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Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Thursday, 6 May 2010 13:23 UK

When the murder trail goes cold

Murder of old

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

There are more than 1,000 unsolved murders in the UK, according to figures obtained by the BBC, some going back several generations. But what happens when the trail goes cold on a homicide?

Few people will ever have heard about the deaths of David Ombler and Janet Henderson - Britain's two oldest unsolved murders.

Mr Ombler, a market trader from Hull, was found battered to death on his kitchen floor on 30 May 1914, the victim of a vicious attack involving a fire poker and pair of tongs.

The police picture of the torso recovered from the Thames
Torso: Case of Adam remains an active investigation

As for Janet Henderson, of Perthshire, Tayside Police have never discovered who was responsible for her untimely death in Forgandenny almost 150 years ago.

Detectives never close the files of unsolved homicides. They simply keep hoping that one day they will find the killer.

Research by the BBC's Freedom of Information team, has revealed that there are officially 1,143 unsolved killings on police records in the UK. The unsolved murders by "Jack the Ripper", in Victorian London, and many others are not on the list as they have not been officially recorded.

Six of the 50 forces that provided information said they did not have any unsolved killings, which were more than a year old. Only two forces - the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Gwent police - failed to provide any figures.

Metropolitan Police: 341 (since 1996 only)
West Midlands: 78
Greater Manchester: 54 (last decade only)
Strathclyde: 53
West Yorkshire/Kent: 52

London's Metropolitan Police had the largest number, at 341. But its response to the BBC's request only goes back as far as 1996 - three years after the still open inquiry into the killing of teenager Stephen Lawrence.

So what does 1,143 unsolved killings mean?

According to the latest figures, there were 651 homicides (murder, manslaughter and infanticide) in England and Wales in the year to November 2009. That may sound a lot - but it is far lower than the murder rate in the US.

Between 2008 and 2009, 92% of these deaths were "detected" in England and Wales - meaning someone was either convicted or charged and later cleared.

The Dundee Advertiser's report of Janet Henderson's death
Shocking murder: The Dundee Advertiser's report of Janet Henderson's death

Detection rates are higher only for crimes where someone has to be caught in the act, such as possession of drugs and soliciting.

So why is the homicide detection rate so high?

While the death of Janet Henderson in 1866 remains unsolved, the Dundee Advertiser's graphic report of the killing at the time (see internet links) shines a light on what confronts police at a murder scene... and how they go about trying to solve it.

The Advertiser reports a pretty gruesome tale of the 50-year-old's bludgeoned remains being found on the kitchen floor. It sets out in grim detail the position of her body, where traces of her blood were found and remarks that the house "had a confused and disordered appearance, as if it has been ransacked for plunder."

This description is more than a reporter getting carried away. For a detective, it's the foundations of what's known as the victimology - the picture that a murder squad builds of the relationship between the deceased, the location and the suspects who come into view.

Will O'Reilly recently retired from the Metropolitan Police after a career as one of the capital's leading murder squad detectives.

He was the senior investigating officer leading the hunt for the killer of a five-year-old African boy whom detectives called Adam - the boy whose torso was recovered from the Thames in 2001.

The former detective chief inspector says investigators begin with the assumption that there is no such as thing as a stranger murder.

"In most murders, the assailant is known to the victim," he says "That's the starting point in the victimology - what puts them there at that time. And when you can answer that, you have a clue."

'Golden hour'

"Time is of the essence at the beginning or any investigation," he says. "We talk about a golden hour where there is an opportunity to make progress - but that can often be pushed further to the first 24 hours and then the first 48. But once you give up the crime scene, you start to lose things."

If you look at criminal gangs, loyalties change - sometimes someone comes forward. They want to do a deal because they are no longer part of the group and have interests elsewhere
Will O'Reilly

It's these two factors - the victimology and piecing together the final minutes, hours and days that are behind the modern murder investigation.

Modern murder investigations, particularly in large forces, are a world away from the TV stereotype of two buddy officers rocking up to the crime scene.

The tactic, heavily influenced by the lessons of the Stephen Lawrence fiasco, is to flood a crime scene with officers to maximize the chance of uncovering vital early clues.

Mr O'Reilly says his inquiries would typically start with more than 30 officers tasked to cover all angles. Some would be assisting the family. Others would be involved with the forensics at the scene of the crime. Constables would be conducting house-to-house inquiries while detectives speak to significant witnesses.

Detectives log their decisions - and if there is no break-through after 28 days, a review team provides a fresh pair of eyes.

"Every decision is recorded and open to review," says Mr O'Reilly.

"A good officer will embrace the process because it's about help and advice."

Cold case reviews

When the trail has genuinely gone cold, a force's most senior officers will be brought in to decide whether it's time to put the inquiry in a box. This usually happens more than a year into a case.

Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce
Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce: Cold case review launched by Kent Police

But if they take that decision, the lid is not shut for long. The current policy is to review the paperwork on a two-yearly basis.

This 24-month gap allows time for scientific developments to play a greater role, such as recovery of DNA.

There are approximately 50 cases nationwide receiving special "cold case" funding because detectives have a good chance of using science to bring a killer to justice. In the cases of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, killed in the late 1980s, Kent Police believe they have their murderer's DNA profile. But sometimes time allows bitterness and rivalries in the criminal world to play a part.

"If you look at criminal gangs, loyalties change," says Mr O'Reilly. "Sometimes someone comes forward. They want to do a deal because they are no longer part of the group and have interests elsewhere.

