Shane O’Brien, one of the world’s most wanted men on the run for three-and-a-half years, has been found guilty of murdering 21-year-old Josh Hanson in an unprovoked attack at a bar in Eastcote.

A jury took just 55 minutes on Tuesday, 1 October to convict O’Brien, 31 (1.03.88), originally from Ladbroke Grove, following a trial at the Old Bailey. Sentencing will take place on Thursday, 17 October.

Josh, from Kingsbury, died after his throat was slashed during a night out with friends – O’Brien then chartered a private plane to leave the country and was subject to a world-wide manhunt before finally being detained in Romania.

Detective Chief Inspector Noel McHugh, who led the homicide investigation at Specialist Crime, said: “This is the day I, and certainly Josh’s family, almost feared would never come – O’Brien finally convicted of that unprovoked and vicious attack in a bar in Eastcote close to four years ago. And we still do not have a clear answer – why?

“Regardless, the evidence against O’Brien was strong from the start. However, he still denied his guilt and forced Josh’s family to undergo the trauma of a trial.

“O’Brien is an extremely dangerous individual who murdered a young man in the prime of his life in a packed bar for no reason whatsoever. Well supported by ‘associates’, O’Brien fled the country in a private plane – those associates then helped him with funds, false documentation and accommodation during a three-and-a-half year manhunt. I have been privileged to witness unwavering commitment and truly brilliant and innovative work by the entire policing community across the world to track O’Brien’s movements, leading finally to his detention in Romania.

“At the centre of this tragic story are Josh’s mum Tracey and sister Brooke, who have remained focused and dignified throughout. It is a miracle they can get up each day and we can only imagine what they have endured, losing their beacon Josh, followed by years of uncertainty, fearing O’Brien may never be caught. They have supported the police investigation every step of the way and driven a huge appeal for information and help from the public.

“I know their grieving for Josh can only truly begin now O’Brien is behind bars but that won’t help with the lifetime of birthdays, Christmases and family celebrations they must endure with an empty seat at the table thanks to one man’s devastating and callous actions.”

Tom Dowdall, Deputy Director International for the National Crime Agency, said: “We’re delighted to have played a role in helping secure justice for Josh’s family.

“O’Brien went on the run and spent several years desperately playing cat and mouse with international law enforcement.

“The NCA’s international liaison network and International Crime Bureau worked tirelessly with our partners to trace him and ensure he was finally arrested by the Romanian National Police and returned to the UK.”

Tracey Hanson, said: “On 11 October 2015 our lives changed forever when I received a phone call in the early hours of the morning to tell me that Josh had been stabbed in the neck. While Brooke and I were making our way to the RE Bar in Eastcote, we were told that Josh was dead. We were 10 minutes away so we never got the opportunity to say goodbye. I was denied my place as Josh’s mum as he lay on the cold floor alone, I could not hold him in my arms to comfort or reassure him, if only to give him hope that everything would be ok.

“The aftermath of Josh’s murder has left us broken beyond repair as Josh was taken from us in the most horrific way possible, suddenly, abruptly, viciously and violently, and nothing will ever erase the CCTV footage of Josh’s final moments from our minds as he was struck with a knife so horrifically and callously, along with his suffering as he tried to fight for his life.

“Over a period of three years and six months and with the help and support of the public along with social media we did all that we could to help the Metropolitan Police, the NCA, Europol and Interpol with their investigations by distributing over 70,000 wanted posters. And during the most challenging time of our lives our faith in humanity did not leave us as we were held up by the thousands of messages of support that we received from the public and through social media and for this I will forever be truly thankful.

“Today after nearly four years and shy of two weeks before Josh’s fourth year anniversary justice was served. A jury of 12 members of the public delivered a guilty verdict based on the evidence provided to them. Josh was innocent and the attack on him was totally unprovoked and we hope that a whole life term will be handed down by the judge at sentencing.

“While we continue to navigate through life without Josh we shall continue to work hard to change the story about knife crime in Josh’s name as we have done since his untimely and unnecessary death. We will continue to do all that we can to help make positive changes in our society by sharing Josh’s story and help educate others about the dangers of carrying a knife.

“The last time I spoke to my son was on the phone at 10.30pm that evening and at the end of the phone call we said ‘I love you’ to one another the way we had always ended our conversations. Life for us will never be the same without Josh, it is very different from the one that was once familiar to us, and if you see a smile on my face know that there will always be sadness behind it.”

The murder:

On Sunday 11, October 2015 around 00:45hrs Josh, who worked seven days a week as a roads planner, and his girlfriend met up with friends at the RE Bar in Field End Road, Eastcote.

