|THE UNSUNG DETECTIVE|
MARGARET Wilson dropped off a news-paper to a housebound relative nearby before returning home to prepare the midday meal for her husband Edwin. Her thoughtfulness and generosity were bywords in the small village of Burton Fleming on the eastern edge of England's Yorkshire Wolds, the area where she had spent all her 66 years. She was always ready to go to the shops for the elderly or infirm, or to bake cakes for local events. After lunch that afternoon of Thursday, February 9, 1995, the Wilsons' daughter Heather, 39, dropped in for a chat. When Heather left shortly after 3 p.m., Margaret decided to accompany her for part of the drive, then walk home.
Farm workers Nigel Houseman, 30, and Martin Hornsey, 27, were in two tractors,
ploughing a field near the road. They both noticed Margaret in her grey
raincoat walking along the road a few hundred metres away.
As they turned at the end of the field, Hornsey spotted a white or silver Austin Montego station wagon parked at the roadside. A man was walking away from it, in the same direction as Margaret Wilson. After a moment, he broke into a run.
Then Nigel Houseman heard Hornsey shout over the CB radio. "It looks like he's chasing Mrs Wilson."
Shocked, Houseman saw the man lunge at Margaret Wilson. She and her attacker disappeared behind the hedge. Moments later the man was running back towards the car.
By the time Houseman and Hornsey reached the spot where they’d last seen Mrs. Wilson, the man had driven off at speed. Margaret Wilson was lying face down on the verge. She was already dead. Her throat had been cut from ear to ear.
DETECTIVE Chief Inspector Martin Midgley was in the Criminal Investigation Department (CI D) room at Bridlington police station when the call came in. 'A woman's been attacked in Burton Fleming," a colleague said. "Looks like a murder." On hearing this, Midgley, thickset with grey, thinning hair, looked even more pensive than usual. Despite being born and bred in the area, he had to get out a map to remind himself where Burton Fleming was.
Midgley, a veteran of more than a dozen murder inquiries in his 28 years with the Humberside force, was aware that most victims knew their killer. But Margaret Wilson had apparently been killed at random by a complete stranger.
The first morning of the investigation brought one breakthrough. An officer saw something glinting on the verge near where the body had been found. A bloodstained knife.
A few hours later Midgley and his colleague Detective Constable Wally Youngman examined the knife at Driffield police Station. Only about 12 centimetres long, it had a cheap-looking blade and a black plastic handle, embossed with the words "J. Adams, Sheffield, England."
"What do you make of that?" Midgley pointed to a dark stain, rather like a burn, over most of the middle of the blade. Youngman shrugged. Fit and muscular, with a formidable grasp of detail, he had been with Humberside police for almost 16 years, more than half of them in the CID. But this was a new one on him. "Could be anything. Maybe forensics will tell us."
Forensic tests established that the blood on the knife was from the same group as Margaret Wilson's. As for the stain, the scientists were as mystified as the detectives. "Get on to J. Adams," Midgley told Detective Constable Nigel Ling. "We need to know who they sell these knives to."
Midgley also wanted to know if Heather 's visits to her mother followed a set pattern. "Not really," Heather replied. So the killer could not have known that Margaret would be on the road that day.
'All we really know about the attacker is what sort of car he drives," Midgley remarked to Youngman. It wasn't much; tracing such a popular make would be virtually impossible.
A call to the motor registry confirmed that hundreds of silver and white Montegos were registered to owners within a 50-kilometre radius of the murder scene. Despite this, Midgley assigned officers to trace as many as possible.
Then a local woman, Elise Cundall,walked into the incident room in the grounds of Burton Fleming's village hall. Early on the afternoon of the murder, she told officers, she had set off to take her dog for his usual walk along the Bridlington road as far as the road sign, then home. She had actually seen Margaret and Heather leaving Margaret's house and had waved to them.
It was on her way back that she had heard a vehicle coming up very slowly behind her. As the car - a light-coloured Montego station wagon - passed by, the driver looked directly at her.
"I've never seen anyone look so angry," she said. "Terrible piercing eyes as though they were going to come through the glass. They were horrible." Thankful that she had her dog with her, she had hurried home. Was this guy cruising around, Midgley asked himself, looking for someone to kill?
