Death in Highgate Woods

Michael Williams

Michael Williams would likely be a grandfather if he was alive today. He would have happily long since retired, and would have spent his remaining years in the company of his family, enjoying life and watching his grandchildren play and grow up. But Michael never got the chance to do this, because one hot summer’s evening in August 1988, Michael was murdered. His killer has never been caught, so to this day Michael’s murder remains on the sadly ever growing list of unsolved murders in the United Kingdom. It is a murder that raises many questions and presents differing possibilities as to the motive.

Michael was London born and bred, and had spent his life living in the London district of Highgate. He had married at age 25, and he and his wife welcomed a daughter into the world in 1986, when Michael was 41. The family were churchgoing and by all accounts were happy, with Michael being especially devoted to his daughter. He always loved and enjoyed spending time with her, and at the time of his death Michael had been flexi working to assist his wife in taking care of her.

Michael, his wife and baby daughter

Michael was employed as a civil servant working for the Home Office at Horseferry House, Pimlico, where he had worked for many years assisting in programming computer systems, one of them being the Police National Computer. At the time of his death, which occurred over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1988, Michael had spent that whole week up to the Friday staying late in work trying to clear a backlog before the office closed for the bank Holiday weekend. At 6pm that evening, Michael’s wife called him at his office to see what time he would be home that evening, to which Michael replied about 8:15pm. However, after his wife had rung off, one of Michael’s colleagues said that everyone from the office was going to a local pub for a few drinks and asked him to join them. After a moment’s hesitation, Michael agreed.

Michael and his colleagues had gone to the Pavier’s Arms pub in Pimlico, a place that he frequently went with his work colleagues. By all accounts the evening was a good one, with everybody from the office enjoying themselves and letting their hair down after a long stressful week. When one of Michael’s colleagues asked him if he wanted another drink, Michael glanced at his watch. It was 11:15pm, long after he told his wife that he would be home. Making his excuses, Michael said goodnight to his co workers and left to get his tube train home on the London Underground, along with one of his colleagues. A few minutes later, Michael and his colleague got onto the Underground tube train at Pimlico, and headed back towards home on the Victoria Line. By the time it reached 11:35pm, the train arrived at Victoria station and Michael’s friend left him to change trains.

He was the last person who knew Michael to see him alive.

What occurred next remains open to speculation. Michael’s usual route home was to continue along the Victoria Line to either Warren Street or Euston, where he would change trains and get on the Northern Line to head to Highgate. He did not live very far from Highgate station, and his walk home would have taken him past the outskirts of Highgate Wood. If the trains were running on time, he would have changed trains at about 11:45pm and would have arrived at Highgate just before midnight, and then had to walk the short distance home. However, it is not known for definite if Michael adhered to his usual route home that evening, because a ticket collector at East Finchley tube station saw and spoke to a man that was possibly Michael at about 12:30am that Saturday morning. East Finchley is one further stop on from Highgate. Was this Michael, and if so, why had he gone the extra stop? Had he slept through his stop, or had he deliberately gone a stop further?

The main gates to Highgate Wood are opened around about 7:00am each morning by a park attendant, but there are several paths and roads that skirt the park, which is frequented by runners, dog walkers and people in general at all times of the day and the night. At night, it has become notorious as a meeting place for homosexual activity. At 7:40am, a woman out walking her dog noticed a shape on the side of an access road that skirts the main gates to the woods. Getting closer, she discovered Michael’s body. He had been robbed of all of the possessions he had on him, and a later post mortem determined that he had been killed by a single, violent blow to the throat.

So after police had determined Michael’s last known movements, there was an unaccounted for period of 8 hours between the last definitive sighting of Michael alive, and his body being found. Subsequent witness appeals determined further that his body must have been left at the spot it was found at some time between 06:55am and 07:40am. The park keeper who opened the gates that morning at 06:55am did not notice Michael’s body lying on the path, nor did several other people who were using the path that time of the morning. Yet it was there at 07:40am. Had it been dumped from a car? Several people who that morning had travelled past the spot that Michael’s body was found at came forward to help police with enquiries, and one witness revealed details of a strange man he had encountered early that Saturday morning, very close to the spot where Michael’s body had been found.