O’Brien, who Josh didn’t know, had arrived about 15 minutes earlier and was also with friends. The only interaction between the two groups was when one of O’Brien’s friends briefly spoke to one of Josh’s without incident.

CCTV showed O’Brien sitting on a sofa at the back of the bar just opposite where Josh and his girlfriend and friends were.

At 01:01hrs O’Brien stood up and navigated a table and other people to reach Josh. O’Brien, at 6ft and powerfully built, towered over 5ft 6ins Josh. Josh, clearly confused by O’Brien’s aggression, didn’t react. O’Brien said something like: “What’s your problem?”

As he spoke he put his hand in his right pocket and pulled out a Stanley knife. Keeping it down by his thigh, he opened the blade.

Five seconds later he raised his hand and with considerable force slashed it down across Josh’s ear, throat and chest, causing a 37cm gaping wound and catastrophic injuries.

O’Brien paused for a moment, almost to confirm his actions had had the desired effect, before lowering his arm to conceal the weapon. He then turned, folded up the Stanley knife, and walked calmly and purposefully towards the exit.

He crossed Field End Road towards the junction with Monford Road and got into a small white van driven by a friend that took him to the White City area.

Back in the bar, Josh’s friends tried to hold him as he collapsed on the floor. Others rushed to help, including an off-duty nurse, and begin CPR.

The London Ambulance Service arrived and paramedics battled to save Josh’s life but he died at 01:40hrs.

The aftermath:

A murder investigation was launched under DCI McHugh. CCTV footage was quickly seized which clearly showed the attack and detectives were able to carefully scan the footage to identify which drinking cups left on tables O’Brien had used that night.

Two were identified and from those fingerprints and DNA recovered that proved a match for O’Brien.

Warrants were executed at addresses he was known to have access to in the Ruislip and W10 areas. He was not there but a number of knives were recovered including two other Stanley knives, a flick knife, a machete and a hatchet.

Enquiries revealed after attacking Josh, O’Brien left London around lunchtime on Sunday, 11 October and travelled to a holiday park in Camber Sands, Kent – he had made the arrangements while fleeing the scene in the white van.

Around 19:00hrs that evening O’Brien and a friend went into a local pub. They returned the following night and in conversation with bar staff O’Brien said he had a caravan at Camber Sands. They then left and went to an Indian restaurant for a meal. CCTV images captured O’Brien cool and relaxed.

On Tuesday, 13 October O’Brien and a friend drove to Ashford Designer Outlet retail park in Ashford, Kent – CCTV footage showed the movements of their vehicle, a VW Golf.

They visited several designer shops – O’Brien was caught on camera carefully selecting and trying on shirts and trousers before paying in cash. He also bought a suitcase and took time to have lunch.

On Wednesday, 14 October staff at the pub O’Brien had visited saw a police Facebook appeal offering a £10,000 reward to trace O’Brien and recognised his image. They called police and officers attended to make further enquiries.

However, by then O’Brien had fled. Further enquiries to trace the VW Golf showed it had travelled back towards London on Tuesday, 13 October and then at 13:15hrs passed very close to Biggin Hill Airport.

At 15:02hrs the same day, O’Brien left the country in a privately chartered twin-engine propeller plane. Air traffic control records showed its destination was the south east Netherlands, near the German and Belgian borders.

On Thursday, 22 October officers searched the caravan O’Brien had been staying in at Camber Sands and recovered a khaki Canada Goose jacket O’Brien had worn at the RE Bar. Josh’s blood was found on the sleeve as well as O’Brien’s DNA.

The manhunt:

A manhunt was launched to find O’Brien with the help of the National Crime Agency, Europol and Interpol. A European Arrest Warrant was obtained in October 2015 and O’Brien subsequently placed on Most Wanted lists across the world. Rewards for information leading to his arrest and prosecution were raised over time to £50,000.

Detectives began to piece together his movements. The private plane landed in the Netherlands where O’Brien was refused entry as he didn’t have a passport. He took an onward journey to Germany where he walked across the airfield and vanished.

DCI McHugh, said: “Early on it was clear O’Brien was a well-resourced and connected individual. With astonishing ease he was able to arrange a trip out of London, a flight out of the UK. He had the means and connections to disappear, people who would support him with funds and by supplying fake documentation.

“This was a case where we needed the public and media to flush him out. The plan was to get O’Brien’s face recognised across the world and make him a liability to those so keen to support him.

“Tracey and Brooke formed an army of helpers to distribute reward posters across the world. We got O’Brien onto Europol and Interpol’s most wanted lists, a first as previously dual circulation was not permitted.

