Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science

Casework - Ray Palmer

‘The Jigsaw Murder’ (Operation Abnet)

In the spring of 2009, members of the public found five separate body parts scattered across a large geographical area encompassing two counties of England.

A severed left leg was discovered in a blue plastic bag sealed with tape near the village of Cottered (Hertfordshire) on the 22nd of March 2009.

The discovery of this item, lead to the launch of a major homicide investigation. A week later, on the 29th of March, a severed forearm was found near the village of Wheathampstead (Hertfordshire), not wrapped. Two days later, on the 31st of March a decapitated head was found near the village of Asfordby (Leicestershire). The flesh of the head had been removed, as had the eyes, ears, tongue and neck.

On April 7th a severed right leg was found near the town of Puckeridge (Hertfordshire). Like the left leg, it had been placed in a blue plastic sack and wrapped with tape. Finally, on April 11th 2006 a human torso with a right arm and upper left arm was found in the town of Standon (Hertfordshire). This item had been placed inside a suitcase, and again, had been wrapped in a blue plastic sack using tape.
DNA profiling analysis showed that all the body parts had originated from a single male, who had been ‘skilfully’ dissected. This individual was subsequently dubbed ‘The Jig- Saw Man’ by the media. The nature of the dismemberment left police baffled about the crime, the motive for it and the identity of the victim. The investigation which followed, involved a team of more than 100 police officers and was carried out against a backdrop of intense media interest and public concern. The identity of the victim was eventually confirmed as that of Jeffrey Howe.

The hands were never found.

The debris from the body parts as well as the adhesive side of the tapes on the various wrappings were examined to identify any fibre collectives which could potential provide the investigative team with intelligence relating to the environment where the dismemberment took place (or at least where the parts were wrapped). A decision was made to initially concentrate on the adhesive side of the tapes used to wrap the body parts since any material transferred at the time of wrapping would have effectively been sealed and preserved. The survey of the tapes revealed the presence of blue, viscose ‘flock’ fibre collectives.

On the basis of these findings, the investigative team were asked to submit any textile items from suspect addresses which were dark blue/ black in colour that had a ‘peach skin’ or ‘velvet’ texture to the laboratory for comparison with the collectives recovered from the tapings. On the basis of this intelligence, four inflatable mattresses were recovered from the home of Stephen Marshall and Sarah Bush and these were found to be sources for the flock fibre collectives on the tapings.

Further green and red polyester fibre collectives were found on the body part tapings, which were subsequently found to match a green Polo Shirt and a maroon t-shirt belonging to Stephen Marshal.
The fibre evidence in this case was to prove crucial, not only in the investigative phase of the investigation, but also in the resulting confession in court by Stephen Marshall to the murder and dismemberment of Jeffrey Howe.

‘The Suffolk Strangler’ (Operation Sumac)

Over a period of 2 weeks in 2006, the naked bodies of 5 women were found in various depositions sites around the town of Ipswich in England. Two of these women had been deposited in a fast flowing river for 2 and 5 weeks respectively, prior to their discovery. The remaining three women had been deposited in woodland and exposed to extreme rainfall and high winds for 7, 5 and 2 days respectively – prior to their discovery. They were all known to be working as prostitutes.

Pathological and entomological data indicated that each of these women had been killed/ deposited around the time of their disappearance. DNA profiles obtained from the three women deposited on land led to the arrest of a suspect, Steve Wright.
Despite being subjected to conditions not conducive to fibre persistence, a number of fibres collectives were found common to each of the 5 women, which in turn, were represented in items relating to the suspect and/ or his environment. In particular, a carpet fibre, matching that of the carpet in Wright’s car, was found in the hair of one of the women who had been deposited in water.

When combined with the pathological and entomological estimation of time of death, as well as data relating to the persistence of fibres on skin exposed to wind and rain, the findings showed that the transfer of these fibre collectives, most likely occurred around the time of the death and deposition of the women.

The fibre evidence in this case was to prove crucial, not only in providing early intelligence in the case, but also in the conviction of Wright for the murder of all five women.