The crimes of Dennis Nilsen have always been a fascination to me, and many pages and several books have been written about them in the 33 years since Nilsen’s conviction and subsequent life imprisonment for the murders of 13 young men in London, from 1978 to 1983. Indeed, information about the details of Nilsen’s crimes is so widely available, almost public knowledge, that it would serve no purpose to recount them here. I am quite versed in the Nilsen case, having read many articles concerning it over the years. I also own what I considered for several years to be the two definitive books authored about the case, namely “Killing For Company” by Brian Masters, and “House Of Horrors” by John Lisners. Both are excellent reads – if somewhat sensationalised – and are highly recommended.
But, as any readers of my previous reviews will know, I am always impressed by a book upon a certain case if either I learn new details from it; or it is written from a different viewpoint, regardless if I have read one book upon the subject, or ten. I approached Dennis Nilsen: Conversations With Britain’s Most Evil Serial Killer with interest because this book is written with arguably more insight and from a more knowledgeable source than any other: Nilsen himself. What is often touched upon, but perhaps not in too great detail, is how prolific a writer Nilsen himself is. Over the course of his incarceration, Nilsen has completed countless volumes of self- reflective writing and has corresponded with numerous pen pals, academics, journalists and authors.
This book then, is written using the author’s first hand access to Nilsen’s own controversial (and subsequently Home Office banned) self penned autobiography, History Of A Drowning Boy. (Allegedly, the author, Russ Coffey, is one of only 4 people to have done so)The author, Russ Coffey, spent a decade corresponding with Nilsen, researching and writing this book and has developed what is arguably one of the best accounts a journalist has ever constructed with a subject.
Coffey has written a well-structured book, commencing with good accounts of Nilsen’s early life, and his careers serving both in the Army and Metropolitan Police. The author goes on to echo what has become the canonical Nilsen story, namely his bizarre (and morbid)sexual fantasies, his relationship with alcohol, his one night stands, and ultimately towards the end of the book, his crimes. This is followed by Nilsen’s arrest and trial. Nothing ground breakingly new here one might say, although these accounts have all been very well researched and written. Impressive is the detail here contained in these accounts that stems from the author’s research – I read within the book several anecdotes about Nilsen’s life that were previously unknown to me, which I always find refreshing. Coffey has also painstakingly traced several people featured in the Nilsen story – these range from friends and acquaintances, to old colleagues, to members of the victim’s families – all of which their accounts and words add colour to the Nilsen story. Excellent plus points.
What impressed me most with Dennis Nilsen: Conversations With Britain’s Most Evil Serial Killer was how much of the book focuses (in good detail and as a flowing narrative) on a chronological account of Nilsen’s life in prison. Several chapters are devoted to this, and I found this refreshing, as the side of Nilsen’s incarceration over the past 33 years is often only skimmed over – with any writing on the subject instead focusing predominantly upon his murders. Where the accounts differ from other books about the Nilsen case is that these benefit from being written with the hindsight of Nilsen’s own years of self- reflection to provide a commentary upon them. Again, this contains several anecdotes that have not been published in other writing about Nilsen.
Overall, it makes for chilling yet fascinating reading. The research and written accounts deserve much credit, the reproduction of Nilsen’s own words is fascinating and insightful, and the photographs contained inside are varied, with some that will not be familiar to students of the Nilsen case. With the benefit of having access to Nilsen’s own writing (and “autobiography”), Coffey skilfully invites the reader to attempt to understand Nilsen’s psyche. I found it a fascinating book, and one that I could highly recommend both to those familiar with the Nilsen case, and novice students of it. In my opinion, it has become THE recommended book about the crimes of Dennis Nilsen.
“These were atrocious and vicious killings. Someone must have an overwhelming load of guilt on their conscience.” – Dr Richard Whittington (Coroner – speaking at inquest in August 1988)
It is exactly 29 years ago that a vicious and cowardly murderer shocked the city of Birmingham by carrying out a horrific double murder. The victims were two elderly sisters, Alice and Edna Rowley, whose lives were senselessly taken in a brutal murder that netted the killer a haul consisting of nothing more than a few petty items. The crime is still unsolved, and police hope that someone out there still has vital information that can bring this monstrously evil killer to justice.
