Shortly before 5pm on Friday 30 September, forensic scientists in their white costumes and hi-vis-clad police officers were battling sleet and strong winds to climb Saddleworth Moor to a line of vehicles parked along a stretch of the A635, a winding road that cuts east to west through the Pennines.
An officer from Greater Manchester police carrying a heavy-duty lamp strode towards a police van and shook his head at the worst weather he had ever experienced at a crime scene. “We just can’t do any more today in these conditions,” he shouted over the noise of gale. “The wind was lifting the forensic tents. I’ve never seen that before. They weigh a third of a tonne each.”
This was the end of the first day of what would become a futile week-long dig for the body of Keith Bennett, who was 12 years old in 1964 when he was killed by the Moors murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
Police had received a call at 11.25am the previous day from Russell Edwards, an author and amateur investigator, saying he had found human remains on the moor.
Edwards had been in the public eye before, after writing a book about how he “solved” the Jack the Ripper case in 2015 through DNA testing a shawl thought to have belonged to one of the victims, though not proven to be at the crime scene. This claim was roundly criticised by some genetic scientists as containing “serious” errors.
An hour after his call to police, a 3,000-word interview with Edwards appeared on MailOnline, which also featured quotes from two members of his team, the forensic archaeologist Dawn Keen and Northumbria University geologist Lesley Dunlop.
The article detailing his “extraordinary breakthrough” described how Edwards took soil samples from an “odd”-looking patch of grass on the moor, close to where three of the five victims of the Moors murders had been buried. On analysis by Dunlop, the minerals in the samples, she said, revealed evidence that there was or had been a human body buried there.
Later, Edwards returned to the spot and began digging, where he said he came across the smell of a decomposing body and some blue and white striped material. He took pictures of what he found and sent them to Keen, who said she identified a skull in the images, which Edwards had not spotted at the time.
But after seven days of digs and searches at the spot where Edwards was adamant a body had been found, professional forensic investigators have discovered nothing at all.
On Friday, Greater Manchester police said they had closed the scene on Saddleworth Moor having concluded there was “currently no evidence to indicate the presence of human remains”.
While Keen and Dunlop are no longer available for media interviews, Edwards is defending his theory, telling BBC Manchester on Thursday the evidence was “clear” and he was “not wasting anyone’s time”.
However, a senior forensic archaeologist told the Guardian he had questions over some elements of Edwards’ account. It would be hard to identify the colour of any fabric that had been in peaty soil for 60 years, if it indeed survived, which most fabric would not, he said. He added it would not be possible to make the claim that a human body was buried there based on soil samples alone and that sending pictures to a forensic archaeologist, rather than having them present at the dig, could easily lead to misidentification.
Samples Edwards and his team passed to the police are being analysed and some searches of the moor are still taking place but there is a feeling that all this has been for nothing.
Alan Bennett, Keith’s closest surviving relative, said this was not the first time someone had contacted the press with a potential finding before contacting the police causing “pain, anguish and distress” that “runs right through all Keith’s siblings and then filters down through the next generations”.
He wrote on Facebook: “I have had to explain things to my own grandchildren in more detail recently and the older they get the more questions they have. I am struggling to explain what makes certain people tick and behave the way they do, this latest example being one of the most difficult to even attempt to explain.”
Greater Manchester police said it was “committed to providing Keith’s family with answers” but on social media Bennett feels he already knows the truth.
He wrote: “I’m biting my lip very hard and biding my time but the truth will be told, I will make sure of that.”
This article was amended on 7 October 2022 to correct a headline error.