Getting away with murder: Britain's most notorious unsolved crimes

Approximately 700 murders take place in Britain every year – and in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is successfully convicted. But what happens when, despite the best efforts of the police and public, no one is caught? Mark Hughes profiles six of the most notorious unresolved cases

Saturday 12 September 2009 00:00 BST

The ‘Babes in the Wood’ killings: 23 years later, still no convictions

One minute she was in the garden playing with friends, and the next she was gone." These are the words of Susan Eismann, describing the last time she saw her daughter Nicola Fellows alive. Nicola, 10, and her nine-year-old friend Karen Hadaway were playing on Brighton's Moulsecoomb Estate in October 1986 when they were snatched. The girls were found the next day in nearby Wild Park. They were lying together, fully clothed, in dense undergrowth, having been strangled and sexually assaulted. The murders were immediately dubbed the Babes in the Wood killings. But 23 years later they are still unsolved.

Russell Bishop, a 19-year-old roof tiler, was arrested and charged with the murders.

Bishop had previously joined in the search for the girls and, while on bail after his arrest, went to visit Nicola's father, Barrie, to tell him he did not kill his daughter. At his trial, Bishop was confronted with forensic evidence – specks of blood on a jumper that a girlfriend identified as belonging to him. He denied that it belonged to him. He claimed that the blood could have been caused by the fact that he was one of the first people on the scene after the bodies were found, and that he took the girls' pulses.

In December 1987 a jury at Lewes Crown Court took less than two hours to find him not guilty. Three years later, in December 1990, he was found guilty of an attempted murder on a seven-year-old girl just a few miles from where Nicola and Karen were found.

Bishop has always remained the police's main suspect. And following the abolition of the double jeopardy rule, which prevented suspects being tried twice for the same crime, Sussex Police announced that they were re-examining the case. However, the force later said that, despite the review, there was not enough evidence to mount a prosecution against him.

The initial tragedy of the murders has been followed by many more. The marriages of both the girls' parents broke up. And, in 1998, Lee Hadaway, Karen's father, died of a heart attack. His friends and family said it was a broken heart.

Nicola's father Barrie has been viewed with suspicion, too. He was initially viewed as a suspect in the murder and then this year he was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to rape his own daughter prior to her death; an allegation which was maliciously made by a friend of Bishop's and later dropped by the police.

But perhaps most chilling of all was the murder of Katrina Taylor, the girl who had played Nicola Fellows in a Crimewatch re-enactment. Taylor was found stabbed to death in a graveyard in 1996. Despite two Crown Court trials, no one has been found guilty of her murder. The alleged motive for her killing was that she had taken part in a robbery and had then been targeted for revenge by the victim, Neisha Williams, and her friends. But, at a trial at Lewes Crown Court in 1997, Neisha and her brother Simon Williams were cleared of murder. Trevor Smith and Fergal Scollan were convicted, but appealed, claiming the judge had misdirected the jury over aspects of the evidence.

The Court of Appeal ordered a retrial which began at the Old Bailey in October 1999. The pair were cleared. Sussex Police says that the case file remains open, but that it has no new leads.

The ‘Brass Handles’ murders: The gangland killing in Salford which backfired

On a Sunday afternoon in March 2006, Richard Austin and Carlton Alveranga walked into the Brass Handles pub in Salford. They were not, like the majority of the patrons, there to watch the Manchester United versus Newcastle United match.

The pair had been hired to perform a gangland "hit" on a man drinking inside the pub. Instead, they had their guns wrestled from them by pub regulars and were themselves shot – murdered with their own weapons – and left to die on a grass verge outside.

But despite the pub being busy due to the football match, no one admits to having witnessed the killings, and the police have made no headway with the murder inquiry. After the shooting, the pub's shutters were immediately pulled down and the CCTV footage from inside was wiped clean before police could get hold of it.

