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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY-NINE:
This is Part One of Four of Meticulous.
On Wednesday 1st Sep 1971 at 3:40pm, on the 10th hole of Leatherhead golf course, a human forearm and fist was found. As one of many pieces of an unidentified woman, whose body had been dismembered and buried in the dense woodland surrounding it, this began one of the most baffling and fascinating murder cases in British legal history.
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The location is marked with a purple symbol of a bin at the bottom, near the word 'Epsom'. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other maps, click here.
SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Sunday 29th August 1971. Britain.
Since the year’s turn, Britain had seen eight months of chaos; with the postal workers on strike, Rolls Royce in bankruptcy, Northern Ireland a political powder keg, terrorist bombings the norm, 66 people killed at Ibrox stadium, elected racist Enoch Powell still banging about ‘rivers of blood’, unemployment at its highest level since the end of the second world war, and yet, the most talked about news story was bad-boy showjumper Harvey Smith being stripped of his medal for flicking a ‘v’ sign at the judges.
The country was full of strikes, riots and protests, as the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.
But in Leatherhead, 16 miles south of London, everything was tranquil, as 47-year-old groundskeeper Norman Stones kept the greens and fairways of Leatherhead golf club pristine and immaculate. With 15 years under his belt, Norman kept to a strict routine. He’d state “as the greenskeeper’s hut is close to the 10th hole bunker, I finished up my weekend duties, arrived at the bunker at 7:40am, I raked it over, and finished off the 10th green”. Being two hours after dawn, the club was opening in minutes, and with the weather predicted to be 26 degrees with barely any wind, the course would be busy.
“On the front crest of the centre of the bunker, I found lying there a bone, about 18 inches long, which was covered in dirt. I recall it having a knuckle at one end and a smaller knuckle at the other”. Having been stripped of meat, cartilage and skin, with the ends gnawed as a hungry beast had feasted on the juicy marrowbone inside, “I guessed some fox had had a good meal”, as with August being the month when the tods and vixens leave their litter of cubs to fend for themselves, it was just another bone.
A big bone. Maybe a deer? Maybe a dog? But with his shift ending, a brew on and hearing the slow roar of Bentleys, Mercs and Beamers pulling up outside of the club house, “I threw it away into the rough on the right of the bunker” and thinking nothing more of it, Norman Stones headed home.
It was a good day to play golf, as was the following Monday and the Tuesday.
But nearby, a fox was still famished. (fox call)
Comprising 130 acres of lush greens and tamed roughs, Leatherhead Golf Course isn’t the kind of place any old pleb could wander into by mistake, as with the nearest train station 1 ½ miles south, the only road being the A243 Chessington to Leatherhead, and outside, an infrequent bus stop serving the golf course’s workers and any walkers on Ashtead Common, the average 18-hole game is unlikely to be disturbed by a family picnic, a rogue football landing on the fairway, or a dog taking a dump on a tee.
Surrounded by no flats, shops or car parks, the only houses are a smattering of millionaire’s mansions on the exclusive Pachesham Estate and being encircled by a thick dense woodland of tightly packed trees and rough spiky shrubs, the course itself is not only private and secluded but often impenetrable.
At 1pm, being a member, Dennis Harold O’Flynn, a dentist from nearby Fetcham pulled in and parked up. He had a drink, a light bite to eat, as he planned to spend the next four hours playing 18 holes.
On Wednesday 1st September 1971 at 3:40pm, Dennis was on the fairway of the 9th hole. With a good clean stroke, his ball landed about 100 yards (roughly 300 feet) from the 10th fairway. Only his eyes weren’t focussed on the little white orb he had whacked a good distance, but the obstacle beside it.
Stopping dead, Dennis stated “at first, I thought it was a limb of an animal”. Not being a gnawed clean bone like Norman had found barely 200 feet away, but a limb with skin, sinew and meat. “I turned it over with my foot to see what it was”, only this wasn’t a piece of a slaughtered beast, but a human’s.
At 40 centimetres long, although this left forearm and fist once weighed about 2 and a ½ kilos, it now weighed a kilo less, as with strips of soiled flesh having been ripped away, what remained was a rotten length of partially decomposed meat and bone, which wreaked of the rancid smell of fetid cabbage.
It had once belonged to a woman, who had a life and loved one’s who were very possibly grieving over her disappearance, at least that was the initial suspicion, as although each decaying digit was caked in dirt, the nails were neatly manicured, brightly coloured, and on her fourth finger were two silver rings.
