Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #206: The Soho Strangler - Part Ten - Norman Stephenson the Strangler
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EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND SIX:
This is Part Ten of Ten of The Soho Strangler.
At the crime-scene of ‘French Marie’s murder, the culprit had left his fingerprints. At the pub and a nearby market, he was seen with the victim, just hours before ethe murder, by at least twenty eye-witnesses, some of whom he had spoken to, even giving them details about his life. As the case stalled, once again, a strangler had vanished into thin air, and the murders would stop…
…but only in Soho.
300 miles north of London, another murder and an attempted murder or two prostitutes in very similar circumstances would lead the Police to a very likely suspect in the murder of French Marie.
But was he The Soho Strangler?
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
MEPO 3/1722 - https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C1257764
Murder, reduced to manslaughter, of Elsie Charlotte Torchon by Robert Dixon alias Norman Stephenson at Euston Road, NW. on 16 August 1937.
STEPHENSON, Norman: at Durham Assizes on 25 February 1939 convicted of manslaughter; sentenced to 10 years' penal servitude; at Central Criminal Court (CCC) on 25 April 1939 convicted of manslaughter; sentenced to 16 years' penal servitude concurrent. PCOM 9/2030
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
The investigation was led by Chief Inspector Drewe of the CID, who had overseen the murders of ‘French Fifi’, Marie Cotton, ‘Dutch Leah’ and ‘Red Max’, and would confirm “this is a case of murder”.
As before, there was no struggle, robbery or assault. With a timeline of events as clear as the day itself, the evidence as irrefutable as dust, and an embarrassment of eyewitnesses (who had seen and spoken to her killer face-to-face from a few inches away), there was no mystery as to who had murdered her.
A composite description was compiled by witnesses, which would perfectly match the man they would convict of killing Marie. He was “aged 24-30, 5 foot 3 to 4, thin to medium build, a roundish pasty face, a ruddy complexion, blue eyes, brown brushed-back hair, a dark brownish scruffy suit and no hat”.
That same man was seen with the victim at the Adam & Eve pub, at Seaton Place market and then, at 4pm, both were seen by the tenants of the building entering her second-floor flat at 306 Euston Road.
Dr Alexander Burney confirmed by in-situ examination that her time of death was “4pm to 5pm”. Eva & Kaufman Shladover living one floor above saw that same man from their window “walk into Bath Row and into Euston Road” at roughly 5:30pm. And no-one was seen to enter or exit her room, until at 6pm, as established by the Scent factory whistle, when they extinguished the fire and found Marie.
With the police report stating: “…the victim was a woman given to drinking and prostitution… there is no doubt that the murderer was a chance ‘pick up’ in a public house”, the evidence was irrefutable.
Without doubt, her killer was a man she trusted; having held his hand on the walk back, accepted a kiss in public, and let him into her flat for sex, when it could have occurred in any dark back alley.
Inside, they sang and clapped to the music, as heard by Eva. They drank four bottles of stout; two of Reid’s and two of Guinness, which were marked with that day’s date and the pub’s address. And then, at the table, they both enjoyed a light meal, with the man opening the salmon tin using a can-opener.
As expected, sex followed, as she willingly removed her hat, bra and knickers, but not her dress. She lay on the bed, her back on the sheets, her head on a pillow, and with no signs of a struggle (no cuts, no internal bruising, and no fingernails broken) consensual vaginal sex is believed to be taken place.
For at least an hour, this simple sexual transaction between a prostitute and a punter had occurred as it (probably) had two-or-three times prior. For both of them, it was fun, friendly and unthreatening…
…only, this time, something would change.
With a fist to the face, a lack of struggle suggested that she had been knocked out. With frothy mucus in her airway and bruising about her neck, she was manually strangled at first, but then with a ligature - taken by her killer - it is unknown if it was knotted or if he held it tight until her life had ebbed away.
The Police would state “we failed to find anything in the nature of a ligature”. With Marie not wearing any stockings, either he had taken it as a souvenir, kept it as it belonged to him, or it was destroyed in a short ferocious fire which blackened the sink, burnt the curtain and turned the rags within to cinders.
