False hopes that prey on every woman's fear

THE PRETTY face of Suzy Lamplugh twinkles out once again from television screens and newspaper pages. This face, of a 25-year-old who disappeared without trace in the course of her duties as an estate agent during the mid-Eighties property boom, has in its tragic way become iconic. Ms Lamplugh's abduction and murder (she was officially declared dead in 1994, although Scotland Yard has not closed its file on the case) has come to represent many of our darkest fears, fears that since her disappearance have grown ever stronger.

It appears to be beyond doubt that she was pinpointed by a stalker who evolved a plan to ensnare her by using the vulnerability which her working life necessarily exposed. For women who were enjoying the freedom brought about by financial and sexual liberation, the case could be read as a warning to them that these acquisitions, hard fought for to increase their strength and independence, could be turned against them at any time by a perpetrator who was determined to do so.

Suzy's mother, Diana Lamplugh, responded by doing the most useful thing she could in such circumstances. She set up a trust in her daughter's name to campaign for the provision of personal safety. Suzy Lamplugh's abduction and death are a constant reminder to women that we must always take care, should never place ourselves in possible danger, must never drop our guard.

This latest flurry of media activity has been prompted by the release of information to Diana Lamplugh that claims to have pinpointed the site of her grave, in the grounds of a former army barracks at Norton, in Worcestershire. At first impression this new information seems sound. The anonymous source, who has corresponded with Mrs Lamplugh by letter and on the telephone, is reported to come from within the prison education system. The general site of burial has been suggested before, by the ex-girlfriend of a man called John Cannan; she claimed that he had confessed the murder to her and told her where the body had been buried.

Cannan is now serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, rape and murder of Shirley Banks and for three attempted abductions. Three days before Suzy disappeared, he had been freed from a pre-release hostel at Wormwood Scrubs after serving a sentence for rape at knife point.

While serving that sentence, he had been nicknamed "Kipper" by other prisoners, because he wore wide ties. This was almost immediately linked to the abduction in 1986 of Suzy Lamplugh, as she was scheduled to show a "Mr Kipper" round a property in Fulham that morning.

Ms Lamplugh was last seen getting into a black BMW with a man who was carrying a bottle of champagne festooned with ribbons. For Daphne Sargent, an ex-girlfriend of Cannon's, this evidence was enough to convince her. "As soon as I heard about Suzy," she told the press, "I knew it was John. It had all the hallmarks - right down to the champagne." Cannan, however, continues to deny that he was the murderer of Ms Lamplugh, although even his sister has told the media that she believes he did it, and has implored him to reveal the whereabouts of the body.

The police, too, appear to believe that Cannan was Ms Lamplugh's killer. Former detective chief inspector Bryan Saunders said: "Inquiries showed that he went window-shopping for girls. He would spot an attractive girl in an estate agent's or building society and pursue her."

Perhaps they are willing to let the matter rest there, satisfied that they have their man behind bars even though there has officially been no solution to the mystery of Suzy Lamplugh's death. Maybe that is one of the reasons why they have greeted this information of Mrs Lamplugh's in such a lukewarm fashion, dismissing it as not "new or significant". Some detectives have even suggested that, by releasing her new knowledge to the media, Mrs Lamplugh has been attempting to "bounce" the new man in charge of the case into ordering a search. Senior officers will meet to discuss a possible operation, though it is unlikely that a search of this large area, some of which has now been built over, will be conducted unless Diana Lamplugh's claims of a small area being pinpointed are true.

It is easy to see what is driving Mrs Lamplugh. Who would not wish to recover the body of a long-lost daughter and provide her with a funeral? But still none of this quite adds up. What information could possibly tell exactly where Suzy Lamplugh is buried, without at the same time pointing to the identity of her killer? Surely such information could have come only from that person, or an accessory, or a confidant, and surely information of such quality would arouse the interest of the police? For it is no more in their interest to leave the case unsolved than it is in anyone else's. But nobody has suggested that this information could lead to any light being cast on the killing itself, and that simply doesn't make sense.

Which leaves us to assume that this information is either some kind of cruel and elaborate hoax, or the work of someone who is obsessed with the case for some other reason. This person may have been able to construct a plausible tale from the many press reports on the case over the last 13 years. If so, this only adds to the all-encompassing mystery surrounding Suzy Lamplugh's disappearance.

We know from this case, and more recently from the Jill Dando case, that women can be abducted or killed in broad daylight on their home turf (in a grisly coincidence, this was in both cases Fulham) with seemingly plenty of witnesses to the criminal himself and the vehicle he was driving, with all of this evidence coming to nothing.

We know, as well, that such cases attract hoaxers and fantasists, moved and excited in some way by the violent ending of a woman's life. We know that, if this happens to us or our loved ones, we too may never know where a body lies or who put it there. These latest disclosures, if that is what they are, serve to fuel a modern nightmare, of sudden and inexplicable violence and death being visited on any one of us, with no explanation of any of it, and never any end to the mystery.

That is why it is always easy to revive the Suzy Lamplugh story, and why the media are always only too happy to focus their attention on the case. Of course, we're all rooting for Diana Lamplugh and her family, because we should all like to see at least something of this terrible riddle resolved. Also, of course, it is easy to condemn the police for not jumping to and digging up acres of land to find this young woman's body, even though we can see that it would be far from practical. And while the police are used to knowing exactly who has committed a crime, but being unable to prove it in a court of law, to the general public such compromise seems anathema. We don't want compromise; we want closure.

We know that to this story there will never be a happy ending. All we want now is an ending of some sort, that will somehow lay the ghost of Suzy Lamplugh and all the terrible fears that her case exemplifies. Those horrors are what Suzy Lamplugh's lovely, smiling face has come to represent, and that is what explains her lasting grip on the public psyche. An unmarked grave, an unknown killer, and the knowledge that this could be the lot of any woman "if she's not careful".

No wonder we want this nightmare to end. No wonder we are afraid to admit that it probably never will. Maybe the information passed to Diana Lamplugh will turn out to be genuine. Perhaps it will help to bring this mystery to a close. But between the lines of hype, this looks unlikely. It is no comfort at all to know that there are people around who are willing to pretend to feed our hopes, and the more specific hopes of the Lamplugh family, when they know that instead, what they are feeding are our already well-nourished fears.

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