Yet the circumstances leading up to the murders have been pieced together, and three convictions have been secured for Greater Manchester Police. Austin, 19, and Alveranga, 20, were hired by the 41-year-old gangster Bobby Spiers who "masterminded" the assassination attempt. He wanted David Totton, 27, dead because Spiers, a director of PMS security, had fallen out with Totton over entry to a nightclub.

The young gunmen were driven to the pub by Ian McLeod, one of the leaders of Manchester's Doddington Gang. Not being from Salford themselves, they did not know the layout of the pub nor the identity of the man they were supposed to kill.

That is where Constance Howarth came in. The 38-year-old drank in the pub once a week and agreed to act as a "spotter" and guide the would-be assassins to their targets. Entering the pub at 2.15pm, Austin fired his pistol six times at Totton before someone intervened.

Then Alveranga's 9mm handgun jammed. Another person wrestled it from him and the weapon was turned on the hitmen. Both ran out with bullet wounds to their chests. They died on the grass outside, 20 yards apart.

David Totton was shot three times, but survived. His friend Aaron Travers was shot five times, but also lived.

Howarth was in the toilet the whole time, applying her lipstick. After the botched execution, she calmly left by a back door. McLeod, waiting in the car outside, ran over to the bodies and shouted, "Are they dead?" before speeding off in his Ford Mondeo.

Howarth and McLeod were both convicted of conspiracy to murder and sentenced to 20 and 21 years respectively in May 2007. Bobby Spiers believed he had the perfect alibi. He was at the football match being watched by those in the pub and had directed the plot at half time, sending text messages while enjoying hospitality in an executive box at Old Trafford.

He fled to Spain, but was extradited and sentenced to life earlier this month. Whoever killed Austin and Alveranga has never been caught. Sources close to the case say officers know the identity of the killer – a Gooch gang member (rivals to the Doddington gang), who just happened to be in the pub at the time – but cannot prove his involvement. Due to the wall of silence the police face, it is unlikely he will ever be convicted.

Who killed Milly Dowler? The schoolgirl abducted as she walked home

The disappearance of Amanda "Milly" Dowler in March 2002 prompted a huge nationwide search and police manhunt. Snatched on her way home from school in Surrey, the 13-year-old's remains were eventually found buried in a forest six months later. But, seven years on, no one has ever been convicted of her murder.

Milly was last heard from by her father, who received a phone call from her on the day she died. She had left Heathside School as usual at 3pm, but had got off the train one stop earlier to visit a café with friends. At 3.47pm she called her father and told him she was walking home and would be there in half an hour.

She never arrived. What happened next has never been completely established, but it is most likely that she was abducted. Searches of woodland and waterways, a Crimewatch appeal and a tabloid newspaper's £100,000 promise of a reward yielded nothing.

In September of that year human remains were found by passers-by in a forest in Hampshire. The body was identified by dental records and found to be Milly. The case was reclassified from a missing person investigation to a murder case. But it was not until February 2008 that Surrey Police named Levi Bellfield as their main suspect. Bellfield, 41, had just been convicted of the murders of Marsha McDonnell, 19, and Amelie Delagrange, 22, who were murdered in south-west London in 2003 and 2004. He bludgeoned them to death with a hammer after they had got off buses and started walking home. He was also arrested and interviewed over Milly's death in 2005.

One of the key lines of inquiry in the Milly Dowler investigation involved a red Daewoo car that was seen in the area on the day she died. The car was the same model and colour as one owned by Bellfield's then-girlfriend, Emma Mills. But it has never been found.

Last month, Surrey Police passed a file to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS will now decide whether there is enough evidence to charge Bellfield, who currently resides in Wakefield prison.

Murder in Moss Side: The 15-year-old caught up in gang warfare

Even in manchester's Moss Side estate, an area which has become synonymous with gang and gun violence, the murder of Jessie James in 2006 was shocking.

At just 15 years old he was the youngest person to be shot dead in Greater Manchester since 1993. Worse still, the apparent motive for his killing was painfully ironic. He was, his mother believes, murdered because he refused to join a gang.