"Let's say that there is a particular guy who has done the murder, and we think we know who he is. He's going to be very wary at first, particularly of undercover officers.

"But some time later, when he thinks he is not going to be caught, he may drop his guard."

For many of the 1,143 deaths in list provided to the BBC, it is almost certainly too late to get to the bottom of what happened.

But Mr O'Reilly says that even the most difficult cases like that of the Thames torso Adam can be solved. It's just a case of painstaking effort, patience - and perhaps a little luck when it's most needed.

"I was very disappointed that I could not get the Adam inquiry finished before I left," he says. "I hung on for two years longer partly because of that case. But it's still moving on and I'm hopeful that it will be solved."

Freedom of Information research by the BBC's Julia Ross.

Police force No. of unsolved murders Oldest unsolved murder Details of oldest
unsolved murder
Metropolitan Police Service 341
(Since 1996)
West Midlands Police 78 1964
Greater Manchester Police 54
(Since 2000)
n/a GMP is currently in the process of researching and collating information on all unsolved murders in the force area.
Strathclyde Police 53 1968 Patricia Docker
Kent Police 52 1960 Peter Atkinson, 45, struck with blunt instrument, Shottenden
West Yorkshire Police 52 1975 Renee McGowan, Manchester Road, Bradford. Elderly woman living alone believed strangled
Merseyside Police 50 1944 George Parker
Thames Valley Police 50 1958 Joyce Vera Green
Essex Police 39 1958 Mary Kreik, found dead in a ditch with head injuries.
Surrey Police 35 1958 Helena Emily Storey
Avon & Somerset Constabulary 27 1946 Parrington Jackson. Shot in head whilst in office at Odeon Cinema in Union Street, Bristol.
South Wales Police / Heddlu De Cymru 25 1939 Joyce Cox, 5, sexually assaulted and strangled on railway embankment, Whitchurch, Cardiff
Northumbria Police 24 1919 John Bianchi, Bigges Main, Newcastle
South Yorkshire Police 23 1962 Lily Stephenson, killed as she walked home.
Humberside Police 22 1914 David Ombler, head battered with a poker and pair of tongs. Property also stolen from victimís shop.
Sussex Police 20 1996 Robert Jones
Cheshire Constabulary 17 1958 Baker, found dead in field near A50
Hampshire Constabulary 15 1964 Yvonne Laker, murdered on a train from Southampton
Nottinghamshire Police 14 1963 George Wilson, found stabbed outside a pub after closing time
Lancashire Constabulary 14 1971 Jesse Barker
Northamptonshire Police 13 1952 George and Lillian Peach, murdered at their home in the village of Ashton
Leicestershire Constabulary 13 1965 Sidney Leeson, found dead in hallway of home, result of repeated blows to head.
Norfolk Constabulary 12 1970
Dorset Police 10 1960 Emily Maude Lillian Tharme 17/01/1960 Body found Wheelers Lane, Bournemouth
Suffolk Constabulary 10 1962 Linda Smith, teenage girl abducted from Polstead in Essex. Found dead in a field in Suffolk
Derbyshire Constabulary 10 1966 Mavis Hudson, Chesterfield, teenager who was found beaten to death in disused factory.
Tayside Police 10 1866 Janet Henderson, body found at Mount Stewart Farm, Forgandenny
Cleveland Police 8 1958 Laurence Gribbon, 26, found stabbed to death in his carpet shop at Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough
Devon & Cornwall Constabulary 7 1976 Esther Soper, Trematon Terrace, Plymouth
Lothian and Borders 6 1966 David McMenigall, 55, Edinburgh
North Wales Police / Heddlu Gogledd Cymru 5 1945 Mrs Caroline Evans, 38, found near a footpath in the countryside surrounding Coedpoeth
Hertfordshire Constabulary 5 2002 Wayne Jeffrey Trotter
Warwickshire Police 4 1945 Charles Walton, stabbed
Grampian 4 1978 Brenda Marilyn Page, found dead in a flat in Allan Street, Aberdeen.
West Mercia Constabulary 4 1987 Simon Dale, battered to death
Lincolnshire Police 4 1994 Diane Clarke, found dead in a home in Gainsborough following arson attack
Northern Constabulary 3 1976 Renee MacRae, missing presumed dead after the remains of her burnt out car were found in a lay-by off the A9 south of Inverness
Durham Constabulary 2 1990 Ann Heron
Staffordshire Police 2 1992 Nicholas and Marion Cooke died in malicious house fire in Travers Street, Stoke on Trent
City of London Police 2 1992 Paul Butt, Danielle Carter and Thomas Casey died in the Baltic Exchange bomb
Fife 1 1991 Alexander Lack Drummond, discovered dead near his home near St Andrews in North East Fife
North Yorkshire Police 1†
(Since 1984)
1997 Marsha Wray
Cumbria Constabulary 1 2002 A 6 month old unidentified baby girl was found encased in a block of concrete
Gloucestershire Constabulary 1
(Since 2004)
2004 Courtney Malcolm Davies, found in woodland between Coleford and Monmouth. Malcolm Martin was charged with murder but not convicted.
Bedfordshire Police 0
(Since 2000)
Cambridgeshire Constabulary 0
Dyfed Powys Police / Heddlu Dyfed Powys 0
Wiltshire Constabulary 0
Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary 0
Central Scotland 0
TOTAL 1143

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