With no money in her purse, it’s possible that this ‘trusted punter’ didn’t need to pay her first, or that maybe he only took ‘his money’ back. But with witnesses stating “he had no more than half a crown”; what was his plan? To charm her into charging less, to rob a woman he had begun to like, or – being too broke to pay – did his uncontrollable lust for sex lead this out-of-work man to commit a murder?
His motive was a mystery, but – given enough time – his identity would not. Although unknown to any pub locals or West End coppers - with his fingerprints on the can-opener, the bottles, the salmon tin and her handbag – the Police would manually search every fingerprint of every criminal with a history of assaulting women or prostitutes who matched that man’s description, until they found the culprit.
It was an almost impossible task…
…made simpler having left a few clues.
Openly chatting in the pub to two strangers, Frederick Dobson and George Bakewell, Marie’s killer had shared details about his life; his birthplace, his job, his hobbies and his prospects, all except his name.
In co-ordination with the Durham Police, they searched for a short, thinly built, mid-twenties man with a round pasty face, who was born or raised in Newcastle. But as he mentioned nowhere specific, their list was too long. The same was said of every coal mine they checked in both Wales and the northeast.
A more specific lead was that he was once a boxer: “his last fight was with a man named McGuire who ruined him”. But having interviewed over a thousand boxers, worked with the British Boxing Board, the Amateur Boxing Association and having posted an article in ‘Boxing’ magazine, no-one could recall ‘McGuire’ or his opponent. It’s possible that the witnesses may have misheard, or that the culprit had lied, although some would state that he didn’t look like a boxer, as he looked “sickly” and “weak”.
Having said he was unemployed, the Police checked the details of every man who had recently signed on at the Labour Exchange. Having said he was homeless, they searched every lodging house, hotel or casual ward in London and Newcastle, even placing his description in the Police Gazette. And having said he had been sacked, that morning, from the Central Hotel in Marylebone “for upsetting a milk churn”, they questioned the hotel staff, the agency and Ministry of Work, but came up with no-one.
The Police placed informants in public areas, witnesses compared photos of possible suspects at the Records Office, and - as they had done with Fifi, Marie and Leah – they requested that every police division in the country compile a list of men with convictions for assaulting women, who matched that description. Every suspect was questioned and investigated, but with solid alibis, all were released.
They had evidence, fingerprints, eyewitnesses, and yet, even after weeks of dogged investigation with every avenue of suspicion examined and any possible suspect scrutinised, the case had begun to stall.
The Police report states: “the inquiry has been aggravating, for whilst we have witnesses together with the fingerprints to support a conviction, we have no prisoner… we have many witnesses capable of identifying him but up to the moment he is unknown… however no effort is being spared to bring this to a successful termination and… DCI Drewe and his officers are in no way disheartened. I am hoping for a little good fortune to come their way, which has been conspicuously absent so far”.
Once again, a strangler had vanished into thin air…
…only, he wasn’t a criminal mastermind or a crazed sadistic genius, he was just an ordinary man living in a population of 47 million people, in an era where the best resource the Police had was a card index. For him, it wasn’t difficult to disappear, when the Police don’t know who they’re looking for.
His name was Norman Stephenson.
Born on the 10th of March 1913, 300 miles north of London in the north-east city of Newcastle, Norman was always an undersized boy, often bullied for being small; and whose weedy frame, ruddy cheeks and pale face - contrasted starkly with his dark brushed-back hair - made him look sickly and weak.
He never seemed to let it bother him, but maybe that’s why he lied about being a miner, a boxer and regularly visited prostitutes, as deep down, he was just a little boy who wanted to be seen as a man.
Little is known about his upbringing in a small terrace house, just a short walk from Castle Leazes Moor and Fenham Barracks, but often being jolly and chatty to all, he blended in because he didn’t stick out.
Educated at St Andrew’s Council School, aged 14, he left being described as “educated, but not smart”, and being too small for heavy labour, his first job in 1927 was as an errand boy for a picture framer.