Alice and Edna Rowley had run their shop on the corner of Greswolde Road, Sparkhill, for more than 50 years, and were familiar figures in the neighbourhood, driving their old Morris Minor back and to from the local cash and carry. They were known for their charitable and kindly nature, often giving out free sweets to local children and regularly giving donations to local causes. Alice and Edna were creatures of habit, opening very early in the morning and remaining open throughout the day, so, when on December 23rd, 1987, the shop that stood at 94 Greswolde Road remained closed by the mid-morning, neighbours were concerned. The sisters were both elderly; perhaps one of them had taken ill or had had an accident? Concerned neighbours who failed to get any response from knocking eventually contacted police.
When police arrived, officers forced their way into the sister’s home, and found a site so tragic and shocking that it shook hardened officers. In the small downstairs living room, Alice was found lying on the floor. Edna was found lying in her bedroom. Both were clearly dead, Alice having ligature marks visible around her throat, and Edna having severe bruising around her eyes. Post-mortems later determined that 87 year old Alice had been strangled with a scarf or a towel, although it was never found, and 77 year old Edna had been beaten and smothered to death. All that had been taken were two boxes of chocolates, a bottle of Tia Maria, a battered brown leather suitcase, and a radio cassette player. The chocolates and alcohol were the sister’s Christmas presents to one another.
Initial inquiries revealed that the sisters had last been seen alive the previous evening at 6:45pm, and had probably been killed not long after closing the shop for the evening. The initial thought of police was that they had interrupted a burglary in progress. But this theory was dispelled with a closer examination of the scene. An untouched meal lay on the dining table, and there were no signs of forced entry to the shop or upstairs premises. It appeared as though the sisters had been about to sit down to an evening meal when the killer had struck. Had he conned his way in on pretence, or had the kindly sisters invited someone knocking on their door in, as they had a habit of?
Over 100 police were drafted in from across Birmingham as the subsequent murder investigation began in earnest, with house to house enquiries carried out in the surrounding area. A search of the shop and living area was carried out to determine if anything else had been taken, or any forensic evidence had been left behind by the killer. The sister’s backgrounds and lives were looked at to determine if there was anyone with a possible motive for harming them. Police left no stone unturned in one of Birmingham’s biggest ever manhunts, making more than 5,000 individual inquiries and taking more than 1,600 statements. Every male living in the surrounding area was fingerprinted. The crime sickened police so much that a £10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer was offered. This was a first of its kind for the force.
“We certainly have not personally offered a reward before and I cannot recall any other police force taking this step. However, this outrageous offence demands that we consider all avenues of investigation and assistance.I earnestly ask the public, including members and associates of the criminal fraternity to examine their consciences, consider the nature of the killings and report their suspicions.” Asst Chief Constable Tom Meffen (speaking in 1987)
But police didn’t have much to go on. The search of the premises revealed no forensic evidence, blood traces, footprints or unidentified fingerprints, and a murder weapon was never found. An item that was found, however, was an empty packet of Walkers Bitza Pizza crisps. This was found lying at the bottom of the stairs – and it was established that these type of crisps were not sold in the shop. Had the killer brought them with him? The origin of the packet has never been explained. House to house enquiries also revealed very little – no sounds of struggle or screams were heard, and no one was seen leaving the scene. The sisters were found to have been well liked, were well known, and were very well respected in the local area. They had no immediate family and neither had ever married, all they had was the shop, and each other. They were described as independent and from a generation that was hard working, proud and brave. Evidence to this effect is that on a previous occasion, Alice had been confronted by an armed robber in the shop, but had struck him with a broom and caused him to flee. The sisters were the type to have a go, not cower.
House to house enquiries early in the new year did, however, give police one possible lead. A neighbour living near the shop who had been abroad over Christmas came forward to police upon hearing about the murder when he returned to the area early in the new year. The neighbour reported that on December 22nd, he had seen a “scruffy looking” man, “like a vagrant”, knocking on the door of the shop at about 7:30pm. This would have been just after the shop had closed. Crucially, the man was knocking on the internal glass door of the shop and not the outer one. This same man was seen at the same time by a woman walking towards the shop. The witnesses described the man as being middle aged, with grey streaked greasy hair, and was wearing a grey or brown jacket with dark trousers. An artist’s impression was created and was widely publicised locally and nationally. Enquiries were made at hostels, night shelters and places frequented by down and outs, but this “vagrant” never came forward, and was never traced. Who was he? The artist’s impression is shown below:
When all avenues of enquiry had been followed up and exhausted, the incident room was scaled down – although the case has never and will never be closed. It has been re-appealed on numerous occasions over the years, including several times on Central television and the subject of a Crimewatch UK reconstruction. But nobody has as yet been brought to justice for this cowardly murder.