Jessie was killed as he returned from a party with his friends. Riding his bike through a park, he was cut down in a hail of bullets by a gunman hidden in the bushes. As he lay dying on a grass verge, his killer approached and finished him off with more gunshots from a semi-automatic pistol.

Upon hearing the gunshots, his friends fled, but returned later to try to find him. Unable to find Jessie, they rang his mobile phone and followed the sound of it ringing in the dark until they came across his dead body.

Revenge killing? The south London victim with a murky past

In Moss Side, the name of his alleged killer is known by most of the estate's largely Somalian population, but despite the lure of a £20,000 reward and witness protection, no one is willing to speak to the police. The reason is one often-repeated in gangland murders: self-preservation. Many residents believe that speaking to the police could lead to them becoming the next victim.

Tony Winter, the leader of a Christian volunteer group called the Street Pastors, explains: "There is a frustration that no one has been caught yet because – although I will not say people know who killed Jessie, there is a strong suspicion as to who killed him. There is a school of thought that points to one particular individual. The community wants that person arrested but there is no evidence.

"One of the difficulties is the closeness of the community. The people involved in this crime will tend to know who the people who can give evidence against them are. It doesn't matter that the police say they can guarantee anonymity to witnesses – the killer or killers already know who the potential witnesses are."

It is a situation that has angered his mother. At her son's funeral, Barbara Reid said that Jessie's blood "is on the hands of the murderer, his accomplices, their families and their friends ... who say nothing or do nothing".

At the time of his death, Jessie was the 24th person to be shot dead in Moss Side since 1999. The motive suggested by his mother may seem outlandish to those who are not familiar with the area, but those who live in Moss Side know that youngsters are expected to pledge allegiance to either the Gooch or Doddington gangs which have fought an ongoing turf war since the Eighties. Both gangs are named after streets that have since been torn down, rebuilt and renamed in a failed bid to extinguish their association with the gangs.

The fact that residents have refused to help the police prosecute Jesse's killer is evidence that the gangs still exist. Yet the police are still hopeful the crime can be solved. Last year, Detective Superintendent Shaun Donnellan said: "As time goes on, I think it will get easier. The people involved will get older and their responsibilities change. Hopefully they will eventually realise they should do the right thing."

But unofficially, many officers do not hold out hope. One police source said: "They are no closer now to solving that murder than they were three years ago. You wonder whether it will ever be solved."

The doorstep shooting: DNA evidence, but police have drawn a blank

The Metropolitan police have cracked many more difficult cases than the murder of Andrew Cunningham. Stabbed to death close to a busy pub on a cold winter's night last year, investigating officers would have been reasonably confident that someone would have seen or heard something.

But, after taking statements from more than 500 people – and offering a £20,000 reward – nearly a year later no one has been charged with the 52-year-old's murder. The reason perhaps lies in Cunningham's murky past. He was a convicted paedophile, jailed in 2001 for having sex with a 15-year-old girl. That fact wasn't lost on whoever killed him – as he lay dying, the murder weapon was used to mutilate his genitals. And Cunningham's criminal history has almost certainly hindered the investigation into his death – people are not inclined to help the police catch the killer of a convicted sex offender.

Andrew Cunningham was found dead at 7am on 10 December in the caravan he called home, outside the haulage yard where he worked in Earlsfield, south London. He was discovered by his boss who had last seen him at 6pm the previous evening.

He had been stabbed in the chest, the throat and the back of the head. No forensic evidence or a murder weapon have been discovered but, because there were no signs of disturbance in the caravan, police believe the killer or killers knew their victim. They appeared to have been allowed to enter.

The motive behind the killing initially appeared to be a case of vigilante mob justice being dished out. Tabloid newspaper reports suggested a baying mob had arrived at his caravan to kill him. But police say CCTV footage does not substantiate this theory.

