Prostitute murders: The tragedy of the cases still unsolved

A third of murders where the victims are prostitutes are unresolved. Could the deaths of five women in Norwich be linked to those in Ipswich, and are police sufficiently diligent in investigating such crimes?

Five women have been killed. An East Anglian town has been forced to cope with a murderer in its midst, who takes the lives of young street prostitutes.

But this is not Ipswich, where the relatives of five victims had their pain eased just a little on Friday by the full life sentence given to the killer, Steve Wright. This is Norwich, 45 miles to the north, where the police show no sign of solving the long-standing cases of Natalie Pearman, Mandy Duncan, Kellie Pratt, Michelle Bettles and Vicky Hall. Here, five families remain distraught.

"Every day I think of Kellie," said her mother Gloria Carpena. "What's happened in Ipswich has brought it all back."

At least 89 sex workers were killed over the last decade (the figure is conservative, given that some just disappear and some never reveal what they do for money). Half are thought to have died at the hands of their clients, according to a major study published two years ago – but in more than a third of cases, the crime went unsolved. That compares badly with the national figure, which is that 90 per cent of murders are cleared up.

For those who try to help street sex workers stay safe, the contrast between the handling of the cases in Ipswich and elsewhere illustrates that the police don't really care much about the deaths of prostitutes – unless there is an obvious serial killer on the loose.

"Some police officers see the violence as part of the job of a sex worker," said Ruth Morgan Thomas of the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project. "When they report violence, the police are dismissive."

Rosie Campbell of the Network of Sex Work Projects said that, despite the huge amount of effort and money put into Ipswich since the murders, "there has been a depressing lack of change on the ground for women involved in street sex work elsewhere".

Norfolk Constabulary became quite excited when their close colleagues in Suffolk caught Wright, who had been a landlord in Norwich for a short while. Detectives said they were "continuing to check [their] database to see if there is any information". But only a few months later, the new Chief Constable suggested this had been fruitless: "The tragic circumstances in Suffolk clearly caused us to examine the issues there against the unsolved murders and disappearances which we have.... I'm happy that they're not linked with events in Suffolk."

Lin Pearman, the mother of Natalie, who died in 1992, has learned not to get her hopes up. "I have had situations before when the press have linked Natalie with other murders and I've got all excited and emotionally involved and it's a big, big let down," she said. "I'm trying to cope by standing back from the situation."

A DNA sample was taken from Natalie's body, which could offer a potential match with the murderer. "The police have contacted me," said Mrs Pearman before the trial. "I believe there may have been things done to the bodies of the women that could link them to what happened to Natalie. The police said as soon as there is confirmation of a strong link I will be the first to know about it." That call appears not to have come.

After the conviction on Thursday there was much speculation linking Wright to other cases. But Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull, who led the Ipswich inquiry, said: "Currently we are aware of no evidence which would directly link him to any other crimes."

If he didn't kill the women, then who did? The first to die was Natalie Pearman, a regular at the Ferry Boat Inn he once ran in the red-light district of Norwich. She was found strangled and semi-naked at the local beauty spot, Ringland Hills, in 1992. Mandy Duncan was next. The 26-year-old mother of two children went missing in the summer of 1993 and was never found. An anonymous death threat was discovered in her flat.

Six years later Vicky Hall, 17, was snatched and suffocated as she walked home to her village. The search lasted five days, until her body was found in a ditch. Kellie Pratt, 29, was last seen arguing on the phone in central Norwich in June 2000. She has never been found, but like Mandy Duncan is presumed dead. And in March 2002, the body of Michelle Bettles, 22, was found strangled in woodland near Dereham, Norfolk.

Police have never ruled out a link between the five deaths. As for the suggestion that prostitute murders are investigated less diligently than others, Norfolk Constabulary had nobody available for comment as we went to press. The only case to go to trial has been that of Vicky Hall: a local businessman was charged but cleared by a court. Coincidentally or not, Vicky Hall was also the only one of the five women killed in Norwich who was not a prostitute.

Lamplugh case: Did he kill Suzy?

Steve Wright's conviction for the Ipswich murders sparked speculation that he might have killed estate agent Suzy Lamplugh, missing since 1986. Those linked to her disappearance include:

* Steve Wright and Miss Lamplugh, who was 25 in 1986, worked on the QE2 together. Wright was on leave when Suzy vanished.

* Michael Sams was accused in a 1995 book by crime writer Christopher Berry-Dee. Sams is serving life for the murder of Julie Dart and for kidnapping estate agent Stephanie Slater.

* John Cannan has been the prime suspect since he was convicted in 1989 of the rape and murder of Shirley Banks, 29. Cannan had been released from jail three days before. He insists that he is innocent.

* David Rosengarten, a Belgian diamond dealer with the family name Kiper, was questioned – and cleared – by police.

Sara Odeen-Isbister

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