What then can be said about the killer? Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to determine anything for certain. There is scarce information available about the crime, so to build up a picture of the killer depends largely on hypothesis. I am led to believe that this is not the first crime committed by this man – it is a level of offending reached rather than started at. It does not appear to have been a planned murder either – perhaps more spur of the moment? For example – the offender may have conned his way in on pretence, or pretended to have been ill even, planning to then steal in a distraction burglary? He may have been caught in this act by one of the sisters, then panicked – and took the most drastic action possible and killed both? Neither of the sisters had been sexually assaulted, so sex can be discounted as a motive, and there is no suggestion that either sister had any enemies, or were involved in anything illegal or immoral – this leaves robbery as a motive. But why only take such paltry items? There is no record of any money having been taken – in a shop where there would more than likely be a cash float. Just some Christmas presents were taken. This suggests that robbery became an afterthought – and that the murder of the two sisters was unplanned. This is furthered by the method of murder – strangulation. It is a very spur of the moment method, and all points to a robbery going horribly wrong, and the killer just grabbing items to hand before fleeing, panicking after having killed two elderly women. This theory gains credence by the fact that police discovered that this had actually happened a few weeks before. A bogus water board official had called at the shop a few weeks previously, and had got as far as the kitchen before being exposed as an imposter – although how this was ascertained is not revealed. Was this connected – were the sisters targeted again by the same person? The bogus water official was never traced either.
It is also important not to base the sole picture on the artist’s impression, although difficult because it is the only lead police have to go on, and the fact that any man matching the description was never traced nor came forward to clear themselves makes this man the prime person of interest. But it should not be stated with certainty that this is the face of the killer – the man could have been innocently asking for directions somewhere, and had chosen a shop because of its focal point of knowledge of the local area. He could have been someone known to the sisters. He may even not have recognised himself from the artist’s impression, or he may not have even been a local man – perhaps a traveller passing through, or a long distance delivery or lorry driver. He is either an important potential witness, or he may of course, be the killer. But either way he has never been traced, and if this man appeared middle aged in 1987, then he would be elderly himself now. If he is even still alive of course. So the artist’s impression is largely rendered useless today.
With no suspects, no forensic evidence and no leads, the investigation has remained inactive for many years now. It has frustrated detectives who have examined every piece of evidence and theory available, and have examined any possible links with other unsolved crimes throughout the UK. None have been definitively linked however. The shop itself no longer exists now, instead an Islamic Cultural and Education Centre stands on the site where it was.
The murder of Alice and Edna Rowley is still unforgotten in the community where they once lived though, and the unsolved crimes are periodically reviewed by specialist teams of cold case detectives, who urge anybody with information to get in touch to help. Sadly, it is likely that barring a deathbed confession or someone’s conscience getting the better of them, that that information will not be forthcoming, and that the killer will escape justice for this despicable crime.
Anyone with information can call police on 101, or the Crimestoppers charity anonymously on 0800 555 111.
From mid October 1974, the university city of Cambridge was held in the grip of fear. A vicious sex attacker was at large, attacking the female students of the city. For eight months, a man dubbed “The Cambridge Rapist” avoided capture, and was finally caught not by detective work, but by chance.
The rapists reign of terror began on 18th October 1974. A young student was alone in the house that she shared on Springfield Road with four other students, and had just got out of the bath. She put on some music and began to get dried, but just as she began to do so the lights went out and the music stopped. The terrified young woman then heard the sound of footsteps on the floorboards outside her room, and the sound of a key being inserted into the lock. Suddenly, a stocky man burst through the door and roughly pushed her to the floor. He tied her wrists together with a blouse from the young woman’s wardrobe and then said to her chillingly:
“I came to rob you, but I think I’ll rape you instead”
The young woman was then savagely raped. After robbing her of £12 from her purse, the rapist fled.
Less than two weeks later, in nearby Abbey Road, the rapist struck again in an almost carbon copy attack. Another young woman was laying in the bath, alone at home, when the lights suddenly went out. As she got out of the bath and went to the top of the stairs to call out, she heard someone running up the stairs and was overpowered by a short, stocky man. He forced an ether soaked pad over her face, and pushed her into the bedroom. Tying her hands behind her back with a pair of tights, she was then brutally raped. When she cried out that the man was hurting her, the rapist replied “That’s good, that’s good”. He then fled, leaving the weeping woman bruised and shaken.
Police investigating the first attack now realised they were looking for a serial rapist.