But all that changed when a little mistake left him scarred for life.
On 14th September 1927, Norman’s favourite football team, Newcastle FC, were playing against Derby County at St James’ Park. Being too poor to buy a ticket, this little whippersnapper tried to sneak in by shimmying up the six-foot high railings, but slipped. With two iron spikes impaled through his stomach, all he could do was hang there, in pain, as his blood ran from his midriff down to his feet and his face. Hospitalised for three weeks, he would be plagued with bouts of sickness and unemployment for life.
After his accident, his work record became sporadic.
In 1928, he was a confectioner’s van boy, but quit in 1930 owing to stomach pains. In early 1931, he was off sick, but worked for nine months erecting a concrete garage in Newcastle. And until April 1932, he worked at Park Royal Training in West London, but owing to sickness he returned to Newcastle, where he engaged in casual work and petty crime to fund habitual drinking and sex with prostitutes.
Norman Stephenson had ten convictions, mostly for minor offences; on the 27th February 1931 and 8th February 1932 in Gateshead he was charged with ‘acting suspiciously’, 11th January 1933 he did six months in prison for stealing cigarettes, 22nd January 1934 at Newcastle he was fined for stealing two tins of petrol, and on 14th May 1934, he did three months hard labour for stealing women’s clothing.
Upon his release, in February 1935, he moved to London, and – as may have been misheard, or a white lie to sound tough - for six months he was a boiler house labourer at the Central Hotel on Marylebone Road. Only he wasn’t sacked for “upsetting a milk churn”, but he left owing to ill-health. And it didn’t happen on 16th August 1937, the morning of the murder, but on 7th June 1935, a year and a half earlier.
In the months preceding the strangling of ‘French Marie’, he worked a slew of badly paid jobs in West London, living in lodging houses, crashing on friend’s floors, and committing a spate of minor crimes.
On 9th October 1935, at Marylebone Police Court, he was sentenced to two months hard labour for stealing from a gas metre; on 16th June 1936, back in Newcastle, he served nine months for shop-breaking and (again) for larceny from a gas metre; and on 31st May 1937, in Willesden, West London, he would serve three months hard-labour at Wandsworth Prison for stealing 12s, again from a metre.
As a weak and sickly boy, little Norman Stephenson didn’t fit the profile of a murderer; he was a part-time labourer, who suffered with stomach aches, and sometimes stole clothes, stamps and cigarettes.
Since the murder of ‘French Fifi’, the Police had sought a man resembling his description, who had a history of violence against women or prostitutes. Only, Norman had no such convictions. In fact, his only violent offence, before he was charged with murder, was the assault of a policeman while drunk.
Which begs the question – after almost two years of hunting for this very unlikely suspect - with three murders having gone unsolved and no other suspects for a fourth, as they had done with Stanley King and James Allan Hall, had a baffled Police force simply bagged themselves a convenient scapegoat…
...and was Norman Stephenson an innocent man?
Having vanished, it would take seventeen months for the Police to find Norman Stephenson, by which time memories had faded, recollections were hazy, dates had shifted, and faces were lost. His alibi for the day of the murder was not to deny knowing Marie, but to deny that he was even there at all.
On Monday 16th August 1937 at 7:45am, Norman Stephenson was released from Wandsworth Prison in South London, having served three months’ hard labour for stealing 12s from a gas metre. Dressed in a shabby brown suit but no hat, with a few coins in his pocket, he boarded the tram to Westminster.
From 9am, he said he ate breakfast at the Salvation Army hostel on Great Peter Street, but there is no record of his visit. At 12pm, as Marie entered the Adam & Eve pub, he said he paid a visit to Bertram Bussell’s home near Waterloo Bridge, only his friend wasn’t in. Later, he said he ate lunch at a hostel on Middlesex Street, but again, his details were not recorded there or at any of the nearby hostels.