Another woman seemed to confirm precisely that. Around lunchtime on the same day, she told police, she'd looked out of her front-room window and seen a white Montego station wagon drive slowly past several times.
"Let's not get too excited," Midgley said. "The guy may be a completely innocent motorist. But somehow we've got to find this vehicle."
At the J. Adams factory in Sheffield, Detective Constable Ling showed the
owner Jack Adams a photograph of the murder weapon. "We've made thousands
of these over the years," said Adams. "They 're mainly used in the vegetable
processing industry - cutting potatoes and soon.
"Who do you sell them to?"
"Warehouses, factories - they 're not on sale to the general public." Ling took away a list of Adams's main customers. There were hundreds of names. This investigation was going to be a long, hard slog.
The killer, the team agreed, must have a strong connection with the area. "Burton Fleming isn't on the way to anywhere -people don't just pass through it," said Midgley.
On March 16, 1995, five weeks after the murder, the case was featured on
BBC Television's Crimewatch programme. The moment it ended, lights
on the incident-room phones began flashing. Over the next three hours, 1500
calls came in - Crimewatch's biggest-ever response to a single item.
It would take months to check out all the leads. One call, however, promised to make Midgley's task easier. "My name's Alan Wirth," the voice said. "I'm a forensic specialist in metals at Sheffield Hallam University. I'd be happy to help you find out what that stain on the knife is." He would analyse the blade using the university's electron microscope.
Crimewatch yielded another, more unexpected result. The woman who had seen the Montego from her window came to see the police again. "I watched the programme the other night," the woman told Midgley, by now exhausted from weeks of 15- hour days. "It must have been on my mind because that night in a dream I got the number of the car.
Fighting incredulity, Midgley took down the number. The police computer revealed that it belonged to a white Montego station wagon - and the owner had previous convictions for violence.
The man freely admitted to owning the car. But on the day of the murder, he and a friend had been in Leeds, 100 kilometres from Burton Fleming, doing building work on a house. The friend confirmed it, as did the owner of the house.
Midgley and Youngman made another visit to the woman who had given them the registration number. She had a confession for them: "I didn't have a dream. But I did see that car when me and my husband were on the Leeds ring road a few weekends ago. I told my husband,
'That looks like the man I saw."' For the life of him, Midgley could not understand why the woman had come up with the story about the dream. He was reluctant to dismiss her as a crank: she had, after all, seen the car in the first place, and the man did have a violent record. Yet his alibi seemed unshakeable. It just didn't add up.
But other developments were demanding his attention. Dr Wirth had identified the black stain. "The knife's recently been used to cut raw potatoes," Midgley was told.
Midgley's mind raced. One of the customers on Adams's list was McCain, makers of frozen oven chips. Their Scarborough factory was little less than 20 kilometres from Burton Fleming. Company records showed that the knife used to kill Mrs Wilson was one of a batch delivered to McCain within the last three years. Visiting the plant, Midgley and Youngman were taken aback to see so many of the knives in evidence that even a casual visitor could have taken one.
Police began interviewing the 900-strong McCain workforce, together
with former employees from the past three years, to find out who had a light-coloured Montego
and wasn't at work on the afternoon of the murder. One of the first to be interviewed was a 32-year-old man with long, dark hair. His name was Derek Christian.
The murder squad had met Christian before. Right at the beginning of the inquiry, a car dealer had told officers that, for what it was worth, he had recently sold a silver Austin Montego station wagon to one Derek Christian.
After finishing his shift at 3 p.m. on the day of the murder, Christian had told police, he had driven straight back to his house in Driffield, arriving at 3.50. While he had no alibi, there was nothing, apart from owning a silver Montego, to make him a suspect, either. A check was made to see if Christian had a criminal record. Nothing.
But Midgley was intrigued. "He's cropped up with the car. And now he's cropped up with McCain. We need to find out all we can about him."
In the seven months since he'd given his statement, Christian had left the Driffield home he had shared with his wife and three young sons, and moved back to his parents' home in Bridlington. He appeared to lead an exceedingly dull life. He would leave for McCain at six every morning and set off home at three. He seldom went out; had no close friends; didn't visit pubs. His only real interest was in Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, of whom he was a fanatical supporter.