A bizarre incident then occurred on the 11th November 1974, in a house on Huntingdon Road. Another young woman was alone ironing in her shared house when she heard what sounded like somebody climbing over the back garden fence. There was nobody there when she looked out, so she thought nothing of it. About 30 minutes later, the front doorbell rang, and when she went to answer it, she was confronted with a strange sight. A man was stood at the door, with a scarf around the lower part of his face and wearing a long blonde wig. He was wearing a black leather jacket, but was otherwise naked. He lunged at her through the door, but this time he was fought off. After being kicked and hit with the iron the woman had been using, the man fled in pain. It was clear that the woman was the intended third victim.
Just two days later, the rapist struck again, more viciously and terrifying than before.
A young music student was in one of the soundproofed music rooms of Homerton Ladies College in Cambridge, when the now familiar signature of the power being cut occurred. In the frightening silent blackness, the young woman was grabbed and a pad soaked in ether was placed across her nose and mouth. The frightened girl struggled and screamed, and was told that she was going to be murdered. Placing a sack over her head, she was dragged out of the block of music rooms and across a field to a shed, where she was repeatedly raped. During her ordeal, she heard the following:
“I am not a murderer. I am the Cambridge Rapist”
Three and a half weeks later, the rapist struck again. On the 8th December 1974, a 21 year old student was asleep in bed in her house on Owlstone Road, when she was woken by a bright light being shined in her eyes. She was dragged roughly from her bed and taken down stairs and outside, where she was pushed onto the lawn and tied up with a pair of tights taken from the washing line. But this attack yielded two important bits of information that would prove to be ultimately accurate about the rapist. As she was being raped, the rapist used the victim’s boyfriends name. Was he researching his victims? The student also said that when the rapist had fled, there was no sound of a car being driven away, but she had heard what sounded like a bicycle being ridden away.
One week later, the rapist committed rape for the fifth time, and returned to the scene of his third attack, the house in Huntingdon Road. A 21 year old woman in an upstairs flat was awoken in the now signature method; an ether soaked pad was placed over her nose and mouth and a torch shone in her eyes. More savagely this time, after being tied up and raped, the woman had her body slashed by the attacker. The wound required twenty stitches.
By this time, the hunt for the rapist had become one of the biggest in British criminal history. Hundreds of officers were involved in looking for a man that they knew very little about, and only had a vague description of. About five feet tall, young, stocky, possibly bearded. They knew that the rapist talked to his victims during the assaults, and that his voice sounded local. They knew that they were probably looking for a local man, possibly an experienced burglar. At nights, more than a hundred plainclothes detectives roamed Cambridge streets, looking for anyone acting furtively. And the scope of potential victims was massive. Cambridge is a massively populated university town, with thousands of female students living in halls of residence, bedsits and shared houses. Any of them could be the rapists next victim. The police had forensic evidence from the rapist – semen swabbed from his victims that revealed his blood group as an O secretor. It also revealed that the man they were looking for was sterile. Police invited all men over five feet in height from Cambridge and nearby Newmarket to come and give saliva samples to eliminate themselves, and 1,644 did – but the rapist was not found. Perhaps the hunt had gotten too close, because suddenly, the attacks stopped.
During the next couple of months graffiti began to appear on walls near to the scene of the attacks. Chillingly, it said “The rapist is back”. And there were a few reports from women who had discovered frightening messages written on their windows in pink lipstick, saying “Sleep tight – The Rapist”. But there were no more reports of attacks.
But on the 13th April 1975, the Cambridge Rapist returned with a vengeance.
That night, a young woman alone in a house in a street close to the scene of the previous attacks heard a key being tried in her door lock. Because of the attacks the previous year, the woman had had a security chain fitted to the door – and this held. But the power to her house had been cut – and there was no telephone to call for help. The petrified woman got into bed and about twenty minutes later noticed a torch beam appear at her bedroom window. Suddenly, she heard the terrifying sound of the front door crashing open as the attacker threw himself at it, breaking the chain. She heard the sound of someone running upstairs, and in the dark she was restrained as per what was now the chilling signature. But this time, there was added terror.
When the woman’s eyes adjusted to the eerie half light, she saw a terrifying sight. Before her stood a man dressed completely in black leather. He wore a hideous, terrifying leather mask a zip across the mouth and two eye slits. Across the forehead was painted the word “RAPIST”. From underneath the mask the woman could make out a straggly beard. Before she was horrifically attacked, the attacker pulled back the mouth zip and said to the woman:
“Do you know who I am? I am the Cambridge Rapist”.
