Getting warmer: why police chase cold cases like Suzy Lamplugh

Officers reveal how relentless pursuit and DNA advances are key to cracking old crimes

The back garden of a nondescript house in Sutton Coldfield has been the focus of intense police activity for the past week.

Officers come and go, while four blue forensic tents protect the work from the elements and prying eyes.

This is not the scene of a new crime but possibly the conclusion of one of Britain’s longest unsolved murders – the abduction and murder of London estate agent Suzy Lamplugh, 25.

The unfolding investigation 32 years after Lamplugh disappeared is testament to the efforts of her late parents, Paul and Diana, to keep her disappearance in the public consciousness and to the enduring fascination with the cold case murder investigation.

The main suspect, John Cannan, who is serving a life sentence for murdering Bristol newlywed Shirley Banks in 1987, said on Friday through his solicitor, that he hoped the search of his mother’s former home would conclude swiftly to “end speculation” that he murdered Lamplugh.

Whatever the outcome the Lamplugh murder and other cold cases are the stuff of many a crime novel, Hollywood movie and TV drama, but for the detectives who have worked on these crimes they are often the cause of sleepless nights.

“There is always one case that stays with you, that you haven’t solved. One case that you keep going back to when you have time,” said Colin Sutton, a retired senior investigating officer for the Metropolitan police.

“We have this phrase ‘relentless pursuit’; the idea that the killer is never safe, that we are never going to give up. For people like me it is the ones that get away which continue to play on your mind.”

In the last 10 years cold case inquiries have been carried out on a more systematic basis thanks to the ongoing advances in DNA profiling and two Home Office grants to fund investigation into cold case rapes and murders.

Officers with a blood sample from a 1980s case now hope DNA advances can create a profile, or forge a link to the perpetrator, said Sue Pope, a forensic analyst. If stored correctly at -80C (-112F) samples can provide profiles not only decades but even hundreds of years later, she said.

“We have got much better methods for getting the DNA out of the stain so we are starting now with much better quality DNA,” said Pope.

Inch by inch, advances in DNA profiling drew the net around the killer of another young woman in the 1980s, 17-year-old Melanie Road, who was stabbed to death 100 yards from her home in Bath on 9 June 1984.

In 1995 a full DNA profile was pulled from her clothes, but there was no match to any suspect, despite many attempts to find one. Twenty years later detectives submitted the sample for familial profiling for the third time and hit lucky when the daughter of the man who killed Road came up on the database because she had been arrested for a minor offence.

In 2016, with Melanie’s mother Jean Road, watching, 64-year-old Christopher Hampton was jailed for life for her murder.

“When you take the Melanie Road case and the Suzy Lamplugh case, everyone working in cold cases wants to do the right thing for the victims and for their families,” said DCI Julie Mackay, who solved the Road murder.

“People who work these cases feel the same. There is the fascination with murder, with what drives a person to do it, and also a passion that whoever did it is not going to get away with it.”

While DNA advances are often key, it is the tenacity of officers like Mackay to pursue the inquiries which are leading to successful conclusions in many cold cases, according to criminologist Dr Cheryl Allsop, who spent eight months shadowing a cold case team.

“You need forensic advances but you also need good detective work. These teams are small; they work at a totally different pace to officers investigating current murders. Often they have to pick the case up and put it down when other priorities come up.

“When there is a breakthrough, when they get a suspect, it’s exciting, the whole tempo changes … then you have the families pushing for answers, and pushing the police to find answers, so there is a very powerful human side to it all.”

Not all relatives have yet been able to watch the killer be brought to justice as Road’s mother did.

Others, like Tina Streeter, are still waiting. Her 19-year-old sister Rita Ellis was sexually assaulted and strangled at RAF Halton, Buckinghamshire, in November 1967.

Like in the Road case a full DNA profile of the killer was obtained by the cold case team, but they have not had the same luck. There has yet to be a match on the database.

Streeter, who was 10 when her sister was killed, told the Guardian: “We just keep hoping there will be a resolution. I can see Rita and my mum and dad looking down and wanting that.”

For officers like Sutton and Mackay, solving these offences is a matter of professional pride, justice and wider public reassurance. How much peace it might give a family, Sutton believes is difficult to say.

“I have been in the company of too many bereaved people to think that finding a body, bringing the case to court and convicting someone actually provides what people refer to so often as closure,” he said. “This is still something you have to live with, something you cannot put out of your mind, something you cannot ever shut away.”


Sandra Laville

The GuardianTramp

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