Before starting work at McCain just two months before the murder, Christian had been a professional soldier, spending most of his service as a storeman. He was no seasoned killer - but no angel, either.
With the help of the Military Police Special Investigations Branch, Midgley discovered that a series of unpleasant assaults against women had punctuated his army career, earning him two spells in military detention. Yet on his discharge late in 1994, the army inexplicably described his conduct as "exemplary." His 14-year marriage, already threatened by his frequent philandering and his failure to send money home when posted overseas, was soon in tatters. But he remained friendly with his wife's parents, George and Jean Green, and was a devoted father to his three sons.
Surveillance revealed that Christian's route home from Scarborough was unvarying - and passed the end of the narrow country road that leads to Burton Fleming. Timing the route, police found that it would have been perfectly possible for Christian to have left work at 3 p.m., committed the murder and arrived home, as he said, at 3.50.
In March 1996,13 months after the murder, Midgley brought Derek Christian
in for questioning. The sweatshirt, tracksuit pants and fleecy jacket Christian
had said he was wearing on the day of the murder were taken for analysis.
The police also found a copy of the Hull Daily Mail, printed two
days before the anniversary of the murder, February 9, 1996, and open at the
headline: "Who is hiding killer?" It was the only Hull Daily Mail in
Under questioning, Christian remained calm and consistent. He had not murdered Margaret Wilson. He had driven straight home from work. He had never even been to Burton Fleming. Youngman placed the murder weapon, wrapped in plastic, on the table. "This is the knife that was used to kill Margaret Wilson. Have you seen one of these knives before?"
"No, I've never seen a knife like that before."
"You work at McCain, don't you?" "Yeah, I work at McCain."
'And you use a knife in the course ofyour work."
"But all your colleagues say you need one to do your job."
"I don't use one.
"Derek," said Youngman patiently. "We've been to McCain. These knives are all over the place. We know you've seen them."
"I've never seen one of those knives before in my life."
And what of the Hull Daily Mail? The newspaper contained details of massage parlours, Christian explained; he'd kept it because he fancied working in one. 'As you do," remarked Youngman sourly when he reported back to Midgley.
With no hard evidence against him, Midgley had to release Christian. But a few days later he had something else to tell the police.
In the interview room, Youngman asked briskly: "Right, Mr Christian, what would you like to say?"
Christian said that on the day of the murder he had not gone straight home, as he'd stated, but had visited his in-laws, the Greens, at their Scarborough home. He had loaded some linoleum and boxes into his car and they had all driven to the Greens' new home in Driffield. Youngman and Midgley were instantly suspicious. Why had he changed his story? Christian shrugged. He'd simply got the dates confused.
Christian's in-laws backed up his story completely. They were palpably honest people, not the sort who would be prepared to give someone a false alibi. But as Midgley and Youngman cross-checked their statements, they realised the Greens' memory for dates was not infallible.
Jean Green had said that during the drive to Driffield on February 9, they had passed a serious road accident on the edge of Scarborough. Police checks showed that there had indeed been an accident but not until March 10. Were the Greens confusing different journeys to their new home?
One detail in the Greens' statements caught Midgley's eye. George Green had said that on the afternoon of February 9, he had rung his son-in-law at McCain, asking him to come and collect the lino after his shift.
"We just need to get an itemised phone bill from BT," [British Telecom] Midgley told Youngman. "If there wasn't a call to McCain that afternoon, bang goes his alibi." But, to Midgley's gloom, BT reported that the itemised bill for February 9, 1995, had gone missing.
Meanwhile the forensic laboratory concentrated on analysing clothing fibres. By October 1996, it had some electrifying news. Fibres matching those from Christian's sweatshirt, jacket and tracksuit pants had been found on Margaret Wilson's clothing. In addition, a sharp eyed member of the team had found a single fibre from Mrs Wilson's skirt on Christian's tracksuit pants. All told, forensics had matched 78 fibres - an astonishing number when a dozen matches is considered exceptional.
"But it's not enough to go to court with," Midgley said to Youngman. "The defence will just say: 'Yes, our client wears a fleecy jacket, sweatshirt and tracksuit pants. Thousands of people do. You haven't proved they came from our client.'