“We had nearly a hundred potential sightings and we followed up every one – from Lidl in London to Luxemburg. At one point we believed he was in Dubai and did a lot of work with authorities there to try to track him. He also had links to Spain, France and Ireland.

“In February 2017 he messed up – getting arrested and bailed in Prague for a minor scuffle in a club. It meant we were able to obtain up-to-date images of him, which revealed he’d had a distinctive tattoo on his back of his children’s name covered up by an owl holding a skull, had a full beard and had grown his hair. He was also using Italian aliases.

“The work that went into trying to track him around the world was exceptional and I have nothing but thanks and praise for colleagues in the Met, the NCA and all those involved, including media here and abroad who carried so many of our appeals.”

The breakthrough:

On Thursday, 21 March 2019 DCI McHugh was contacted by O’Brien’s solicitor who said O’Brien was considering handing himself in and proposed a meeting in Budapest. The location was then changed to Romania and urgent enquiries began to try to trace exactly where O’Brien was. The Romanian authorities were alerted and O’Brien detained on Saturday, 23 March. On his person he had a false Danish passport, false residence permit and driving licences, credit cards in various names and three mobile phones.

O’Brien was extradited to the UK, arriving at Heathrow at 19:30hrs on Friday, 5 April. He was immediately taken to Heathrow police station and charged, appearing in court the following day.

+ Do you know about someone who is carrying a knife or involved in any type of crime? If you have information that could help keep your community safe, but don’t want to speak to police, please contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. They do not ask your name and cannot trace your call or I.P address.

DCI Noel McHugh tells us the story of the investigation: 

As a detective every so often you encounter a criminal who feels ‘just beyond your grasp’ and for three-and-half years O’Brien was mine.

It has been heart-breaking and overwhelming and all-consuming for myself and my team over the last almost four years. It has taken its toll and I say this knowing – of course – that the impact on Josh’s mum Tracey and sister Brooke has been incomprehensible. But I am incredibly proud of what my team have achieved, working alongside Josh’s family, and the extraordinary and outstanding work that has taken place to convict O’Brien.

Every murder scene is tragic; you visit as senior investigating officer knowing of course that someone lost their life there. But to a police eye, you look for opportunities. I remember meeting Josh’s mum for the first time at the scene and out of the corner of my eye I saw a refuse van emptying street bins. I had to do a double take as this was a Sunday morning. The bin men were stopped, in the hope they may have emptied a bin containing the murder weapon. Unpleasant, but critical specialist search officers then sifted through the rubbish. Nearly four years later, O’Brien stated he threw the knife in the sea at Camber Sands.

The road remained closed whilst a very cool German Shepherd was put to work searching for blood. It seemed like the dog knew he was in charge as police and public alike looked on in awe at his expertise.

Seizing CCTV from the bar was so crucial to our investigation we raced our engineer across London on blues and twos – we know attempts were being made to destroy it. This fast response meant we could quickly prove O’Brien’s identity as the man we sought via fingerprint work on the cups he drank from that night. At that stage we didn’t know a great deal about him but, call it instinct if you like, somehow this felt different from other murders.

I made a very quick decision to publicise O’Brien’s image along with a reward for his capture. Our first breakthrough came when staff at the pub he had visited following the murder recognised him and called one of my DCs Sam Vennart to say he was staying at a local caravan park in Camber Sands. You wonder do appeals like that work but clearly they do and I’m so grateful to those people throughout the investigation who did take the time to call in. Even if they come to nothing, we’d rather have 20 well-intentioned calls than none; never assume someone else will call in instead of you.

There followed painstaking and time-consuming work to examine CCTV in and around the caravan park and try to work out if he was there, what car he had travelled in. We found a black VW Golf that fitted. That enabled us to track its movements and then what O’Brien did in the time following his attack on Josh.

What we saw was astounding; you would never know this man had just killed another in cold blood. O’Brien was seen casually enjoying a curry with a friend, posing in front of a mirror, even getting the left-overs in a bag to go and then spending a couple of hours at Ashford Designer Outlet. You’d think a man in his position might quickly grab the first thing on the shelf and make off, but no, as CCTV shows, he carefully selected and tried on trousers and shirts, even asking a shop assistant for help with collar sizing at one point. Always paying in cash – he was careful about that!

We were a sniff away from finding him at this point; maybe 12 hours behind him at Ashford. But of course by then he had fled the country. The fact he is a man who can arrange at the drop of a hat for a privately hired plane to whisk him away without a passport speaks volumes about his connections and criminal links. How many of us would even know where to start in chartering a plane?