At roughly 1pm, he said he caught a train from Waterloo to Merstham, two hours and 19 miles south of Marie’s flat. At 2:30pm, around the time it is said he entered the pub, his sister said she “gave him five shillings” but “I can’t recall the date”. And with so long having passed - although the Police had his fingerprints on a Guinness bottle as bought by the victim, marked with the pub’s details, dated the day of her death, which was bagged and carried to her flat, and was later found open and drank beside her bed where her body was found - they couldn’t disprove that Norman wasn’t elsewhere…
…just as, they couldn’t prove (without a shadow of a doubt) that he had strangled Marie.
On 29th October 1937, even with an overwhelming wealth of evidence and only one possible suspect in Marie’s murder - being unaware that Norman Stephenson even existed - the inquest was concluded by the coroner, who would state: “there is no doubt at all that the Police have made all the possible enquiries… it is clearly a case of murder… and there is only one verdict which fits these facts”.
Across a few months and several streets in Soho, three women of similar description were strangled by an unseen assailant in almost identical circumstances. And now, declared as ‘murdered by persons unknown’, a fourth woman’s life was lost and her justice denied, as again, her killer would remain free.
That night, a foul mood enveloped the detectives, as they knew they had done everything right. When the public pinned the blame on society’s outsiders, and when a feverish press bastardised the facts to concoct silly stories about a monster they had dubbed The Soho Strangler for as long as it sold papers, the Police stayed steadfast in their belief that each victim was murdered by a man with a history of violence against women. But having investigated every possible suspect, they had failed to find him.
Only they weren’t wrong.
Marie’s murderer had a history of strangling sex-workers…
…it was just that, until now, he had never been caught.
Sixteen months after the inquest, and 300 miles north in Durham, on the evening of Friday 27th January 1939, 56-year-old Catherine Maud Chamberlain left the home she shared with her husband at Douglas Terrace, passed St James’ Park, and headed to Castle Leazes Moor. It is uncertain why she was there; some say she was “meeting a pal”, whereas others suggest that as the wife of a poorly paid labourer, she was earning a few extra shillings by selling sex to the soldiers stationed at nearby Fenham Barracks.
With the snow falling thick and the night bitterly cold, Catherine wore a long woollen scarf to keep the chill from her neck, and a set of rubber wellies, as her feet churned the grass into a brown slushy mud.
At 10:10pm. Catherine was seen chatting with a “small man” at the main gates of Leazes Park by Mabel Jackson, they then “made their way together across the park, where there were some ARP trenches”.
She described him as “about five foot three, aged about 25, dark hair, ruddy complexion, round face, dressed in a dirty dark suit, with collar and tie, but no hat”. The same as the suspect seen with Marie.
Later arrested, Norman would make a confession with chilling similarities.
He would state: “I realised there was £2 missing from my waistcoat pocket”; a crime he would blame on Catherine, having been ‘dipped’ in the past, by which a prostitute will either overcharge a punter, or will discretely steal their money - although we have no evidence to prove his assertion of her theft.
Feeling aggrieved, “I let her have one blow on the chin”, but only being a little guy, although “she went down against the wall on her knees”, as she started to struggle, he rained down repeated blows to her face as the terrified woman began to scream for her life. It was then that he strangled her to death.
Norman would confess, “I grabbed her by the throat”, but being too weak to choke the very life out of her, “I then got hold of her scarf”. Not being the kind of man who plans to murder a prostitute, “as she screamed, I tied a knot in it”, a granny knot, which he knew how to tie in haste being a labourer. And as “I had no intention of killing her”, he’d state, “I did it to frighten her and get my money back”.
Which was almost certainly a lie, as in the same way that French Fifi hid her money in her left stocking, Catherine hid hers in her wellies which he removed. This suggests three things; first, that he knew her; second, that he knew she was a casual prostitute; and third, that he knew some of her secrets.
At 10:15pm, a passing couple heard several screams by the ARP trench, but by the time they had raced to the Barrack’s wall, finding her body in a pool of mud, Catherine was dead… and her killer had fled.
