Killer's cunning kept the alarm from being raised

No bodies, no missing persons - for decades no one suspected a thing, writes Will Bennett

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.

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week