The police now obviously feared that the rapist would go on to kill someone. He had changed tactics and become bolder and more violent. All the police could do was intensify the hunt – more patrols, more enquiries, more investigations. But the rapist remained at large.
The 6th of May 1975 brought another attack – this time in broad daylight. A young female student on her lunch break had returned home to collect some notes when she was attacked in her own home by the masked rapist. He threatened her with a knife and actually stabbed her in the stomach, then forced himself upon her and raped her. As he had done in previous attacks, the rapist displayed some knowledge of his victim, using her boyfriend’s name during the assault. He then left the traumatised woman bleeding on her living room floor and fled.
The rapist’s reign of terror came to an end in the early hours of Sunday 8th June 1975. A 28 year old Canadian exchange student asleep in bed in Owlstone Croft Hostel was awakened by footsteps in the corridor outside her room. When she opened the door to see who was there, the rapist lunged at her but her screams disturbed him and he fled. Two anglers night fishing on the nearby River Cam heard the woman’s screams and ran towards the hostel, one of them contacting the police. An urgent radio message contacted every undercover unit who were still patrolling the streets searching for the rapist, telling them to stop everything or anything that moved. This was their best chance of catching the man who had brought fear to Cambridge.
In nearby Selwyn Road, Detective Constable Terry Edwards had just received the radio message at 2:35 am when he heard the sound of a bicycle coming towards him. He looked up and saw a woman with long brown hair pedalling swiftly towards him. The bike was an ancient ladies model with a front basket, and was being ridden in an erratic manner. It had several shopping bags slung from the handlebars, and was being ridden with no lights even though it was pitch black. DC Edwards challenged the cyclist to stop, but she swerved around him and carried on pedalling. As DC Edwards made a grab for the woman’s hair, it came off in his hand. The cyclist crashed to the ground, unbalanced by the lunge. Accompanied by local residents who had come out to see what all the fuss was about, DC Edwards ran over to where the figure lay, and restrained her. The prone figure wore a red coat and a pleated skirt, and underneath these revealed a short, stocky man with close cropped hair. He was arrested, and along with the items in the carrier bags and the wig, was taken to the nearest police station and locked in a cell. It was only when police searched the carrier bags that they realised that they had just caught the Cambridge Rapist. His reign of terror was over.
In one of the bags, police found a jemmy, a torch, a knife, a home-made device for fusing lights, assorted housebreaking equipment, a bottle of Ether and a cloth pad. The other revealed a black leather jacket and trousers, women’s lipstick, and the hideous “RAPIST” mask.
The rapist was revealed to be 47 year old delivery driver and part time handyman Peter Samuel Cook. Cook had a long history of being in trouble with the police, and had a large number of convictions, usually for theft or burglary. In the 1960’s, he had spent much time in prison as well as serving time in Broadmoor Secure Hospital. He was known as a serial absconder and had escaped from many approved schools, borstals and prisons. However, he had married in 1968 and since then had seemingly kept his nose clean. He and his wife lived in a caravan in the village of Hardwick, about five miles from the heart of the rapist’s hunting ground of Cambridge. Cook had actually been questioned early on in the hunt for the rapist, as he had a criminal record and was of similar height to the rapist’s description. He managed to provide convincing alibis for the times of the attacks, and although he had no history of any sexual offences, police did notice that Cook had a large quantity of hardcore pornography in his home. When he had been questioned early on in the manhunt, Cook had refused to give a saliva sample, claiming an infringement of his civil liberties. He also claimed to not match the description given by victims, and the police had no evidence to pursue him as a suspect any further.
After his arrest, Cook quickly admitted being the Cambridge Rapist in light of the wealth of evidence against him. He gave no explanation to detectives as to why he had gravitated to being a sex attacker, saying only:
“I came to rob, but decided to rape instead” – Peter Cook
Detectives learned just how cunning the Cook was, and why he was so difficult to capture. The hooded “RAPIST” mask had false hair glued to the inside of it, to give the impression that the rapist was long haired and bearded. Cook was clean shaven and had a short, crew cut hairstyle. He would travel to and from the scene of the attacks disguised as a woman, then dress into his chilling rapist attire once near the scene. Detectives surmised that he had passed them on a number of occasions, unnoticed because he was dismissed as a female cyclist in a city where bicycles outnumbered cars three to one at that time.