Alerting the Police, Dorking CID sealed off the golf course, and with Inspector Brian Richardson and the scenes-of-crime officer PC Raymond Woodman arriving at 7:35pm, as the slowing dimming sun made it too dark to do anything useful, the fist and forearm were removed for preservation.
That night, a memo was faxed to all UK Police forces, stating ‘part of a white female was discovered at Leatherhead. At present, the identity is unknown, and it is requested that statements be obtained from the parents or guardians of all white female missing persons over the age of 15 years, including full descriptions and particulars of any jewellery worn’. Details were vague, but that’s all they had.
No-one was saying it was murder, as with it possibly being a prank by a medical student, a misplaced biohazard bag from a hospital, or an issue with a freshly dug grave, they could do nothing till morning.
Thursday 2nd September 1971. Dawn.
Headed up by Detective Chief Inspector Phillip Doyle of Dorking and Leatherhead CID, given the likelihood that there could be more body parts or pieces strewn across the area, a search team of police officers, sniffer dogs and volunteers was established, as although the golf course itself comprised of 130 acres, the wider area of dense woodland and impenetrable scrubs on Ashtead Common was three times larger, the equivalent of 330 football pitches… only full of thick nettles, boggy ditches and fallen trees.
At the same time, in the mortuary at Epsom Hospital, Dr Peter Pullar, the Home Office Pathologist examined the deceased’s left forearm and fist as found the day before. With no birthmarks, no scars and no tattoos, there was no way to identify her. With no signs of any disease or marks of self-defence, how she had died was impossible to tell. And with the limb still in a state of decomposition, but having been recently extricated from a grave, they didn’t know when she had died or when she was buried.
With very little skin slippage, her fingerprints were legible, but being an era before the police database was computerised, it would be a monumental task to link this fingerprint – if they even had her in their files – to a missing woman of unknown age, height, weight or origin, who had died somewhere in Britain, Europe or even further still, at any time between the last few weeks, months or even years.
Without more information, the best piece of evidence they had was her rings.
That day, most local and regional newspapers published the following details: ‘two rings are the vital clue that may identify a woman whose hand and forearm were found last night near the tenth hole of Leatherhead golf course. Ring No 1 is of plain silver-like white metal and on the inside is inscribed 835. Ring No 2 is also of plain white metal with a circular concave amber stone set in tiny diamantes’.
It was a long shot, as with several women having recently gone missing in this area alone, any hint at who this woman might have been was a step closer to giving her grieving family peace, and this woman a proper burial. But as Detective Chief Inspector Doyle would bluntly state, "the rings are very important for identification, but at the moment, I am more interested in finding the rest of her body”.
It may sound callous, but with her remaining parts potentially exposed to the elements…
…it was a race against time before any evidence was destroyed forever.
That day, as 38 police tracker dogs combed a square mile of young forest and rough scrub surrounding the 10th hole, just 150 yards from the spot where the fist and forearm were found, the dogs sniffed out a partially chewed seven-inch fragment of a female human tibia, stripped clean by wild animals.
Later that day, groundskeeper Norman Stones directed the police to a spot stating “I forgot it until the morning I read about an arm being found on the 10th fairway”, assuring the detectives, “I’d been there on the Saturday and the bone” – determined to be a female’s right femur – “wasn’t there at 7:40am”.
So far, all they had was pieces, a left forearm and a fist, and two bones from a right leg.
Then at 5pm, across the Leatherhead/Chessington Road, in a patch of dense trees in Ashtead Wood, barely 20 yards in from the bus stop, scenes-of-crime officer PC Woodman found a very shallow grave.
Having been unearthed by the feverish claws of ravenous foxes lured to the spot by the scent of decay, lay a grip holdall with a zip. Having already feasted on a right leg, and possibly dropped the left forearm having been spooked, in the bag lay a right arm in two sections, the remaining parts of a right leg, and a left leg from the hip to the foot dissected in two, which was still wearing a size 4 blue carpet slipper.
Examined on site by Dr Pullar, he confirmed that each limb had been dissected using a hacksaw at an angle of roughly 45 degrees, but rather than cutting through hard bone and rubbery sinew, they had been severed at the weakest part, the joints, which were only held together by muscles and ligaments.
So did the person who dismembered her have a knowledge of biology or butchery?
Each limb found in the holdall was meticulously wrapped in a generic plastic sheeting and secured by white commonly available string, bound several times and tied in a simple granny knot. This wrapping had delayed the decomposition of the limbs, which thus posed the question, was this to ensure that the rotting body would never be found, or to make it more difficult to work out when she had died?
