By Paul Scott
Last updated at 7:14 PM on 23rd January 2009
The murky half-light of a bleak New York winter's morning had yet to penetrate the small rear bedroom of an airless apartment in the city's bohemian Greenwich Village.
Stepping over empty bottles and half-eaten plates of spaghetti (the untidy remnants of the previous night's party), two police officers from the tough 6th Precinct stood in the doorway and surveyed the scene.
Pushed up hard against the far wall was a bed. Lying amid the crumpled sheets, illuminated by the unforgiving glow of a single light bulb, was the naked dead body of a young man.
Tragic love story: Sex Pistol Sid Vicious was accused of the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen
To Manhattan's hardened policemen, it was hardly an unfamiliar scene. But the death of the 21-year-old in the messy ground-floor flat at 63 Bank Street did offer the New York Police Department a rather convenient solution to a potentially messy murder investigation.
Because the dead man, John Ritchie, who had taken his last breath just hours before, was better known as British punk rocker Sid Vicious - the prime suspect in the murder of his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
Now, however, the Sex Pistols bass guitarist, who was on bail charged with stabbing Spungen to death at their Manhattan hotel four months earlier, was dead and the file could be closed with the minimum of fuss.
He killed Nancy, they assumed, then died of an overdose. End of story.
But many of those who knew the couple have always questioned this official version of events.
And on the 30th anniversary of his death, a new film is set for release which presents the fascinating theory that Vicious was innocent of murdering his blonde lover.
Its makers claim to have uncovered evidence which reveals that a series of police blunders and apathy by detectives led the authorities wrongly to pin the blame on the star.
In fact, the film contests, medical tests carried out on Vicious at the time of his arrest showed the musician would have been incapable of the attack, because he was out cold at the time after taking so much of a powerful sedative that it would have killed all but the most hard-bitten drug users.
Instead, the film Who Killed Nancy? asserts for the first time that 20-year-old Spungen, the daughter of a wealthy middle-class Philadelphia family, was killed by another resident at the hotel - a shadowy British man named Michael, who spent that last fatal night in the room with the couple.
As the murderer robbed and killed Spungen for the huge stash of cash they kept there, Vicious, it is claimed, slept through the attack, only waking to find his lover's dead body in the morning.
The documentary's British director, Alan G. Parker, who has spent 24 years investigating the life and death of the star and has written a series of well-received books on the subject, tracked down more than 180 witnesses and unearthed previously unseen police reports.
He also spoke to several witnesses who are adamant that Vicious was innocent. Crucially, Parker says police found the fingerprints of six people who had been in the couple's room at New York's rundown Chelsea Hotel in the early hours, but none was ever interviewed.
One witness, who subsequently became a priest, tried to tell detectives that he thought Vicious was not the murderer, but was given the brush-off by investigating officers.
Meanwhile others pointed the finger of suspicion at the man known only as 'Michael', who one friend of the couple swears remained alone in the room with them during those fateful final hours. He disappeared after the murder and police made no effort to track him.
Troubled: Spungen and Vicious in London, 1978
'I have followed this story for over 20 years,' says Parker. 'The more I researched and dug around, the more I became convinced that Sid was innocent. The police thought they had their man, and when he died the whole thing could be put away and forgotten about.'
But just how much of the film's thesis stands up to scrutiny and how much is based on the plethora of wild conspiracy theories that have grown up about the deaths of Sid and Nancy over the past three decades?
Certainly, Spungen's killing did seem, at first, to be a routine murder investigation. A rock groupie who had turned her back on her genteel Jewish upbringing and become a heroin addict, funding her habit at one time by working as a stripper and prostitute, Nancy was found dead in her underwear in the bathroom of Room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel.
The monolithic Chelsea had once been a Mecca for writers and artists. Dylan Thomas, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan had all once lived there. But by the late 1970s, it was little more than a sprawling drugs den populated by a seedy coterie of Manhattan low-life.
Spungen, who had been dating Sid Vicious for a year, had been stabbed once in the stomach by a hunting knife that London-born Vicious had bought days earlier to protect himself when he ventured out into New York to buy drugs.
It was Vicious himself who phoned police to say he had found her dead body, and an hour later on the morning of October 12, 1978, in a holding cell at the Third Homicide Division, Vicious famously confessed: 'I did it because I'm a dirty dog.'
The police, it seemed, had their man. With his taste for violence, animal torture and swastikas, Vicious was, after all, the repellent face of punk rock in all its snarling ugliness.
His band, the Sex Pistols, had shocked Britain with their foulmouthed rants on TV and their anti-monarchy hit, God Save The Queen.
He had killed his lover, it seemed, in the ultimate act of rock debauchery while out of his mind on drugs.
But Vicious was later to retract his confession, claiming he could not recall anything about the night Nancy - dubbed 'Nauseating Nancy' by the star's own mother - had died.
Hardly surprising, perhaps, given that the police report obtained by Parker reveals Vicious was dosed up on powerful sedatives at the time of her murder. Indeed, witnesses who were at an impromptu party in their room the evening before her body was found claim he took up to 30 Tuinal tablets - a strong barbiturate.
Few could survive such a massive dose, claims Parker, and even those who could would be put into a deep coma for many hours.
