It is every parent’s nightmare to lose a child. What must compound that nightmare more is if that child is lost to the hands of a stranger. Tragically often, the children are never found again, but in some cases, they are found dead. If that was not nightmare enough, some families never get to see their child’s killer brought to justice. The family of Kate Bushell knows how this feels.
Kate Bushell would have been 33 years old this year. She may have been successful, married, even had a family of her own. But 19 years ago, in November 1997, her life was brutally cut short by a maniac. To this day, no one has been brought to justice for this horrific murder. There are descriptions of suspects, vehicles, but none of these have been identified. What makes the case even more chilling and macabre is that Kate’s murder is one of a possible series of strikingly similar attacks, spanning a number of years and geographically miles apart.
The village of Exwick, Exeter, is a quiet village, the type of place a family feels safe living in, a million miles removed from horror or tragedy. Or so it seemed.
It was just beginning to grow dark, at 4:30pm on Saturday 17th November 1997. Kate Bushell, a happy, churchgoing, 14 year old girl had gotten into the habit of walking a neighbour’s dog. As it was beginning to get dark, she promised her family that she would be no longer than 20 minutes, and set off to collect her neighbour’s dog, Gemma. The route Kate would have took her from her house on Burrator Drive, down Exwick Hill, onto Exwick Lane then through a gate and across a field to rejoin the lane a little further on. A simple 20 minute walk that was extremely popular with dog owners, and one that Kate was very familiar with.
When she hadn’t returned by 5pm, Kate’s parents were becoming annoyed. With each passing minute however, the annoyance turned increasingly to alarm. Kate was a considerate girl, not prone to giving her parents cause for concern. The Bushell family was a happy one; there was no question of Kate having run away from home. Had there been an accident? Finally, by 6:45pm, Kate had been reported to the police as missing. Her family had driven around the local estate looking for her, but to no avail, and had finally returned home. Whilst Kate’s mother Suzanne waited at home so someone would be there in case Kate turned up, her father Jerry set out on foot to look for her.
What followed is the stuff of nightmares. At 7:30pm, Jerry, having ended up tracing the regular route that Kate used to walk Gemma, discovered his daughter lying motionless a short distance into the field off Exwick Lane. She lay flat on her back, and her Reebok jogging pants were pulled down around her knees. Her long blonde hair was splayed out, and her throat was red. A pathologist report later concluded that Kate’s throat had been slashed in a singular, ferocious movement, with the “substantial” knife inserted into the side of her neck and then ripped outwards and across. Although her jogging bottoms were around her knees, there was no sign of any sexual assault. Had the assailant been disturbed? Kate had been killed just 300 yards from her home, Gemma still whimpering near the body.
Detectives quickly surmised that this was an opportunistic crime. It would have only taken Kate a few minutes to reach the spot where her body was found, to a place where somebody had been waiting and had attacked her from behind. There was no weapon found at the scene, meaning that the killer took it with him. No weapon definitely linked to the murder has ever been found. Was it someone known to Kate, somebody with a grudge? As detectives built up a picture of Kate’s life and interests, friends, it swiftly became clear that she was a regular teenager with no problems, or people who wished her harm. The murder fell into the category of a “stranger” murder, where sadly, the detection rate notably drops. Apart from being a “stranger” murder, Kate’s murder seemed motiveless. She had not been sexually assaulted, but the killing being sexually motivated could not be ruled out. Kate’s jogging bottoms were found at her knees, had the offender tried to rape her but couldn’t? Had he been disturbed? The severity and particulars of the wound also gave police things to consider. Kate had not been stabbed, which is the more common act of killing involving a knife used as a weapon. It takes considerable strength to rip out somebody’s throat in one single slash, were police looking for an offender who had committed past violent offences? Or someone with a mental illness?
The resulting enquiry was massive, with police inundated with information and reported sightings of suspicious people. A team of officers numbering upwards of 130 sifted through over 4,000 calls. They worked tirelessly, resulting in nearly 4000 statements and 5000 fingerprints being taken. 4,400 house to house enquiries were completed, 3,300 exhibits catalogued. The dog that Kate had been walking, Gemma, was forensically examined. Focusing upon the method of killing, police examined the theory that the killer may have had military training, or had worked in an abattoir. Serving and former member of the Armed Forces were examined, as were those who had had training as butchers or in slaughterhouses. Vehicles were checked, known sex offenders were looked at, and thorough searches of the surrounding areas were undertaken. The police covered every angle possible, but all leads seemed to lead to nothing.