With any evidence eviscerated by the winter sludge, the Durham Police were at a loss as to who this man was. Placing a description of the man in the papers, the press reported the facts in a factual and an unsensational way, but - with only one prostitute dead – this little story would quickly be forgotten.
The murder of Catherine Chamberlain may have ended unresolved…
…but it was then, that the Met Police got the little bit of luck they needed.
As the Met Police had done, Durham Police had requested all divisions across the country to compile a list of men matching that description with a history of assaulting prostitutes, especially strangulation. It was too eerie to be a coincidence, as the man last seen with ‘French Marie’ was from Newcastle.
With the press accurately reporting this suspect’s description in the local papers, with his victim’s body found so close to his home and with his face being seen, Norman Stephenson had become spooked.
Mid-afternoon on Friday 3rd February 1939, one week after Catherine’s murder, Norman had tried to strangle another prostitute, whilst drunk, on Newgate Street in the heart of Newcastle city centre.
In a local pub, having met Annie Cunningham Thomson, a sex-worker who he knew and liked, they headed to an alley for sex, “only nothing happened as he was too drunk”. Moments later, “he put his hands around my neck and tried to strangle me”. Which may have been his real motivation, as with this little boy desperate to be seen as a man, were these assaults because he couldn’t get an erection?
Fighting him off, Norman fled as two men came to Annie’s aid. But as he ran into Westmoreland Street, being wracked with anxiety, Catherine’s killer gave himself up. Walking up to PC John Patterson, Norman said “I want to give myself up for murdering Mrs Chamberlain… since the murder, people have said queer things about my appearance”, as reported in the papers “and it has got on my nerves”.
Detained at Arthurs Hill police station, he was charged with assault and murder.
On Thursday 2nd and Friday 3rd March 1939 at Durham Assizes, Norman Stephenson was tried for the murder of Catherine Maud Chamberlain. Pleading ‘not guilty’, his defence was “I thought she had only fainted”, “I didn’t mean to kill her”, and – claiming self-defence for a knife which was never found - “I thought she had a razor, I was in fear for myself”. But with no prior history of violence, the charge was reduced to manslaughter, as the court knew they hadn’t the evidence to prove any pre-meditation.
Having retired for 45 minutes, a jury of eight men and four women found him guilty of manslaughter, and – allegedly flicking a little grin from the dock – he was sentenced to ten years in Parkhurst prison.
Throughout the trial, Chief Inspector Drewe absorbed every detail about Norman Stephenson…
…but if he was so sure that he had murdered Marie, why did they convict a man called Robert Dixon?
With Norman sticking to his shaky alibi and unwilling to admit his guilt, he would state “I know nothing about it. I wasn’t in Euston Road that day. I don’t know the Adam & Eve and I don’t know the woman”.
Two years after the murder, he was put on an ID parade at Albany Street police station. Of the thirteen witnesses who had seen him, some of whom had spoken to him - with so much time having passed - only two could positively identify him; Reuben Packcroft and Sadie Gibber, the market stall holders.
But backed-up by twenty almost identical eyewitness statements taken on the day after the murder, and with his fingerprints found on the stout bottles, the can opener and the salmon tin found inside her flat and within a very specific timeframe, Norman Stephenson was committed to criminal trial.
On 2nd May 1939, ‘Robert Dixon’ was tried at the Old Bailey, as with so much coverage of the murder of Catherine Chamberlain, the prosecution and the defence felt it prudent to try him under an alias.
Pleading ‘not guilty’ to murdering Lottie Asterley alias ‘French Marie’, he would state “we were both drunk… she told me to leave and pushed me. I pushed her back and as she fell, I grabbed her silk scarf … and I think it must have tightened”. Only, no-one could recall her wearing a scarf, as it was summer.
Having retired for one and a half hours, during which time, the jury had sought rulings from the judge on various points of law, they returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ of murder, but ‘guilty’ of manslaughter.
With Norman Stephenson alias ‘Robert Dixon’ sentenced to 16 years for the manslaughter of Lottie Asterley and 10 years for Catherine Maud Chamberlain, escaping a death sentence, he should have served at least 26 years in prison, but with both convictions to run concurrently, he served just half.
