Fear of a 'Ripper' haunts detective: One police officer thinks the murders of four women in the Midlands can be linked. But his colleagues are not convinced. Charles Oulton reports

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AMID the bustle of a motorway service area, with its clanking cutlery, whirring fruit machines, and constant traffic on the petrol station forecourt, there is, for those who want it, a reassuring anonymity. Even at 12.10am last Thursday, the Hilton Park Service Station near Stafford on the southbound lane of the M6 was still busy enough for the occupants of 22 lorries and 24 cars to remain an anonymous crowd as they ate, slept in their cabs, or picked up women desperate enough to sell themselves for sex.

Five months ago, Tracy Turner was one of those women. A 30-year-old prostitute who was deaf, insecure, and suffered from a persecution complex, she was last seen on 3 March in the shadows of the service station.

Witnesses recall a figure lurking in the twilight area between the bright lights of the petrol station and the green-and-yellow fluorescence of the restaurant block. Two people have reported offering her lifts, which she turned down, one because it was with a woman, the other because the man wasn't travelling to London.

The rest is conjecture. All that can authoritatively be said is that when she did finally get her lift, it would have been a short one: her naked and strangled body was found several miles away on a grass verge at dawn. The time of death was put at around midnight.

In a murder with few clues, only one lead stood out. When Det Supt David Cox, of the Leicestershire police, was told about the body, he recalled the case of a 20-year-old prostitute, Samo Paull, who had also been strangled. Her naked body had been discovered three months previously, in a ditch six miles from where this latest body had been found.

Two other murders also bore similarities to these two Midlands killings: on 20 May, a Sheffield prostitute, Dawn Shields, was found strangled in the Derbyshire Peak District, and on 6 July, Julie Ann Clayton's beaten body was discovered in a dike near Lincoln.

Mindful of this, Det Supt Cox asked himself: was he looking for several killers or was he perhaps looking for a man who had killed at least once before, and had repeated the crime with similar trademarks to tease the police in the way Peter Sutcliffe had done in the Seventies and Eighties? Were the police dealing with another 'Yorkshire Ripper'?

Det Supt Cox hates the media obsession with Sutcliffe, but the Yorkshire Ripper investigation still haunts police in the Midlands. As well as failing to arrest Sutcliffe earlier, despite interviewing him several times, the police also failed to pool information obtained by neighbouring forces, a failure which led to a tightening up of working practices.

Despite this, the police - with the exception of Det Supt Cox - are reluctant to link the murders. Earlier this month, chief investigating officers from the four forces dealing with the murders met to discuss the cases. Their verdict was that, while there were undoubted similarities - the women were vulnerable; three were prostitutes; all were found naked or nearly naked; three were strangled; two were found in ditches, one on a verge, and another in a shallow grave; some might have been wearing jewellery which had been removed (although two women were still wearing rings that were stuck on their fingers); and three appeared to have been dumped away from the scene of their murder - there were also substantial differences, and any suggestion that a Sutcliffe figure was systematically preying on the vulnerable was not borne out by the forensic evidence.

Privately, detectives more cautious than Det Supt Cox say that, although the similarities may be few, nobody wants to suffer the same fate as the Sutcliffe detectives - hence the refusal to rule it out.

Unlike his colleagues in other forces, Det Supt Cox is still seriously working on the theory that the murders could be linked, despite the identification of the woman in the fourth case as a celibate Australian from a religious commune, Julie Anne Clayton. 'Nothing that I have heard about this case, including the fact that she wasn't a prostitute, changes my view that there are some disturbing similarities in all these cases,' he said.

Miss Clayton was last seen alive on the night of Friday 1 July, when she stayed with a female friend in London. She left a note the following morning, saying she was heading north. Her body, found in a dry dike near Lincoln five days later, had been beaten, and was wrapped in the duvet she had been carrying in, or had attached to, her rucksack.

She was only identified after the head of the commune recognised the dead woman's computer-generated image in newspapers and on television. John Campbell, head of the Festal Grange commune in Pattishall, Northamptonshire, described her as 'a bit dizzy and lacking in common sense' and said he had last seen her on 19 June, when she had told him that she was planning to go to a 'rave' party in Sheffield on the weekend that she went missing. She had said that she would return to the commune after the rave, but Mr Campbell said he thought those plans might have changed and he was not surprised when she didn't show up.

Before her identification, her death was constantly linked in newspapers with the murders of Samo Paull, Tracy Turner, and Dawn Shields. The murder of Miss Shields, whose body was found in a shallow grave covered with stones on Mam Tor in the Peak District, is the least similar case of the four. South Yorkshire police are 'virtually certain' - although this is disputed by Det Supt Cox - that she was not the victim of a serial killer.

The same cannot be said so positively about Miss Paull and Miss Turner, who were both found in the same area. Det Supt Cox led the initial investigation into Miss Paull's death - she was last seen getting out of a taxi in a red light district of Birmingham on 4 December - because she was found in his force's territory. However, West Midlands police - who have now closed the incident room because of the lack of new information - are now in charge.

When he saw Miss Turner's body, Det Supt Cox noted the similarities with Miss Paull's body - it was discovered in a ditch near Swinford, Leicestershire, on 30 December - and suggested that his opposite number in West Midlands police go to look at the body. It was just one example of the new co-operation between police forces in the post-Sutcliffe era. 'We are talking to each other all the time,' said Det Supt Cox. 'In a way, I don't know which is worse, one person doing four murders, or four people doing one each. Whoever is responsible, I am determined that the murder of these vulnerable women should not be swept under the carpet.'

(Photographs and map omitted)