Search for serial killer's victims leads to Brighton

Police investigating suspected murders linked to the serial killer Peter Tobin began digging up two back gardens in Brighton yesterday.

Officers used ground-penetrating radar to examine if bodies or other evidence, such as clothing, are buried at two addresses in East Sussex. The excavations are part of a nationwide inquiry into whether Tobin is responsible for any more killings.

The move marks an escalation in a behind-the-scenes police inquiry, dubbed Anagram, focusing on Tobin's lifetime of crime. He was told last December that he would die in jail after being convicted of strangling 18-year-old Dinah McNicol.

The former church handyman was already serving life terms for the murders of 15-year-old Vicky Hamilton and Angelika Kluk, 23. Police discovered the remains of Dinah and Vicky buried in the garden of a house in Margate, Kent, to which Tobin had moved in 1991. Detective Chief Inspector Nick Sloan, of Sussex Police, said his officers must "satisfy themselves" that no crimes were committed at either property. "It does appear that Tobin was fairly active at those addresses at those times," he said. But Chief Inspector Laurence Taylor added: "At the moment these are not crime scenes. We do not know what is going to be there."

One of the addresses is a pair of hairdressing salons in Portslade, which were once a café run by Tobin with Cathy Wilson, who was later his wife. Neighbours said they recalled the serial killer doing substantial DIY at the property as he converted it from a junk shop and cleared the garden. Detective Chief Inspector Nick Sloan, of Sussex Police's major crime unit, said the searches could last for four weeks.

It is feared that Tobin killed up to 20 women during the 1970s and 1980s when he travelled the country and lived in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex. Police said it would be "insensitive" to comment on whether the development was linked to any specific deaths, but it is believed they are looking for the body of Louise Kay, 18, who vanished in 1988 from Eastbourne, while Tobin was working in a Sussex hotel.

Another possible victim is Jessica Earl, a 22-year-old art student from London whose remains were found at Beachy Head, Eastbourne, in 1989. Police confirmed that officers contacted the families of the two victims prior to yesterday's operation "as a matter of courtesy".

The Anagram inquiry is believed to be focusing on nine unsolved murders and disappearances. Possible cases include the disappearances of Pamela Exall, a 22-year-old law student who vanished in Norfolk in 1974, Patricia Morris, a 14-year-old who went missing in Essex in 1980, and Suzanne Lawrence, 14, last seen in Essex in 1979.

There may also be links to the murders of three women in Glasgow in 1968 and 1969 by a figure nicknamed "Bible John", and the deaths of Karen Hadaway, 10, and Nicola Fellows, nine, in Brighton in 1986.

Detectives tried to speak to Tobin in prison about the latest developments, but he refused to talk. They remain keen to unravel further details of his life, particularly where he lived in 1977 and 1978. The serial killer lived in several other towns and cities, including Glasgow, Margate, Kent, and Havant in Hampshire. Police said he may have owned more than 100 vehicles and used 40 aliases.