"We need to find out who makes these garments and check the fibres. If we can't find any that match Christian's, then we can go into court and say: 'Only Derek Christian could have been in contact with Margaret Wilson.' But it's going to be a long job." The first task was to ensure that
none of the 78 fibres found on Margaret Wilson had got there through "innocent contamination"- contact with someone at home, in a shop. Midgley ordered his team to trace every person who'd been in contact with her during the last two weeks of her life. Fortunately, Mrs Wilson had limited contacts. Fibres from garments they had been wearing were cross-checked. Nothing.
Officers turned their attention to the fibres found on Margaret Wilson's
body. Over the next few months, Detective Constable Ling became a walking
authority on fleecy jackets. Two ostensibly identical jackets from the same
manufacturer could look totally different under a microscope if they were
made in different batches, from different fibres.
Ling eventually traced almost every manufacturer of fleecy jackets sold in the UK. Then he eliminated all but one batch.
The rest of the inquiry team concentrated on Christian's green sweatshirt,
with its Carlsberg logo. Christian admitted to being given it at
an army social evening in Germany. Travelling to the Carlsberg brewery
in Denmark, Midgley and Youngman found that its computer system still held
details of how many shirts had been dispatched and where.
A visit to the Portuguese manufacturer revealed that, as with the jacket, the fibres differed from batch to batch. The chances of anyone other than Christian wearing a German-batch Carlsberg sweatshirt and coming into contact with Margaret Wilson within a day of the murder were satisfyingly remote. The track-suit pants yielded similar results.
In November 1996, Christian was arrested for the second time. He remained
completely unruffled as Youngman set out the evidence against him: the car,
the knife, the fibres. "Everything points to you. You killed Margaret Wilson."
Christian's reply was scornful. "1 don't think so." He was charged anyway.
ONE EVENING in October 1997, a few weeks before Derek Christian's trial
was due to start, Youngman was talking to a BT worker on a separate inquiry.
"By the way," Youngman said, "there's something else you might be able to
help us with." He described Midgley's frustration over the missing phone
bill. The man agreed to have one more look.
He rang the next day. "I've f6und it. Would you like me to fax it over?"
The evidence on the fax was damning. There had been no phone call to McCain onFebruary9. Instead, just after 4 p.m., a call had been made to a furniture shop in Scarborough. The Greens confirmed that they had made that call - so they couldn't have been travelling to Driffield that afternoon. Christian's alibi was dead in the water.
The trial began at Leeds Crown Court. Midgley continued to fret. The evidence, though overwhelming, was basically circumstantial. Midgley's cautious approach had become legendary over the past 30-odd months. A notice appeared in the incident room: "Night Classes Available," with a list of officers and the subject they were teaching. Next to Midgley’s name were the words:
"Lectures in pessimism." [Definition of a pessmist : an optimist with experience-T.M]
As it happened, the case had one more surprise to throw up. The woman who had seen the white Montego from her front-room window was called as a defence witness. Her testimony strengthened Christian's cause, reminding the court that on the afternoon of the murder another Austin Montego was in Burton Fleming
However, after the woman's appearance on the witness stand, her husband phoned police with a bizarre story. As he had been driving his wife home from the court, she had burst into tears. What she had said had been a pack of lies. She had seen no Montego that day. The car she had described had been one she'd simply happened to have seen on the Leeds ring road. She had intended merely to help the police, never dreaming she would end up repeating the story in court.
The next day in court, the woman formally retracted her earlier story.
On December 2, 1997, the jury unanimously convicted Derek Christian of murder
He was jailed for life.
One burning question remained:
Why did he do it? Psychologists concluded that Derek Christian showed no signs of mental illness. And colleagues reported that he seemed perfectly normal on the day of the murder. "Maybe his obsession with Sheffield Wednesday triggered it off;" Youngman suggests. "The night before the murder, they lost to Wolverhampton Wanderers in a vital FA Cup tie."
Martin Midgley laughs good naturedly at this. "I can't go along with that, but so many questions remain unanswered."
Only Derek Christian has the answers. But for as long as he remains silent, he is unlikely to be considered for parole.
Some more recent events regarding this case:
BBC 'Inside Out'