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Fresh appeal in murder of woman found near Sutton Bank in 1981
DETECTIVES at North Yorkshire Police have made a fresh appeal for clues, 30 years after one of their biggest unsolved murder cases began.
A woman’s body was found dumped next to a country road near Sutton Bank on August 28, 1981, but she has never been identified and her killer never found. Now, officers have isued a new plea for anybody with information to come forward.
A North Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “Even after such a long period of time, somebody, somewhere must know this woman’s name or must have wondered what has happened to a member of their family.
“It is very possible that, in the intervening years, the relationship between someone who was suspicious about a friend or relative has now changed. They should ask themselves: isn’t now the time to come forward and allow this woman to rest in peace? Anybody who can shed fresh light on this investigation is urged to contact police so that the murderer can be brought to justice.”
Anyone with information should phone North Yorkshire Police on 0845 6060247.
Just who was Jane Doe?
Thirty years ago this week, a woman’s body was found dumped in undergrowth in North Yorkshire, but who she was and how she got there remain a mystery. JENNIFER BELL reports.
IT WAS thirty years ago this week that the naked body of a woman was discovered in a nettle bush in the North Yorkshire countryside.
It would mark the beginning of one of the most bewildering, perplexing cases North Yorkshire Police has ever had to face.
The decomposed body was thought to be of a woman, about 5ft 4ins tall and aged about 40.
Later investigations would show she was a mother who possibly had two or three children and was possibly married, although there were never any signs of a wedding ring. She suffered from a bad back. She had a slender build and wore her natural dark brown hair in a page-boy style.
Her toenails were painted a pale-pink and she would have worn a size four shoe.
Her teeth gave police extra clues. Staining on her teeth suggested she was a heavy smoker who drank heavily and did not pay much attention to herself.
But little more was ever discovered about this Jane Doe. Now, 30 years on, that is something North Yorkshire Police wants to change.
It was on August 28, 1981, at about 8am, that police received a tip-off from an anonymous caller, a well-spoken man, who told police in Ripon where to find the body.
He said at the time he could not give his name for security reasons.
PC John Jeffries received the phone call giving him precise directions to the whereabouts of the body. The anonymous telephone caller became an immediate suspect, but was never traced.
He said simply: “Near Scawton Moor House, you will find a decomposed body among the willow herbs.” But the minute-long conversation was brought to an abrupt halt when he was asked his name and address.
Detectives who went that morning on a hot summer’s day chopped down tall pink flowers and nettles that surrounded the body as fingertip experts began their painstaking search.
Det Chief Supt Strickland Carter, the man leading the inquiry, did not believe the body had been discovered by chance. Three fresh tracks suggested someone had been searching.
It was a yogurt top, discovered beneath the body, which gave police a vital timeline of how long she had been laid there – about two years. The position of the body suggests someone was in a hurry to dump her.
And so the police work began. It involved thousands of man hours and numerous public pleas for help as well as scouring through hundreds of missing person reports to try and match the identity to that of the discovered body.
There was much speculation on who the woman could be. The first suggestion was that she was Gloria Bielby – a blonde secretary from Hull who disappeared in February 1979 aged 36. The first description loosely matched the butcher’s wife who had vanished after setting out with £3,000 to buy a new car. But that theory – like many others that came later – was discarded.
Police checked the files on dozens of other women who were, one by one, ruled out. Either their details failed to match up or they turned up alive and well.
At one point detectives even believed the dead woman was Geraldine Crawley, a killer who had absconded from Askham Grange prison in 1979. But she later blew her own cover to exclude herself from the inquires. She sent detectives two thumbprints and a signature to prove she was still alive.
Another popular theory was that the woman was a prostitute. But whoever she was, police are convinced to this day that the cause of death was unnatural.
Police inquires included contact with Interpol, the Republic of Ireland, Australia and the United States of America. Publicity was vital and the press gave massive coverage to the case of the “nude in the nettles”. A life-size bust waxwork of the woman was made by medical students and unveiled three months after her body was discovered.
But despite several leads, the trail ran cold and the mystery remains unsolved.
One of the saddest aspects of the death came two years after the body was found and one week after an inquest recorded an open verdict, when a sparsely attended funeral was finally held. The body was laid to rest in a plain coffin with a plate bearing the simple, clipped inscription: “Name unknown, died August 28, 1981”.
What stands out in hindsight is that one thing may have prevented the case being solved – sheer bad luck.
A jockey from a nearby racing stable narrowly failed to uncover the body in 1979.
He used to exercise horses along the Scawton road patch and recalled a foul stench when he passed the spot where the body was later found – but he never reported it. Why the body had not been discovered earlier puzzled police. It was only a few metres from an old pull-in for milk lorries, where cars regularly parked, and it was a popular spot for courting couples, as well as shooting parties. The case was later featured in a book named Ten Yorkshire Mysteries, written by Len Markham, of Barwick-in-Elmet, who described it as one of the most baffling cases North Yorkshire Police ever investigated.
Today, police say somebody still must know who the Jane Doe was. North Yorkshire Police say the file is still open on one of only a handful of the force’s unsolved suspicious deaths, which include that of missing York chef Claudia Lawrence.
Meanwhile, marked only by a number, the mystery woman’s grave in Malton Cemetery still awaits a headstone. As the 30th anniversary of the discovery of her body arrives, the hope among police is that members of the public can bring closure to one of their longest-ever unsolved cases.
No family and friends to say goodbye
ONE man who still recalls the day of the unknown murder victim’s funeral is Martin Oates, picture editor for The Press.
Apart from himself and other members of the media, the service at Malton Cemetery on the Feast of the Virgin Mary – the day the Church remembers women – was attended only by two CID officers, two representatives from Ryedale District Council, which paid for the funeral, and the Reverend John Manchester, who conducted the service.
Martin was in his early 20s and just a couple of years into his role as a photographer for the paper when he was sent to cover the service, and he remembers it as an “exceptionally sad and poignant day”.
He said: “Two years after the body was found, the story was still prominent, both locally and nationally. I went to cover the funeral and there was only myself, a reporter from The Press, a reporter from another newspaper and the officers who had been in charge of the case for two years. It just seemed a very sad farewell.
“The fact she was being buried and nothing from all the police searches had ever led to any conclusion to the identity of this woman, I found it really moving, really. It was very sad that somebody had to go that way – without family or friends to say goodbye properly.”
THIRTY years ago, North Yorkshire police discovered the decomposed body of a woman. Promising leads soon ran cold and no one on the missing persons’ list could be matched to the body. Today the file is still open on what has been called the force’s most baffling case.
Investigations revealed the woman was a mother, which makes the mystery even more puzzling. Surely her children or friends reported her missing. But to this day, she has no name, no headstone and is simply marked by a number.
Somebody must know who this woman is. She may have died many years ago, but it’s not too late to help the police finally solve this bewildering mystery.