Released from Dartmoor prison in 1955, Norman Stephenson died in 1969, a free man. (Fake finish)
(Wind, Ripper sounds as at start of series).
140 years after his killing spree, as it is unknown if Jack the Ripper was ever caught, no-one knows his name, or if he even existed, as with so many theories and conspiracies concocted by a feverish press and a public only interested in what’s sensational, the facts are lost in a quagmire of lies and suspicion.
More than 85 years after The Soho Strangler killings, the same could be said, as was he a man, a myth or a monster? There were many suspects over the years, but with very few proven, except maybe one.
No-one has ever tried to solve the riddle of who The Soho Strangler was… until now.
Since the start, the Police would state “some of the papers have suggested these cases of strangulation of prostitutes in 1935 and 1936 are connected, we have convinced them that they are wrong”. But did they think that, or with only circumstantial evidence of a Soho serial killer, was it quicker and legally safer to conclude one murder as solved, rather than four they could never prove were connected?
We know he strangled two women to death, Catherine Maud Chamberlain and Lottie Asterley, as well as assaulting Annie Cunningham Thomson. But with no history of violence against prostitutes, he was never suspected, as his first conviction for strangulation wasn’t until 1939, three years after the murder of ‘French Fifi’.
And yet, although we have no sightings of the man who murdered ‘French Fifi’ or Marie Cotton, the suspect last seen with ‘Dutch Leah’ is almost identical to Norman Stephenson: “aged about 25, 5 foot 5 inches, medium build, fresh complexion, brown hair, clean shaven, long black coat and no hat”.
It could be a coincidence, or maybe be not.
As a small unassuming boy who looked ‘sickly’ and ‘weak’, was he often mistaken for harmless, being so friendly he would chat to strangers in a pub, the kind of punter a prostitute would wave at across a bar, and who she would invite back to her flat for a meal and sex, because she trusted him?
He may not have been arrested for violence or sexual assault, but he regularly visited prostitutes, his earliest crimes were for ‘acting suspiciously’ and he was charged twice for ‘stealing women’s clothing’.
Was that entirely innocent, or does it hint at something deviant?
Prior to their deaths, three of the victims were assaulted by punters, who would claim to have been cheated out of money. Norman would admit “I have been ‘dipped’ before by prostitutes in London”. He also knew Soho and the West End red-light districts, he could tie a variety of knots at speed, and – with no money found at any of the crime-scenes - he knew where Fifi and Catherine hid their earnings.
Of course, all of that is circumstantial… but it’s a very different thing to place him at the scene.
In neither the press nor the police reports is Norman named as a suspect in any of the ‘Soho Murders’, but by comparing his work history and his prison record, there is a series of startling similarities:
Sentenced to two months at Pentonville for stealing from a gas meter, Norman was released on 4th November 1935, the day that Josephine Martin alias ‘French Fifi’ was murdered. Dressed in a shabby brown suit, with no home, no job and no money, it’s likely that prison life had left him sex-starved.
On 16th April and 9th May 1936, the days when Marie Cotton and ‘Dutch Leah’ were murdered, being unemployed and kipping of friend’s floors, we know he was in the West End, but for unknown reasons, by his conviction in June 1936 for shop-breaking, he had fled back the Newcastle, where he felt safe.
And having been sentenced to three months’ hard labour, released from Wandsworth prison on the morning of 16th August 1937 – with no money, job or lodging – with a need to have sex, he got drunk in a pub, and just hours later, he murdered a prostitute, known as ‘French Marie’, for a few shillings.
It could really be as simple as that; there was no myth, no monster nor conspiracy; he wasn’t a crime boss, a sadistic gay or a sinister Jew; as the most obvious answer is usually the right one - that these women were murdered by a recently released convict, who was broke and had a deadly desire for sex.
Had the press reported the truth rather than scandal, these women would have received their justice.
So, was Norman Stephenson Soho’s serial-strangler…
…or was The Soho Strangler just a myth?
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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