The witness was out walking his dog just after 6:00 am that morning, and passed the exact spot where Michael’s body was found. He saw nothing there. Continuing his walk and just around the corner, a mere few yards further on, the witness had an unsettling encounter with a man that police have never yet been able to trace.  The witness, who had a large German Shepherd dog, rounded the corner and saw a man ahead of him standing rigidly upright against a lamppost in very close proximity to the gates to the woods. The dog bounded up to the man and jumped up at him barking – but the man did not flinch. He remained statue like, not even blinking or saying a word. When the dog walker went to get his dog onto a lead, the man said nothing but just stood rigidly staring directly ahead. The dog walker later described him as being as though he was in a trance. Feeling unnerved by the man’s strange behaviour, the dog walker made off away down the path. When he looked back after a going a bit of a distance, the man was still stood there. Nobody else reported seeing this strange man early that morning however, and he wasn’t there when the gates adjacent to the lamppost were opened nearly an hour later at 06:55am. An artist’s impression of the man was circulated and is shown below, but despite widespread appeals this man has never come forward or been traced.

An artist’s impression of the strange man seen by Highgate woods.

Frustratingly, another seemingly promising lead was to came to nothing. On the Sunday, the day after Michael’s body was found, his credit card was used to pay for a meal that evening at the New Argen Tandoori Restaurant located on Friern Barnet Road, Southgate. This is a district of London not too many miles from Highgate. However, by the time police had discovered that it was Michael’s card that had been used, the trail had long gone cold. Staff at the restaurant could not remember any details about how many people the meal was for, or a description of the person who had used the card to pay and who had forged Michael’s signature. Also, in 1988 CCTV was not as commonplace as it is nowadays. It was a lead that ultimately led nowhere.

Michael’s forged signature – who’s handwriting was this?

The police investigation struggled, and just a few weeks after his death Michael’s final movements were reconstructed on a Crimewatch UK televised appeal in November 1988. The appeal reconstructed up to where he was last seen alive by his friend, included the strange man seen by the lamppost and detailed Michael’s credit card being used at the restaurant. Out of about 140 calls that police received following the reconstruction, there were only three that seemed promising. Someone naming themselves only as “Paul” rang to say that they knew the identity of the strange man stood against the lamppost, although the caller rang off. It has never been established if this call was genuine or not. Another call was received from someone claiming that it had been they who had used Michael’s credit card to pay at the restaurant, after having found it and not realised its significance. It is not reported where they had found the card, but if the person calling was valid and genuine then they were obviously cleared of any involvement in Michael’s murder as it is still officially unsolved. However, the most promising call of the evening came from a security guard who reported having seen a man he was convinced was Michael leaving East Finchley tube station in the company of another man at 12:30am on the Saturday morning. This would tie in with the sighting by the ticket collector at the same time of the man who was possibly Michael  that police were already aware of.

So what was the motive for Michael’s murder? He was not found to have had any known enemies, seemed happy at home and in work, and was a devoted family man. So this leaves a couple of possibilities. Was it a simple random mugging that got out of hand? When his body was found, all of the property Michael had had on his person was missing. This consisted of his wallet and credit cards, a computer manual, his Home Office pass card, a signet ring with his initials on, and a distinctive Rolex watch that had been made specifically for Michael some years before. Apart from the credit card transaction, none of this property has ever been found discarded or traced. But this doesn’t explain why there was a need to kill him? Plenty of people are mugged at night, but not all are killed. Police considered the method that Michael had been killed quite distinctive also, and at one time followed a line of enquiry that Michael’s killer was a karate expert. Karate experts who were consulted claimed that being able to strike such a precise blow with enough force to kill with that blow would have taken years of karate experience. It also suggests that Michael’s killer was physically fit and powerfully built. It is a very distinct method of killing someone and suggests a killing fuelled by anger and one a bit more personal, whereas it is my opinion that a robber would be armed, possibly with a knife.

A replica of Michael’s distinctive Rolex watch

Another possible motive was that it was a homosexual encounter that somehow went wrong, and police took this as a very serious line of enquiry. It is known that Michael was bisexual, and had had relationships with both men and women in the past. At the time, as they are now, Highgate woods were a notorious spot for people seeking random homosexual encounters. Did Michael pick someone up on his way home, or attempt to? This is a very real possibility. There are two independent witnesses that came forward to say that they had seen a man matching Michael’s description at East Finchley tube station at about 12:30am that Saturday – with one of them claiming that this man had been in the company of another man. Was this Michael? His home life and work life were scrutinised as part of the police investigation, but there is no suggestion that Michael was leading a double life, and that he was anything but faithful to his wife. But it is of course a possibility, and is a line of enquiry that police have never been able to rule out due to the location where Michael’s body was found being a notorious haunt for homosexual activity.