None of the limbs showed signs of dislocations or breaks, and although all of the fingernails were clean and unbroken, the delicate bones of her fractured hand showed the subtle signs of defensive wounds.
Somehow, somewhere, this unidentified woman had suffered a violent death. But who was she, how had she died, and why had someone gone to great lengths to dismember and disguise her corpse?
Monday 6th September 1971, four days later, at 10:50am, a second grave was found.
As part of the volunteer search team, Edward Henry Churcher was a 71-year-old homeless man who had spent 30 years sleeping rough in Leatherhead. Described as a recluse with a great knowledge of Ashtead Woods, he told the police, “I noticed a gap in a path, I spotted a depression in the soil, started prodding and when I moved away the top earth”, a few inches of leaf mould, “I saw a woman’s torso”.
Amidst the dense woodland and just 15 yards from the first grave, at just 36 inches wide by 30 inches long by 16 inches deep, this grave was shallower than the first, as whoever had dug it had struggled to dig through the fibrous roots of a young tree it was buried below. And yet still, she was buried here.
But if her killer had been so careful to dismember the body parts into individual chunks, why had they buried the limbs and the torso in two separate graves, but situated them both so close together?
As with the limbs, she’d been wrapped in a polythene sheet and tied with string, only instead of being found in grip holdall with a zip, the torso was hidden inside a dark hessian sack, now badly degraded.
Again, severed at the shoulder joints and the neck at the 6th and 7th cervical vertebrae at a 45-degree angle using either an 18 or 22 bladed hacksaw (a tool commonly found in any most hardware shops), scars made it clear that she had once had an appendectomy, and at some point, a full hysterectomy.
Based on the weight and size, the pathologist determined this was the torso of large breasted woman of medium build. Having recently shaved her armpits that maybe she was in a relationship. And that – along with the slipper – with her still wearing a bra, a navy-blue slip and a pink woollen housecoat, it was likely she had died in a place she was comfortable in, maybe her own bed?
Once again, there was nothing in the grave to identify her; no purse, no papers and no personal items.
And yet, at chest height, on the tree underneath where her torso had been buried, using a penknife, the letter ‘N’ had been carved. But was this a clue, or was her killer deliberately taunting the police?
All they had was pieces of a puzzle, and they were no closer to finding out who she was.
Monday 6th September 1971, that same day, at 3:40pm, a third grave was found.
Using the same technique that homeless recluse Edward Churcher had used to find the second grave, just 15 yards further into the dense woodland and under a few inches of decaying moss and leaves, PC Robert Duck unearthed a package. Inside the remains of a rotten cardboard box, it hadn’t been wrapped in plastic and bound in string, but swathed in a copy of the Evening Standard… was a head.
So serious had the investigation become that Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Shemming of the Scotland Yard Murder Squad was called in to impart his expertise, as Dorking wasn’t a murder hotspot.
With the head severed at the 6th and 7th vertebrae using a small-bladed hacksaw at a 45-degree angle which matched the wounds on the torso, this was very clearly from the same woman. But along with the newspaper, with the skull not wrapped in air-tight plastic, but the very permeable material of a fawn woollen cardigan and an orange cotton tea towel, the head was mummified and unrecognisable.
But was this deliberate? As with her skin having putrefied into a waxy sheen and her eyes having been eaten by maggots, most of her features had rotted away, so all they could tell was that she was a white female, likely in her forties, with several fillings, neck length brown hair with strands of grey, and with a circular depressed fracture at the back of the skull, she had been brutally bludgeoned to death.
Someone had hated her, as in a fit of rage and anger, they had repeatedly smashed in her skull until a massive brain haemorrhage had left her paralysed, and at her killer’s sadistic whim, they sliced her up. Her death was slow, painful and terrifying, as she would have been unable to shout or even scream.
Based on her savage wounds and exacting disposal, DCS Shemming described her killer as ‘a monster’.
And yet, inside of each grave, this monster had laid red roses.
On Tuesday 7th September 1971, even though her right leg, part of her left arm and a little finger was missing, an autopsy of what remained of the unknown woman was conducted at Epsom Mortuary.
These pieces were a patchwork of body parts in varying states of decay, with the pathologist stating of the skull “…when the polythene sheeting was removed as well as the wrapping of a shirt, a cardigan and a tea towel, the presence of adipocere”, an anaerobic bacteria which putrefied the fatty tissues of her face, “the skin had completely deteriorated with its consequent loss of any facial features”.
