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.
The True Crime Enthusiast