Yet it is still possible that Cunningham's murder was linked to his past. The pub near where he lived, The Corner Pin in Earlsfield, south London, was once his local, but he had stopped visiting after getting involved in a fight over suggestions that he had "chatted up" an underage teenage girl.

So locals knew of his past. In the weeks leading up to his death, and indeed following it, there had been a rumour circulating that Cunningham had sexually abused a two-year-old girl. The police say that there is no truth to this rumour. Nevertheless, the fact that this rumour was being repeated could mean it was a motive, albeit a mistaken one, for Cunningham's murder.

It is also possible that the victim's past had nothing to do with his death. Money is also a possible motive – £6,000 was stolen from the caravan on the night he died. The police say that the fact that Cunningham's genitals were mutilated could have been a deliberate ploy to make officers believe the murder was an act of revenge because of his previous conviction.

A 50-year-old man is currently on bail after being arrested in connection with the offence.

But does anyone care if the case is solved? Only one member of Mr Cunningham's family, his sister, has asked to be kept up-to-date with the investigation. After the murder, Mr Cunningham's ex-wife told a tabloid newspaper: "He had what was coming to him. No one should feel sorry for him." His daughter said: "I want to spit on his grave."

The officer in charge, Detective Chief Inspector Nick Scola, says: "Even in a situation like this, most people recognise that taking someone's life is wrong, regardless of that person's background."

Settling down to read his two sons a bedtime story on the evening of Sunday 28 November 2004, Alistair Wilson was disturbed by the ring of the doorbell at his home in the Scottish port town of Nairn near Inverness.

His wife Veronica answered the door and was met by a man asking to speak with her husband. Mr Wilson went to the door, returning inside briefly to tell his wife he did not know his visitor. When he returned to speak to the man, Mr Wilson was shot three times and left to die on his doorstep.

The killing stunned the residents of the genteel Highland fishing town. It was the first murder to take place there since 1986. But, five years on, despite the largest inquiry the Northern Constabulary has ever undertaken, the 30-year-old's murder remains unsolved.

In terms of facts, there is much to go on. Agonisingly, the officers believe that they have the killer's DNA. Most intriguingly, the police know that the killer handed Mr Wilson a turquoise-coloured envelope, but to this day no one knows what was inside as the killer took it with him when he fled.

The murder weapon has also been recovered. But unfortunately the 1920s German handgun provided police with little information. Only the fact that it is rare, a semi-automatic made by Haenel Waffen of Suhl, and the even more unusual origin of the Czech ammunition used gives officers some hope that the case could one day be solved.

The officers in charge of the inquiry say that they have released more information into the public domain than with any other murder investigation they can think of. This included part of the 999 call made by a hysterical Mrs Wilson immediately after the shooting, along with video footage of their then five-year-old son, Andrew Wilson, being told his father was dead, in the hope of stirring someone's conscience.

The fact that a forensic search of the area provided police with 19 DNA samples has also proved highly significant. Eighteen of these have been identified, but crucially one DNA sample – believed to have been found on a cigarette butt at the scene and most probably that of the killer – is unaccounted for.

But still nothing.

As expected, there are also rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding the motive behind the murder. Mr Wilson was the business manager at the local branch of the Bank of Scotland. Some theories include the suggestion that a colleague with a grudge killed him, or that a businessman who was denied a loan was responsible. Or was it a contract killing, with the intended victim another Alistair Wilson? Or was there an extra-marital affair somewhere, a crime of passion?

Police have all but ruled each theory out. The one concerning the possibility of mistaken identity has been given less credibility by the revelation that the police have spoken to 19 other Alistair Wilsons.

Mrs Wilson was also seen by some as a suspect in the aftermath, a claim she vehemently denies. She even underwent hypnosis therapy to see if she could subconsciously remember anything about the day that she had neglected to tell the police. It yielded little that the officers did not already know.

Now after interviewing more than 4,000 people, and taking statements from more than 3,000 of them, the police have scaled down their once time-consuming investigation. At the outset there were 63 detectives working solely on the case; today there is none.

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