Detectives also had reported sightings of several persons of interest to the enquiry. Most promisingly, they learned that a possibly bloodstained man had been spotted fleeing the scene at around the time Kate was murdered. He was described as being 5’10” to 5’11” tall, aged between 30 to 35 years old, of medium build with brown hair and a short moustache. He was reported to have been wearing jeans, muddy trainers and a blue sweatshirt with red marks on the front, which could have been blood. Also reported by at least 3 different women was a “weirdo” who had jumped out from bushes at them in the weeks leading up to Kate’s murder, and in the same general area. The witnesses described a scruffy man in his late 30s or 40s with unkempt salt and pepper hair, unshaven, of thick set build and wearing a brown check overcoat and black boots. The possibility that someone had been living rough in the area was suggested and examined, although this line of enquiry did not lead to any breakthroughs.
Another person of interest to the enquiry was a man sighted in Exwick Lane at about 1700 on the day of the murder. The man was seen stood at the back of a blue Astra van, by witnesses who drove past Kate at the top of Exwick Lane, about 250 yards away. He was described as white, wearing blue jeans, aged between 30 and 40, of medium build, with dark collar-length hair, and clean shaven. A check of nearly 2000 blue Astra vans in the Exeter area was undertaken, but proved fruitless.
The case was featured on BBC TV’s Crimewatch UK, a long running monthly programme that reconstructs unsolved crimes and invites the general public to call in with any information they may have. It has been running for 32 years now and has a very impressive success rate, with information received as a result of the programme leading to the solving of many of Britain’s high profile crimes of the last 30 years. I cite Crimewatch UK as the genesis of my fascination with true crime. Although the studio received calls following the public appeal, it sadly did not advance the enquiry any further. The case has been appealed several times on the programme, but with no further results.
It is now 19 years since Kate Bushell was senselessly murdered, and in that time the case has been speculatively linked to other unsolved murders, including that of Lyn Bryant in Truro in 1998, and Helen Fleet in Weston Super-Mare in 1987. However, although it cannot be stated definitively if these cases are linked, it is highly likely that the same man is responsible, at least in the Lyn Bryant case. The chances of there being two different men, with equal bloodlust, attacking and murdering lone women out walking dogs within such a close geographical catchment is highly unlikely. It is important here to note that these cases are often repeatedly linked as a series, along with the murder of Cheshire housewife Julia Webb in 1998, because they involve women out walking dogs. It should be noted that dogs are not the linking factor here – it is the lone female that links all of these crimes. Future posts on thetruecrimeenthusiast will focus upon these unsolved murders.
Up to that point, 1997, the manhunt for the killer of Kate Bushell was Devon and Cornwall police force’s most complex, extensive investigation, costing within the region of half a million pounds. As previously mentioned, it has been re-appealed several times, coinciding with the anniversaries of the crime, and the hope that the killer will be caught has always been kept alive as DNA and forensic technology advances. It is paramount to state that the enquiry remains open – it is periodically reviewed and whenever funding becomes available, officers continue to sift through the evidence. Despite all of the actions undertaken, the thousands of man hours spent investigating every lead possible, the countless appeals and TV reconstructions, and a reward offered in excess of £25,000, this killer has not been caught.
Examining what is known, what can be surmised about the killer? It is safe to say that the killer will be a strong male, who would now be aged 40 to 60 years old. This man is an organised killer. He brought the weapon with him and left with it, he managed to approach Kate from behind which shows either he had surveyed and chosen the area previously, or was familiar with the area because it was local to him. He killed instantly, and effectively with a single slash. This man will have offended again, if he is still alive, both before and after this murder. There is normally an escalation in offending that builds up to a crime of this magnitude: barring a serious psychotic episode, people do not commit murder as a very first offence. Not an organised crime such as this anyway, and the thrill gained is so great that eventually, it will have to be repeated. 19 years is a long time to keep a lid on something like this. Someone somewhere will at the time have had an inkling as to his culpability, and may have knowingly or even unwittingly covered for them. They may remember a person behaving strangely following the murder, or may remember a time a family member arrived home with bloodstained clothing. It would take a person having an extraordinary degree of self-control and detachment to have committed such a horrific, brutal crime, and to not outwardly display some signs of reaction, so surely somebody somewhere will have a recollection of that. I believe it safe to say that this man’s name will be in the files somewhere.
There are however, a number of possibilities that should be mentioned. For example, the killer may now be dead. At the time of the murder, police did examine all suicides in the surrounding areas for the 6 weeks following Kate’s murder. It is not uncommon for offenders to be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of their actions that they take their own lives. Again though, this line of enquiry drew a blank. There is also the possibility that the killer may be in prison or a mental hospital for another unrelated crime. He may have left the country. He may have already killed again, or he may be walking the streets, building up to doing just that. Devon and Cornwall Police have several detectives who have long since retired, whose biggest regret is that they have not seen this killer yet brought to justice. One can only hope that time will change this.