It was a theme throughout the investigation, O’Brien’s ability to travel on false documentation and undetected through countries, using private planes and highly encrypted phones costing £3,000 apiece. He had no job in the UK, no bank account; he spent his summers in Ibiza and had returned home just a couple of weeks before Josh’s murder. Most of our manhunts last a few weeks or months, and the suspect might flee to another county in the UK, relying on family and limited funds – not O’Brien.

The hunt was on and we followed up every single potential sighting, you just never knew. Some were frustratingly intended to distract and mislead the investigation, by tying up our resources to follow a line of enquiry that came to nothing. But they were far outweighed by the many many well-intentioned calls and lots were very credible – Xmas 2017 we had news he was at a tanning shop in west London. It sounded unbelievable he could be so close to home but CCTV showed a man who looked very similar to O’Brien. Extensive work would discount him.

As we know, in Prague his temper boiled up, leading to his arrest for a scuffle in a nightclub, a mistake on his part, or maybe not. He was so confident and arrogant when arrested, it was clear this was no big deal for him. He was bailed – it was a low level offence – but fingerprints were taken and later proactive computer searches we requested revealed his true identity.

While frustrating we were so close, we had new images we could publicise and they showed a man who looked really fit and strong. He had boxing gloves on him when arrested and this gave us leads to follow up in local gyms plus we traced a barber who had cut O’Brien’s hair several times – O’Brien said he was Australian but didn’t have the accent to match. We also found the tattooist he had visited to cover up his existing tattoos. We still hadn’t got our hands on O’Brien but it was progress and it was hope. Every little bit of information we obtained helped us build up a picture and was another piece of the puzzle towards finding him.

There were several arrests along the way. The man who chartered the plane and accompanied O’Brien out of the UK was later convicted of importing 100kg of heroin and cocaine, along with 30 of those encrypted phones. The pilots were convicted in the Netherlands of importing more than 90kg of heroin. O’Brien had some interesting friends.

Throughout this period the support we had from the NCA and law enforcement authorities across the world, including Federal agents in the United States, was incredible. We kept up the publicity drive, using every opportunity to appeal and get O’Brien’s image out there, creating a hostile atmosphere to make him such a hot commodity those supporting him would turn their backs on him. I am sure he felt that and perhaps that’s what lead to that final call.

Late on Thursday 21 March this year I was called by O’Brien’s brief, based in the UK, saying O’Brien was considering handing himself in and wanted me to travel to Budapest to personally meet him. My immediate thought was why? – really, he could have walked into any police station and handed himself in as one of the world’s most wanted men. Was this a trick to waste our time and resources getting out there only to find he was long gone somewhere else?

Then it changed and we were told the meet location was now Romania. We were then able to alert the Romanian authorities who did some brilliant work and they got him – detained with three mobile phones and counterfeit documentation.

We’d told Josh’s family something might be about to happen that weekend and then we were able to update them that after all this time finally O’Brien was in custody. For me those three-and-a-half years until we got him were a lens into the pain a family without justice can suffer.

Extradition was swift. O’Brien was accompanied back to the UK by Met officers and I watched his plane land before going to meet them. It was mixed emotion when I finally saw him in person. A bit of nervousness, a bit more of the ‘why’ – I’d watched that CCTV a hundred times, I still couldn’t work out why he did what he did – and a bit of yes, finally! And just taking stock of him as a person; he looked huge, fit, a real presence. Josh never stood a chance.

He was taken to Heathrow police station and I personally charged him, not something a DCI would normally do but I had to complete the story. He didn’t react, didn’t say anything.

We were quietly confident but not complacent about the weight of the evidence against O’Brien. Court was the first time we heard from him when he took to the stand. He claimed Josh was staring at him and he feared he would be attacked. He said he possibly saw something shiny being passed to Josh – no one else saw this and neither was it supported by CCTV.

Court was also the first opportunity I had to take stock of how we’d got here and just the amazing work that took place across the world that led to that moment.

It’s been a long and complex investigation and we feel it. During the last almost four years, officers have joined my team, been promoted, retired – and two DCs died suddenly of cancer within six weeks of each other, DC Vennart who had taken that initial break-through call, and DC Bernie Looney, another hugely valued colleague and friend. So during the trial I had a lump in my throat as I heard evidence gathered by amazing officers who are no longer with us.

The Met, you have all been amazing and this success is down to your brilliance. It was a tough period but we got through it because every officer and member of staff in the Met is committed to solving crime and getting justice for grieving families and my team’s work continues with the, sadly, several other murder cases we are working on. As I end this blog, we have just charged three with a new murder, a stabbing in W3 – another family wrecked through mindless violence.

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