Police draw up shortlist of suspects in hunt for Ipswich serial killer

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Detectives hunting the killer of five prostitutes in Ipswich believe they are closing in on their man.

As people from Suffolk congregated last night to hold a candlelit vigil for the dead women, sources close to the inquiry indicated that police were now investigating a shortlist of suspects.

Detectives are believed to be working on list of fewer than 50 suspects. Some reports last night claimed the number was as few as five.

"We are looking at a number of interesting people and pursuing a number of interesting lines of inquiry,'' said Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull, the officer leading the investigation.

Twenty six police forces have now been drawn into one of the largest manhunts in recent years, more than half the total forces in England and Wales. As many as 350 officers operating in five major murder incident teams continue to sift through information from nearly 10,000 phone calls and e-mails, along with CCTV footage, mobile phone records and abandoned clothing. Ten mobile automatic number plate recognition cameras have been brought in from the Merseyside force to encircle the Ipswich area.

Suffolk Police confirmed yesterday that the fifth victim was Annette Nicholls, 29, but they said a post-mortem examination had failed to establish a cause of death. While Anneli Alderton, 24, was strangled and Paula Clennell, 24, died of compression of the neck, post-mortem examinations of Gemma Adams, 25, and Tania Nicol, 19, were inconclusive. Detectives await the results of toxicology tests.

Ms Nicol's parents made a heartfelt plea for information yesterday. Her mother, Kerry Nicol, 39, fought to control her emotions as Ms Nicol's father, Jim Duell, said: "Tania was a lovely daughter ­ she was a caring, loving, sensitive girl who would never hurt anyone. Unfortunately, drugs took her away into her own secret world ­ a world that neither of us were aware of."

While still refusing to rule out the possibility that he was dealing with more than one murderer, Det Ch Supt Gull formally linked all five deaths for the first time yesterday. The striking similarities of the murders indicated a single serial killer, he said.

Detectives have a new last sighting of Ms Nicholls in Norwich Road, Ipswich, at 9.50pm on 5 December. She was wearing dark grey patterned leggings, calf-length boots, a black top with a low neckline and a dark bomber jacket.

Det Ch Supt Gull said a number of people had been interviewed, but no arrests have been made. He urged the local community not to panic. " Those responsible have been targeting working girls. There is no suggestion that other women or other members of our community are at risk, but take sensible precautionary measures", he said.

Last night, more than 100 people gathered in St Peter's Church in Copdock, the village where Ms Nicol was found. Leading the service, The Rev Chris Wingfield said all five women placed themselves at risk "in order to survive".

He told the congregation: "Those who live in this place of risk born out of necessity may feel to us like strangers. But Gemma, Tania, Anneli, Paula and Annette are not strangers. Far from it. They are our daughters, our sisters, our nieces, our cousins. But for a simple twist of fate, they are us."