Killer's cunning kept the alarm from being raised

No bodies, no missing persons - for decades no one suspected a thing, writes Will Bennett
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The Independent Online
Frederick West was not charged with the murder of Anne McFall until 27 years after she disappeared in the summer of 1967. In the meantime, another 11 women and children had died violent deaths at his hands.

Yet there was no murder inquiry until February last year, no lines of police fanning out looking for missing people, and only occasional social services involvement in the affairs of the West family. How was this possible?

Most murder inquiries begin either because a body is discovered or because somebody is reported missing. Occasionally the killer, gripped by remorse, will tell someone what has happened.

None of this applied in the case of West. He was not intelligent but he was both cunning and plausible, and the bodies were buried at his homes or in remote places that he knew from his childhood. Miss McFall, heavily pregnant, was buried in Fingerpost Field, Much Marcle, and Catherine West, his first wife, was buried in Letterbox Field, Kempley, a short distance away.

West had roamed in both fields as a youngster and had worked as a labourer in one of them. The chances of bodies being found there were slim. Indeed, it took a massive excavation by police to unearth them.

Charmaine West, West's daughter by Catherine, who was eight when she was last seen in 1972, was buried at 25 Midland Road, Gloucester, where West lived in the early Seventies. Eight more women and girls were discovered at his later home, 25 Cromwell Street.

As in the case of Dennis Nilsen, who strangled 16 young men at his north London flat and dismembered and burned the corpses, there were no bodies to trigger a murder hunt. Nilsen remained undetected for four years after his first killing until human flesh was found by chance in his drains.

The West and Nilsen cases contrast with that of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered 13 women between 1975 and 1980. Sutcliffe took so long to catch because the inquiry, which had no computer, was swamped by 151,000 reports from the public.

The Gloucestershire police had no such problem. Not only did they have no bodies, but the disappearance of seven of the victims was never reported to the police. Three other victims had no connection with the Gloucester area when they were reported missing.

Of the Gloucestershire-based victims, only Lynda Gough and Lucy Partington were reported to the police as missing and there was nothing to link them with West or 25 Cromwell Street. The relatives of some of the others contacted the Salvation Army, the Missing Persons Bureau and the media, but not the police.

Some of the victims were not reported missing because West had endless stories, varying from the plausible to the bizarre, to explain their disappearance. When his daughter Heather vanished he told some people she had gone to work in a holiday camp and others that she had run off with a lesbian.

He always maintained that his first wife, Catherine, had eloped with an engineer and returned to her native Scotland and when their daughter Charmaine vanished he said she had gone to live with her mother. Shirley Robinson, a lodger at Cromwell Street who was pregnant by West, was said to have gone to stay with relatives in Germany.

Some of the victims came from troubled backgrounds and their families had little idea where they were. Alison Chambers's mother last heard from her in a letter postmarked Northampton, and Shirley Robinson maintained only occasional links with her father,who lives in Cologne.

Crucially, five of the victims were on journeys, hitch-hiking or waiting at bus stops. Therese Siegenthaler, the Swiss woman hitching from London to Holyhead, could have vanished anywhere. Carol Cooper and Shirley Hubbard disappeared in the Worcester area.

So there were no bodies, only a few worried phone calls to the police, and no clear link with West's homes. And there was always the smiling face of West himself, explaining why people had suddenly gone away. People liked him and wanted to believe him.

To relatives and friends West seemed like the caring father of a brood of well-dressed, well-behaved youngsters. Nobody alerted social services even when his daughter Heather disappeared in 1987.

The Cromwell Street bodies were feet away from visitors, yet they could have been 1,000 miles distant. In an age when technology enables ever more detailed records to be kept on the population,it was the serial killing that nobody knew had happened.