A search of Cook’s caravan and his father’s nearby workshop revealed a large collection of women’s clothing that Cook had stolen from his many burglaries. There was also a large collection of long haired wigs, and whilst searching a workbench police found hidden inside 87 sets of keys that he had had copied of the doors to several women’s hostels, along with notebooks detailing the movements of at least two of the victims. Cook had simply picked a female at random, and stalked them for a period of time, which explained how he was able to always choose a house where there was a lone female. His job as a delivery driver gave him ample opportunity to watch bedsits and learn the movements of female students. By learning their movements, Cook had often broken in to their bedsits or flats when they were out, and stolen underwear and items of personal mail. This was also how he came to know intimate details of their lives, such as their boyfriends names. This meticulous planning made him bolder, and police were in no doubt that he would have killed a victim sooner rather than later if he hadn’t been stopped.
Peter Samuel Cook appeared at Norwich Crown Court on 3rd October 1975, charged with seven rapes and two woundings. He pleaded guilty to all the charges against him, and received two life sentences. The judge, Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, told Cook whilst passing sentencing:
“In your case, I am recommending that life in prison means exactly that” – Mr Justice Melford Stevenson
Apart from the obvious lasting effect on his victims, the name Peter Samuel Cook and the case of the Cambridge Rapist is largely forgotten by the British public. The only time his name resurfaced was in 1995, when moves were made to have Cook released either on parole or moved to open prison conditions. Cambridge MP Anne Campbell, a Cambridgeshire woman who had lived in the city throughout Cook’s reign of terror, was quick to object to and oppose these moves in Parliament. She described firsthand the fear that Cambridge was held in by Cook’s actions, claimed that Cook was still a massive danger to the public, and he remained as a Category A prisoner until his death. The following year, he applied for permission to receive a sex change, hoping that a new gender would increase his chances of release. This was denied, and Cook seemingly accepted that he would spend the remainder of his life in prison. Cook himself died in HMP Winchester on 09 January 2004, aged 75. He had served nearly 30 years for his horrific crimes, and had never expressed any remorse for his crimes, nor offered any explanation.
A macabre postscript to the story of the Cambridge Rapist, is that for many years, a t-shirt depicting the chilling leather hood worn by Cook was a very popular design and was worn by many in the punk era. Despite the uproar and controversy of the t shirt, it remained a very popular seller for many years.
There is a £20,000 reward that so far remains unclaimed, for information leading to the arrest of the brutal killer of a young woman nearly 30 years ago on a London train. The murder seems to have been an opportunistic and reckless killing, and the killer himself was injured whilst conducting the savage attack. As a result, police have a sample of the killer’s DNA, powerful evidence that will help convict him should he be found.
Debbie Linsley had many things to look forward to in 1988. Her life was going well and her career was going places. Originally from Orpington in Kent, 26 year old Debbie had found employment as a trainee hotel manager in a hotel in Edinburgh, and although she missed her family and friends back home, she had adapted to life in Scotland well. She had spent several months settling into her new life, and by the near end of March 1988 she had returned to visit her parents for a few days. This visit had a dual purpose; Debbie had been on a hotel management course in Hertfordshire, and her bosses had allowed her to spend a few days visiting her family at the family home in Bromley, south east London. A fortnight later, Debbie would be back down again: her brother Gordon was getting married, and Debbie was due to be a bridesmaid at the nuptials. She had managed to have a bridesmaid dress fitting during the visit, which she had been especially excited about.
“She was here three nights and was due to leave in the late afternoon to go
back to work in Edinburgh. But on the course she met the manager of the
Sherlock Holmes Hotel in London and she left earlier than planned to drop in
and see this guy in Baker Street about a job there.” Arthur Linsley (Debbie’s father)
In order to see about this job, Debbie would have to travel into London. A journey she was very used to, Debbie boarded a train with the intention of heading to London Victoria station. It was 23 March 1988, and Debbie got onto the 14:16 train from Orpington to London Victoria at the London suburb station of Petts Wood. Here, Debbie had bought cigarettes and a ticket, and was seen boarding the train at 2.18pm. She was fashionably dressed for the era, wearing a blue skirt, white blouse and black leather jacket, and got into the second compartment of a carriage near the front of the train. Back in the day carriages such as these allowed passengers to smoke. Trains back in the late 1980’s were still of the old fashioned carriage type, with room to seat up to just six people and with doors at each side, and it was into one of these that Debbie boarded the train that bright March afternoon. It is unknown to this day if there was anyone else in the particular compartment that Debbie boarded.
