankey to prove that a separate incident, in the same place at the same time, wasn’t also football-related. And Sankey had admitted to carrying out acts of violence in the same place at the same time.
It seemed Kirwan’s statement was an attempt to distract attention away from the admission by his client that he had been guilty of violence. Sankey had admitted to violence, but Kirwan seemed to be implying he hadn’t been violent, because there had “been no contact from the Bulgarian authorities with my client.”
The judge didn’t grant the banning order, but not because there had been no proof of violence. There had been violence, but there wasn’t enough proof it was football-related. She called Sankey “aggressive”, but said that the five-day gap between the football match and the violence made it difficult to prove it was football related.
A week before the verdict Kirwan had claimed Sankey was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, after the verdict he continued to try and paint Sankey as the victim: “Graham Sankey and his family have been to hell and back in the past 12 months. This action smacked of political opportunism and the judge has rightly seen through this. This is a victory for common sense.”
Common sense seemed to be the last thing on Sankey’s mind when he decided to launch a racist attack on a Liverpool doorman, carrying it on even after police arrived. And Sankey had a new solicitor.
Sankey had hurled racist abuse at Solomon Fadipe in the Walkabout bar, after being told he had to leave due to the bar closing. When police arrived Sankey told them that this was a “white man’s country and I shouldn’t be arrested for abusing a black man.”
Sankey had changed his plea at the last minute and admitted causing racially aggravated harassment, fear or violence. He was sentenced to five months in prison. The judge said Sankey’s comments had left his victim feeling “useless and as if he was a second class citizen.”
The judge told Sankey “Such behaviour in today’s society is completely unacceptable and is a serious offence. The remarks you made were grossly offensive and I am satisfied they were intended at that time to have racial views of an extreme kind.”
Apart from the admission to violence in Bulgaria, Sankey had already been convicted on four previous occasions for public order offences and failing to surrender to bail. The judge warned him that if he committed another violent offence he was at risk of being jailed for a “very long time.”
Sankey’s imprisonment still didn’t help the innocent Michael Shields, and a new tactic was used in late 2007 to help him. Louise Ellman has campaigned tirelessly for Michael, and in November of that year chose to use the protection of Parliamentary privilege to name names.
In a debate in the House of Commons, the Labour MP said key witnesses had named two men as the perpetrators of the attack on Georgiev. She named them as Steven Clare and Graham Sankey.
She said: “On 12 October 2007 a respected citizen of Liverpool signed a witness statement. It reports that Bradley Thomson and Anthony Wilson, both present at the scene of the crime and found guilty of lesser offences, claim that two men were responsible for the attack on Martin Georgiev. According to the statement, they allege that Steven Clare had punched Martin Georgiev and: ‘shortly afterwards Graham Sankey dropped a large rock on his head as he lay prone on the ground.’
“The statement continues: ‘Both men made it clear that Michael Shields was not present at the scene and that neither of them knew him.’”
She said that “these dramatic allegations reinforce the case to re-visit the conviction of Michael Shields. It points the finger firmly at Graham Sankey.”
Yet this new evidence wasn’t the reason for Michael’s pardon today, according to Jack Straw the new evidence came in a meeting with Michael’s parents.
Straw said that up until August 28th he was still of the opinion that his provisional decision of July 2nd, not to grant a pardon, was correct. He said: “It was clear to me that I had still not been provided with enough evidence to meet the very high test of ‘moral and technical innocence’. However, during the meeting on 28 August with Mr Shields’ parents, important new evidence came to light which, when looked at alongside all the previously available evidence, has now satisfied me that Mr Shields meets the high test set by the Court.”
It’s this “important new evidence” that remains a mystery. Michael’s legal team claim that nothing new came up in the meeting.
But Straw said: “At this meeting, following a series of questions which I put to the family, I was told for the first time about a visit by two members of the Shields family to the home of a man alleged to be responsible for the crime for which Michael Shields was jailed. I was told that in the course of the visit that man made an oral confession to the crime in front of several other people. This episode, I was told, happened on 22 July 2005, a day after the start of Mr Shields’ trial in Bulgaria.”
The confessions that were sent to the court in Bulgaria had been passed through Sankey’s then solicitor. If the oral confession added more detail, made it clear that Sankey knew what he’d done, perhaps Straw was able to say this was a different confession to the version that Sankey’s solicitor had helped draft. The previous confessions had been considered – but rejected – by the Bulgarian courts. But was this – presumably separate – confession classed as a “new” piece of evidence?
Straw was unwilling to give details in his statement: “Since the 28 August meeting in my constituency further inquiries, including by the Merseyside Police, have been made at my request into the events of 22 July 2005. I will not set out in this statement all the evidence that has come to light over the last two weeks but suffice it to say that there is very good reason to believe I was being told the truth. This in my view profoundly changed the credibility of the various accounts of what actually happened in this case.”
The statement continued: “Whether or not this new evidence would have been admissible at Mr Shields’ trial in Bulgaria, it is highly relevant to my consideration of Mr Shields’ application for a pardon.
“No reference to the events which took place on 22 July 2005 was contained in any of the formal written representations I received either before or after I made my provisional decision on 2 July. Mr Shields’ current solicitors have told us that they did not know about them, and their potential significance had not been fully appreciated by those who had been made aware of them.”
Michael’s campaigners and legal team have said that their aim was to prove Michael’s innocence, not to prove somebody else’s guilt, and Straw was also unwilling to name Sankey as the person guilty of the shocking attack. He said the new evidence is now in the possession of Bulgaria: “It is clear that the victim in this case, Mr Martin Georgiev, was subjected to a brutal and vicious attack. It is not for me to say who was responsible for this disgraceful assault. That is a matter for the criminal courts in Bulgaria. The new evidence which has emerged from the meeting with Mr Shields’ parents and from Merseyside Police’s subsequent inquiries has been passed to the Bulgarian authorities by the British Ambassador in Sofia.”
Remaining diplomatic, Straw also said: “My decision does not amount to a criticism of the Bulgarian courts’ judgment in this case. I have seen evidence that they did not.”
And the paragraph that meant the most: “I have concluded, having looked carefully at all the evidence now available, that Michael Shields is telling the truth when he says he is innocent of the attempted murder of which he was convicted in Bulgaria. That being so I have recommended to Her Majesty the Queen that he should be granted a free pardon. Mr Shields is being released from prison today and will return home to his family a free man.”
Straw also suggested that decisions such as these would be better made by the court rather than the Justice Secretary, and that he would be “exploring alternative options for dealing with any future cases which arise.”
Straw finished his statement: “For now I wish Mr Shields and his family well.”
Only time will tell if Bulgaria have the courage to revisit this judgement and admit their mistakes. And if they do admit their mistakes, will they also then have the courage to press for extradition of Sankey so that he can face a trial? If they do try Sankey, it really must be as fair a trial as possible.
Unfortunately for Sankey, it’s unlikely that he’ll have people looking out for him if he does face a trial. He will walk alone.