The details they had were vague at best; a white, possibly European middle-aged female, of average height (five foot four), average weight (eight stone) and a common blood group (O Negative) who’d had several operations in the last two decades, which – based on the scars – occurred in a hospital.
Of the clothes she was found wearing or wrapped in, even if the labels hadn’t degraded beyond the point of being legible, the clothing was so commonplace, it was impossible to identify her by those.
Miraculously, her killer’s scrupulous sealing of the torso and limbs in plastic “had a preservative effect which retained the flesh in an excellent condition, as there were no signs of decomposition”. Therefore – unusually – the pathologist was able to take blood, hair and liver samples, vaginal and anal swabs, as well as determining that, based on the contents of her stomach, the last meal she ate was eggs.
But even these new clues only led to dead ends, as there were no additional signs of assault or injury, she hadn’t been drugged or poisoned, and with no semen or sexual violence, she hadn’t been raped. Blood was found under her fingernails and although human there was too little to determine its group.
Based on the mummification of the head, she had been buried for at least two years. And although the hessian sack in which the torso was found contained traces of coal dust, iron ore and red oxide, similar sacks were found nearby, which her killer may have used to throw detectives off the scent.
An identification, at that point, was impossible.
Closer examination determined that death occurred owing to a three-inch depressed fracture at the back of the skull “with extensive fragmentation of the bones extending towards the face. To cause the injuries… it would have been necessary to deliver multiple blows, at least three and probably more, with at least a moderate force” using a flat blunt object of indeterminate origin. And consistent with the bedclothes she was found in, “they were probably sustained while the deceased was lying down”.
But what kind of a monster would attack a woman in her own bed; only to slice her up, remove her ID but not her jewellery, destroy her eyes but not her teeth, neatly package her limbs but not her head, and then bury her severed body parts in three separate but shallow graves within yards of each other with a bunch of red roses, and then cut - what may have been - the first initial of her name into a tree?
The detectives suspected they were dealing with someone who was clever, patient and methodical. A devious and cunning killer whose severe lack of empathy made him capable of committing such an abhorrent act, only to taunt the officers by seeming to leave clues, yet deliberately destroying others.
But who was this monster?
What about the greenskeeper, Norman Stones? A criminal who’d spent 36 months in prison, with his last conviction being just ten month prior. A solitary man who spent hours alone, knew every ditch on the golf course, had a toolshed by the 10th hole bunker full of spades, pickaxes and hacksaws, and was the first person to claim he had found a bone four days before the fist and forearm, only to toss it into the rough and only come forward when it became national news, and the first grave was discovered.
What about Edward Churcher? The elderly homeless recluse whose remarkable knowledge of Ashtead Woods helped the police find a second grave under inches of leafy moss, across an impenetrable 438-acre site, within a few days. A lonely man with a need for acceptance and recognition, having spent a total of 14 years in prison for burglary, theft, possession of an offensive weapon, and eleven convictions for the indecent sexual assault of both boys and girls, with some of them as young as 8.
Or what about the undiscovered murderer of Roy Tuthill, a 14-year-old whose body was found three and a half years earlier, two miles south and on the same stretch of road which passes the Leatherhead golf course? Was this a coincidence, or was a serial-killer in the midst? Every suspect was considered, but after through questioning and providing a traceable alibi, all of them would be ruled out. (End)
The detectives were left with a seemingly unsolvable mystery, an unidentifiable body buried in a series of undatable shallow graves, having been murdered swiftly but dismembered slowly. The site itself was so impenetrable, even though a busy road was just 15 yards away, there were no witnesses to the crime, and after several years being foraged by foxes, feasted by insects and battered by wind and rain, although it retained no fingerprints or footprints, it was unlikely she was dismembered there.
Like a needle in a haystack, the police were seeking a woman, maybe a local or maybe a foreigner who was possibly in an abusive relationship with – most likely - a violent man who had no regard for human life. A depraved killer with no care for the loved one’s who grieved her loss and prayed for her return, and an immoral brute with a bloodlust for cruelty, butchery skills, and a thirst to taunt the police.
With no idea who she was, the police had no idea who he was, if indeed, he was even a ‘he’.
Dubbed “a monster” by DCS Shemming, given the lack of evidence at the scene linking to the killer or the prey, as the only reason the graves were found was because a fox got hungry, all they were certain of was that in everything this callous killer did, he was always calm, controlled… and meticulous.
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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