The Orpington to London Victoria train journey is a pretty straightforward one, with a direct train arriving in London Victoria on average 35 minutes after departing from Orpington. Sadly, Debbie was never to make that fateful journey alive.
The train arrived on time at London Victoria that day, and as was custom British Rail staff began a systematic check of each carriage before the train departed on its return journey. At 14:50 that afternoon, porter Ron Lacey was horrified to find the lifeless body of Debbie Linsley lying in a pool of blood in one of the carriages. She had been brutally stabbed to death. All trains on that particular line that day were cancelled, and a systematic search for a murder weapon began. Commuters were stopped and questioned as to whether they had seen anything, and a police manhunt began with Debbie’s last movements being pieced together.
It was quickly ascertained that Debbie had gotten onto the train just 32 minutes before she was found slaughtered, which gave detectives hunting the killer a relatively short window of time. This would help to pinpoint the exact location of the attack, and it gave them a good chance of narrowing down a list of any possible suspects who could have been on the train at the time. Because it was such a short period of time, the likelihood that someone had possibly seen the killer was quite high. What narrowed down the timeframe even further was that it was discovered that Debbie had had time to smoke two cigarettes, and eat part of a sandwich before being killed. In a relatively short train journey, this would put the time of the murder closer to a stop nearer the end of the journey. It was established from enquiries from stations along the route that that particular train had up to 70 passengers, of which to the present day almost 60 of them have been eliminated. Of the passengers questioned that day, it was an 18 year old French au pair, Helene Jousseline, who had information that may have been crucial.
Helene was sat on the train in the next compartment to where Debbie was sat, and just after the train left Brixton, which was the final and longest part of the journey between stops. Helene heard piercing screams coming from Debbie’s compartment. The terrified girl heard screaming for two full minutes, but was too scared to raise the alarm. At the inquest into Debbie’s murder, Helene described what she had heard in a chilling recollection:
“I had never heard such screams. They stopped for about five seconds and started again. She called out as if for help. They were screams of fear and very, very loud. I wanted to use the alarm but I remained glued to my seat.”- Helene Jousseline
These screams occurred as the train passed in full view of houses adjoining the track, but police enquiries revealed nobody who had seen or heard anything. When the train pulled into Victoria just 6 minutes after leaving Brixton, Helene saw a man who appeared to be limping away from the compartment where Debbie was found murdered. She described him as being of large build, aged about 40 to 50 years old, with collar length ginger hair and a moustache. However, she lost sight of this man amongst the crowds. At that time, Victoria station had upwards of 250,000 people passing through it per day, with nearly 1500 trains passing through. A large enough crowd for a killer to slip away into almost unnoticed?
A possible sighting of what may have been the same man was made earlier on the journey. At Penge East station, a witness noticed what was described as a “stocky man, aged about 30, with dirty blond hair and a pale jacket”, getting out of a single compartment on the train and going into an open compartment near the front. Was this Debbie’s compartment?
The post mortem showed that Debbie had been stabbed up to eleven times, in the face, neck, chest and abdomen. The fatal wound had penetrated her heart and caused massive bleeding. She had struggled against her killer, as she had defensive wounds to her hands. The murder weapon, determined to have been a very sharp knife with a blade of between 5 and 7.5 inches in length, was not found at the scene and has never to this day been discovered. Robbery was ruled out as a motive, as Debbie was still in possession of her purse, her jewellery and £5 in cash that she had borrowed from her brother. Police were forced to conclude that Debbie had died fighting off a sexual assault, which the killer had failed to do as Debbie was found fully clothed. It was also concluded that she was targeted at random, making the chances of finding the killer that much more difficult.
The investigation was very thorough, with Debbie’s family and friends all ruled out as suspects. Her boyfriend in Scotland was eliminated from the enquiry, and no one could be found who bore Debbie any grudge. Debbie’s last movements were reconstructed by police, and a policewoman dressed identically to Debbie retraced her final journey in the hope that it may jog a viewers memory. But nothing came of it. After an intensive enquiry police were no closer to identifying Debbie’s killer, and the investigation was scaled down. Murder investigations are never closed unless the killer is detected, but often remain at a stage of limbo where they are only periodically reviewed when funding becomes available, or new evidence comes to light. But in Debbie’s case, police do have a crucial piece of evidence. As Debbie had put up a struggle, it was found that the killer had injured himself during the attack. His blood was found at the scene, and samples were taken. The advances in forensic science have now allowed scientists to create a full DNA profile from these blood samples, so today police do have a DNA sample of the killer. However, no match has yet been made on any samples held on the DNA National Database. There is also the frustrating possibility that because the DNA National Database was only started in 1997, if Debbie’s killer had been convicted of any offence before that date then his profile would not be on it. There is also the real possibility that the killer may now be dead himself, and may never face justice.