Certainly, several witnesses who passed in and out of the couple's first-floor room in the early hours say Vicious was out for the count. And at least two say the previously unknown Michael, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, was with Sid and Nancy as late as 5am - around the time she was stabbed.
So what could have been a possible motive for the killing? In a word: money. Vicious, who had quit the Sex Pistols nine months earlier after a bitter fall- out with the group's lead singer Johnny Rotten, had gone on to have a Europe-wide solo hit with a tuneless version of the Frank Sinatra classic My Way.
Just days before Nancy's death, he had received $25,000 in cash - royalty payments from Richard Branson's Virgin Records.
Witnesses say that on the night before Spungen's death, the room was awash with money. The following morning, however, the cash was gone, and Michael was later seen carrying a large wad of cash secured with one of Nancy's purple hair ties.
So just who was the mysterious Michael? Details of the alleged killer are sketchy, but he was described by witnesses as a young, slim, blond man with a penchant for alligator shoes. He spoke with a British accent and had moved into the hotel recently, befriending Vicious and Miss Spungen.
Several of the couple's friends remember seeing him with them in the days before Nancy's death, and one, musician Neon Leon, who had been with the couple on the night of the killing, says he rang Nancy shortly before the time that she is estimated to have been stabbed. He says he could hear the man he knew as Michael talking in the background.
Another resident of the Chelsea, Victor Colicchio, also stopped at the couple's door shortly before the stabbing and says Michael was inside.
But none of the witnesses knew Michael well, and his last name remains a mystery. Only one hand-drawn picture by the couple's friend, singer Steve Dior, offers any evidence of what he looked like: slimly built, with shoulder-length hair.
Controversial: Vicious on stage in San Francisco with fellow Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten in 1978
Dior is adamant that this is the man he believes killed Nancy and who disappeared soon after with the bundle of the couple's cash.
Another resident at the sleazy Chelsea Hotel was a would-be actor called Rockets Redglare - who had been born 'Michael Morra'. Interestingly, within days of Nancy's murder he allegedly confessed to a friend that he was the real killer.
Redglare, who was raised in a tough district of Brooklyn, had been an unofficial minder and drugs dealer to the couple. He was a well-known figure on Manhattan's Lower East Side and went on to star with Madonna in the Hollywood movie Desperately Seeking Susan and with Tom Hanks in Big. One English friend of the couple, Zoe Hansen, met Redglare after the killing and says he admitted to her he had been in the room that night and told her: 'I did it.'
Redglare, himself an addict, died, aged 52, in May 2001 of a combination of kidney and liver failure caused by his years of drug use.
But despite his mysterious confession, witnesses insist that Redglare - who was American, dark-haired and 25 stone - was not the man they blame for Nancy's murder. That Michael, it seems, vanished without a trace.
And so, with no other suspects to hand, the police charged Vicious with Nancy's murder. He was remanded in custody, but his manager, the colourful Malcolm McLaren, hired a top New York lawyer called James Merberg to win him bail.
Within days, Vicious was free on a $50,000 licence which had been put up by his record label boss, Richard Branson.
A little more than a month later, however, Sid was back inside the maximum security Riker's Island jail after glassing a man in a fight in a New York club. He spent nearly two months behind bars in the prison's detox wing before he was again released on bail.
By then, Vicious had a new girlfriend, a would-be actress called Michelle Robson. On the day of his release - February 1, 1979 - Vicious, his mother Anne Beverley and a few friends went back to Robson's apartment for a celebration meal.
After eating spaghetti bolognese, Vicious asked his mother - herself a hopeless addict - to find him some drugs. He complained that what she brought him was not strong enough, and another friend was dispatched to get some more.
But unknown to Vicious, this second batch of heroin was more than 95 per cent pure and nearly three times stronger than most of the heroin sold on the streets of New York. After taking it, Sid collapsed.
He was revived by his girlfriend and mother, but they decided not to call an ambulance because they feared he would be thrown back in jail for breaking his bail conditions. It was to prove a fatal mistake.
Later that night, alone in the bedroom, he injected more of the powerful heroin. The following morning, he was found dead.
A pathologist who examined his body said the star's tolerance to the drug had been weakened by his period behind bars. That, and the potency of the heroin, had killed him.
Police quickly announced they were not looking for anyone else in connection with Spungen's death.
Meanwhile, Anne Beverley discovered what appeared to be a suicide note in the pocket of her son's jeans. Written some days earlier, Vicious told his mother he wanted to be reunited with 'his' Nancy.
The discovery of the letter led some friends to speculate that Nancy's death had been a suicide pact that had gone wrong, and Spungen had administered the fatal knife wound herself.
In fact, ten days after her death, Vicious had attempted to slash his wrists, and just a few months earlier the couple had told a British music magazine of their plans to take their own lives.
After his death, the punk rocker's mother requested he be laid to rest in the same plot where Nancy was buried, but her parents refused. The following week, Anne flew with her son's ashes to the Philadelphia cemetery and secretly sprinkled them over Nancy's gravestone.
His mother, who committed suicide in 1996, remained convinced of her son's innocence until her dying day.
'Before she died, Anne told me to clear her son's name,' says Parker. 'Everything I have found out since makes me believe that Sid was innocent.'
It is unlikely we shall ever now know for sure. But could it be that the undeniably unpleasant and violent Vicious really was the victim of an injustice after all?
Who Killed Nancy? is released on February 6.