DNA traps killer 23 years after canalside murder

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The Independent Online

Modern techniques of DNA analysis have secured the conviction of a man who murdered a woman on a canal towpath 23 years ago.

Modern techniques of DNA analysis have secured the conviction of a man who murdered a woman on a canal towpath 23 years ago.

Ian Richard Lowther, 47, pleaded guilty at Sheffield Crown Court to the murder of Mary Gregson, 39, whose body was pulled from the river Aire in West Yorkshire in August 1977. She had been brutally beaten, strangled and sexually assaulted.

Lowther, 47 - who was working as a labourer near the Leeds-Liverpool canal in Saltaire in 1977 - was interviewed by detectives investigating the case at the time but they were unable to link him to the crime.

The murder remained unsolved for more than 20 years, but when DNA techniques enabled a genetic profile of the killer to be established from a tiny semen stain on Mrs Gregson's clothing, Lowther was interviewed again.

Sentencing Lowther to life imprisonment, Judge Mettyear said: "Twenty-three years ago you robbed an innocent woman of her life. You robbed parents of a child, a husband of a wife and a child of his mother. It was a wicked and brutal murder accompanied by an indecent assault. All this loss and tragedy to satisfy a few moments' lust.

"Thank goodness for advances in DNA profiling, thank goodness for the determination of the police and thank goodness that the arm of the law is long," the judge said.

More than 8,500 people were interviewed in the original investigation. Mrs Gregson, 39, was killed as she walked to work as a cleaner. Her body was found floating in the river Aire. Police built up a picture of a man in his 20s with a "gormless air" seen standing over a woman, but DNA profiling gave far stronger lead. A mouth swab provided in February by Lowther, who has one child and four grandchildren, meant the chance of him not being responsible was one in a billion.

Paul Worsley QC, for the prosecution, said Lowther, from Bradford, was the 532nd manto be seen this year by detectives investigating the murder. "He was not the first, or anywhere near the first on the police list."

The murder, which was committed after Lowther had been drinking at the end of his work shift, had been "particularly brutal", said Mr Worsley. "The police never close the file in an unsolved murder and their tenacity has been rewarded. The husband, mother and father of the dead lady all died, never knowing the killer would one day be caught."

Mrs Gregson's husband, Bill, died of a heart attack at the age of 54, three years after the murder, while he was visiting the spot where his wife died, which he did every day.

Simon Lawler QC, for the defence, described the attack as "10 minutes of total brutal madness". He said his client was a shy, placid and quiet man who had not offended again in the years since the attack.

In 1997 detectives used DNA profiling to rule out Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, as Mrs Gregson's killer. They reopened the investigation last year, the day after DNA evidence convicted a man at Liverpool Crown Court for the murder of Cynthia Bolshaw, 16 years after her death.

The murderer of Rita Sawyer, 18, whose body was found in a Warwickshire field in September 1970, was also identified last year through DNA profiling, although the killer had already died.

Detective Chief Superintendent Brian Taylor, who was a Detective Sergeant when the inquiry was first launched, and was senior investigating officer on the reopened case, said Lowther, who continued to live just a mile from the scene of the murder, had not shown any remorse or given any explanation.

Mrs Gregson's sister, Judith Sykes, said: "I always knew the police would find who was responsible. I never gave up hope. I was very bitter and still am angry that Mary andI lost the chance to share things together and enjoy our families in later life."