What can be said about the killer? Analysis of the crime raises more questions than answers. It is a premeditated crime, yet an opportunistic one. Premeditated for the fact that the killer was stalking the streets with a large knife, but opportunistic because why attack a woman in broad daylight, on a train where a passenger could get on or disturb the killer? Where thousands of people would be at any given time, making the risk of detection and apprehension very high? It seems to have been an overwhelming compulsion to kill by this man, regardless of the risk of detection and apprehension. I believe that this man will have come to the attention of police before Debbie’s murder, perhaps even to mental health authorities. A crime of such magnitude is not a first time offence. It is likely that the killer was unemployed and unable to hold down a steady job – after all, he was able to travel the rail network on a midweek afternoon – and will have likely been a loner.
Physically, there is not much that can be ascertained. It is important not to give too much emphasis that the killer is the person matching the description of the man seen by Helene, he may have just been the first person she noticed in a state of high fear and unease. He may have been just another person in the crowd – Victoria station would have been busy that Wednesday afternoon, perhaps busier than usual because on that day, England were playing the Netherlands in a football friendly at Wembley Stadium. A description of this man was widely circulated, but he was never identified not came forward. No one else came forward to say that they had seen a stocky man limping away from the direction of the incoming train. And as time passes, people age, change their features and hair colour etc – so this person (if still alive) would look remarkably different from that description now. The overkill and lack of caution suggests an offender younger in age than 40 years old – there is a level of immaturity and a lack of refinement in killing and a lack of forensic awareness, so I would believe the killer to have been in his late teens to mid 20’s at the time of Debbie’s murder. There are two men currently serving life imprisonment who I believe should be considered persons of interest to the investigation.
Colin Ash-Smith is a convicted killer serving life imprisonment for knife attacks on two women in 1988 and 1995, and for the savage knife murder of 16 year old schoolgirl Claire Tiltman in 1993. The crimes of Ash-Smith will be chronicled in a future post on TTCE. The other person I believe could be looked at as a good potential suspect is Robert Napper. Napper is serving life imprisonment for the infamous 1993 Wimbledon Common murder of Rachel Nickell, and the horrendous slaughter of mother and daughter Samantha and Jasmine Bissett in Plumstead in 1994. I believe that the locale of these attacks, the timeframe, method and even in the case of Ash-Smith a possible match to the description given by Helene and the unnamed witness make them very strong potential persons of interest in this case.
The legacy of Debbie’s murder is still felt by many. Porter Ron Lacey was so traumatised by finding Debbie’s body that he never worked at the station again. Helene still to this day lives, perhaps unfairly, with the guilt of having not raised the alarm upon hearing the chilling screams that day on the train. But understandably, it is Debbie’s parents and brother who feel her tragic loss the most. Sadly, Debbie’s mother Marguerite died of a stroke in 2011 having never seen Debbie’s killer brought to justice. Her father Arthur still holds out hope that one day her killer will be identified and face punishment for her murder.
“We learnt to live with Debbie’s death and the fact that nobody has been made
accountable for it. But you do not give up hope entirely. We know that Debbie injured her killer and somebody somewhere must have noticed that. All it needs is a phone call” – Arthur Linsley.
He reflects sadly on the families loss:
“Everybody loved Debbie. She was full of life and always had a stream of kids
following her around. I never got to walk Debbie down the aisle or watch her have her own children. All she did was get on a train in the afternoon in broad daylight. She
paid for it with her life.”
Det Chief Inspector Chris Burgess, the detective leading the cold case review of Debbie’s murder, again reemphasises that the police still believe that someone somewhere holds the key to Debbie’s murder, and that they are determined that the killer will be identified.
“There is a possibility that the person who did this could now
be dead. But that does not mean we are ever going to stop looking for them. If someone still has a suspicion but is not sure, then there is no need for them to worry. We have a DNA sample of the person responsible which will prove whether it was them or not. But we need their name. I am certain somebody out there knows it and I would ask them now, after all this time, to please come forward.” – Detective Chief Inspector Chris Burgess (Met Police)
Anyone with information is asked to call detectives on 0207 230 3893 and 0207 230 0992, or alternatively Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.