Michael had told his wife he would be home at about 8:00pm, but had made no real effort to get home and had indeed gone for a few drinks on a whim. There is also no record as to how intoxicated Michael was when he left to go home – had he drunkenly approached someone for sex? There is no record of any sign of Michael having been engaged in sexual activity before his death, and he was found fully clothed, so if he hadn’t there is another possibility. Perhaps Michael could have been killed in a homophobic attack? Had he mistakenly or drunkenly approached another man expecting or soliciting a homosexual encounter, only to be attacked by someone with a hatred of homosexuality who was angry and disgusted at being approached in this way? This would explain the rage and force behind the attack. Police gave serious consideration to this theory, and appealed for anyone else who had been the victim of “gay-bashing” in the area to come forward. But these enquiries proved fruitless.

As the case is nearly 30 years undetected now, the passage of time significantly decreases the possibility of anyone being arrested and charged with Michael’s murder. There is relatively little information available to research Michael’s murder, and the gaps in information concerning Michael’s movements on the night also frustrate and hinder any chance of successful detection of this crime. Because of these said gaps, all that is left is to speculate about a possible sequence of events based on what is known. It is that eight hour gap between Michael last being seen alive for definite, and his body being found, that crucially needs to be filled in because it raises so many questions. Firstly, where and when exactly was he killed has never been established. I believe it quite unlikely that Michael was killed where his body was found. There was quite a passage of people using the woods early that Saturday morning that didn’t see his body, and no attempt was made to hide his body. If he had been killed there some hours before, surely his body would have been found earlier than it was? I believe it more likely that his body was dumped from a car hurriedly that morning. Carrying a body would massively increase a risk of detection to the killer, whereas a quick escape could be made by using a car. So where had he been killed? If he was killed elsewhere, I believe the homosexual encounter gone wrong theory is more likely. A mugger would not abduct a victim, for what purpose would they? Had Michael then got into a car with someone, perhaps someone he knew, for the purpose of a sexual encounter? Was he killed in a car, or in a premises?

I also believe that too much emphasis should not be given to the man stood against the lamppost as being the killer. Although this is strange behaviour, and this man was obviously a crucial person of interest that police needed to trace and eliminate, there is nothing to suggest he was Michael’s killer. He may just have been someone with mental health issues, or under the influence of drugs who was in the area at the time. I do not think that Michael’s murder was pre-planned. I believe that he was killed following a heated argument or as part of a scuffle on the spur of the moment. The absence of a weapon supports this.

Of course, this is all hypothesis based upon the scant information available, and the questions that said information raises. It is unclear as to the definite motive for why Michael Williams was killed. Police have no suspects, and no reported forensic evidence recovered from Michael’s body to obtain a DNA sample from for comparison should a suspect arise. There is also the possibility that Michael’s killer is now dead themselves, is in prison for another crime, is in hospital or has moved to another part of the country or even abroad. Ultimately, every lead police have had and received in this case has been exhausted and has led to a dead end, and it will only be with fresh information now from somebody that Michael’s killer will ever likely face justice. This may be in the form of a confession from somebody, perhaps the killer whose guilt has got the better of them, or someone who has long held suspicion or knowledge of the identity of the killer coming forward now that loyalties have changed or long held fear has gone. Until then, Michael’s family will remain with the speculation as to who was responsible for making a wife a widow and a young girl fatherless.


The True Crime Enthusiast

Join the discussion

  • Enjoyable read, thanks!

    I too have been intrigued by this case since seeing the Crimewatch renconstruction all those years ago, particularly due to the many unusual elements of the crime.

    I agree with you that the bizarre character stood statuesque is probably not the killer. London is a city of eight million, which means a lot of peculiar people – especially since these woods had/have something of a reputation late at night and early in the morning.

    Another odd element in this case is that his credit card was discarded, yet other items that presumably would’ve been less useful to an assailant – his computer manual, his work pass – were not recovered.

    As you say, due to the passage of time and the lack of clues the chances of the perpetrator being apprehended are sadly now remote. It’s surprising, and a little disconcerting, just how many of these murders remain unsolved to this day. The killing of Abdur Rasheed, which was featured on the previous month’s CW, remains a mystery also.

  • Interesting reading on sad case of Michael Williams, just saw the CW reconstruction on YT, never saw it at the time and case is new to me. A real whodunnit mystery & very sad indeed. I wonder if the cops could revisit MANY of these unsolved crimes again with DNA testing? Just a thought 🤔

    If l told my wife l’d be back by 8.15 pm it would be exactly that, l wonder why he was so laid back about getting back home and didn’t keep his promise, very odd!!!!

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